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December 2011

Three Things that Start with “T”

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Asha (my eldest son’s friend) loves randomness. Every day in class, he will shout out: “Applewaggi!” No one knows when it’ll happen or what it means but it seems to keep everyone on their toes.

The ultimate compliment among this group of boys is to call something “random.” As in: “Whoa. That drawing is so random.” Or: “I had the most random pizza last night.” I’m sure the ghost of John Cage would be pleased. So here (in the spirit of all things haphazard and unrelated) is a random list about a random letter: “T.”

#1. Tin.

In Tulum, Mexico, a few years ago, I entered a store devoted to local crafts. Amid the usual souvenirs (i.e. portraits of Frida Kahlo and colourful Lucha Libre wrestling masks) were shadowboxes made from recycled tin. These “nichos” range from the simple to the gaudy and often feature dioramas starring saints or Dia de los Muertos figures. I know they’re touristy but I just love the look of punched tin.

#2. Theo.

When I first met my youngest son’s friend, Theo, he named all the cloud formations for me. It so happens that naming cloud formations is a hobby (and, might I say, forte) of mine so Theo and I hit it off instantly.

#3. Tiny Treehouse.

One day I hope to enjoy traditional tea in this tiny tatami-mat treehouse by Terunobu Fujimori.

On Beauty

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“No more beautiful studies of the human face exist than those made in film while it was still possible for the camera to pause for a moment.”
—Marilynne Robinson writing in the 50th anniversary issue of Tin House.

Hole Earth Note

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The Guardian recently invited various writers and artists to design money “fit for modern times.” My friend Naomi was asked to contribute and invited me to collaborate with her, which led to a fun brainstorming session and this banknote:

(N.B. We asked for a minimalist design treatment but perhaps we should have been more explicit about our choice of colour and type. The final version is a little austere even for my tastes…but nevermind. I think you get the idea.)

If you’re interested in knowing more, here’s an introduction to the project and a gallery of the final currency ideas. (I especially like Jonathan Franzen’s banknote. If you’ve read his Kenyon College commencement speech, then you’ll understand that Franzen loves birds.)

George Whitman (1913-2011)

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“He was an affront to modern capitalism, because he ran a successful business that put people, culture and books before money. He made his own world, and that is the best that anyone can do.” —Jeanette Winterson remembers George Whitman, owner of the famed bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris, who passed away this week at the age of 98.

Three Things About Walking

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We are running. In spite of our better instincts, we are racing, hurtling, speeding through these last days of 2011. Why? “Gotta get this snow to the arctic.” “Gotta get these pineapples to Hawaii.” The jokes around here are meant to mock our hastiness. Around here, we try to catch each other in mid-dash. It works for about five minutes, then we’re off again.

As if to remind us of a different temporal zone, there is the tall young man who walks superbly slowly past our house every morning. (“Every path, every street in the world is your walking meditation path,” says Thich Nhat Hanh.) What is that tall young man not doing? Where is he not going?

#1. A Picture.

“How are we all so brave as to take step after step? Day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then say O.K.”
― Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty

#2. A Book.

Julius, the narrator of Open City, is a devoted stroller. He traverses New York City from end to end, drawing out stories and histories of the city. He is one of the loneliest wanderers you will ever encounter and yet one of the most arresting. I was smitten from the very first line (“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.”) I dare anyone not to be similarly allured by Cole’s meandering mind, which moves dexterously from discussing art to bedbugs to Ground Zero. With the exception of W.G. Sebald, I have rarely encountered a writer who embraces narrative openness to such a brave extent. Long live aimless walking and sprawling storytelling. Goals and destinations are the enemy of adventure. They blinker us from other possibilities that arise. (Thank you D.C. for recommending it.)

#3. A Song.

What The Hand Can Do

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I find myself increasingly fascinated by people who don’t make machines the centre of their universe, and particularly people who use their bodies and hands as the engine of their creative expression. This includes a whole gamut of people ranging from dancers to painters to shiatsu massage therapists.

I realize this is partly old-fashioned romanticism (i.e. “look at that valiant and quaint wood carver”) but I think it’s also an abiding interest in idiosyncrasy, the uncalculated, the uncertain. It may seem overly obvious but I think there is something risky about literally putting your body on the line.

This past weekend, I ran into the lovely and talented Stephen Andrews at a local performance. For the past thirty years, Stephen’s art has beautifully and smartly explored the tension between the mechanical and the analogue. His painting and drawings ingeniously borrow the look of photographic technology while giving them the poetic texture and poignant tone of the handmade.

I am super excited about a large-scale mosaic Stephen will be unveiling at the new Trump Towers in Toronto in January 2012. The mosaic is based on his monumental painting of a tightly-cropped crowd (The View From Here), and will play with viewing distance so that what appears abstract from one spot, miraculously resolves from another. I know it will be spectacular. I can never get enough of Stephen’s work or his surprising and democratic mind (which can move fluidly from discussing car commercials to the War on Terror to lamb tagine.) He is a deeply soulful artist and a brilliant alchemist and an eternally playful man whose unique combination of flair and substance infuses everything he does.

“The machine can never do what the hand can, which is to fail miserably. For it is around that failure that our being is constellated… The handmade lends a certain trustworthiness that cannot be assumed with the technologically produced image.”
—Stephen Andrews

p.s. Here is a blog of the mosaic installation. Amazing.


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I make lists. I suspect you do, too. Some of my lists are conventional and useful (errands, groceries), others are data dumps or notes that make sense at the time but puzzle me on later viewing. For those list-lovers out there, the following is a meditation on lists from Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover.

What you like: your five favorite flowers, spices, films, cars, poems, hotels, names, dogs, inventions, Roman emperors, novels, actors, restaurants, paintings, gems, cities, . . .

What you’ve done: everyone you’ve gone to bed with, every state you’ve been in, country you’ve visited, house or apartment you’ve lived in, school you’ve attended, car you’ve owned, pet you’ve had, job you’ve held, Shakespeare play you’ve seen . . .

What the world has in it: the names of Mozart’s twenty operas or of the kings and queens of England or of the fifty American state capitals. . . . Even the making of such lists is an expression of desire: the desire to know, to see arranged, to commit to memory.

What you actually have: all your CDs, your bottles of wine, your first editions, the vintage photographs you’ve purchased at auctions—such lists may do no more than ratify the acquiring lust, unless, as it is with the Cavaliere, your purchases are imperiled.

(Picture from Edward Gorey’s unpublished and unfinished story, An Interesting List.)