Category Archives: art

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is an absolutely fantastic novel. And that’s coming from someone who’s had a hard time reading fiction for several years now. I’ve been the most critical reader, scouring the first 10, 15, 20 pages for a piece of dialogue to fall flat, for text that tries too hard, or for a lie. Normally, I’ll find a reason to set the book aside within the first few pages. Often in the first paragraph. (I hope my own readers are more generous.) I’ll admit that the first 50 pages of this book were slow for me, but I love Idaho, and I found myself wanting to spend more time in the state and, therefore, more time with the book. Every line, every description, every detail served a purpose. Nothing was wasted. There were endless revelations about the human spirit.

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reading Idaho in Idaho

My struggled with fiction has had to do with plots lines that are too predictable (or intentionally unpredictable for no good reason), common tropes are overused, and characters are flat. As a result, if I do read fiction, it tends to be stuff with no discernible plot line. Idaho has a plot line. Very much so. But it is as artful as the text.

If you grew up in the Inland Northwest, if there are old pictures of you as a child standing in the back of a old Ford, a photo taken when you are covered in tamarack dust, stuck to you from the can of Coke you drank, while you are waiting while your parents stacked firewood into the back of the pickup, and smell of honeysuckle and chainsaw oil thick in the air, and then if you went to school in the Palouse, and spent summers high up in the Idaho mountains, a little worried about getting lost among the old Forest Service road, but thankful from the break of intellectual work, while you marked and hauled old logs to the truck to burn through the winter in a fireplace that would melt and permanently scar the skin on your forearm, and if you take every opportunity, every summer and spring break, to drive back to those empty Blue Mountains, and if you knew the boredom and insight of an isolated childhood in the rural Northwest, and if you think you’ve actually met Emily Ruskovich, been introduced in passing by a friend, an acquaintance, in Moscow, Idaho, while you were practicing yoga across the state line, or at the farmer’s market, or in the little shop, where you ate a coffee and bagel after having ridden your bike eight miles along the Chipman Trail. Perhaps she was a student, or maybe you two were alone in a used bookstore and shared a knowing glance, seeing that you are the same, both with freckles, red hair, and dark eyes, but you think you are different, but you are not so different, and you should read this beautiful, beautiful book that she has written.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I needed to read something artistic, and so I finally read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I read it quickly. (It did not need to be read slowly.) It seemed like I’d read this book before. It reminded me of Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, but not as beautiful as that in terms of the sentence. It was beautiful, though, and smart–one of the best books I’ve read in the genre. I had little patience for the sexual aspects of the book. That’s me though. Lately, those inclusions seem cheap. I used to “get it.” Adding the sexual gave writing that perfect blend of raw and mystery. Anymore I only want to think about birds and botany.

Bluets - Maggie Nelson

image from wavepoetry.com

 

Lines I liked:

“My Thought has though itself through and reached a Pure Idea. What the rest of me has suffered during the at long agony, is in describable” (Mallarmé 2-3).

“Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal” (62).

“…the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it” (62).

“For some, the emptiness itself is God; for others, the space must stay empty” (86).

“…ask not what has been real and what has been false, but what has been bitter, and what has been sweet” (86).

“As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more more painful that we expected” (87).

“She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it” (88).

“Imagine someone saying, “Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it…Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true” (89).

“When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing, but of light” (95).

Words/concepts that inspired further study:

  • the male satin bowerbird
  • International Klein Blue
  • samsara
  • the jacaranda tree
  • the Tuareg
  • The Oblivion Seekers

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

Since I read Outline by Rachel Cusk, I’ve wanted to read her earlier book The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy. I finally got the chance to finish it this winter. Cusk’s genius is in her observations. She has some of the most shockingly astute and artfully articulated insights on the human condition that I have ever read. She also has a vast vocabulary, which she integrates beautifully into her writing: inchoate, lachrymose, acolyte, obeisance, balustrades.

Image result for The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk

image from goodreads.com

The book comments on foreign travel, staying, getting sick of a place, hating and loving a place, connecting, awkwardness, presence, living in the experience, and art, and an eye, and the moments between people that capture the feeling or meaning in art.

Two thirds of the way through, I’ll admit that I wanted a bit less description of some of the art (though I can see that it was necessary). I wanted more of the human interactions, the mistakes, the moving, the descriptions of the land, the houses, the people. This wasn’t a joyful read, but it was quiet and thoughtful, which is what I needed.

Just a few lines:
“In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own morality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own” (53).

“Now our violence is diffuse, generalized: it has been broken down until it covers everything in a fine film, like dust” (148).

M Train by Patti Smith

It’s so hard to find a good new book these days. So when I find one, I tend to spend as much time in it as possible. That’s what happened with Patti Smith’s new book, M Train.

image from amazon.com

I read Just Kids a few years ago and loved it. In her rock and roll heyday (which is still now for many of us), Smith was known for brilliantly blending poetry with rock and roll. So it makes sense that she is a writer and also a fan of writing, which, in part, is what this book is about. It’s also about coffee. It’s about strange rituals and missions dreamed up by an amalgamation of literature, dreams, conversations and her own notions, which has her leaving stones at gravesites of people she knew or didn’t know, caring deeply about a small idea, about a small token, a small memory, a spirit.

I’ve always identified deeply with Smith. Her dreamy, creative way of moving through the world is similar to me at my best self. On some existential level, I know the deep love she knew with Fred, and the deep loss, and the new existing in this strange world, but hers is deeper, more, and a guidepost for us all.

I don’t know that I would like her. The day in/day out of her life seems sometimes boring, and dusty, and littered with cat hair, but there’s something about what she produces as an artist that opens me up, reminds me, shows me something new. So I stay in her books for as long as I can, and then hold on to them again afterward.

The Orgy by Muriel Rukeyser

It took me months to finish The Orgy: An Irish Journey of Passion and Transformation by Muriel Rukeyser, and I have to start by saying this: for a book with “orgy” in the title, there is actually very little sex. If you read the book, you’ll think that was funny because this is not a sexy book. This is capital “L” Literature. You know–a thinking piece.

image from books.google.com

A well-respected friend recommended it to me, and I tried and tried, and it never really took off, and that’s because it’s not a book that “takes off.” It’s poetry. I mean, it’s prose, but it’s basically poetry in terms of accessibility, sound, rhythm, and so forth. (Rukeyser explains here.)

For several months, both The Orgy and Thich Nhất Hanh’s How to Love* lie prone in my living room . I’d forget about them, and visitors would come over and raise their eyebrows at the display. Now I find it amusing, but at the time, I remember feeling embarrassed. The titles convey two really different messages. And, in hindsight, not entirely unrelated to my summer. (There were no orgies! Sheesh!)

As for Rukeyser, the book was meaningful in the sentences, but not so much the big picture. The book is about the author’s (semi-autobiographical) journey to the Puck Fair for one of the last pagan festivals of it’s kind. That kind of premise holds so much intrigue for me. I was hopeful for deep description and weird plot points and characters. But nope. It’s not really that kind of book.

Instead, we are gifted with subtle sentence level gems and an overall sense, but nothing concrete, as is the way of good capital “L” Literature, and that’s fine. It’s fine. IT’S JUST THAT I THINK WE WERE ALL EXPECTING A BIT MORE IN THE ORGY DEPARTMENT.

Here are a few lines for continued consideration:

On walking through shit: “I thought, joy and release is it! and put my foot down slowly, gained an inch, and slipped” (69).

“[T]he book compared peace with monogamy” (91).

On the infant cry: “It is the most profound and powerful force in nature” (102).

“Though they may kill, killing is not their aim…” (103).

“verbal arabesques” (114).

“Nicholas began to relax; it was as if he remembered his whole life, and unwound” (115).

I’ll just end by saying that it really gives there toward the end. Stay with it, if only for the poem entitled “The Balls of the Goat.”

*Thich Nhất Hanh’s critically acclaimed, and I really liked his Be Free Where You Are, and wrote about it here, but he’s phoning it in on How to Love, so there will be no blog post on that one.

on flo mo and inspiration

A few weeks ago, I saw Florence + the Machine live at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley. Months earlier, I was saying “yes” to everything, and consequently got myself entangled in weekend plans for months on end. This show was one of the things I agreed to.

the harp from Florence + the Machine

the harp from the Florence + the Machine performance

Despite the fact that my experience was probably entirely cliche, I have to admit that I was very moved by Florence Welch’s show. I love seeing live music–performance in general. But this was probably the best show I’d ever seen, and it was in large part because of Welch’s generosity (the drummer’s cool too). 

The first most striking thing about the show was that her movements (for over two hours) were effortless, but profoundly beautiful. I read somewhere that she was diagnosed with dyspraxia as a child, but now her every movement is stunning.

She wears her hair long and wavy and messy. Her all-white costume was beautiful from a structural perspective, but not typically sexy. Her face is stark and sometimes harsh and absolutely stunning. She wears very little make up. She does nothing to soften her appearance or make herself more conventionally palatable.

In doing so, she is completely extraordinary and unusual, and none of us could take our eyes off of her for the entire two hours of the show. I can’t think of any other woman, at her level of fame, that allows her face to be raw and so vulnerable in public.

We left saying she deserves to be worshiped. We left saying we saw a panty line. We left saying I”ll bet she doesn’t shave. No, she’s too busy making art to do any one uncomfortable thing that serves only the viewing pleasure of others. No doubt she pleases herself, and in doing so, she is absolutely pleasing to others.

I left wanting to spend more time creating for the sole purpose of my own viewing pleasure. I left wanting to type the words that are bubbling out of me. I left wanting to bang on the piano in rhythm. I left wanting to let there be love. I left reminded of my own unique taste, reminded that it’s all I have–whether I am loved for it or not.

a typical day (in art)

Recently, someone asked me what my typical day looks like, and while I did my best to answer the question, I felt that my response did not do justice to my life.

More recently, I found that an artist by the name of Irene Sheri* had actually captured a typical day in my life, and so I present it to you here now–an accurate portrayal of my typical day:

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red 13  *Images from www.galleryone.com and www.world-wide-art.com

The Skeleton Twins by Craig Johnson

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are amazing in this film. They have a ton of chemistry and that probably goes back to their days together at Saturday Night Live. If you’re me, and you’re a fan of SNL, and you’re a fan of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, you’ll love watching these two together on screen. Comedy actors can really excel at drama, and you see that in The Skeleton Twins.

image from wikipedia.org

image from wikipedia.org

Before I saw the film, I was told by a trusted person that it was “good, but dark.” And, that’s true. My mind goes in a million directions when someone says “dark,” and it really wasn’t so dark as all that, but it is a heavy film. It’s about twins who are desperately struggling in their lives. They are estranged, but the reasons are unclear throughout most of the film. Toward the end, catalyst for their decade-long estrangement slowly unfolds.

The acting is great. The characters are unique and real. (Luke Wilson is really good in this too!) The plot, writing, and direction are all unique and nuanced and good. However (HOWEVER!), I don’t think the film addresses a universal truth, and that’s something I think good film should do. I left the film thinking, “Yeah, it’d be nice to have a twin that is tuned in to me in my times of suffering, a twin who holds the key to cheering me up when I am down, but I don’t have a twin, and most of us don’t have a twin.” Life is long and hard—we see that in the film. Unlike the Wiig and Hader’s struggling characters, the rest of us have to schlog through this life alone. Maybe if we’re lucky we have some parents, a sibling or two, a few close friends. But very few of us have a twin.

Somehow this film reminded me of Broken Flowers—also critically acclaimed and good in so many ways (and Jarmusch!)—but lacking, in my view, of a universal truth or experience. The films look very closely a unusual circumstances. Now, this isn’t to write the film(s) off entirely. For some people, this story (and fabulous acting) is enough. I’m finding, though, that I want my films to get at something more universal—something that is moving me and something I know is moving my fellow audience members as well.

brains

For most of my life I’ve felt relatively happy and well-adjusted—this despite a few run of the mill traumas and dysfunctions. Some of my beloved friends and close relatives, some with genius IQs and crazy good artistic abilities, have not always faired so well mentally. They struggle with addiction and various mental illnesses, i.e. depression, anxiety, a bit too much paranoia, et al. They are all wonderful and funny and great to be around and to talk to, except when they are not. They have brains they all contend with daily. I love them. They are wonderful people. The best people. Though, being around them, I’ve often wondered how I got so lucky to feel pretty good most of the time. Well, here’s the answer: I don’t.

This is a surprise to me because it’s a fairly recent discovery.  I’ve had a few dark periods in my adult life, but they were situational and could be measured in months. I was always able to improve with simple things like exercise and time. What I’m realizing, though, is that my sanity may have been a direct result of keeping my brain very very very busy. Basically, I’ve noticed that if I’m not keeping busy by practicing yoga, falling in love, playing the piano, or earning a PhD, my brain gets bored and tries to take itself to crazy town.

When I completed my PhD, I thought I was done with school forever. Now, I’m not so sure. After ten years of school, I wanted to develop other aspects of myself besides just my intellect. These days I have to practice piano, I practice yoga, I make art, and I volunteer with work that (sometimes) seems meaningful for my mental health. (Though several times in the past year I’ve been tempted to stop the volunteer thing.) Meaninglessness in everything is one of the tricks my brain plays on me, and so finding meaning in life is crucial to my happiness. Basically, I have to work at keeping this brain of mine happy. I love my brain, but I’m learning I have to give it what it needs or else it will punish me.

my (new to me) piano

my (new to me) piano

round 4: knitting a baby blanket (with pattern!)

For years I did not like crafting. It seemed like the antithesis of art, and art was what I was after. However, that’s shifted for me in recent years when suddenly things like tying knots with sticks and stitching little squares into aida cloth has seemed strangely satisfying and important. I’ve even developed a few philosophical justifications for crafting. (And I’ve been delighted that people in my own field of study have taken up the subject as well.)

Recently a colleague,  who takes crafting above and beyond anything I will ever do, stopped by my office to talk about the stuff we’re making, and I was motivated to put together this post about my last baby blanket. I made it as a gift for my cousin’s daughter. Her son got one when he was born, but I hadn’t made one for the older daughter. My homemade blankets have imperfections (which makes them unique! which isn’t something everyone values!)), so I was delighted when my cousin’s husband mentioned that their son loved his blanket and used it all the time.

Here’s the blanket that I made for my cousin’s daughter. I’ll be using this pattern again. I think it is my best baby blanket to date.

Loops and Looms—Lavender

skein of Loops and Looms—Lavender Blues

I used four skeins of Loops and Threads: Country Loom – Lavender Blues. To start, cast on 73 stitches and knit five rows.  Then, to create the border, knit four (mark) add increase, then knit across for 63 stitches. Add another increase, (mark) and then knit the last four. In the next row, knit four (mark), add increase, and then alternate between decrease/slip, increase/knit stitch all the way across for for 63 stitches. At the end, add increase (mark), and then knit the last four stitches.

increase/decrease stitch border

increase/decrease stitch border

For the body of the blanket, continue to knit four (to the mark), increase, knit across (for 63), increase, then knit the last four. For the next row, knit four, then decrease, purl across, decrease again, and then knit the last four. Continue to alternate between knitting/increasing rows and purling/decreasing rows. Stitch to the desired length. I ended on knit stitch (with increases on each end before moving on to border).

At the very end, knit four, decrease/slip, increase/knit (for 63), then knit the last four stitches. That creates the last border edge. Then, knit the last five rows, and cast off.

finished and folded

finished and folded