Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

noxious quote patrol

The following comes courtesy of "One Day in the Life of Melvin Jules Bukiet," an essay published in the spring 2007 issue of The American Scholar. The author, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, writes of his unexpected arrest one evening & subsequent stint in Manhattan's House of Detention, aka the Tombs.

" new pen felt distinctly less congenial than the first. It was smaller and more crowded, and--call me racist--I couldn't help but realize I was the only white person, the only middle-aged person, the only person wearing a camelhair Brooks Brothers outlet-store jacket. I was the only person in the cell with glasses. Surely, 20 random men, though young, didn't all have perfect vision. Maybe their lives didn't require certain minor skills, like reading."

Naturally, a family friend & lawyer shows up just in time to offer bottled water to the author, who confesses without irony that it's a great idea because he doesn't drink plain milk nor wish to touch the water fountains. (Note to the Tombs: please add organic vanilla soy milk to your beverage menu.) Privileged Bukiet, elbow patches intact, thus escapes the fate of many of the other detainees, about whom he says, "Jail was my cellmates' life; they knew it the way students know a classroom." Whoa--that makes two noxious quotes in one post. One is certain that former editor Anne Fadiman would have crumpled & tossed this dreck into the rubbish bin.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

red hots & smelly socks

Matsutake, a variety of mushroom favored by the Japanese & whose odor has been described as a combination of the items in the title of this post, is the subject of Burkhard Bilger's piece in the August 20 issue of the New Yorker. To read it is to enter the secretive world of self-described misfits who make their living sussing out edible fungi. It's no easy job: they spend hours traipsing around mountainous terrain, endure harsh weather, & live in campsites with balky electricity for months at a time. And forget about flavoring the steaming soup served at the camp with shavings from the day's haul--sometimes the mushrooms can sell for a hundred & sixty dollars a pound and are therefore too precious for the hunters to eat.

Finding matsutake takes skill & intuition, for they grow at the tree-root level and are usually concealed beneath the duff. One expert, John Getz, describes his particular method of scanning the forest floor: "You get so you can see the tension in the ground. Just that pressure. And when it's raining you can see these little light-colored rings. It's really trippy. Your eyes tune in, your brain is keeping inventory, and you just get a feeling. Something taps you on the shoulder and tells you to pick." The ability to visually detect pressure in the ground--the adaptive genius of people is mind boggling. Given that "fully half of a forest's biomass lies belowground, and half of that is fungal," it's clear a lot of activity goes on beneath the placid-appearing surface.

More fun facts abound in the article. The air around us is laden with fungal spores. The largest known organism is a mycelium that spans two thousand acres in Oregon & is many thousands of years old. Nobody knows precisely what conditions foster ideal edible mushroom growth, & most of the prized species have resisted persistent efforts at cultivation. Happily, the failure to domesticate is what keeps the determined hunters, with their cache of esoteric knowledge, in business.

Monday, August 13, 2007

a queasy question

Attended a free screening of "Invisible Children" tonight at the local library, & while the subject matter is indisputably important--the youth of the title are Sudanese who have known nothing but war--the film is uneven & ragged. It begins in the now-familiar style of MTV's "Real World," with three white college students taking turns sitting in a small room close to the camera, posing & answering questions about the impending journey to Africa & their intentions of making a movie about it. When one of them earnestly informs viewers that television & movies are basically where we all get our knowledge, & another asks more than once, "Is this thing [the camera] on? The red light is blinking," it's unclear whether we're watching a spoof. The young filmmakers do not pretend to be experts in making documentaries & admit that they pretty much have no idea what to expect in Sudan, & perhaps their "everyman" quality appeals to a certain segment of the populace. There are some random frat-boy antics at the start of the trip--setting fire to a termite mound & killing a "giant" snake--& then an unintentionally hilarious exchange when one of the filmmakers, now with beard & backwards baseball cap, tries for serious journalism by approaching a military officer about an attack on the truck ahead of them. "What do you mean, shot?" he asks. The uniformed man dryly replies, "They used a gun to shoot them."

The official website ( is a trove of disconcertingly jokey writing (on the snake incident: "Double up on the panties, cause your gonna laugh one of them off"), pop-religious sentiment ("We know God is with us and continues to hook us up and provide us with some incredible stories"), & a bizarre synopsis of the people of Sudan ("They have no education, no concept of the outside world, and yes they still think the world is flat. The crazy thing is: If they did know that the world was round, it wouldn\'t really change how they live. If you think of \"Encino Man\" plus \"The Flintstones\" minus the technological breakthrough, otherwise known as \"The Wheel\", plus \"Half Baked\" you will get a clearer picture as to how these people live, and have been living for thousands of years. We concluded, it must be too hot to even think of making a wheel.") Yikes.

While the three Americans visit a number of refugee camps early on, it is when they encounter formerly abducted child soldiers that the voiceover states, "We had found our story." This is immediately punctuated by an overly long montage of rapid-fire scenes, set to a frantic beat--a directorial decision due to having grown up on a steady diet of music videos, it seems. At last we are given portraits of boys who have left their villages, which are vulnerable to rebel attack, for bigger towns, as well as some who have escaped conscription despite the odds. They form a family unit--studying together & staking out a dank underground corridor as sleeping quarters--although how they find food is not explained. Unfortunately, the interview process is downright insensitive: after one boy tells of his murdered brother, one of the white men asks if he'd like to go to the U.S. someday, then follows that with "What's your favorite music?"

An effort like "Invisible Children" raises the queasy question of how one approaches the well-intentioned but badly made documentary. Is it worthwhile or even ethical to put it under the critical microscope? If the film is this particular group of Sudanese boys' only chance to be heard, does it matter terribly if the medium is flawed?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

los poderes del aire, las llaves submarinas

Listening to "Neruda Songs," interpreted by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. M____ told me the tale of her & composer Peter Lieberson, who were once married to other people but fell violently in love. In a gift shop at the Albuquerque airport Peter noticed "the bright pink paperback with orange dots displayed on the rack"--Pablo Neruda's 100 Love Sonnets--& bought them for Lorraine. The poems were perfect for two people who would sometimes "cry in each other's arms out of gratitude that they had finally found each other." Friends noted the lovers' insularity with a certain amount of regret, but perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of all grand affairs; in any case, the liner notes state "The two moved ever closer in temperament once they became a couple."

The CD, which consists of a setting of five sonnets, is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine.

Lorraine died in 2006, a year after her premiere performance of "Neruda Songs."