Cities

America’s Rebellion Against the Car
The Philosophy Behind Making Times Square a Public Space


Manhattan’s Broadway, after a portion of it was closed
to automobile traffic earlier this year.

America, in a stuporous hangover from a decade-long party of indulgence, seems to be recovering in a cultural rebellion against the drink that ailed us.

In a highly prescient move to invest in the future of New York City, the closing of Times Square to automobiles marks the first large step towards what could be a new brand of American urban planning.

The experiment to close down Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets and around Herald Square is an attempt to not only decrease congestion on sidewalks, but also to see what will happen when such a famous American space is entirely devoted to people that use their legs.

In the most courageous step of urban planning in the last ten years, New York has made Times Square a pedestrian-only area. That is, a public place without cars.

If you were to walk through Times Square a few weeks ago, you would have had to wade through a jam of tourists. From a pedestrian’s standpoint, it was the annoying tourist trap of the city, where elbows were bumped, solicitors of entertainment were relentless and obtrusive, and busy New Yorkers lost valuable time. It was still a fascinating area, with plenty to get excited about. But at times the congestion felt as if all of a sudden something terribly violent could happen, and a sea of civilians would engage in a frenzy of savage behavior. In cities, this type of neurotic claustrophobia tends to lead to the over-commoditization of an area in which innovation loses out to mass quantity/low quality commercial goods and the area invariably ends up imploding giving way to crime and more plastic (see: Times Square circa 1974).

Times Square has been steadily improving since its days of grit and grime in the seventies. To say the space has just “gotten better” would be like saying the discovery of fire was “kind of cool.” The area used to be a bastion of debauchery, with the type of folklorish urban wickedness that you only see in Kurt Russell films from the eighties.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for the New York Times, described the new pedestrian-only Times Square as such:

“A large part of the design’s success stems from the altered relationship between the pedestrian and the structures that frame the square. Walking down the cramped, narrow sidewalks, a visitor could never get a feel for the vastness of the place. Now, standing in the middle of Broadway, you have the sense of being in a big public room, the towering billboards and digital screens pressing in on all sides.
This adds to the intimacy of the plaza itself, which, however undefined, can now function as a genuine social space: people can mill around, ogle one another and gaze up at the city around them without the fear of being caught under the wheels of a cab.”

It is this sort of remarkable open space, in the midst of a densely crowded Manhattan, that gives Times Square such potential. If the space is upheld (they will try the experiment until December), New York has the opportunity to set a precedent for new urban centers in America, where commerce can thrive because of the absence of the automobile.

Removing cars from Times Square seems to be as much of a revolutionary statement for America as creating a public space. The philosophy is no longer that the automobile is a tool of freedom, but rather a hindrance in a world that needs to figure out how to live more sustainably. It is the resurgence of density over sprawl, quality over quantity, that is picking up steam in our beleaguered economy. And with an administration in the White House that has the opportunity to re-evaluate the transportation authorization bill in September for the first time in six years, hundreds of billions of dollars could be routed towards innovative modes of transportation that lead to more sustainable and dense urban centers.

This new philosophy, adopted by Mayor Bloomberg and the proponents for a car-free Times Square, seems to be saying that an increasingly wireless marketplace, defined by the emergence of a creative class, has lesser need for the automobile. Mobility in commerce can now happen on all levels, from a device in our pocket to a satellite in space. All of this is to say that the move in making Times Square a public space is a step in the right direction, in keeping American cities out of the business of ancient ruins for possibly a few more centuries.

New York’s other brave public works project, the High Line, is a great example of how public spaces positively effect the commerce around pedestrian-only areas, as commercial real estate prices around the High Line have skyrocketed and dug the lower west side out its “dilapidated” status.

On the Subject
The New York Times has been covering the Broadway pedestrian mall.
• Lose the Traffic. Keep That Times Square Grit.
• No Vehicles, but Plenty of People on Broadway
• Photo Essay: A Traffic-Free Broadway
‚Ä¢ Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time Is Now

But Times Square is unique in that it needs no commercial boost. It is already the symbol for American ingenuity. So how do we transform a space that will maintain its hard-working American grittiness, yet still become the highest standard for urban pedestrian sanctuaries? This will be the question that the city of New York must carefully answer if they are to be the example for the New American City.

It is not as if America can attempt to transform Times Square into a European socialistic space where local farmers could sell their goods and trees could provide a sense of natural tranquility. That would be foolhardy. That is not the spirit of Times Square. The space itself is paved and futuristic, the living and breathing image of capitalism at its best. With more room to breathe and walk, Americans can now witness the wonders of commerce happening around them, amazed at the brilliance of each piece of advertising, each technological development, and each news ticker announcing the progress of the information age. It is a place where they can experience high art and hundreds of different ethnicities at the same time.

New York will have to bank on this infrastructure to design Times Square in such a way that these strengths can be exploited and enjoyed. The arts will play a major role in this and Broadway theaters need to rise to the occasion of this rare opportunity if they want to be at the cusp of this potentially lucrative wave. Broadway theaters have somehow stayed afloat over the past few months, some even increasing their revenues from this time last year, and more people interacting with each other in an open space – without the hindrance of congestion – has never been a bad thing for the arts community.

To those concerned about how they’ll deliver goods to the five blocks closed to vehicles, or how they ought to navigate the new streams of traffic on adjoining avenues: Figure it out. You’re running out of gas. This is the time for architects and urban planners to step up. It is time for us to make new strides in mobility, yet be willing to go back to that ancient pastime of “walking.” It would do us all some good to shed a few pounds and make eye contact with a person of a different race.

The continual decline in popularity of America’s greatest invention, the automobile, is sure to be a contentious topic for decades to come. Its greatest rival will be a New Urbanist way of thinking that esteems walkability and encourages a newly creative marketplace where home and the workplace once again come together. It is not only dense urban spaces that could combat the automobile, but also the way we do business altogether.

This is not meant to be a highfalutin’ utopian dream or nostalgic musing, but rather an attempt at practical steps towards greater civility. The autonomy of a vehicle has given the individual freedom of mobility, but also created an insular community of strangers that have the freedom to throw temper tantrums without consequence and rebuke their fellow travelers from the safety of a large metal box. These can be combative elements to the audacious social optimism of urban spaces, making honking a 100-decibel car horn amidst a sea of innocent pedestrians a selfishly irresponsible and uncivil act. To say the resurgence of public car-free spaces is a step towards higher personal responsibility and a culture of greater civility is no “dreamy” thing.

Ouroussoff wrote an article recently in the New York Times called “Reinventing America’s Cities: The Time is Now” in which he lays out practical steps towards a new urban center. Anyone concerned about the future of their own city should read his thoughts.

Barring any setbacks, Times Square has the chance to be a model for the new way we build cities and, without the danger of some angry SUV blaring its horn and zipping past kids, could be the place where the strengths of capitalism and the beautiful intricacies of the American marketplace could stretch its legs and flex its muscles.

A Dinosaur Crawled Into My Backyard
(Attempts at Connecting with Nature)

A dinosaur crawled into my backyard last week. This reminded me that I live in a city where you don’t regularly see dinosaurs. Or even backyards. You see pavement. And now, apparently, you can see dinosaurs, too.

I stood looking out at the gray dawn of a Brooklyn morning towards our anomaly of an urban backyard. And suddenly I saw it: the dinosaur, emerging from our neighbor’s yard by way of a hole in the tattered fence that separates our two territories. I stepped back and thought about lying down and playing dead, because if a dinosaur is like anything in this current world, it is like a bear, and we all know that bears hate dead people, especially when they’re lying down. But I denied my natural instincts and stood frozen, in a sort of old-West showdown with the Jurassic Knickerbocker. I thought to myself: For he is a dinosaur, and I a human with a massive urge to Google “what to do in case you see a dinosaur.”

It wore a black and orange shell, a half-bowl on its back that was scattered with some sort of hieroglyphic pattern, like it was carrying with it some map or scroll of ancient tradition long forgotten by its present surveyors. There is no story I know of his. He is a relic. He stands stoic, wise, ancient, hopefully herbivorous. Probably herbivorous.

For he is a dinosaur.

And I a twenty-something white guy, who can’t imagine a world before cell phones.

He was small in stature and had a long neck and seemed confused. Perhaps an infant offshoot of the triceratops, I thought, or maybe some mentally handicapped dwarf version of the brontosaurus that decided to put a seashell on its back, like some adult-sized cape that he insisted on wearing outside the house much to the chagrin of his irritated mother. He paraded in costume across our stone path and held his nose in the air to determine which portion of our backyard to traverse next. I hoped he would eat the Allegheny spurge, which is ugly and weed-like. For he is a retarded dinosaur, and might like to eat weeds. And I a humble onlooker, fascinated by his disabled wisdom.

He crept along slowly, with patience, as if he had no train to catch or iPhone to monitor. I had forgotten, for a second, that a dinosaur would probably be unfamiliar with the pace of the world he has now returned to and thought of going up to him and teaching him how to use Twitter so that he could update us all when he eats a leaf or has a “sad day ‚òπ.” Or perhaps he would appreciate if I taught him the basics of social networking sites so he could post embarrassing pictures of his drunken friend, the stegosaurus, who totally got wasted at Sarah’s birthday party last week. He might like that. But then again, he might also just like a piece of lettuce. For he is a dinosaur. And I a great educator of useless cyber relationship sites.

It looked at me as if it wanted something. My urban conditioning urged me to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any change,” or, “No, I don’t like stand-up comedy,” or, “No, I don’t have a minute for the environment or dying children.” These were the things I normally said to strangers in the city. But he was a dinosaur. And I a speechless inhabitant of his once home.

After a moment of silence, I finally went inside and yelled out to my wife with childlike glee, “The dinosaurs are back! The dinosaurs are back!” She sardonically, distastefully looked up at me. I had to explain to her – “There is a dinosaur in our backyard, come look” – and she begrudgingly followed my beck and call like a mother responding to a child screaming for more toilet paper. She looked out and saw the midget beast. I said to her, with cathartic wisdom, “For he is a dinosaur.” She stared at the creature in an existential trance and, after a long silence, quietly replied, “No. For he is a box turtle. And you, you are an idiot.”

According to Wikipedia, box turtles can live for over 100 years. The one in our backyard has been alive for at least 30. Our neighbors explained to us that, some decades ago, a pebbled-toothed man was digging in his backyard and struck a shell that birthed a head and four legs and crawled out from the ground that it had been hibernating in for the past five months. It was as if the pebbled-toothed man had stumbled upon a mix of magic, some perfect mineral combination that conjures extinct residents and resurrects them from the dirt. The box turtle was fed tomatoes by the local neighbors and trekked through the backyards of four of the brownstones on our street, and has lived here ever since.

It has a name that no one can remember, which seems appropriate for a wild turtle living in an urban environment. New York can have a short memory at times.

I’d like to think that the turtle has been here for centuries, and was second lieutenant to George Washington during the Battle of Brooklyn, but stayed behind when Washington ferried his troops across the river in retreat – the first true American, who was too stubborn to let the Brits push him around. I can picture him brandishing a bayonet against a sea of Redcoats, like a character in a Disney movie. “Tell us who you are, you rogue!” the Brits would say. And he would reply, in a wry matter-of-fact way, “I am a turtle. And I don’t mess around.”

A few days after the sighting, my wife’s grandma regaled us with a story of when they found a box turtle some years ago and took it to the high school science class for it to be looked after. The class for some reason wanted to heat it up, and did so (perhaps in a microwave, I don’t know) and the turtle expanded and internally exploded and died. A cruel fate, to be sure, but a lesson to remember: Never microwave a turtle. Like a Ding Dong, it will explode. But perhaps that fate is apt in its irony; in that we have a propensity for crushing ancient, sacred things for convenience sake; in that we are addicted to microwaves and anything that can perform a task half as well in half the time.

A few days ago, I awoke to find the box turtle perched on a dirt mound staring at me through the window, like it was creepily watching me sleep. After the awkwardness subsided, I opened the back door and stared back at him a while. “Hey,” I said. “Hey,” he said back, in a slightly higher pitch, as if he had always known me, yet I could never fully know him. He waddled away with his wrinkled and rocky skin like some boulder come alive from the ground. A time capsule. And for the first time in a long time, I felt in touch with the softer places of this earth, where concrete had no reign and grass still grew. I knew I was privileged to be witnessing the ancient and forgotten nature of the city to which I belong. I take comfort in the fact that we still share this space with elderly reptiles. I hope we can sit down over a rotten tomato or head of lettuce, and they can tell me what it used to be like.

At Home in Jersey City

Things one knows about Jersey City prior to ever visiting:
One, it’s in New Jersey.
Two, it has the word “Jersey” in its name.
Three, you can see it from Manhattan.
And four, uh, it’s in New Jersey.

When my wife and I decided to move to NYC so she could go to grad school, everything we knew about the city on the other side of the Hudson fit neatly into the above statement, but Steph needed quick access to TriBeCa, and I needed to be able to drive out to Northern Jersey for work. Despite our lack of any real knowledge and our awareness of the stereotypes, we decided to give Jersey City a chance.

Stereotypes held concerning Jersey City: Many people, particularly those who live east of the Hudson, have some deeply ingrained but categorically unfounded stereotypes regarding Jersey City. These we discovered recently when we invited friends over for a visit. “Will it take about an hour to get there? But there aren’t any good restaurants, are there? Isn’t it all gas stations and strip malls? Does it smell? Should we bring a gun?”

Most people who hold these stereotypes have never visited. Some have.

Anyway, one true generalization concerning Jersey City is this: the closer one gets to the river, the nicer – and more expensive – the neighborhoods become. So, on a Saturday, just a few weeks before we hoped to make our move, I charted out a course for us that would begin in Jersey City Heights, located on a cliff above Hoboken and the least pricey part of the city, through Journal Square, and eventually to the downtown area and the waterfront.

A word about the Heights and Journal Square: These are two very up-and-coming neighborhoods in Jersey City, but with all due respect to those who live there, neither place was for us. The first few apartments that we visited did not give us any sense of “home.” Signs of development were visible but, we ultimately decided, we wouldn’t be living in the Heights or Journal Square. Slightly disheartened, we continued on.

I will never forget what happened next. The feeling that settled on us in our car as we descended Newark Avenue into downtown Jersey City can only be described as “coming home.” Dilapidated buildings gave way to beautifully restored brownstones. Dollar stores gave way to restaurants with names like Skinner’s Loft, Ox, Beechwood Cafe, and The Merchant. We drove slowly and rubbernecked at the openness of Grove Street Plaza, the elegance of City Hall, and finally, at the heart of the neighborhood we had come to see, the astoundingly well kept Victorian-era Van Vorst Park.

I was immediately taken by the rows of brownstones that surrounded the park, reminding me more of the Cosbys’ neighborhood than any notion I had of Jersey. Steph loved the fact that streets are lined with trees and the buildings reflect the obvious intention of the residents to beautify their homes. We explored down by the waterfront, walked the boardwalk along the Hudson River and took a short trip over to the vast open space that is Liberty State Park.

Within a few hours we paid a deposit and signed a lease for a one bedroom on the first floor of a brownstone building. As we sat in a local coffee shop and ate sandwiches, marveling at the range of emotions we had experienced in one morning, the inevitable line of questioning set in.

Questions one asks shortly after deciding to live in Jersey City: “So, can we still say we live in New York City? Do we have to say we live in Jersey now?” Steph asked. These questions had been on my mind as well, and all I had was more questions. “What will people think when we tell them we chose Jersey City? What will they assume about us?”

We’re coming up on a year here now. And in that year an amazing thing has happened: we’ve begun to make Chilltown our own, to proudly call it our home.
There is a feeling we try to describe to friends, but that they don’t understand until they visit. When we get off the PATH at Grove Street, we walk up the stairs, out of the station, into the open air of the plaza, and feel an unmistakable sense of peace. From the bustle of Manhattan, to our little corner of it all, there is that same experience of homecoming that we felt the first time we drove into town.

What Jersey City is really like: On our way home we might stop in at any of the bars or restaurants that, in good weather, spill out onto the sidewalks, tables full, depending on the time, with people unwinding after work, couples out for a walk with their dog, or families surrounded by baby carriages and young children. Some days we feel we are in the vast minority, having neither a dog nor children. But we are so happy to enjoy seeing the dogs and children of our neighbors.

Minor inconveniences related to living in Jersey City: Though our commute is short (seven minutes to the World Trade Center, 20 minutes to 33rd Street) and the PATH generally takes us where we want to go (downtown or the Village), if we want to go anywhere north of Herald Square we have to transfer to the MTA, and there is no free transfer from the PATH. We still often have to explain exactly where it is we live, sometimes bringing up the map on my phone to locate us in relation to Manhattan, and it is a lot more difficult to get people to visit us because they have to cross not only the Hudson, but the much wider psychological gap between there and here.

Becoming Jersey City Evangelists: Excepting those things, we have found a sense of home here that we didn’t expect to find anywhere outside of our beloved Boston. And, with this piece as evidence, we’ve become what I call “Jersey City Evangelists,” spreading the good news to any and all who will listen, though Steph is a bit more hesitant. “We don’t want everybody to move here,” she reminds me.

But why not? There’s plenty of space and, unlike many other places in the area, the perpetual construction of condo and apartment buildings continues even in the midst of this recession.

So, check out Jersey City. You may find that unique sense of homecoming that we experienced. At the very least you’ll enjoy some amazing Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty views, some good food and music.

And don’t worry: if you decide to move here, you’ll get used to telling people that Jersey is not all gas stations and strip malls.

Of Public Transit and Human Nature

Photo: Wally Gobetz.

“Shoot,” I mutter, looking at the clock on my computer. It’s 4:30 p.m. in Oak Park, Illinois where I’ve just finished teaching, and that slates me for a 5:15 transfer to the Brown Line train in the Chicago Loop. Which means I won’t get a seat. Which means I’ll be shoved into a space more precariously crammed than my closet. Which means that I will be practically hugging about five other commuters for 20 minutes, saying “sorry” at least a half-dozen times as I lurch into them on our journey. I often wonder why people willingly submit to conditions that might otherwise be a human rights violation.

I guess you’d have to be a sicko to say you liked being so close to other people, but I do have to wonder why I find it quite so obnoxious and awkward. I mean, on other occasions, wouldn’t I claim that I love my fellow humans? Don’t I celebrate the faith that claims God became a human not too different than the guy chewing gum in my ear? Public transportation has a way of making the abstract concrete.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the CTA is the United States’ second largest web of public transit. Each day, says the Tribune, the CTA gives 1.6 million rides – 500,000 on the trains alone. A crowded train car in this system is kind of like a laboratory. Throw something interesting into the mix – say, a pigeon flapping around inside a train car – and you can marvel at the individuality of each person’s response.

In three years of regularly riding Chicago Transit Authority trains, I’ve learned that the CTA can illuminate a lot about human nature. I’ve learned that people will give a fifty dollar bill to a stranger if he has a slab of wood, three cups, and one pea.I’ve learned that different colored plastic prayer cloths are purportedly good for different kinds of illness.But sometimes this clunking laboratory of human experience teaches bigger lessons.

Contentment is Transferable

It was an early morning, and I opened the station door for a man with crutches and one leg, walked beside him on the stairs, lost track of where he was, and then ended up boarding the same car. I sat diagonally across from him while he stacked his crutches on the seat beside him. He placed a plastic cooler on the floor by his one foot. I smiled at this man in his paint-splattered sweatshirt, a smile both wistful and bumbling.

He smiled back at me.”It’s hard having three legs,” he told me. I laughed, and smiled some more. The message was clear: he didn’t have less than me, he had more.For the rest of the day, I kept remembering the short, black-haired man with his lunchbox by his foot and his crutches on the seat, and it was like somehow his words had multiplied the things I had: I felt like I had more of the things I loved, more appreciation for my home, more love to give my friends.

During the months surrounding that encounter, my morning rush-hour commute would frequently land me on “The Blessed Train” – a Red Line run operated by a cheery driver many Chicagoans appreciate. “Good morning,” he would say. “All aboard the Blessed Train. The Blessed Train is the best train.”He had a hearty voice that boomed over the speakers, and his appreciation of his work let me recalibrate.It became the omen of a good day ahead.

Photo: Lee Bey

“Bad” Trains Offer Impromptu Community

I’ve moved since then, and instead of the Blessed Train, I ride the Green Line, a line of track with a bad reputation. The second time I rode the Green Line, a friend told me a girl had been stabbed right on the train.Also, the Green Line is not the site of the only CTA disaster, but its operator had one of the most outrageous responses. When a Green Line derailed last year, the operator ordered everyone to stand on one side of the cars so the train wouldn’t plunge off the elevated track. Despite the dangers and past catastrophes, the Green Line is one of my favorite to ride (in the daytime).

The thing is, people talk to each other on the “bad” trains, and ignore each other on the “good” trains (like the Brown Line, which runs northwest from the loop through wealthier neighborhoods). For instance, a few months ago I was reading Gregory Wolfe’s The New Religious Humanists just as the Green Line rolled away from the station, and someone asked me, “Hey, is that a good book?” Then it was, “Where’d you get that?” which eventually led to another scrutiny of the title and the sigh, “Man, I should get myself to church.”

This brief exchange did not pressure me to keep talking; it was merely a pleasant way for both of us to begin the trek home. When people talk to me on the Green Line, the feeling is not that someone is flirting, or getting ready to follow me home, or scam me (okay, well, except for the guy hawking prayer-cloths). Instead, the feeling is that, by boarding this train, I am now part of an impromptu community.

We Aren’t Easily Threatened

It’s the mantra of CTA riding: “If you see someone acting suspiciously, please inform CTA personnel immediately.” The thing is, if we took that mantra seriously, we’d be on the intercom every five minutes or so. There’s always someone talking to himself in the corner, or looking protective of some oddly-shaped package, or glaring at us unnervingly. But I was amazed the other day at just how much suspicious or even aggressive behavior people will witness unperturbed.

I was riding the Brown Line (that’s right – the “safe” one), and from my vantage point it looked as though someone was lying down in the aisle. I could only see the tips of battered white sneakers sticking out from behind the metal dividers by the doors. I whispered to the guy next to me, “Is that person okay?”

“I think so,” he responded, no doubt pegging me as a tourist, “though you never know with people these days.”

When I leaned over to look more closely, I knew why he wasn’t as concerned as I was.The man wasn’t lying in the aisle. He was just sitting on the floor with his back against one of the dividers. Odd enough, though. He stayed like this for a few minutes, mumbling to himself, then hiked himself up and paced the aisles, glaring at everyone and still muttering.His eyes were sinister and his hair was wild.He paced right out one of the emergency doors and stood between the cars, wild hair blowing, like he was on the boardwalk enjoying the ocean breeze. After a few minutes, he came back to my car and continued pacing. As we neared the Loop, I heard what sounded like a muffled explosion. The guy had taken out an Aquafina bottle and was slamming it against the divider, muttering louder and looking at us like we had all been his tormentors since childhood.

To me, what was even stranger than this guy’s behavior was that every passenger but me seemed oblivious. They kept reading. They kept their earbuds in. They hardly glanced at this guy or each other. As for me, I decided I wasn’t going to wait for the guy’s next move, so I followed another CTA mantra: “Move to the next car if your immediate safety is threatened.”

Reflecting on it, I suppose the passengers’ response wasn’t abnormal. It’s already taken a whole lot of trust just to live in a city, because, as Jane Jacobs has pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a city is a place where strangers live very close together, most of them bargaining not to hurt each other. Urban existence means that we have given each other a generous dose of trust. It’s not the sort of trust where we’re making eye-contact and talking to each other all the time, but it’s the kind of trust that it takes to have the same entryway key as five other strangers, or where we’re hopping into a vehicle a stranger (be it a cab driver, bus driver, or train operator) is driving. In some cases, though, maybe this daily trust means our danger sensors are corroded.

CTA Stories

Another thing I’ve noticed in my three years here is that Chicagoans love CTA stories. When the RedEye version of the Tribune has a column about the CTA, emails to the editor pour in.The Decider section of The Onion ran a series on what it’s like to ride certain lines of the CTA round trip. There are whole blogs dedicated to sightings on the CTA and rants about it.

Whether ranting or celebrating, chances are that part of the draw of public transit stories is that there are unusual things to be learned about human nature when we’re all crammed together. The quirks, threats, or homilies in motion that we notice on the train are merely the quick emergence of a million stories of the people riding packed together above Chicago.

Lessons in Talking to God


Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in
Sunshine Cleaning.

At first glance, Sunshine Cleaning seems to be a funny and sentimental film about a woman trying to work hard to make a living, care for her son, and reconcile a tense relationship with her sister – all with the indie vibe of Little Miss Sunshine, from which it borrows the great acting skills of Alan Arkin, producers, and setting. In fact, the trailer would have you believe that this film is an offbeat comedy and a rather lighthearted affair. A closer look reveals a more reflective story as the characters deal with their sadness, trauma, and grief.

Rose (Amy Adams) is a single mother, working as a maid to get by, supporting her son, Oscar (Jason Spevack). Oscar is an imaginative kid, but is often in trouble at school. Oscar’s father is not in the picture, and Rose is still in love with her high school sweetheart, Mac (Steve Zahn). Unfortunately, they have to meet secretly since Mac married someone else. Rose’s sister, Norah (Emily Blunt), soon gets fired as a waitress and moves in with their father (Alan Arkin). The family is struggling to keep it together. They have all spent a long time running from the past, but remain in its grip, seemingly unable to escape.

At Mac’s suggestion, Rose decides to get into the business of cleaning crime scenes. Rose invites Norah to join her. Jumping in headfirst, they buy an old van with a CB radio. The used-car salesman jokes that the radio is for “talking to those in heaven.” Oscar tries the radio, but his message does not elicit any response – just silence.

As Rose and Norah begin to clean up after dead bodies, the scenes trigger memories of their mother’s death, and Rose and Norah can no longer simply ignore this trauma. Rose begins to see how complacent to living life she has become. She realizes that nostalgia has kept her in pursuit of some idealized past, rather than making realistic choices on the journey to maturity. Norah steals small objects from a scene as a way to feel empathy from another woman who has lost her mother.

While in many respects this film is typical in its depiction of characters dealing with loss and grief, it distinguishes itself by placing Rose’s and Norah’s conversations with God as central to coming face to face with their suffering. In an exhilarating scene, Norah takes a new friend to go “trestleing.” Norah climbs up the trestle of a bridge. From there she can feel the train overhead mere inches away. To explain why she says, it is there that she can hear God and smell steel on his breath. Similarly, Rose goes into the empty van to talk in the CB, to tell her mother how much she misses her. She prays as a way to struggle with what seems like her mother’s senseless choice.

Both Rose and Norah cope with their childhood trauma by controlling their emotions, experiences, and relationships. They avoid becoming truly vulnerable with themselves and others so that they will not have to be reminded of their sadness. But as they express themselves in experiences and conversations with God, they can let go of the trauma that has kept them captive. It is these moments that give them the ability to begin a process of recovery. They come to understand the complexity of the world and their relationships, and it allows them to begin again. By no longer living in denial, they are reconciled to the people around them that they love.

Suburban slums?

From Miller-McCune: The Slumming of Suburbia.

To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience – dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers – while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.

Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones – sometimes called “demographic inversion” – will continue for decades.

“Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they’re tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan.

More on urban simplicity

From The University Bookman: On Brooklyn’s Side.

many agrarian or regionalist (the two are often unfortunately conflated) polemics often neglect the notion of vocation, or rather they universalize the notion of vocation to mean only a back-to-the-land kind of reaction. . .

Brooklyn fits even less the New York stereotype. My family, for example, has lived here for four generations, mostly in the same neighborhood. My wife’s family has been across the river in Manhattan just as long, though perhaps I should add that part of her family hails from the South and bore the CSA standard for the state of Georgia. I need not shop at a superstore, preferring instead the many family-run businesses in my neighborhood. We buy produce directly from farmers, do not need to drive a car for weeks at a stretch, and we live within five miles of where my grandparents were married and my ancestors are buried. This is not some “crunchy con” fantasy. Oppressive congestion, dirty subways, and rude pedestrians aside, this is Brooklyn, too.

For more thoughts on the same subject, see Rebecca Tirrell Talbot’s Curator article on urban simplicity from February 27.

Free Bubble Wrap,
and Other Joys of Urban Simplicity

Anyone who has ever had a dog and a skunk on her property at the same time, loaded hay into a loft in July, or contemplated the best way to catch a horse that just took off through the woods knows that rural life has its challenges. While cities provide their own complications, it’s time to set the record straight.

Our cultural imagination has us thinking the country life is the good and simple life. But it’s hardly the only simple life. The city has vast potential to provide an uncomplicated way of life – much more potential than it gets credit for.

“Living in the city is the simple life, when the city’s potential is maximized,” says Aaron Opalka, who has lived in Albany, New York for two and a half years. “One with a rural mindset might argue that the density, chaos and noise of the city are antithetical to the simple life. But my vision is one that permits walking or public transit to most, if not all, daily requirements.”

On his lunch break, Aaron can walk to the bank, retrieve his dry-cleaning, go to the barber shop, stop at the pharmacy, get a bite to eat, or even grab a new shirt and tie. “Naturally, not all at once. But the idea is I can walk to each of those things in five minutes. Think about the sprawling suburbs and all the time and resources wasted to accomplish each one of these errands.”

This is part of Kim Howe’s definition of the simple life, too. To Kim, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago’s lower west side, the simple life means “few intermediaries between me and the things I need.” Kim’s vision includes growing her own food, someday, and having “about seven possessions.” She does own more than that, but her walls display artwork from friends, and much of what she and her husband Jeremy own has been found, not bought.

Nicole Miano, who lives in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, points out that the nature of the city motivates people to avoid consumerism. “Since things are so concentrated,” says Nicole, “it motivates you to make sure you are reusing.”

Implementing some aspects of this vision will come naturally, because, as Aaron argues, the city is the simple life. But some of this simplicity means knowing how to find what you need and being willing to capitalize on what you find.

Ways to Simplify

In Chicago, most people use public transit. Though most Chicagoans have a love-hate relationship with the construction-burdened and disaster-prone CTA,we find that for the most part, it makes life easier. Jeremy Howe appreciates that he can do something else while on the train – reading, or listening to his iPod. “I like my life better for that,” he says. Getting a little farther in a book or getting a paper drafted for work or school means there’s less work to bring home, and listening to music, reading The Onion, or even getting the chance to stare at a sunset without distraction might mean that riding public transit lets us relax more than driving would have.

Then again, riding the L isn’t convenient for all Chicagoans, since there are many underserved neighborhoods without any lines close by. Nicole Miano, for instance, cannot walk to the L from her home in Chicago’s west side. And in other cities, riding public transit could mean that you don’t fit in with your demographic. Using Albany’s buses, for instance,isn’t considered normal behavior for a young professional. The feeling, says Aaron, is “why would a young professional climb aboard those rolling asylums?” Aaron, who scrapped his vehicle almost a year ago, has seen single-passenger cars drive by with their occupants gaping at him unabashedly. Recently, when gas reached $4 a gallon, he noticed more young professionals joining him.

Usingpublic transitrather thancars is one of the most significant paths to urban simplicity, but the proximity of shops, restaurants and jobs encourages other modes of mobility. Nicole “would never bike in the suburbs,” where she grew up, but she often bikes in Chicago.

When other wheels are necessary, it’s easy to rent cars in the city. Zipcars and Chicago-based I-Go cars are an excellent deal compared to the cost of parking, insurance, maintenance, city stickers, and the enormous frustration of finding parking, shoveling snow, and bickering with your neighbors about why they moved the lawnchair you used to save your spot.

Another key to urban simplicity is being willing to take what you find. This means using nearby resources. It means buying clothes at theneighborhoodthrift shop instead of the mall out in the suburbs, or grabbing a few needed items at the corner store instead of driving to the supermarket, where you’ll face the temptation to fill your cart. It means signing up for yoga at the park district for freeinstead of $50 for four weeks at the trendy place down the street.

Kim Howe advocates a paradigm shift when it comes to the urban simple life. The city “provides a lot of free shit,” she says, but you have to change your thinking before you’ll accept a lot of it. Instead of shopping, which she says means “I need this; I will buy this thing,” you’ll have to take things as they come. Flexibility is an avenue to simplicity.

Kim was able to live on a half-time salary after college and spent time gleaning and networking her way into many comforts and pastimes. She has found free entertainment by ushering, and she’s been known to scope out suburban trash days to find furniture and sometimes bubble wrap to decorate dorm elevators and relish some very confused looks. “I guess you could think of that as ‘simple entertainment,'” says Kim. (I should add a bed bug warning here, just in case your city is in the throes of an infestation: glean carefully! Now, back to the joys of city life . . .)

Kim also discovered that Chicago has a paint depository, where she could get free paint. “I needed free paint, so I looked it up!”

Community Supported Agriculture provides another way to enjoy taking things as they come. Nearby farms offer “produce subscriptions,” where people can buy a share in the farm and receive a weekly basket of produce during the growing season. Subscribers can also buy cheese, meat, and egg shares and have these delivered to a nearby pick up spot along with the veggies. Catherine MacRae Knox of the Lincoln Square neighborhood on Chicago’s north side is thinking about joining a CSA. She cautions that one of the challenges is that you may end up with an awful lot of, say, radishes or kale, and will have to be creative, but she is excited at the thought of fresh vegetables for 20 weeks.

If you can’t just take your groceries as they come, but still want to ditch the car and shopping cart, companies such as Peapod and FreshDirect offer grocery delivery in many cities. It’s a good way to avoid impulse buying, and some companies accept manufacturer’s coupons and provide their own, too.

What the City Can’t Give

City life certainly has its problems, and the discussion of all the merits above focuses on what Nicole Miano calls “our age, white person existence,” a twenty- or thirty-something’s voluntary paradise. For those in marginal neighborhoods (beyond the reach of grocery delivery servies, car-sharing and even most public transportation), city life may not be easy, working one job may not cut it, and simplicity may not be so voluntary. We need to keep this in mind; voluntary simplicity is a luxury in its own way, and social justice should be a motivation for any downsizing we do.

But even when we embrace simplicity of our own accord, complications arise. One such complication is that it is hard to leave the city.Erik Chubb, who lives in Lincoln Square, regrets that it is really hard to get out “to the quiet wilderness.” Aaron also points out the limits of mobility. “By its very nature, public transportation is not tailored to any one person’s schedule.”

The cost of living and limits of space are also complicated aspects of city life. They mean that in many ways, simplicity is a requirement. I’d still argue that it’s a freeing requirement. I daydream about having a counter wider than a dictionary, but I like that we don’t have room for an entertainment center. There’s simply a limit to what you can acquire in the city, and that’s freeing. “In the city,” says Erik, “I don’t have to fill a big house with fancy stuff. I don’t need a fancy car.”

Sometimes, though, space issues mean that you really can’t live as simply as you want to. Kim was foiled when she tried to realize her dream of growing her own food. “We got one tomato and six green beans. We didn’t eat them because we were so proud of them.”

City life may have its difficulties, but a simple life is possible here, and seeing the skyline from a rooftop can be just as satisfying as diving into a mountain lake.

Moon Pies, Beads, and Racial Tension:
The Original American Mardi Gras

I’m not from the South, and I had never been to a Mardi Gras parade until I moved to the Gulf Coast of Alabama. For me, Mardi Gras had no real caché – I’m not Catholic, was never big on drunken parties, and had no desire to swap a peek at my body for beads or anything else. It was just a big party in New Orleans, and though I frequently observe Lent, I never planned to attend Mardi Gras.

But then I moved to Mobile, the birthplace of American Mardi Gras, and have since learned more about the holiday than I ever thought I would. Most importantly: Mardi Gras did not originate in New Orleans, though that city has since taken the whole celebration over and perverted it beyond its original intent. The first Mardi Gras celebrations in America were in Mobile, Alabama, where I currently reside, which was the capital of the French colony of Louisiana in the early 18th century. The first Mardi Gras celebration, in 1703, was a means for the French colonists to remember their homeland roots. It wasn’t until 1720 that the Louisiana capital was moved to New Orleans, where Mardi Gras was adopted. Compared to the civilized and well-organized Mobile Mardi Gras celebrations, the New Orleans celebrations were mere gatherings with no organized activities. The people just celebrated in whatever way best suited them.

When I learned that Mardi Gras was celebrated here in Mobile, I wasn’t interested. But people assured me that it wasn’t the breast-flashing heathen fest I had seen on television in the Big Easy – they called Mobile’s celebration “family friendly.” So, my husband and I headed to our first parade to get a taste for ourselves. My previous parade experiences had been limited to Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades, where people would set up their lawn chairs on the side of the road and watch the parade pass. If candy was thrown, it was usually Tootsie Rolls or Bazooka Joe bubble gum, and the children would run into the street to fetch as much candy as they could. There were floats, but mostly it was marching bands, jump-roping clowns, and politicians sitting on the backs of convertibles. Mardi Gras is nothing like this.

Huge crowds gather into mosh-pit-like packs, and there’s nowhere to sit. Massive floats make their ways down the street, one after another, with “throws” tossed into the crowd – anything from beads and moon pies (a Mardi Gras favorite) to stuffed animals and cups. The floats are usually linked thematically – for example, last year we went to a parade themed “The World Loves a Clown,” with floats ranging from Batman’s Joker to Krusty the Clown – and costumed revelers stand atop, throwing their various goodies. Marching bands and dance troupes break up some of the madness, but everyone goes to the parades for the throws.

And it is a lot of fun. People in the crowds yell and wave their hands and bump into each other. They grab and horde and what surprised me is that they also share, something I learned from a young boy who gave me a stuffed animal he had caught because he knew I didn’t want any more beads. The only real rule is to pay attention and keep your hands in the air, ready to catch anything thrown at you, which we learned the hard way after my husband was given a bloody forehead by a wayward cup.

But Mardi Gras is so much more than the parades. There are more than fifty Mardi Gras mystic societies, each autonomous of the rest, with new ones added every year. Each holds a reception or ball, and about twenty-five hold their own parades. Associations require dues from each member, as well as attendance to regular meetings, float building, and sometimes, fundraising. Many associations have a waiting list – some of the more coveted have waiting lists of up to ten years – and often membership is passed from one generation to the next. Members ride on the floats, dressed in costumes with masks so that no one at the parade can identify them. The Mardi Gras balls are often exclusive or semi-exclusive, requiring nonmembers to have an in with a member in order to get a ticket. At the balls, members dress in character or the men wear tails and women wear evening gowns.

Then there are the kings and queens. The city celebrates Mardi Gras in two carnivals – the Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) carnival and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) carnival – and each chooses a king and queen. MCA’s “royalty” are white, while MAMGA are African American. Queens are drawn from a pool of debutantes, the rest of whom become the queen’s ladies in waiting. Each lady in waiting chooses her own knight, usually her boyfriend, to accompany her to Mardi Gras functions. The MCA king is usually dubbed “King Felix III” (no matter what his real name is) and is said to “mis-rule” over Mardi Gras. The MAMGA king is called “King Elexis.” Both MCA and MAMGA hold their own functions, coronation ceremonies, and parades, though the two associations don’t usually mingle.

What is most surprising – or maybe not – about Mardi Gras in Mobile is how segregated it remains. The 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, which followed the 2007 Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile, focuses its attention on MCA and MAMGA and their blatant division by race. Most of Mobile’s parade organizations are white, with the exception of one integrated society, founded in 2003, which has only one white member. The film follows the preparations before Mardi Gras, from luncheons and parties to the extravagance and labor of the royal court’s attire to the everyday lives of the people involved.

In the film, the differences in the two sets of royalty are notable. King Felix receives a key to the city from the mayor (the city’s first black mayor), though King Elexis does not. Queen Helen of MCA is from a very old, high society Mobile family, in stark contrast to MAMGA’s Queen Stephanie, who laments her estimation of financial expense for Mardi Gras to be equal to purchasing a car. (Ironically, Queen Helen’s family owned the slave ship that brought Queen Stephanie’s family to the United States from Africa.)

The interviews with various Mardi Gras affiliates (including a few masked interviewees), which pepper the film, are where the real spirit of racial tension emerges. Most tiptoe around the issue, stating that it’s the blacks or “colored people” who want to keep Mardi Gras separate in order to retain their own traditions and roots, but it is evident that both blacks and whites are torn between sticking to tradition and taking steps to try to integrate the yearly celebration. This seemed to stem from the looming question of how to integrate, to which no one has a real answer.

In 2007, the MAMGA king and queen made an appearance at the MCA coronation ceremony, and were the first from MAMGA to do so, despite having been invited for the past 30 years or so. The MCA king and queen reciprocated by attending the MAMGA coronation ceremony the following night, and were the first set of royalty to attend a MAMGA event. This appeared to be a step in the right direction, though the MCA king in an interview later in the film seemed more interested in preserving tradition than trying to intentionally integrate, stating that it’s something that should be done in the future but not right now.

The Order of Myths offers no real answer but merely presents both sides of the celebration in order to provide fodder for conversation. Perhaps things can change. In any case, Mobilians take Mardi Gras seriously. And in spite of the racial dynamics, it is a seriously good time. The two week celebration is imperative to Mobile’s economy, with millions of dollars allocated by mystic society and association members as well as the city itself. Though much of the celebration’s framework is similar to the one in New Orleans, with the secret societies and parades, the focus of Mobile’s Mardi Gras is tradition and celebration rather than partying and drinking. Mobilians are right – it is family oriented and safe. And as a non native, what I know for sure is it’s a whole lot of fun.

The San José: A Hotel with a Soul


Photo: Jenni Simmons

Back in my formative, single days, I read an influential article by Paul Soupiset in Communiqué. He received a clever gift from his wife – a weekend getaway/personal retreat in room #26 of Austin’s Hotel San José – and he deemed the urban bungalow lodging “a perfect spot for meditation, prayer, and contemplation.” I was newly enamored with Kathleen Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk, and so his description caught my eye. At the time, I imagined my tiny studio apartment to be my own monastic cell, and I mimicked Norris’s observance of the hourly offices as best I could while sitting on my blue futon. I went from Baptist to Anglican for the sake of poetic liturgy. Reading both pieces birthed my love for quiet, clean-lined spaces, with ample room to think and pray.

Through Soupiset’s words and photographs, I was whisked away to what Hank Williams III described as “Mexico meets Japan”: cacti and bamboo stalks outside, cowhide rugs and rice paper lanterns indoors, minimalist yet comfortable, with strong lines and simplicity. It sounded peaceful and funky enough to suit my eclectic tastes perfectly. And yet, all monastic notions aside, I wasn’t too keen on sleeping over alone, nor did I have appropriate budget, so I tucked the idea away for my marital future. When I finally said “I do” to a drummer, we spent our honeymoon in Gruene, TX, and returned the following year for our anniversary. The bustling city of Austin is nearby, so we saved our pennies, booked a room at the San José and tacked on a night to our annual getaway, thereby establishing a tradition. Since we entertained life in a convent and monastery (respectively) during singlehood, marriage seemed a celebratory occasion on which to splurge.

Reading a great article is one thing, but experiencing Hotel San José in the flesh is a very incarnational experience – it touches on all five senses, while heartening the spirit. We’ve stayed there four times, and it’s like a deep, meditative breath each time we’re handed a key. We step from the parking lot through a wide, wooden-slatted door to modern oasis landscaping courtesy of Austin’s Big Red Sun. There’s a Zen garden quality as gravel crunches underfoot; large wooden eggs are placed here and there. Lush greenery hangs from wooden trellises overhead. Birds flit from clay birdhouses hidden in tree branches. Stairs are framed with twigs and vibrant porcelain colors. Terra cotta planters nourish desert plants and succulents. You can read and sip tea on vintage patio furniture or an assortment of geometrical wooden chairs placed throughout the sculpted gardens. The hushed calm is something of a sonic miracle seeing as cars whiz by on S. Congress just steps away.


Photo: Jenni Simmons

The buildings are quite satisfying to those of us who appreciate the honesty of modernism. Lake|Flato architects, believing that such a style “should respond to its particular place, enhance a site or neighborhood, and be a natural partner with the environment,” transformed an old tourist court into a sanctuary of vernacular architecture. This bungalow-style hotel is framed by stucco and gray brick walls; Spanish tiled roofs and large, olive green doors imprinted with white room numbers. Inside is a fresh take on monastic living – well, except for a flat screen TV and the mini bar (a wooden box cradling items such as Shoyeido incense, dark chocolate, and a bottle of cabernet). The white rooms display the most beautiful austerity illumined by bright, natural light, heeding another of Lake|Flato’s philosophies to explore “how the light of a specific region enlivens a space, brushes a wall, and animates materials.”

We slip off our shoes to feel cool, concrete floors and simple wool rugs woven with Rothko-esque blocks of color. The minimalist aesthetic is offset by vintage music posters on the wall, and platform beds and couches covered with tapestry pillows and hippie blankets. We slide open a massive, industrial sliding door into a sparse, white bathroom scented with the San José blend of pepperminty soap. Other furniture consists of Bertoia chairs and Saarinen tulip tables straight out of Dwell magazine. If I didn’t have an aversion to theft, I might have smuggled the red Eames rocking chair into our car when the staff wasn’t looking.

You’d never believe what this chic place used to be if I told you. I couldn’t visualize it myself, either, until I watched the documentary, The Last Days of the San José (2000), co-produced and directed by Saint Liz Lambert (as I like to call her). She purchased what was then a very ramshackle, squalid San José Motel with a vision of what it ought to be. But she acted as owner and manager for three years while she courted banks all over Texas to finance the renovations. In the meantime, she chronicled the lives of some of the tenants – a diverse lot. There were prostitutes, drug addicts, transvestites, runaway teenagers, and a self-instituted handyman attending anger management classes. There were more winsome characters, too, such as street musician Gerry Van King (the “King of 6th Street”), and Diana and her son, just trying to get by until they could afford rentable housing. One young female tenant described her surroundings as “a mini rundown Melrose Place.” And so it was.

Yet one glorious day, when Lambert finally sweet-talked a bank into a loan, it was time for all of her tenants – the good and the bad – to pack up and find other living arrangements. My heart shattered at that moment in the film. I had some less favorite characters, but I wondered, what happened in their childhood and their young adult life? Were they ever shown kindness?


Photo: Jenni Simmons

There’s a scene in which the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” (sung by Robert Sean Leonard in Chelsea Walls) plays softly while scenes of the city flash slowly –

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home,
Honestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling all sinners, come home.

In that subtle, poignant moment, I got the impression that Lambert cared a great deal – she befriended many of her patrons – but a place of filth and crime is no kind of shelter. Even if their lives resembled a dark tale penned by Flannery O’Connor, Lambert extended mercy by closing down the disreputable motel. It was not a home, and needed to recapture the positive atmosphere of its beginning as an “ultramodern motor court” in 1939. If we book a swank room at the Hotel San José here in 2009, we should not forget the people who struggled in its seedier rooms, nor the story behind the bungalows. These pieces of old architecture have quite the redemptive story to tell. With the eye of an artist, Lambert looked past syringes in sinks, crack pipes tucked away in random crevices, tattered curtains, soiled bed linens, and a sickly lime green exterior. She tore it all down to create a thing of beauty, a transformation akin to the resurrection – a motel’s dying breath raised to new life.

Through her work, Lambert also restored this particular neighborhood to safety and boosted the local economy, a salvific act to any location. Today, some of the best shopping in all of Austin resides on S. Congress: the fair trade of Ten Thousand Villages, local wares at Parts & Labour, the folk art of Yard Dog, the eclectic antiques of Uncommon Objects, worldwide crafts at Tesoros – and the literary Mecca of BookPeople is just minutes away. There’s good food and drink to be found at Guero’s, Home Slice, Hey Cupcake, Woodland, and Farm to Market. There’s even great music to tap your feet by right across the street at The Continental Club, which has seen Hotel San José through the worst of times, back in its days of squalor. All of this variety is very representative of a very grateful, zany, welcoming city.

In the same spirit, Hotel San José has mastered the art of hospitality in an inspiring, creative fashion – which is why it’s called “a hotel with a soul.” They offer a rare selection of perks for rent: Americana CDs, obscure films on DVD, bicycles for gasoline-free transportation, typewriters to peck out your memoirs (though there’s also free wireless internet), and Polaroid cameras to capture the tranquility on film. Your dog is even welcome. The rooms are no longer $30-40 per night, but if you have a worthy splurge (such as an anniversary) and you’re into the Tex-Mex-Orient vibe, the quality of stay speaks for the price, in my opinion.

With her creativity, Lambert redeemed the kitsch of the utilitarian motor court aesthetic with something more personal and less dehumanizing. In addition to Hotel San José’s funky, minimalist decor, the rooms are stocked intentionally with an eye for detail. For cleansing, the toiletries are small bottles of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and other exclusives created by a local Austin spa. A stack of single tissues are stacked neatly on a window sill. In each bathroom, a poem is nailed near the mirror to read while brushing your teeth. The small wine bar is the place to be, yet not raucous.


Photo: Jenni Simmons

But perhaps the prime example of their artful hospitality is the room service – breakfast in a bento box. This, too, is worth every penny we save each year – maybe the most beautiful presentation of a meal I’ve ever put in my mouth, compartmentalized and all. My favorite menu consists of big bowls of plain yogurt, granola, and berries along with grapefruit juice and a Bodum urn full of Jo’s coffee (an outdoor shop next door). To top it all off, we plug in my husband’s iPod to the complimentary bedside iHome and enjoy Aradhna while waking up.

I’m never quite ready to check out at noon, so my husband and I might forgo Gruene one of these years and spend two nights at Hotel San José. It is a soothing refuge, and we rather like that our favorite out-of-town accommodations have such a redemptive story. We’ve taken something away after each visit, at times unaware. Lately I’ve noticed that our house mirrors a similar eclectic minimalism, even the same warm green paint color. We purchased our home with a serious intent to offer hospitality to family, friends, and neighbors. After staying at the San José, we strive to make our dwelling just as artful and serene – a place where the cheerful and downtrodden alike can come and rest; wine and dine in good health; take a book off our many shelves and read. I’ve come to believe this is what any hotel should be – a home when you’re called away from home. And surely, a place where you feel free to kick back, pray, and cleanse your scattered thoughts.


To book a room at Hotel San José and/or purchase The Last Days of the San José DVD, call the very kind hotel staff: 800.574.8897.

Where is the Cinema?
Some Cities and Films in 2008

In his 1986 book about America, Baudrillard gets to Los Angeles and asks: “Where is the cinema?” His odd response: “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvelous, continuous performance of films and scenarios.” In France or the Netherlands, one walks out of a theater or gallery into a city that is the source text for the paintings and landscapes you have just seen. What Baudrillard discovered in his roundabout musing on Hollywood was a reversal of what he had become used to in Europe. In LA, it is the city that takes its cues from the cinema. If we want to figure out America we can’t start with our living spaces and think towards the cinema. Rather we have to begin there, in the continual flicker of our theaters, and realize that this is where society is born. Americans appear to live in screenscapes rather than actual landscapes.

For Baudrillard, this is a creepy thought, recasting our neighborhoods in the phantom hues of C.S. Lewis’ description of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. In his version of hell, the damned are free to construct any house at will, the catch being that they are only half-real. The restlessness inspired by this artificiality creates a cosmic urban sprawl, the houses of history’s oldest villains ending up light years from each other. Cinema can have an equally isolating and cheapening effect on the American conscience. But soon after America appeared, so did location intensive films like Linklater’s Slacker, Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Jarmusch’s Night Train. This early wave of independent cinema broke the back of Baudrillard’s criticism, and by now we are accustomed to a kind of American cinema that is aware of the way Hollywood glosses over its tendency towards simulacra. What Baudrillard claims is very true in isolated Studio City cases, but it is by no means true of film that Americans have become increasingly aware of through our ever increasing exposure to independent and international cinema. I was reminded of this through a globetrotting theme that trailed my movie-going in 2008, one that responds to Baudrillard’s idea that the average American cinema is like a toxic leak in the public square.

Take for example Guerín’s recent In the City of Sylvia, the quiet story of a man on holiday in Strasbourg who thinks he has chanced upon a girl he met in a bar a few years ago. He follows her from a distance, through staged sets of minimalist urban compositions, until realizing that he is most probably mistaken. Much like the brisk pencil sketches his main character makes of this city’s many attractive café patrons, Guerín’s Strasbourg is beautiful and humane in its simplicity. His camera will linger for minutes on street corners and alleyways that his characters have already passed until their natural rhythms begin to appear. All the people-watching in the film, often obscured by mirrors, windows, and odd angles, begins to converge with Geurín’s preoccupation with the architecture of Strasbourg until the audience becomes part of its hum and throb. It is a voyeuristic experience, but one that keys us into the potential cities have for either alienating or embracing us. The film thrives on the pseudo-community experience of any Starbucks, and poses alternatives in its focus on the everyday spaces of Strasbourg.

A similar thing happens in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon. In homage to the Lamorisse children’s classic, Hou’s film periodically shifts focus onto a red balloon bumbling its way across the boulevards and parks of Paris. Though the film is primarily about a young boy watching his single mother struggle to keep their family afloat, it is also about his fledgling experience of this beautiful city and the way his first memories of it have begun to form. There is the smoky café with a pinball machine his absent father taught him how to play, the sharp angles of graffitied streets he walks between school and home, the field trips to sunlit museums, peeling marionette stages in verdant gardens, and the different views from his apartment windows. Little Simon becomes a stand in for Hou’s obvious love of Parisian minutia, the red balloon at the same time a tour guide across the city and an emblem of the buoyancy of childhood memory. The way Hou frames this bittersweet slice of life with charming sweeps of Paris mimics the way particular cities define the structure of our memories.

Texture is perhaps the key word for Maddin’s My Winnipeg, a befuddling film that charts the history of his beloved home town across a series of memories both real and manufactured. The central image of the film is an imaginary subterranean river fork that lies beneath Winnipeg’s famous Red and Assiniboine River fork, a shape Maddin finds similar to his mother’s loins. In this “discovery,” Maddin finds out why he has never been able to move away from Winnipeg even though he has tried for many years. Winnipeg’s history and lore are so integral to Maddin’s coming-of-age, and woven into the fabric of his odd oeuvre, that he can’t conceive of disconnecting from it. The latter half of the film chronicles the real destruction of landmarks in downtown Winnipeg like a dirge. Though he can’t leave Winnipeg, he also can’t stop its slow demise. The absurdity of the film’s voiceover, and the collection of fables Maddin weaves around his description of the city, are the only responses he has left to the growing rubble. Like Hou’s film, My Winnipeg is bound up in a sense of love for a particular place, his surreal vision of Winnipeg emerging from an intimate knowledge of its sidewalks, streets, and buildings.

And then over all of these films about the way we relate to cities stretches Marsh’s Man on Wire. A documentary about Philippe Petit’s illegal tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, the film is a parable for rethinking the way we look at our skylines. When we finally see Petit dancing across the wire in this rarified space between what were once the two largest buildings in the world, the impact of the film as a paean to our living spaces finally dawns. He has made these giant monuments to capitalism pylons in his own playground and the harried space of lower Manhattan a theater for his own monologue on play. Petit’s attitude towards cities as a stage for celebrating human ingenuity is only enhanced by the fact that Marsh never refers to 9/11 in the film. The documentary allows us to sidestep the awful memory and catch a glimpse of a 45 minute period during which the stark modernism of the Twin Towers had been far more eloquently reconfigured through Petit’s elaborate stunt.

In all of these films there is a looming presence of places: real streets, cafés, and bits of geographical lore that persist beyond the imagination of these storied tours. They are films intent on celebrating their chosen landscapes rather than using them to concoct the kind of infectious screenscapes Baudrillard discovered all over Hollywood. And though only one of these films actually takes place in an American city, they inform us nonetheless. We step out of theaters after films like this into St. Louis, Boston, Austin, or any other hazardously American city armed with ways to look at our neighborhoods and daily routines in similarly thoughtful ways. In the City of Sylvia and Flight of the Red Balloon train us to slow down and appreciate the fabric of our living spaces; masterful renditions of “smelling the roses.” Maddin’s film demonstrates how connected we are to our hometowns, which in a very real sense give birth to us. Man on Wire shows us how slight shifts in perspective can humanize places that have become so associated with the daily grind.

I like to think of films like this as an antidote to the dislocating tendency of Hollywood commerce and advertising described in America. In their celebration of particular places they train me to see wherever it is I live as a place to live and thrive rather than just a backdrop to my daily commute or a borough of the madding crowd. Like a master class in topophilia they tell us why our walk to and from the theater is just as valuable as our time in the theater itself. Or as experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky once quipped in a Village Voice interview: “Narrative film seems very clogged up, with almost no exceptions. It has no openness for me. I go to any narrative film, in recent years, and with almost every one, the lobby is more interesting than the film. Getting out of my car and walking to the theater is much more interesting, because at least I am alive in the present moment.” And, I would add, in a particular place.

Notes From a Budget Truck

My wife and I are moving from Los Angeles to New York, it’s the middle of January, and I never thought I’d find myself so obsessed with the contents of a 16-foot Budget truck.

Our route is long, tough, and snowy. My father has likened it to the Joad family tour except without nearly as much dust, death, or squatting down and squinting our eyes and picking up a handful of dirt and letting it run through our fingers while giving some inspiring speech. “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there” . . . mmmm, maybe? I’d like to say that I’d be there but apparently I’m more concerned with all the crap that’s in the back of this truck.

I’ve been worried that our things, locked away in this 16 foot gas guzzler, will somehow be stolen. I’m worried that a group of vandals will materially violate me – that they will take bolt cutters to our padlock, steal our things, and top it off by painting something phallic on the side of the truck because they somehow found out that I didn’t spend extra for the zero deductible insurance, and adding insult to injury is what these thieves are all about. These guys are smart. Too smart.

I’ve been so paranoid at times that I’ve found myself checking on the truck every hour or so, discreetly peeking out the window of our Motel 6 room, like some gossipy grandma in a Southern Gothic novel. This obsession is ridiculous.

My paranoia with the things we own began shortly after we loaded the truck in a real-life game of Tetris with three people who would have rather been sleeping. I never knew how much I cared about our second-hand printer, our blender, and our cake stand that has never been used. It’s a cake stand. Who on earth uses a round cake stand more than once or twice a decade? Am I really going to bake a cake – specifically, a round cake – then frost it, display it on a porcelain stand, and later take it off the stand to eat, just so that people can see this round cake, in all its prominence and glory? “Oh my God, look at that round cake! It’s on a stand! Who would have thought to put that round cake on a stand! Look at how useful that is! I wouldn’t have thought much of that ugly little round cake unless it was propped up, as it is, on a pedestal, as if it had something to say! As if it was about to come alive and open its little chocolate lips to compliment me on my haircut! I declare: look at that cake! Standing there! I don’t even want to eat that sexy little cake it’s so beautiful!” No. I didn’t think I cared a lick about that cake stand until I obsessively wrapped it in newspaper and bubble wrap and carefully stacked it among the other boxes of things I tell people I don’t care about. But apparently I do. Care, that is.

My paranoia peaked in Denver. And I think it’s because of Radiohead. The band. You see, when I was in sixth grade Radiohead came through Denver (my home town) on tour and all of their equipment was stolen. They made statements on the radio pleading with the burglars to return their things. They never did. Radiohead left Denver bitter and angry and a little more afraid of the Mile High city.

Our truck, this automotive behemoth, was too big to fit into a parking spot close to where we were staying, and we were forced to park it about a quarter mile away. Out in the open. Where the Mile High bandits could get it. They didn’t, of course, and my suspicion, which likened our fake ficus plants to Johnny Greenwood’s guitar, was unjustified. We left Denver and our “truck o’ stuff” was okay.

I’ve been told that New York City has a way of forcing you to get rid of things. The city’s confined living spaces force you to purge your nonessentials. This is a good thing, if you ask me. Upon arrival in New York, I imagine we’ll come through the Holland Tunnel and be pulled over by a teamster whose job is to inspect all the objects we plan on cramming into our junior one-bedroom apartment. “Okay, California boy, why don’t you open up the back there and we’ll see what ya got.” He’d rifle through our things and carelessly toss a number of items into a muslin sack. “Don’t need dat, don’t need dat, you can get rid of dat, I never even seen one of these before, don’t need dat, and you definitely don’t need this cake stand – although it is very nice – what is that, porcelain? Alright, that’s all. Welcome to New York, sunshine. Get ready to freeze your nips off. Vote Tammany and have a nice day.”

I’ve never been a packrat. In fact, if you were to research the amount of material items owned by the average American, I’d say that I’d be in the lower 30% (and that’s based on absolutely zero empirical data, in case you were wondering). It’s not the “things” that I care about. It’s that somehow this nomadic expedition across the country has intensified my territorial instincts, like I’m some sort of rabid possum. And my “territory” is everything that is tightly packed into this rental truck. In fact, one might even say that these “things” are my only “territory” for seven days on the road. I’m not asking for a pity party or anything, I’m merely trying to express this bizarre feeling of in-between-ness, of not belonging and only having “things” that belong to me. This seems analogous, or at least somehow connected, to the sort of alienation and autonomy to which our culture is falling victim, and it has led me into a type of neuroticism so self-involved that I compare my situation to the band Radiohead (see above).

If we don’t fulfill the inherent need to belong, it would make sense, in all our errant ways, that we fill that need by purchasing things that we can say belong to us. In other words, does a lack of belonging breed materialism which leads to neuroticism which leads to paranoia which leads to believing that this downward spiral of material obsession will continue and Steve Jobs will eventually create a troop of iPod robots so sleek and desirable that they will seduce us into being their slaves?

If “things” turn us inward towards ourselves, then surely there is something that can turn us outward towards others, and from my experience it’s nothing you can get at Best Buy. Even if we don’t truly believe this to be true, we must act like it is true, if we want to be a culture free from the slavery of materialism and iPod robots.

We tend to overlook exactly why we so strongly desire material things. It is easy to complain about our addiction to consumerism, or dismiss it as a cliché not worth examining, but it’s difficult to assess the reasons behind our material obsession. I think that maybe we’re not really obsessed with these “things”. Maybe we’re obsessed with something else. Maybe we’re obsessed with ourselves and being in control of things, and perhaps that is why we sometimes struggle to belong – we’re too concerned with ourselves to be concerned with others. Or maybe I’m completely wrong.

Instead of trying to find the answers to all these difficult questions, I’ll tell you a story from the last leg of our trip that illustrates a point far better than I could write.

Something happened on the final day of our journey that seemed to wrap things up quite nicely, like an ironically violent ending to a David Cronenberg film – the kind that makes your jaw drop.This one came out of left field, and seemed so cruel and surreal that I felt myself levitate a little bit, as if at any moment I would wake up from this nightmare.

We had traveled 3,000 miles over seven days to our destination, and everything had gone just fine. The truck had not broken down. Vandals had not stolen our things. My wife and I were still married. Everything had gone fine. Everything was out of our truck, in our apartment, and I was on my way to return the most expensive and valuable “thing” in my possession: a 16 foot Budget truck. I was traversing the narrow streets of Brooklyn and on the final quarter mile of our 3,028 mile journey, Murphy and his law staged a coup d’état. I was driving down a small one-way road with double-parked cars, which made it even smaller. I was almost to the end of the block when I heard a loud crunch. The back of my truck had crashed into a double-parked car behind me. I was two blocks away from the drop-off station. My soul wilted a little bit, then got up, left my body, and went to vomit on the street corner. I had hit the car’s side mirror and possibly the passenger door. The mirror was dangling there like a lemming that decided to change its mind. But it was too late.

What am I going to do? What on earth am I going to do? A large man of at least 250 pounds got out of the car. He came around to the mirror. I apologized profusely. He said nothing. I stood there cowering, conjuring up any possible way I could get myself out of this mess. And then a miracle happened. I saw that the mirror had been duct taped to the car. He somewhat ineffectively re-taped it back on and stood there for a few seconds in silence, looking at the damage. The large man looked at the “thing” he owned, surely one of his most valued possessions. He looked at his car. He looked at me. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. Don’t worry about it? He got back in his car and I drove off and returned the truck. And it was over. Don’t worry about it. Indeed.

The Art of Inspiration in the Crescent City

Let me preface this by saying that I get strangely sentimental around the holidays.

The first reason for going was the food, and the second was the nightlife, but somewhere in the top ten reasons that I chose to vacation in New Orleans was to put my finger on the pulse of the town that was partly responsible for one of my most recent reads, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. Somehow, it seemed romantic and hilarious that there still might be a philosopher-slash-hot-dog vendor, like Confederacy‘s protagonist, certain enough about life’s secrets to wear a costume like that on Bourbon Street as well as lead a Crusade for Moorish Dignity.

It’s easy to be a critic in the mold of that protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, decrying and lamenting the ills of a society, all the while maintaining a log in your own eye. Within Confederacy of Dunces, hidden among the sermons and moral indignation of the protagonist were several lovely descriptions of a city that, despite its own odd collection of degenerates, was nothing other than immensely human. (And speaking of sermons, while I was in New Orleans, I was jarred awake at ten each morning by a megaphone sermon on the corner of Decatur and Canal relegating all sinners to hell.)

While it was fun to spy the oddities, eccentricities, and inequalities that Toole lampoons in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, things have changed immensely since Hurricane Katrina. This makes it all the more interesting that it was at the movies, like Mr. Reilly in the novel, where I had a profound encounter with quite different piece of art during my stay.

While I was sitting in the Canal Place Cinema on Christmas Day, I realized that the city of New Orleans was visible in its best light as Brad Pitt rolled through Gentilly on a vintage 1950’s Triumph in a leather jacket. Maybe it’s kind of ridiculous to say it, but New Orleans in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while not prominently featured, clearly shines through; the images portray the city as uniquely set in time and place, and as the film hints, possibly capable of throwing off the yoke of time when the situation allows.

Directed by David Fincher, the film chronicles the unique circumstances surrounding the birth, life, and death of Benjamin Button, book-ended with scenes from a hospital on the day Katrina made landfall. As you know by now if you’ve not been living in a cave over the holidays, Button ages backward. He appears to be eighty years old as an infant, and passes on as a newborn.

To me, the real story in the film was the city. It grows up and seems to lose its innocence simultaneously with Benjamin. As Benjamin grows younger, the city becomes also becomes younger, less mature. At several moments direct comparisons are drawn: New York is more affluent and artistic, but it is flighty and prone to change according to unimportant whims. Murmansk, Russia, while containing more seriousness, is at last too cold, the sameness of the place invading even the people that live there.

What other city would have been better used to display the timeline of the United States? The upper Midwest is a graveyard for what once was the nation’s industry. The West Coast is swimming in exposure, which only spotlights the notoriously absent soul of the place. The East Coast maintains an argument-winning intellectual leverage, an ardent belief in its own superiority keeping everyone else at arm’s length. All of these places have trouble changing, becoming other than their current descriptions.

Cities like Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles have all experienced a knockout blow; New Orleans, a death blow. There is a strange blessing in this – instead of wheezing out an existence, ruin leaves a chance for a return, and therefore provides a blueprint of hope for the rest of America. As Walker Percy points out in his essay “New Orleans, Mon Amour“, the only city capable of delivering the American city from death by extremes of time and place is New Orleans. Early independence, spiritualism, hedonism, race struggles, devoted local culture, crass materialism, devastation, and hopefully, resurrection – it’s all there. New Orleans lives and still breathes. It stays up all night dancing. It best showcases the problems and hopes most relevant to the United States today, and despite how old it sometimes look, it constantly stays young at heart.

There was an ovation as the film ended, and as I left the Canal Place Theater there weren’t many dry eyes. I stepped out into the sunlight. It was warm and beautiful. It would have been a great day to be born in New Orleans.

Pandora Radio:
Rewarding Your Curiosity

In Greek mythology, the gods created the first woman – a “beautiful evil” – to spite Prometheus, who had stole fire from the god. They named her Pandora and gave her gifts of various kinds in order to make man’s life miserable. They also gave Pandora a box (or a jar, depending on who you’re talking to), which she opened – probably from curiosity, which wasn’t something the gods appreciated – and released all the evils of mankind into the world. Clearly, the Greeks weren’t keen on women, and clearly, the men were writing the mythology.

Whether or not Pandora released all evil on mankind, she did manage to lend her name to a much more worthy project – the Music Genome Project’s Pandora internet radio. The Project has been working for years on tagging and categorizing songs by their genre, rhythm, melody, composer, and many other fine-grained characteristics, and they’ve released these songs to the “musically curious”.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re having a party and want to play a variety of oldies, or soft jazz, or folk music, or metal. Simply go to Pandora’s website, “seed” a new station with the kind of song or artist you want it to play, and walk away. Pandora does a relatively good job of playing music in roughly the same category as the song you chose. Or, make a “QuickMix” from two or more already-existing radio stations. If you hear a song you don’t like or think should be in the mix, simply click the “thumbs down” to make sure you never hear it again.

Pandora is infinitely customizable, and it’s best to check it out on your own – it’s completely free. To get you started, check out the Pandora stations that some of our contributors have put together for your listening pleasure. Some are heavily seeded, some less stringently defined, but all of them are worth a try.

Sam Kho
Station Title: b. 1977- d. ???
Seeds: Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Iggy & the Stooges, Minor Threat, Sex Pistols, The Pretenders, The Ramones, Violent Femmes

Hooray for streaming radio. My first memory of radio was an analog knob thing with only AM, and my family got it from a yard sale – so it wasn’t even really mine. Now to have five radio stations of my very own! I like how Pandora proffers all the mind-expanding bands I could ever want, like Architecture in Helsinki. Talk about instant gratification!

Daniel Nayeri
Station Title: Tokyo Rose Radio
Seeds: Tokyo Rose, Fallout Boy, “Viva La Vida” (Coldplay)

This is my favorite station. The music is perfect for slamming into a port and cooking to. It gives the work some of the best aspects of video games, ballet, and a good old-fashioned knife fight (the ones where no one really gets cut and everyone goes to the malt shoppe after).

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot
Station Title: Neil Young Radio
Seeds: Destroyer, Iron & Wine, John Martyn, Magnolia Electric Co., Neil Young, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Band, Vic Chesnutt

When I am creating an assortment of music to listen to (or, having one created for me), usually the number one requirement is that I can listen to it while reading or writing. Enter Neil Young. I don’t know about you, but I never find Neil Young’s music lethargic or depressing – which is a rare find when you’re looking for music that isn’t jarring.

Jenni Simmons
Station Title: Band of Horses Radio
Seeds: Band of Horses

I gravitate to an eclectic array of music, and any definitive selection depends on my mood, the local weather, or even a song lodged in my brain, so choosing a favorite Pandora radio station is near impossible. However, the arrival of autumn had me playing Band of Horses radio quite often. I discovered this group via Pandora, actually, while listening to a different station. I was mesmerized by Bridwell’s vocals, the lush indie rock, and melodies that seem to mirror that particular autumn light. I tend to leave my MacBook open to Band of Horses radio (streaming the likes of My Morning Jacket, Radiohead, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Rilo Kiley, and Wilco) as I walk by with armloads of laundry, while doing dishes, or dusting various surfaces – I find that great music goes a long way with housework.

Annie Frisbie
Station Title: Sleater-Kinney Radio
Seeds: Sleater-Kinney

I like a “Subtle Use of Vocal Harmony” and “Electric Guitar Riffs” . . . at least when I’m listening to the Sleater Kinney station. It’s like my iPod, only I don’t know what’s on it, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll like it!

Christy Tennant
Station: Christy’s QuickMix
Seed: Sarah McLachlan, John Mayer

This is the music that inspires me and gets into my bones. Sometimes it’s because they say things I don’t have the words for, but I resound with. Sometimes it’s because they sing of romance that I’m not sure I believe in, but sure wish I did.

Alissa Wilkinson
Station Title: Pianissimo
Seeds: Goldberg Variations: “Aria” (J.S. Bach / Glenn Gould)

For me, this is hands-down the best station to put on when I’m trying to write. It’s made up entirely of classical solo piano, mostly Baroque, and is the perfect combination of soothing and stimulating. It also makes me want to drink tea.

Broken Windows and Internet Civility

Earlier this year, on my way to work, I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker and was drawn into an article entitled “Friend Game”, which covers the MySpace-related suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. You can read the full article here.

You probably read the story and were as outraged as everyone else; Megan was first wooed, then harassed by a fake sixteen-year-old boy whose MySpace profile was set up and maintained by neighbors, parents of a friend with whom she’d had a quarrel. The situation eventually came to a head, and Megan hung herself from a closet rod with a cloth belt. Months passed before the reprehensible details came out, and the community – and worldwide – reaction has been loud and clear, but the adults responsible for the harassment haven’t legally committed any crime and can’t really be prosecuted.

According to the article, Megan’s parents were very involved in her MySpace world. They approved friend requests and made sure they were in the room when she was on MySpace. The family lives in a “close-knit” neighborhood, but that closeness unfortunately devolved into cattiness. Two good things (parental involvement and community) that couldn’t prevent the sad occurrence.

There were two things brought up in the article, somewhat unrelated, that nevertheless made me think.

Firstly – the article characterizes MySpace in this way:

MySpace, with its cluttered layout, can suggest an online incarnation of the broken-windows theory-surface disorder begetting actual chaos. It works like this: a person signs up (all he needs is an e-mail address) and then constructs a profile by choosing text, songs, graphics, wallpaper, and video clips. Often, when you open a page, the music’s already thumping, as if you’d stumbled into a party in someone’s basement.

When I was reading this article, my husband was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which mentions the broken-window theory in reference to the (successful) efforts to clean up New York City in the last couple decades. As I understand it, the broken-window theory posits that if a window is broken in a neighborhood, and it isn’t fixed, it will invite more broken windows. In other words, disorder breeds disorder. (Though the theory has occasionally been attacked by social scientists as incomplete, it holds up as a way to fight entropy, disorder, and chaos.)

One way this manifested in New York City was graffiti in subway cars. As the story goes, subway cars were covered in graffiti, sometimes elaborately drawn murals that would be worked on for days. I’m all for public art in moderation, but someone had a hunch that the graffiti, and the general feeling it engendered that one could do whatever one wanted on the subway, was contributing to subway violence.

So their solution was to paint entire cars every time they reached the end of the line. If the car wasn’t painted in time, it didn’t go back on the track until it was cleaned. Over time, this helped to contribute to the feeling that someone was actually in control in the subway cars; you could spend hours doing your mural, but it would be gone once it went into the last station. Someone was watching, and somebody cared.

Now, obviously, painting over graffiti didn’t solve all the problems in the New York subways. There were other contributing factors. But some old-timers will tell you that this was the first step toward subway safety. And today, when I read stories about subway violence (or see the trailer for that dismal Jodie Foster flick The Brave One), I can hardly believe it. The New York subways aren’t models of cleanliness, but the graffiti has mostly been reduced to scattered “scratchiti” on the windows, and the idea of a shooting or stabbing on the subway is downright shocking. I suspect you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving your car on a suburban highway than in the New York City subways.

This isn’t rocket science, but like many viable ideas, it stemmed from good, common sense. And so I wonder – if MySpace cleaned up its act more (and the New Yorker article goes on to elaborate a bit), would the general feeling around the place improve? Maybe this doesn’t translate to online venues, but consider for a moment the disparity between a standard MySpace layout and a standard Facebook page. Facebook exerts a bit more control over what you see – for instance, you can’t install customized stylesheets, and though individual “applications” may be flashy and ugly, they’re forced onto a profile tab, where a visitor would never have to see them. And as a result, you see more adults on Facebook; in theory, that may contribute to keeping it “safe”. I don’t have facts to back this up, but it seems reasonable to me.

I’m not sure what all to make of these ideas, but I have a hunch that the aesthetics of online space may contribute more to the friendliness and maturity level of a place than we suspect.

The other thing that caught my attention in the article was this statement:

“Pokin’s story threw first Dardenne Prairie and then everyone else-guidance counsellors, techies, First Amendment advocates, parents, bloggers, parenting bloggers-into paroxysms of recrimination. They were all certain that something sick, and distinctly modern, had happened, but no one could agree about whether its source was a culture that encouraged teen-agers to act too grownup or one that permitted grownups to behave like teen-agers.”

The more time I spend online, the more disgusted and/or saddened I am by the way people “act” online. I’m not convinced it’s the anonymity factor – after all, many people are comfortable revealing their name, occupation, educational details, and location, at least to a subset of their friends/readers. I’m fine with you having the information about me that you do.

But sometimes, especially now that political tensions are flying high, I wonder why we’re comfortable being sarcastic, angry, or just plain mean in our online dealings. Has the internet turned us this way (as some have suggested), or have we always been this way, but our sense of shame/propriety/social stigma has kept us from spreading it as far and wide as the Internet?

While we react to this story with a sense of outrage, what can we do to spread compassion, kindness, and just plain good manners around the internet? How might we “rehumanize” the internet by showing love, thoughtfulness, and civility, rather than snarkiness, arrogance, or hatred for those who are different from us?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about the question.


An earlier version of this article first appeared as a blog entry.

One of Authenticity’s Last Great Sanctuaries?


Photo: Sean Talbot

It didn’t surprise me when Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement and host of the Uptown Poetry slam, told me that ministers sometimes “lurk in the shadows” of the Green Mill Lounge, a prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy, during the Sunday night poetry slam. When I first moved to Chicago, I, too, lurked in the flickering light cast by tabletop candles. I entered the Green Mill as hungrily as church and found fragments of meaning that sparked and floated down like ashes from a campfire.

There are few public spaces in which it is safe to be real, and this is a large reason the Uptown Poetry Slam draws crowds.

Perhaps this dearth of safe public spaces is a remnant of Victorian codes of etiquette that chided us not to “introduce politics, religion, or weighty topics for conversation when making calls.”1 While our age bristles at Victorian morals, this etiquette has made it tactless to be curious about others and difficult to broach “weighty topics.” It sanctions our resistance to vulnerability, and so, growing up and growing respectable become processes of boarding up the delicate aspects of one’s identity. Becoming accustomed to city life, too, is a process of letting less and less of one’s private self show on a face that pushes through crowds.

And so it’s rare to find a public space, much less an urban space, offering a sanctuary where people can reveal the selves that so many of us quarantine-brittle with unanswered questions, restless because of broken relationships. Revelation is what poetry slammers do in the Uptown Poetry Slam Sunday after Sunday.

Marc Smith yells, “Hey, turn that jukebox off!” or cues the band to a lull, and launches into an interactive shtick (beginning, more or less, with, “I’m Marc Smith,” met with a resounding, “So what?!!”). After that, performance poets step onto the stage with jazz musicians who will improvise along with the poems if poets want them to.


Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement.
Photo: Sean Talbot

The slammers dive right into pieces about rejected marriage proposals, questioned destinies, lost childhood and contemplated abortions. One poet read about the night he murdered his wife.2

It’s baffling. How can people stand in front of strangers and say things they could hardly stammer to a close friend?

“We all need public validation of who we are,” says Smith. “To speak in front of your fellow human beings is very important.” Performance poet Molly Meacham adds, “If you air a wound, it will heal.” In presenting poems that are personal, wounds are out in the open, and poets can say things the audience may feel but can’t yet put into words. Competing in the national slam, Meacham has experienced this. There is an instant communication, and an instant gratification as the poet sees his or her words grabbing the audience.

Meacham cautions against being too raw, however. “I was lucky enough to have a thick skin,” she says. Poets who don’t have a thick skin, or who gush emotion without crafting it, aren’t likely to survive the demands of frequent performance, where they are susceptible to critique.

“The stage is not therapy!” said slammer Robbie Q. one night after a sentimental performer left the stage one night. You have to purchase credibility, he told me. You have to get the audience to relate to you, with humor, for instance, “or by making fun of Marc.”

Points of Entry
• Finding a poetry slam near you may be as easy as visiting www.poetryslam.com.
• Read more about poetry slams at Wikipedia.

Poetry slams started in 1987 with honesty as a goal. Smith had found chemistry between poetry and acting. He decided poetry readings should no longer be what he calls “bogus affairs” controlled by the literary elite and leaving everyday people scratching their heads.

Early on, Chicago’s literati derided the slammers as “just a bunch of drunks in a tavern,” says Smith, but when he asked the audience their occupations around that time, he discovered a group of physicists sitting smack in the front row. At the time, turning poetry into a performance was taboo, but Smith wanted poetry to have the vibrancy that only acting could give it, and people from all walks of life came to crave it.

In the early days, he felt that slam was akin to folk art, where it’s not precision but honesty that defines art. “Slam is not about making stars,” Smith’s website affirms. “It’s about everybody all together in a room with their hair down and their feet up.”

It reminds me of sculptor Claes Oldenburg‘s credo that he is for an “art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top… an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.” Slam embroils itself with the everyday crap, and it uses whatever means necessary.


Poet Emily Rose at the Green Mill
Photo: Sean Talbot

There is no telling what a night at the slam will be like. It is poetry meets Vaudeville meets Gong Show meets, well . . .

“Is this like the Rocky Horror Picture Show?” one newcomer asks Marc as he makes the rounds to talk with members of the audience.

“Yeah, it’s like that.”

The first portion of the show is open mic. Anyone-amateur or pro-can walk in, meet Marc, and add his or her name to the list of performers. If it’s their first time reading in public, they’re dubbed a “virgin virgin,” which is often the only razzing they get from Marc, who may encourage the neophyte to join the slam competition, the third and final portion of the show, where slammers compete for a whole ten dollars. The middle section features a performer or group of performers-anyone from a local singer/songwriter, to a man who performs It’s A Wonderful Life in ten minutes, to a professional slam poet.

On any night at the slam, the audience can catch at least a few fragments of meaning. Fragments like these:

From the poet Stella, whose name Smith yells like he’s Stanley Kowalksi: “There is a river flowing backwards from death to life.”


Photo: Sean Talbot

From poet Tennessee Mary: “Our best laid plans are there for God’s amusement.”

From Smith, performing George Cabot Lodge: “This is the song of the wave, that died in the fullness of life.”

From poet Derek Brown: “In death, I’ll resemble more a pilot light than a man.”

On a night when every aspect is “on” – which is in itself a strange alchemy, since so little is planned – the present seems more palpable and immediate than usual, crammed full of meaning. Moments brim full of other moments in life. Lines of poems spark with the audience’s unanswered and unanswerable questions, their satisfying and ecstatic moments of life, fears and fumbles, and frenetic quests for meaning. I’ve experienced a few such nights there.

The night, for instance, back in my days of faithful slam attendance, when Smith started off with Carl Sandburg’s “Skyscraper“: “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” When Marc performs, he may walk through the audience, pat them on the back, whisper, shout, sing, bang out a few chords on the grand piano, raise his hands to the ceiling and gesture twinkling stars. The traditional podium of poetry readings must be side-stepped, the audience captivated with drama and interaction.

The night continued with professional slammer Derek Brown, who used phrases structured like a Hebrew psalm: “It was the dawn of weird, the morning of strange.” He told us he couldn’t explain “why I’m feeling God more in a pool hall than in a church.” Then in a crescendoing passage, he listed ordinary occurrences – a clumsy first kiss, a drunken night with friends – and after listing each, he took the tone of a priest offering benediction, saying, “holy” in rising momentum after each ordinary occurrence.

And so, the everyday people, the ministers, poets, actors, ex-cons, newsstand owners, teachers, physicists and hot dog vendors, gather in the candlelight, tapping along to the jazz beat, eyes reflecting the glow of the neon Green Mill sign on the stage, all looking for meaning, and on some nights, finding more than we can hold.


1 Hill, Thomas E., The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1994.

2 He tells us he spent many years in prison, where he met Chicago’s legendary “Killer Poet,” also once a Green Mill regular.

The Lifeblood that Drives
the Dreams of Champions

Like so many love affairs, this one began in a quiet café near the Seine in Paris. Unlike those others, this was not the chance meeting of two wanderlust strangers, eyes dancing over the top of books not being read. Nor the dreamy gaze that follows a handsome patron’s catching a falling waitress, nor even a random conversation uniting two souls’ destinies. It wasn’t like any of those. In fact, it wasn’t with a person at all.

This café was the kind of place where famous authors famously sat to write famous novels before their infamous demise. And at a small table tucked away by windows peering over rustic streets, their glass dripping toward Notre Dame, I was baptized. Not into the church, not into prose, but into the complex, the complicated, the rich and robust world of coffee. A world that, even just an hour earlier, I would have declared I could unapologetically avoid.

How I had hated coffee. The look, the smell, the feel, the taste. I hated everything about it as long as I can remember hating anything about beverages or foodstuffs. Roasted, dried, mocha-fied. In chocolate, in ice cream, in liquor, in anything. Hated it.

For a time I tried to quaff in the culture of coffee drinkers. A fast-paced and productive culture carefully groomed to maintain an intellectual appearance I so wanted to have. Alas, my excursions there left nothing but bitter tastes in my mouth. I preferred the shame and humiliation of that timeless winter classic – hot chocolate – whilst my peers (or so I thought, though I doubt they reciprocated as I chugged my Neapolitan-Lacto-Choco-Blast) savored sophisticated java.

I confess I have a compulsive need to both fit in wherever I find myself, and stand out as an individual thinker. A popular outcast, if you will. A free, group-thinker. To be in the crowd, but not of the crowd. I’ve always hated that feeling of being outside the circle; of looking through glass at happy diners and their culinary delicacies while trapped on the green searching for an entrance and running from self doubt’s demon-dog.

(As you scrape your memory for the preceding 80s blockbuster movie reference, I’ll add that it was that very compulsion that helped me turn the corner.)

Just after touchdown on my first trip to Paris, I found myself jaw-dropped, nose and cheek pressed against the glass, gawking at fashionable, thin smokers sitting and sipping . . . coffee. Though I bore a cocoa brown HC on my palate for years, self-conciousness was not about to commit the international traveler’s cardinal sin of being from America and looking like it. You know the people of whom I speak: the guy wearing the ridiculously huge, clearly inflatable and blinding red Kansas City Chiefs jacket in the Louvre, or that family with the matching sneakers, squeaking their nikadidasumas all over the floor where Napoleon was wedded to Josephine.

How a culture consumes its coffee says perhaps more than anything else about what it means to be a part of that culture. And I was more than desperate to fit into it. So as my wife and I entered the café, I fully intended on ordering (mega gulp) coffee.

One hurdle remained: I didn’t know anything meaningful about coffee and now I was about to order some in a global capitol of coffee drinking. My infantile language skills, barely good enough to make out a few words on le menu, didn’t help slow the adrenaline coursing through my body, heightening my awareness that I had no idea what the hell I was doing there, and urging me to leap out of the chair, spring for the door and slam a coke somewhere (which is noticeably more refreshing in Europe thanks to the absence of high fructose corn syrup – a topic for another occasion). Being French, the server arrived at our table an excruciating fifteen minutes after we sat our jet-lagged derrières. Watching his lips allow the escape of sounds, which brought none of a year of college French to mind, I assumed I ought to order. I spoke two words with a frogginess that at least might have given him the impression that I, too, was a chain smoker. Two lip-licking, luscious words that would be the beginning of my romance with coffee.

Just two tiny French words. Café Crème.

Mmm, how they roll off the tongue, like Proust. Café Crème. I often dream of that moment and literally taste again for the first time what it means to be French. A culture exclusively renowned for culture; a culture that savors every slow sip of its café. The French don’t order café to go and then consume this beverage while prancing, meandering, striding or pounding the pavement on their way to anywhere. On the contrary they will order a coffee, and sit, and drink. They just drink, simply for the pleasure of the experience. No thought of productivity, no obsessions about meetings or agenda items. Only coffee and croissant and desgustation. If no where else in the world, in France, doing “nothing” is doing something.

Ironically, the trip left me quite cynical (since after one week I was now an expert on all things café) about coffee culture in the U.S., believing that we were beyond repentance. Taking the time to stop and enjoy such a multi-sensory experience like a cup of coffee is a thing long lost in America. Thus we have awful coffee. In our big-box, mega-conglomerate, profit-minded, market-driven food culture, we’ve devalued experiences of the wonderful and new because we are conditioned to favor the familiar. Two full generations have come and gone immersed in this paradigm and we’ve lost the tools and palate for sensory adventure or even simple appreciation.

But it’s not too late to once again smell new aromas and taste flavors that truly demand attention and reflection. My grandfather – a man of the last generation not reared on rampant consumerism and homogenization of taste – with a single cup o’ joe, gave me hope.

Before I left for to visit my grandparents in Florida, I dreaded what coffee I might imbibe. Would it be the diner sludge so many daily tolerate not realizing the universe of unfathomable flavor just outside their cup? Would it be the thrice-reused grounds and swill that is New York City street vendor coffee? Starbucks? Those are almost all the choices these days. Though many good local coffee shops brew in college towns and quaint, old downtowns, they are not the standard bearers of coffee culture this side of the Atlantic.

The first morning, Grandpa rose with the sun and had completed eight sudoku before eyes had rolled from the back of my head. Dragging myself to kitchen to endure whatever was about to pass for coffee, I found Grandpa in the kitchen with a burlap sack of raw green Guatemalan coffee beans, carefully shoveling scoops into a jet black coffee roaster, equipped with a small catalytic converter to quell the smoke that would otherwise coat the kitchen when roasting coffee beans at home. One has many expectations before a trip to Florida, both good and bad, but homemade, fresh-roasted coffee was not one. Yet there I was with a rich and bold mug of black coffee, cradled in hand on a dewy Ocala winter’s morn that I could not have had anywhere else in the world.

That is beauty. I can’t say it rivaled the seduction of a café crème. But I can say it was a delicious and unique adventure, a special opportunity to broaden my experiences – to have hot water that’s dripped over ground, burnt beans change my worldview.

It reminded me there exists an ocean of new experiences waiting for us to reject the notion that what we already know and like is what is unquestionably best – waiting for us to indeed question, to ask ourselves if we’re merely habitual creatures unwittingly shaped by consumerism. Have I settled for rotten and ubiquitous fallen fruit when the door to the garden of delights is wide open beckoning me to come in, look up and taste the world that ought to be? A world that will be.

It’s sad that what drove me out of my shallow preferences was an improbable mixture of vanity and self-consciousness. What is brilliant is that it was my grandfather – a man categorized with those stereotyped as unmovable and stuck in their ways – who embraced an epicurean adventure that taught me, so can we all. So say we all.

She Spoke to Silence


Photo: Houston Chronicle

For a little over a year, I’ve struggled with a variety of health issues. The particulars are boring (and odd), but I will say that most people bounce back from such ailments in 1-2 months. Obviously, I am not one of those people. I’m healing all right, but at a maddening snail’s pace. I strive for a martyr-like demeanor, yet I won’t acquire sainthood anytime soon. I’m not a good sufferer. I’ve grasped for comfort all the year long day, primarily by way of reading. Somewhere along my book trail, I discovered the poet Vassar Miller, a fellow Houstonian, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth (1924). I was humbled by this lady who suffered with more severity, and more grace than I have. I was inspired by poem after poem, like spoonfuls of medicine when my words seemed to fall short.

I remain enchanted, wishing we had met in person. Vassar Miller was a poet of great courage and skill, a crusader for the disabled, a self-taught theologian, and a teacher of creative writing at The University of St. Thomas, near her museum-district home. She had a raucous, bold laugh, even if she fell from the motorized cart which whisked her to class and back home again. She would proclaim, “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.” Bach oratorios, chocolate ice cream, her dogs, friends, and Sundays were among her favorite things. If asked her life-mantra, she’d say, “To write. And to serve God.” Frances Sage described her as “a rather shy, friendly woman with intelligent eyes, warm, and interested in conversation.”

Though her speech halted and skipped, her brain was sharp and she did not avoid poetry readings. With her typical, healthy sense of humor she described this in “Introduction to a Poetry Reading”:

I was born with my mod dress sewn onto my body,
stitched to my flesh,
basted to my bones.
I could never, somehow, take it all off
to wash the radical dirt out.
I even carry my own rock
hard in my mouth,
grinding it out bit by bit,
So, bear me
as I bear you.
high, in the grace of greeting
.

She was who she was largely due to her parents. Her bookish Dad lugged home his typewriter from work for Vassar to play with, and criticized her early, trite poetry. Her stepmom encouraged her to read and write; both parents took on her education at home until she entered junior high. After receiving B.S. and M.A. degrees from UH, Miller accomplished more than most able-bodied people. She published nine volumes of poetry, edited a literary anthology (Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems), was included in numerous periodicals, selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1961), named the poet laureate of Texas (1988; alternate in 1982), and inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1996).

She was admired by such peers as Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Miller Williams, and most famously, Larry McMurtry. He hadn’t the greatest opinion of Texas writers (in 1981), but he singled out Vassar Miller as an exception, “That she is to this day little known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture.” Even so, at age 74, she died virtually unknown (though there is a Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry). There might be a few clues to this mystery.

She had decided to live in Houston, outside the mainstream of poetry in New York. A woman of unflinching faith, she dipped her lame feet in two churches: St. Stephen’s Episcopal in the morning for the rituals of liturgy; Covenant Baptist in the afternoon for the music and diversified congregation. She often wrote in traditional forms, bucking against the popular poetry of her day – the Beats and Confessional poets – though her words were of common, American language. She unabashedly used themes that disturbed many – suffering, isolation, the silence of God, the naked self, the ineffable, and self-acceptance of her life’s constraints.

Regardless, Miller’s timeless, poetic voice upholds her reputation to this day. The core of her vision was that complex, unsentimental faith, with nods to the mystics, John Donne’s anguish, and George Herbert’s fervor. At times there’s a similarity to Flannery O’Connor as well. Both women were straight-shooters, right from the hip. They never apologized for their beliefs and often confounded their faithful brethren. Their respective afflictions were not the impetus to write, though I think it toughened them into sages. Whatever was in their mind’s eye is what you get. And as Levertov said, Miller did not care if her peers were listening. She rarely read her contemporaries. She believed that poets write to their deepest selves. Miller has also been deemed the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century, for her sources were personal and domestic, scenes of her solitude and feelings. Whether she recalls another writer to mind or not, she was in fact a living paradox: a successful, modern religious poet. “Without Ceremony” is just one poem of many that sums up her identity:

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;
Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.
We do not have to name them; we are here.
And You who can make eyes can see no less.
We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,
A posture humbler far and more downcast;
While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war
On silence (farther, mystics never flew)
But on the common wings of what we are,
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves
.

In my reading of Vassar Miller, a few critics felt she was a Texas poet, though not a poet of Texas; they could not find the geography in her work. As I’ve lived in Houston most of my 33 years, I must respectfully disagree. I’ve listened to the droning sing-songs of cicadas all summer, thinking of this elegant lady. Cicadas, hurricanes, endless summers of heavy heat, and drab, snowless Januaries appear in her poems quite often:

Unwinding the spool of the morning, / the cicada spins his green song,
(“Invocation” from Onions and Roses)

Hurricane, hurricane, / blow me away,
(“Invocation” from If I Had Wheels or Love)

. . . the cicadas’ antiphonal choirs / one memory’s and one desire’s . . .
caught in the yellow honey of the heat
.
(“High Noon”)

Even if a sense of place is not a prominent theme in Miller’s work, these glimpses of the Gulf Coast make me swell with Texan pride, proof-positive that her genius resided in my city. I’ve just about raised Vassar Miller to heroine status, among a select few: Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Billie, a local nursing home resident, my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Each of these women looked head on in the face of suffering and survived. They not only survived, but extended their hands to anyone within reach. Intentionally or not, they impress on my frail heart how to persevere, smile, and even laugh when darkness settles in; they teach how to look beyond pain to service. My paternal grandmother did all of this and then some. When I was too young to philosophize, she taught me an invaluable lesson. As Parkinson’s Disease ravaged her nervous system, I witnessed that the disabled are not defined by handicap. As a child I didn’t know the term “Parkinson’s.” I knew “Memaw.” My grandmother and her soft, radiant smile whenever I walked in the room. In adulthood, this is how I vividly remember her.

Through her quiet, humble, successful life, Vassar Miller teaches us to see the physically handicapped in just this way. Not a twisted body, but a human being. To not gawk, stare, or point. Look into the eyes of every person – medical jargon is not their name. Do not fear or pity a bent spine, a shiver of tremors; be patient with a stuttering tongue. Love our neighbors with an artist’s eye, with imagination, for there is surely more than meets a healthy eye. Have courage; you might be surprised to find beauty within illness, perhaps more than you can bear. A broken body it may be, but a glimpse of restoration shimmers below; a reminder that the Fall is not forever.

In the introduction to Despite This Flesh, Miller speaks directly to the handicapped: your greatest crutch is to be ashamed in light of society’s erroneous opinion. Remember the Body from which you come. Whether they’ve learned so or not, our culture desperately needs each foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, body. One arm may be lame, but in another time, it will be whole. And to writers: you have a special eye – you see what some cannot. Poets: your eye is especially free from prejudice, or so it should be. Hold your mirror to what is truthful. The race does not always belong to the swift.

Obviously, Vassar Miller’s poetic sensibilities and her faith cannot be ignored. She stated them as her connecting vision of life, “Liturgy has always seemed to me the poetry of worship, humanity’s poor best for the infinite. Formal language and syntax have always been my personal struggle for order in what has often seemed my disorderly world.” In a very real sense, religion and poetry were, to some degree, her stay against shadows and madness, part of her trinitarian view of poetry: it is sanctifying, creative, and redemptive. Sanctifying in that poetry bestows order on erratic emotions and events. Creative in that it gives shape, makes a relic, where only a mass of thoughts and sensations were before. Redemptive in that a poem makes art from cast-off words, giving them value.

Vassar Miller was well-versed in theology, and she probably knew quite a lot about St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wherein he stated, “we are His workmanship.” Miller’s life being immersed in words, I bet she knew that in the Greek, workmanship is “poiema.” Human beings are God’s poems. If I may further speculate, I’d say that’s why she championed the handicapped. Despite cerebral palsy, she knew that in her Maker’s eye, she was crafted well. Her body was out of order, but her soul held rhyme and reason.

Some of my best teachers are writers. And to my (selfish) benefit, they leave behind lessons I can turn to again and again. Vassar Miller teaches me to not cater to whim or sensation; write and live what is true and timeless to humanity; have tenacity in the face of suffering. Keep speaking toward the silence of God. And believe it or not, for all the beauty and groaning of sunshine, autumn leaves, sparrows, gardenias, or sheltering clouds, it is you and I – our bodies broken to some degree, our tongue a dangerous thing – who have memory, sin, suffering, and something to look forward to, even now:

The sun has no history.
Only I, bearing
my Adam and Eve on my back,
dragged under, dragged down, may leap
up to the saddle of hope
.
(from “The Sun Has No History”)


For Further Reading:

If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller

Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (Steven Ford Brown, ed.)

Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems (Vassar Miller, ed.)

A Genius Obscured” (published in Sojourners)

Three Sanctuaries

Give or take a few years, when I was too young to recall my surroundings in North Texas or when I lived in Austin during college, Houston is all I’ve ever known. I call it home. I’ve grown accustomed to frenetic city life which seems to buzz 24-7, the concrete arteries of interstate, all too often clogged with cars wasting precious, overpriced gasoline, and the heat, dear God, the heat. The humidity is not for the faint of heart, because you will drip with sweat (or as a Southern lady might prefer, “glisten”). Something inside me bonds with the fast pace and bountiful resources at my fingertips, though in a quest for sanity, I seek out havens of quiet. One such place is the Menil campus, tucked into a neighborhood of bungalows and shady oak trees.

My regular pilgrimage is devoted to the main hub, The Menil Collection, and two satellite structures – the Rothko Chapel and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum. I’m drawn there not just to escape the chaos of urban life, but also the racket of my soul. Stepping foot into any of the three buildings hushes my spirit and cleanses my psyche. As a Christian, I am drawn to the two chapels within walking distance of each other, as well as the Byzantine icons housed in the elegant Menil Collection: religious art particularly dear to Dominique de Menil.

John and Dominique de Menil and their five children have been compared to the Medicis of Italy. One could say that what the Medicis did for the Renaissance, the de Menils did for modernism in Texas, though if you could travel through time and share this comparison with the couple at their wedding in 1931, they might have scoffed at the grandiose idea. John worked in a Paris bank with a normal income, and seven years later he joined Dominique’s family oil well-logging business, Schlumberger, Ltd.. John and Dominique fled France as the Nazis invaded, and they landed in Houston, TX. The city was never to be the same. They built a modernist, flat-roofed house amidst white columned-mansions in River Oaks, championed civil rights in a city still imprisoned by segregation, and of course, collected modern art considered to be peculiar, to say the least.

The de Menils were Catholic, yet ecumenical, and they found a mentor in Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a French Dominican priest who was an artist himself. He was instrumental in uniting the work of Matisse, Rouault, and Leger with churches in France. Father Couturier took the couple around to numerous art galleries in New York, teaching them his love for modern art. He not only infected them with his passion, but also opened their eyes to the beauty of Cubism, to the work of Mondrian, and other types of art that previously seemed foreign to their eyes. And as John de Menil said in a lecture at the University of St. Thomas in 1964, “We were very fortunate because those times were extraordinary times for collecting. First the great masters, the Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Gris, were still available at reasonable prices. The Surrealists cost practically nothing. And on top of that African art was coming on the market.”

All of this good fortune resulted in one of the most impressive private collections in existence. John and Dominique always planned to share their finds in a museum, and after John’s death, his wife birthed their dream by christening the Menil in 1987. Though John might have preferred great architecture, Dominique aimed for a functional space, one that appears larger and more luminous than its unassuming, simplistic exterior. I must say, her idea works. Whenever I walk towards the austere building, I’m struck anew by the genius of its placement in a cozy neighborhood where people live, the true life of a city. The idea of sanctuary comes alive between the quiet streets. I’m soothed under the shade of old, twisting oak trees. I take refuge from the sweltering Texas sun by snagging a bench under the high, undulating awnings outside, or by opening a tall glass door to the Menil itself, flowing with cool air and natural light filtered by means of louvers, skylights, and massive windows.

Inside, the de Menils’ eclectic collection hangs at eye level, spaced at comfortable distances on wide white walls. Very little text is near each piece, allowing the art to speak. As modernists, John and Dominique believed in a spiritual connection between art of all cultures and times, and they believed in erasing those borders. As I walk from room to room, I see this very clearly in the diversity: Greek and Roman cultures, medieval and Byzantine work, indigenous art of Africa and Oceania, modern and contemporary art (including Ernst, Magritte, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Warhol), and current rotating exhibits. To my eye at least, I begin to see a common thread in the eclecticism – both the creators’ and collectors’ search to see beyond what we can see, past ourselves, into the beautiful, in order to discover what is truthful, what is good, what is everlasting; when before our eyes, what is tangible seemingly crumbles.

The Menil Collection was not the first project to bear the de Menils’ influence. Inspired by the fusing of modern art and spirituality in Mattise’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, they commissioned a chapel adorned with somber paintings by Mark Rothko and architecture by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The Rothko Chapel opened to the public in 1971 when John was still alive, literally “open to all” in its nondenominationality, honoring the de Menils’ egalitarian beliefs and their desire to provide a sacred space for the city of Houston.

I’ve walked the sidewalk from the Menil to the Rothko Chapel many a time, always feeling like I’m taking a trek into mystery. I arrive at a modest brick building facing a pool of water in which Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk sculpture presides. The steel structure was placed there in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to symbolize the de Menils’ passion for civil rights; the love of God and neighbor cannot be separated from justice. The obelisk’s stare prepares me for the stillness inside the Rothko Chapel. Fourteen large canvases, including three triptychs, loom around the octagonal room. The paintings emanate hues of black, brown, deep maroon, and plum, framed only by the gray walls and lit only by a single aperture of natural light above. Crude benches face each other in the framework of a square. Though I feel the rhythm of the geometrical beauty, my impression is also one of emptiness; a space waiting to be filled. This void serves its ecumenical purpose, allowing each person to bring in what he or she may. It isn’t my personal belief of worship, yet I do think the Rothko Chapel is a rightful sanctuary from the cacophony of life. We are saturated with moving pictures, flashing lights, and noisome information on nearly every communication medium we see or hear. That is why a chapel of stillness with meditative modern art beckons me to step inside a place where I can slow down, sit, drink in beauty, and hear my own thoughts. At the opening of the Rothko Chapel, Dominique de Menil made an interesting observation as well, likening the art’s hushed tones to the voice of God as heard by Elijah – not in the heavy wind, not in the fire, but in a small whisper.

The final destination of my pilgrimage to a trinity of sanctuaries is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum which opened in 1997. Dominique happened upon two 13th-century frescoes stolen from a votive chapel in Cyprus, and cut into 38 pieces. She salvifically rescued the shards, paid for their restoration, and asked her architect-son, Francois de Menil, to design a building “to restore the sacred fragments to their original spiritual function.” He was a novice architect at the time, but he created one of the most dazzling sites I’ve ever seen.

Like the Menil campus in its entirety, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel’s exterior is restrained – simple blocks of concrete. As the door closes behind me, my eyes adjust to the dim light, quite a contrast from bold Texan sunshine. I walk across the narrow vestibule tower, gently illuminated by the light monitor above. Within a few more steps, I see the glass and steel chapel structure housed first under concrete, then a hovering black metal liner, more specifically named an “infinity box” by Dominique. The freestanding chapel appears to be billowing white glass, an abstract re-creation of the original Byzantine chapel in size and scale, only pulled apart – like a paused explosion. This visual effect symbolizes how the frescoes were ripped from their original home. The box within a box structure, and the rescued sacred art evokes a reliquary – profound, since the two frescoes were originally part of an entire living liturgy on the walls and floor of the Cyprus chapel.

Underneath the opaque glass, a large Christ Pantokrator fresco hangs directly above in the dome, and a Virgin and Archangels fresco rests in the apse, exactly where they resided in the Cyprus chapel. These icons are the only source of color in the building, but they provide ample warmth with rich tones of royal blue, mustard, and brick red. A small golden cross sits on the altar. Where the Rothko Chapel seems empty, the Byzantine Chapel is filled with images. Even the benches present a different idea – most face the altar, the others placed near the front on each side, creating a cruciform shape. The last time I visited, I sat on a forward-facing bench and thought I could remain there all day. I realized that the frescoes do for visitors what they did for Byzantine parishioners – teach what is alive in the cosmos beyond mere visibility. An older man walked in, knelt at the altar, and crossed himself: a very moving sight. I imagine Houstonians and world travelers alike are grateful for this welcoming, devotional place.

Friends arrive in Houston and ask me, “What should I do while here?” I’m pretty infamous for directing them to the Menil neighborhood, to these three shelters of art and spirit. Houstonians are proud to claim these renowned buildings, but we are also eager to share. We’re inspired by the generous souls of John and Dominique de Menil and lessons they left behind for anyone who will listen. Even now, they teach us to be enchanted by the sanctity of art, to embrace a variety of work – catholic, if you will – to share with one another, welcome the stranger, beautify our surroundings, behold what is lovely, and seek for the truth. The word “sanctuary” means different things to different folks. To the Greeks, sanctuary was a plot of land deemed a sacred zone. For Christians, sanctuary is the space of a church focused near the altar. Broadly, sanctuary is refuge from the wind-whipping deserts of our lives, shelter from whatever storm may shake us. A place to retreat and give us strength to get back out there. Every city could benefit from two such saints as the de Menils and the sanctuaries that bear their vision.

For further reading, check out Sanctuary: The Spirit In/Of Architecture, edited by Kim Shkapich and Susan de Menil and published by the Byzantine Fresco Foundation.