Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Guitar Notes

I realize I may be absolutely the last person on the planet to have heard of this Erik Mongrain dude, but I like.

Check out another video of his here.

And just to set the mood, an excerpt from the new novel by one of the most lyrical writers of our time:

What night gave Rafael was a formlessness in which everything had a purpose. As if darkness had a hidden musical language. There were nights when did not bother to even light the oil lamp that hung in the doorway of his trailer. He reached for the guitar and stepped down the three laddered steps into the field, carrying a chair in his other hand. 'I don't work, I appear' - he remembered the line of Django Reinhardt's and imagined the great man slipping out from the shadows grandly and disappearing efficiently into his craft. The alternative was to arrive, as most musicians did, like an eighteenth century king entering a city, preceded by great fires on the hills that signalled he had crossed the border, and then by the ringing of bells. But Rafael was not even appearing. Dissolving perhaps, aware of night bugs, the river on the edge of his hearing. His open palm brushed a chord that was response, just response. He had not yet stepped forward. This was the late summer of his life, the year he met Anna, and he had no idea whether he would ever be able to return to the corralling work that art was, to have whatever he needed to make even a simple song. Dissolving into darkness was enough, for now. Or playing from memory an old song by a master, something which his mother had loved or his father had whistled, when he accompanied his father on a walk, for there was one specific song his father always muttered or whistled. In the past Rafael had travelled from village to village, argued a salary, invented melodies, stolen chords, slashed the legs off an old song just to use the torso - but he had come to love now most of all the playing of music with no one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?

- Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero

They're dropping like flies now

This is turning out to be one hell of a week for cinema. Bergman yesterday, then Antonioni today.

Somebody please get Jean-Luc Godard to a hospital. Just in case.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

May his name be whispered forever in cathedrals of light

More on Bergman coming up - I need to get my thoughts in order. What a terrible, terrible way to start the week.

Oh, and my apologies for the idiotic Smashing Pumpkins song playing in the background of this glorious scene - it's the only clip of the scene I could find online, and I think it's a scene that sums up so much of Bergman's work: "It wasn't too awful since it was so beautiful".

Saturday, July 28, 2007


"I have to go", you say,
and a trickle of sand

falls from the ceiling,
a soft snake slithering

its way across the floor.
By the time you leave

your footsteps are muffled
and make no sound -

a silence of heartbeats
and dust winnowed light.

Your feet sink a little
as you walk toward the door.

Afterwards, I lock the windows,
gather fistfuls of touch

to let slip through my hands.
Sheets of sand silt over

the shape of our love-making
and the dust rises

seeking breath like a mirage.
Soon the room shall be filled,

buried, the desert
of your going contained

within four walls;
only my eyes shall remain,

awake but unseeing,
like shells left over

from a long-ago sea.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Over the last few days, I've been down with a severe bout of Paraphernalegia [1]. Paraphernalegia, for those of you who don't regularly read the BMJ, is the scientific name for the feeling of total paralysis you get when you have to shift to a new house and realize just how much junk you've managed to accumulate.

It's an affliction that hits me particularly hard, because I've always fancied myself something of a closet Thoreau. "Who needs possessions? They just end up possessing you!", I say in my sternest, most puritan voice every time I come across something that I like but can't afford (which, given my stipend, is anything that costs over a nickel). On my more suffocated days I'll picture myself packing everything I own into a large backpack and heading out to the horizon.

So it's a particularly nasty shock to discover that despite my disdain for material property I now own enough 'stuff' to fill a roomful of cartons and require five round trips by two strong men (well, one strong man and one anemic weakling - me) to move. Anytime I decide to ride away into the sunset, it's going to have to be in a jumbo-sized U-haul truck.

The main culprit, of course, is my book collection. It's insane how those occasional Amazon orders, those one or two extra books you buy so you can get the total over $ 25 and get free shipping, add up to something that looks like the contents of the fabled library at Alexandria. Add to that the two suitcases full of CDs [2], and you've already covered about 60% of all the stuff I own.

What's amazing though, is the junk that makes up the other 40%. I have, it turns out, eight empty storage containers just waiting for the day when I'll have 'something' to put in them; I have six towels which, given that there's exactly one of me, means I have five too many, unless I join the swim team, become a male stripper with a routine heavy on bath linen (the dance of the six towels, or something like that) or magically turn into Lisa Ray; I have, or had, a carton of sugar that hadn't been opened since 2004 since I never take sugar in anything; I have an iron that I haven't used in two years; I have a cheese-grater; I have three different kinds of laundry bleach, four varieties of shrink wrap and coffee filters in every available size; I even have (god alone knows why) a fillet knife! How did this happen?

My personal theory is that all this accumulation of odds and ends is the way empires and wars get started. Imagine you're an old Roman family and decide to shift to a new villa. Maybe the aqueduct in the old villa leaks, maybe after 150 years of noble generations living there, the sewage tank is overflowing. In any case, you go down to the basement to plan the move, and realize you've got way too much stuff down there and are going to need more slaves than you can afford. Now the smart thing to do at this point would be to throw away all your used amphoras, your decorative shields, your marble busts with one arm missing, and just make a fresh start. But, of course, you never do this [3]. Instead, you figure you'll just invade a neighboring city and conscript the entire male population into helping you shift. At this point you're not thinking Summer campaign or anything - at this point you're thinking a quick day trip to the nearest non-Roman province and the sacking of a small township or two.

The catch in the plan, of course, is that the campaigns don't just get you slaves, they also get you loot, i.e. more junk to carry around with you when you move. In fact, since it seems a shame to have the newly acquired slaves march back to your place without loading them down with as much plunder as they can carry, you get extra junk exactly proportional to the number of extra slaves you get - more if some of the slaves die on the way and you don't want to leave your spoils behind. Of course, this means that you now need more slaves to carry the extra stuff you've acquired. What you've got yourself here (as the wizened old mechanic said to Rasmussen) is a vicious cycle. Before you know it you've moved from enslaving a few people to enslaving a few Peoples. You've subdued Carthage and Libya and brought the Goths and the Gauls under your control, but you still haven't got enough slaves to move that settee in the living room. Then you meet Cleopatra, realize that the chair she sits in like a burnished throne would be just the thing for your parlor, and before you can say 'veni vidi subscribi' (I came, I saw, I signed the lease) it's Edward Gibbon time and you've turned into a decadent and tyrannical race and people are making inane faux-epics about you starring (of all pieces of exquisite furniture) Aishwarya Rai.

So the next time you're moving and have to decide whether to throw away your precious collection of old magazines or take it with you, remember you could be setting off the next imperialist wave if you make the wrong choice. That should put those nice pictures in the National Geographic that (let's face it) you haven't looked at in the last 10 years in perspective.


[1] Which explains why I've been absent from the blogosphere for the last 48 hours. Not that any of you will have noticed. Hrrrmph!

[2] It says a lot about my priorities that my CDs travel in a suitcase, carefully padded with styrofoam (this despite the fact that the bulk of them are in CD albums anyway) while my clothes get shoved into a couple of large trash bags.

[3] To be fair, the whole idea behind all those orgies the Romans had was to help them get rid of some of their junk. Tiberius' whole plan was that if you threw enough parties, sooner or later all the stuff in your house would get broken or stolen, and then you'd be able to move in peace. It was a good plan while it lasted, but then Claudius got sentimental and decreed that even broken things would be kept and Caligula introduced the custom of guests bringing presents, so that in the end the whole orgy thing ended up making the accumulation worse.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Match Girl

"the quick sharp scratch / and blue spurt of a lighted match"

- Robert Browning

Ever since she was a child she's been fascinated by matches. She loves to light them, loves to hold them in her hand and watch them burn. On evenings when she's lonely she runs through a whole box of them, sitting on the floor of her kitchen, the burnt matchsticks scattered about her like a cuneiform of loss.

What she loves about matches is the spontaneity of their inspiration, their constant readiness to surprise. Loves the visceral scratch of the matchstick striking the strip, the sputtering indignation of the flame as it defies the darkness, the spurt of it neither cry nor song, but a small, precise voice reading a line of exquisite poetry.

When she was little she used to imagine that the matches were people, a race of very small fires trapped by an evil witch inside these little wooden sticks. That the crackle she heard as the match burst into flames was the sound of it rejoicing at its release. She no longer believes this, of course, but there is still something about striking a match and having it come alive in her hand that makes her feel free.

Sometimes when she strikes a match it is because she has something to light - a candle, perhaps, or a cigarette. But mostly there's nothing, or even if there is the perfection of that tiny flame makes her hesitate, makes her pause for fear of blurring its clarity by moving it against the wind. She holds it steady for just an instant, gazing into it in wonder, and then it is too late.

Mostly though she just holds the match up before her eyes, watching the trembling jewel of it dance on the tip of the stick, seeing the burnt wood rise like a shocked eyebrow, or curl into itself like a wounded snake. And when the fire gets too close to her fingers, when it becomes impossible to hold on to it any longer, she lets it fall to the ground, the flame billowing behind it like a shirt or a crumpled wing, the fire reaching the earth broken, dying, the bloodshot eye of it going out in a slow wink.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Mighty Fallen

Goya's Ghosts

[spoiler alert]

What in God's name has happened to Milos Forman? His latest film, Goya's Ghosts, looks like the work of someone who's been locked up in a dark dungeon for so long that he's no longer capable of coherent thought and wanders through the streets of his period drama set muttering to himself. Forget the Spanish Inquisition - the real torture here is having to sit through the appalling two hours of this film. If John Madden had made this film, it would be a disappointment; coming from Forman (and with Jean-Claude Carriere and Javier Bardem throwing in their talents) it feels like a betrayal.

The movie opens with a shot of the monks of the Spanish Inquisition passing around a booklet of Goya's etchings [1]. Ah ha! you think - you see it all now. Great artist tortured for his work by fanatical zealots, history having the last laugh, that sort of thing. But no, five minutes into the film the monks have decided Goya is too well-connected to go after. Exit Goya (oh, he'll keep turning up every now and then, like a bad Real, but at this point most of the film's focus on his work is already over). Enter instead Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman) whom the Inquisitors decide to pick on instead, presumably on the theory that if you are going to hang someone naked from the ceiling it may as well be someone people will pay money to see in the buff. The charge against Ines, it turns out, is not that her accent keeps wandering all over the place (thus proving her the spawn of the devil) but that she won't eat her greens...errr...pork, thus proving that she secretly practices Jewish rites. Poor, sweet, innocent Ines is gruesomely tortured until she confesses to her heresy (shouting "Tell me what the truth is" when asked to confess it) and locked away, still naked, in a dungeon.

The politics of this is so ham-handedly obvious that the message would be self-evident to a five year old child (not that this is an appropriate film for five year olds to watch) but just in case you were too busy snarfing your popcorn to get it, Forman then proceeds, in a (literally) tortuous twenty minute scene showing the Inquisitor Brother Lorenzo's (Javier Bardem) visit to Ines' family, to spell it out for you. Here the whole 'confession under torture being meaningless' theme is discussed in a stilted dinner conversation, after which Ines' family, in a show of true Spanish hospitality, proceed to torture their dinner guest until he confesses to being a monkey.

In an article in the New Yorker about the film, Forman claims that audiences in Spain who watched the film burst out in applause over this scene. Personally, I found it horrifyingly bad. It's not just that it makes no sense from the perspective of the plot (your daughter's being held by the Spanish Inquisition - what do you do? - you invite the Grand Inquisitor over for a meal, torture him till he confesses to being an ape and - this is the worst bit - get away with it; why didn't they put him in the comfy chair while they were at it?), or that it comes off as being totally artificial (and to think this is the man who once made Fireman's Ball) it's also that it undermines, for me, the political message. Being opposed to torture means condemning it in all circumstances, not fighting it with tortures of your own.

At any rate, Brother Lorenzo is soon disgraced and disappears, leaving behind a portrait of him by Goya that will be burnt in the public square and a pregnant Ines, whom Lorenzo has forced himself on in the name of 'praying with her', but whom he now deserts in prison, proving yet again that workplace romances don't last.

And if you thought Part One was bad, Part Two is infinitely worse. The scene opens fifteen years later. Goya is now completely deaf (a condition signaled in part one by the onset of a sudden ringing, which left him clutching his ears like someone with a bluetooth and a particularly annoying ring tone) which means he (mercifully) can't hear himself ramble through a long monologue about the devastation wrought on Spain by the French, which he, Goya, is chronicling with his work [2]. The coming of the French means that all prisoners of the Spanish Inquisition are released, including Ines, who emerges looking suitably hag-like, her fifteen years in prison having reduced her to a lifetime of borderline sanity, uncombed hair and bad make-up. She makes her wandering way home, only to find that her family, having waited for her for fifteen years, have been conveniently killed just a few hours before, their corpses laid out artistically on the steps for her to find. A special prosecutor from Emperor Napoleon arrives to look into the excesses of the Inquisition, and who should it turn out to be but good old Brother Lorenzo, now a happily married Voltaire-worshipper. Ines has lost her daughter, but Goya helpfully spots her in the park - a task made easy by the fact that this daughter, named Alicia, is also played by Ms. Portman, in the kind of double role one had hoped had died out with Hema Malini films. Coincidence piles on coincidence, a lot of people make a lot of fiery but didactic speeches, political fortunes rise and fall making a point about the fleetingness of power with schoolboy earnestness, but the whole thing adds up to little more than a piece of dramatic fluff.

The worst thing about the film is the way its invocation of Goya turns out to be a complete red herring. Oh, he's around all right, and ties the plot together, but he's less the tortured painter we know and love, and more a benign godfatherly figure who wanders around trying to help people. He could be Goya the Good Doctor, or Francisco the Gentle Merchant, or Cutts the Polite Butcher for all the movie tells us. There are certainly a few scenes early on that show the master at work (including one particularly lovely sequence detailing the process by which an etching is made) and time and time again an image in the film will echo a Goya painting, but the overall effect is soulless and empty, and the way Goya is reduced to playing a weak supporting role is deeply annoying. Imagine a version of Amadeus where the real story was the descent of Salieri's love child into prostitution, and Mozart just popped up now and then as that guy working at his desk until the girl knocked on his door.

The closest this movie gets to actually investigating Goya's art is a scene where he presents a portrait of the Queen of Spain that shows her as the aging, somewhat plain woman she truly is. The Queen, not evidently a great admirer of realism, is miffed by this, and Goya finds himself tete-a-tete with the King (played in a terrible false note by Randy Quaid) and is on the verge of a discussion about his art when a messenger breaks in to announce that the French Revolution has taken place and Louis XVI has been executed (yes, the film really is that phony). And that's it. We get a couple of other throwaway speeches about the meaning of Art, a frenzied claim by Goya that Ines is his muse (a fact we're shown almost no evidence of) and one depressingly fake shot of Bonaparte's brother picking out paintings from the National Gallery (he likes Velazquez but doesn't care for Bosch) to send to France, but the film never really manages to engage with Goya's art in any meaningful way.

Overall, Goya's Ghosts is an infuriatingly bad movie, one that you absolutely should not watch, not even out of a sense of misplaced loyalty to Forman (as I did). The kindest thing we can do for Forman now may be to forget that he ever made this film.

[1] I'm not an art historian, and I saw little more than glimpses of the etchings they were passing around, but I'm not sure about the historical accuracy of this. According to the movie, these etchings were in wide circulation in 1788, whereas Capprichos, the collection I thought those etchings were taken from didn't come out till 1799. Anyone know if Goya actually had a book of etchings out in 1788?

[2] Forman's idea throughout the film seems to be that rather than bothering to show something happening (and letting the audience interpret it) you should just add on an artificial speech where one of the characters self-consciously spells out your message, rather like a narrator in a primary school play.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tut! Tut!

It's been a busy weekend so far.

Finally got around to visiting the King Tut exhibit on display at the Franklin Institute here in Philly (my thanks to DoZ for making this happen). It's a pleasant enough exhibit, though a bit less grand than I'd imagined it would be [1].

The exhibition brings together a collection of artifacts from the tombs of Tutankhamun and his immediate predecessors / purported ancestors [2]. A bewildering array of objects is on display here - statues of hewn stone, faience figurines in lapis and azure, great lucent vessels of calcite, wooden sculptures made brilliant with gold and gesso and inlaid with fine detail of obsidian and coloured glass, models of boats, finely painted chests and delicately carved shrines, heiroglyphs, cartouches.

The Ancient Egyptians, it seems, had what I can only describe as an Ikea approach to the afterlife. Their idea was that you put together a complete package of everything the deceased might need in the Beyond, add a bunch of carefully carved instructions, and then leave it to the dead Pharaoh to put it all together. So the body was mummified and put in a coffin, the internal organs were also preserved and included in separate jars (which look a bit like the containers we now use to store achaar - cue obligatory joke about grandmother's pickle). Only the brain, being apt to spoil (and presumably irrelevant to the process of becoming a god) was removed (using a hook through the nose) and thrown away - a sort of Ancient Egyptian version of Batteries Not Included. Because the bone lazy Pharaoh couldn't possibly be expected to do any actual work in the afterlife (perish the thought!) a whole bunch of little statuettes called Shabtis were introduced in the tomb to take the Pharaoh's place should he be called upon to say, help the rains in lower Thebes, or attend board meetings. The undertakers also added a range of household goods and everyday objects such as fruits and vegetables, pots and pans, containers for cosmetics and oils, etc, but partly to avoid contaminating the interior of the tomb with things that would spoil, and partly out of a desire to not waste valuable objects on those who, being dead, weren't really in a position to complain, many of the objects included were not originals but fake wooden replicas, painted to look like the real thing, with an attention to detail that would have warmed the heart of any Hollywood Executive Producer [3].

And then, of course, there's the gold. One of the reasons I've never been particularly enthusiastic about Ancient Egyptian art (give me the Greeks any day) is their obsession with gold, which makes much of their work opulent to the point of being garish. The gold motif is on full display in the exhibition, so that entering some of its galleries feels like walking into Tribhovandas Zaveri. There is an exquisite gold coffinette for the liver of Tutankhamun, great turqoise swathes of hawk wings inlaid around it; a coffin for the mummy of Tjuya the size of a small kayak; an elaborately carved shrine for a statue of Tutankhamun's wife, and many, many other such gilded wonders.

Two other sculptures stand out in my memory. The first is the head of Nefertiti, rendered in life-like brown, her cheekbones and mouth traced with great subtlety of craft until the simple beauty of the face shone through. The second is a curiously elongated, almost Modigliani like head of Akhenaten whose sharp, almost scornful features made me think of Shelley's Ozymandias ("whose frown / and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command / tell that its sculptor well those passions read / which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things / the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed"). Akhenaten and Nefertiti also feature in a carved relief showing them worshipping Aten, the sun disk, who rewards them by dropping Ankhs into their hands rather like an expansive executive pressing fivers into a vagrant's hand. Other highlights for me included a particularly dark sculpture of King Tut as Amun, a gorgeous pectoral with a central scarab of lapis lazuli, a walking stick with a handle carved in the shape of a tortured Nubian, the handle of a fan carved with images of the Pharaoh out ostrich hunting [4] and a bust of Tutankhamun that supposedly shows us "how regal the boy king looked, even in what was just a wooden statue" (huh?!) but made me think, for some strange reason, of the young Yul Brynner.


So much for civilization, ancient or otherwise. To balance out all this 'culture' I also attended a six hour long triple feature of John Carpenter movies put together by the folks over at Exhumed Films. I'm not really a big fan of either Carpenter or horror as a genre, but there's a certain retro comfort in watching trashy 80's horror / action flicks, not to mention the sheer adrenaline rush of six hours of grindhouse violence, gore and synthetic music. I'll confess to falling asleep in Prince of Darkness, but quite enjoyed the stark, back-to-basics simplicity of The Thing, not to mention the exhilarating and almost hilarious escapades of 'Snake' Plissken in Escape from New York, with its now deeply eerie scene of a terrorist group hijacking a plane (Airforce One) and deliberately crashing it into a New York City skyscraper, closely followed by Kurt Russel's landing a glider on the top of the World Trade Center.


And finally, speaking of planes crashing into New York, have finally decided to abandon Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist which I've been trying to make my way through for a week now, but which I've found almost entirely unreadable. The argument (or what I've read of it so far) is contrived, predictable and flimsy, the writing is wooden, the characters seem cliched and the whole thing strikes me as being desperately fake. And the fact that its structure is a cheap, derivative rip-off of Camus only makes things worse. On the whole, a book to avoid, despite all the hype.


[1] This always happens to me. Exhibitions for Egyptian artifacts, like second-grade comedies, have a tendency to pack all the best bits into the advertising, so that when you finally see the whole thing you always feel a little conned.

[2] One of the more irritating things about the exhibition is the way it harps on about the fact that we don't actually know whether Tutankhamun was Akhenaten's son or not. As a result, you get an exhibition peppered with 'probably's to a point where it gets ridiculous - "the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was probably Tutankhamun's father", "the Pharaoh Viewfromthetop who was probably Tutankhamun's great-great granduncle twice removed" "this doorway, that is probably the exit", etc. I appreciate (and applaud) the effort to stick strictly to the facts, but why include something that's only speculative in the first place? And surely telling the visitors this once or twice would have sufficed.

[3] I remain convinced, btw, that the entire civilization of Ancient Egypt is a Hollywood conspiracy. The whole thing just seems to tailor-made for grand epics not to be.

[4] You'd think any self-respecting hunter would be embarrassed about hunting a flightless bird, that too on an open plain while mounted on a chariot, accompanied by dogs and beaters and with a bow and arrow in hand, but apparently the Pharaohs were very proud of it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Halitosis

Books-we'd-like-to-read department

Plot Summary of the new Harry Potter:

The book opens with Harry struggling to contain the spread of the dreaded Horcrux, a delicious and nourishing malted hot drink (containing all the essential vitamins and minerals, and available in Plain, Strawberry and Chocolate flavours) through which Voldemort is spreading his evil essence, cleverly disguising it as 'permitted additives'. Harry tracks his foe to a call center training facility where Voldemort is preparing a secret army of crank callers, to be known by the dread name of the Deathly Hallo!s, whose anonymous phone calls shall help spread the reign of terror of He Who Shall Not Be Named. Breaking into a class in heavy breathing given by the Dark Lord himself, Harry confronts Voldemort, only to be taken captive and have his right arm cut off. Voldemort then reveals that he is Harry's true father and that he only killed Harry's parents because James Potter walked in on Voldemort and Harry's mother in bed together and dared to make fun of Voldemort's wand. At first Harry refuses to believe this, but Voldemort reminds him how every time James Potter's spirit shows up it's always wearing horns and how the man's nickname was Prongs [1].

The shock of this revelation, combined with the loss of blood from his amputated arm, sends Harry into a deep delirium where imaginary conversations with Dumbledore, Lupin and other potentially merchandisable characters mingle with feelings of disgust and vaguely prurient interest in his mother. His arm healed by the little known Breakium Bracchium spell, Harry proceeds to dress all in black, tells Ginny to go join a nunnery and spends his time walking about the ramparts of Hogwarts muttering to himself, eventually becoming the acting chairman of the Royal Society for Fictional Characters with Quasi-Freudian Hang-ups.

With Harry thus out of commission, Ron dons the mantle of the leader of the good side, until he remembers that this makes him invisible. Certain that he can bring Voldemort to justice, Ron hunts him down in the Deathly Hallows, and gets himself blown to little pieces, leaving behind nothing but three freckles and a lock of red hair. These are returned to a tearful Hermoine, who thinks for a while that she might be pregnant with Ron's child, but discovers that she's just eaten the 'morning sickness' flavour of Bertie Bott's Beans. Desperate for vengeance, she goes looking for Harry, and finds him wandering about the stables stark naked, poking out the eyes of the Gryphons.

150 pages of unconvincing adolescent angst later, Harry is finally convinced to rejoin the good fight, but decides to get a quick makeover first, figuring that the reason he isn't making any headway against Voldemort (or with girls) is that with his geeky glasses he isn't cool enough to be a true Hollywood hero. He exchanges his mild mannered glasses for a set of contacts and immediately discovers that he can now fly without a broomstick as long as he wears his underwear on the outside. On a whim, he also decides to get plastic surgery for his scar, which proves to be a masterstroke because with the scar gone Voldemort's power is broken in half.

Eventually, Harry and Voldemort meet in a wandfight at high noon, where Voldemort, despite his new weakness, manages to blow Harry's wand out of his hand and is about to kill the boy (who's writhing in the street crying "Father! Father!") when Hermoine, who's been standing unnoticed in a side street, kills Voldemort with a well-timed spell from her Winchester. Hermoine lets Harry take credit for the kill though, partly because she doesn't dare offend the patriarchal sensibilities of 12 million readers, but mostly because the prospect of being known for the rest of her life as "The Woman Who Shot He Who Must Not Be Named" is not one she particularly fancies. Heartbroken over the loss of Ron and poisoned by the knowledge of her secret, she returns to her home in Manchester and proceeds to burn her house, grow a designer stubble and live out the rest of her days in a haze of alcohol.

His enemy finally vanquished, Harry decides to run for Prime Minister, an ambition he's secretly nursed ever since he was voted Most Likely to End up as Tony Blair in third grade, but is killed by the irate ghost of Dumbledore, who was promised three flashbacks and only got two. The book ends with a moving description of Harry's funeral, where a procession of thousands of Harry Potter fans march through the streets of London in silent solidarity with their hero, being mistaken by the muggles watching in bemusement for a convention of Trekkies, only with less cool handshakes.

[1] The connection of horns to cuckoldry being, of course, yet another instance of how Rowling successfully blends elements of archaic and medieval myth into her stories.

Carson and Harms

Quick sampler from my two poets of the week are Anne Carson (whose book Glass, Irony and God I write about on Rave Out) and James Harms, whose poems I enjoy because they remind me of Raymond Carver's work, and because at their best they blur the line between poetry and fiction in ways I find deeply satisfying.

Book of Isaiah (Part III)

Isaiah walked for three years in the valley of vision.

In his jacket of glass he crossed deserts and black winter mornings.

The icy sun lowered its eyelids against the glare of him.

God stayed back.

Now Isaiah had a hole in the place where his howl had broken off.

All the while Isaiah walked, Isaiah's heart was pouring out the hole.

One day Isaiah stopped.

Isaiah put his hand on the amputated place.

Isaiah's heart is small but in a way sacred, said Isaiah, I will save it.

Isaiah plugged the hole with millet and dung.

God watched Isaiah's saving action.

God was shaking like an olive tree.

Now or never, whispered God.

God reached down and drew a line on the floor of the desert in front of Isaiah's feet.

Silence began.

Silence roared down the canals of Isaiah's ears into his brain.

Isaiah was listening to the silence.

Deep under it was another sound Isaiah could hear miles down.

A sort of ringing.

Wake up Isaiah! said God from behind Isaiah's back.

Isaiah jumped and spun around.

Wake up and praise God! said God smiling palely.

Isaiah spat.

God thought fast.

The nation is burning! God cried pointing across the desert.

Isaiah looked.

All the windows of the world stood open and blowing.

In each window Isaiah saw a motion like flames.

Behind the flames he saw a steel fence lock down.

Caught between the flames and the fence was a deer.

Isaiah saw the deer of the nation burning along its back.

In its amazement the deer turned and turned and turned

until its own shadow lay tangled around its feet like melted wings.

Isaiah reached out both his hands, they flared in the dawn.

Poor flesh! said Isaiah.

Your nation needs you Isaiah, said God.

Flesh breaks, Isaiah answered. Everyone's will break. There is nothing we can do.

I tell you Isaiah you can save the nation.

The wind was rising, God was shouting.

You can strip it down, start over at the wires, use lions! use thunder! use what you see -

Isaiah was watching sweat and tears run down God's face.

Okay, said Isaiah, so I save the nation. What do you do?

God exhaled roughly.

I save the fire, said God.

Thus their contract continued.

- Anne Carson, from Glass, Irony and God


He is waiting. The rain has stopped.
The hood of his coat hangs behind his neck
in the shape of his head, like a sack
emptied of all but one potato.
She turns now and then to look at him,

her left hand in a fist at her ear,
the right a row of white knuckles
squeezing the phone receiver.
She is whispering with the force
of a child trying to extinguish candles

on a cake, as if he who waits
may know how she feels but not the words,
not the story exactly; she is having
a private conversation. But the booth
has no door, and he is waiting.

He leans against a parked car,
remembers the recent rain, pulls away
and feels the back of his trousers,
which angers him. She turns in time
to see him frown, his hand

dropping from the seat of his pants.
It begins to drizzle again and he pulls up
his hood. She can no longer see his face
when she turns once more to roll
her eyes; the receiver is making a noise,

a click that breaks the voice
she would rather not be listening to
into pieces, until a new voice
is asking for twenty-five cents.
She is holding her purse

between her ankles an inch or so
above the wet floor, and when she
bends to reach it the short
metal cord pulls the phone from
her cheek, so it swings loose

and slams against the glass wall.
Now she is struggling for her wallet,
is yelling towards the receiver, "Hold on!"
Some change spills out.
She sees his tennis shoes at the booth's

threshold, asphalt beyond, the patterned
metal floor, the thick Xs. His face
is still shadowed, it is still raining.
But in front of her own, just a few
inches from her nose - she can smell

the oil on his fingers, realizes
he is waiting to call for help,
a tow truck or some nearby friend
who understands engines - in a cupped hand
that barely pokes free of the frayed

and soiled sleeve of his jacket
is a quarter. "Here," he says.
And she takes it. She plucks it
from his palm like a thorn, trying not
to touch his skin. But of course

she does. And with the coin in her finers
she watches his hand fold up, an anemone
in a tide pool. It is a fist
he puts in his pocket as he moves away,
as he turns to lean against the car, to wait.

- James Harms, from Quarters

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Not in our stars

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act I Scene 2

You know, this Pratibha Patil woman may have a point with all her astrology mumbo-jumbo. Just the other day I took out the old crystal ball and tried gazing into the future of India's presidency, and sure enough, it looked black.

And to think I used to consider Abdul Kalam an embarrassment.

Personally, I'm supporting Bejan Daruwalla for President in 2012 (?). If we have to have an astrologer for President, we may as well have a successful one.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Stoning the Romances

More film. Over at the New Yorker, David Denby has a long piece discussing the evolution of romantic comedy. It's a nice enough piece, though how someone can write a mini-history of the genre and not mention Billy Wilder (or Lubitsch, or Donen) is beyond me.

Denby's central thesis is that the recent spate of what he calls 'slacker' films, represents a reversal of gender roles in the movies, with the earlier formula of "she has to grow up and he has to get loose" being effectively inverted. In the old days, Denby tells us, men in romantic comedies fell into two distinct types - financial whizkids or cartoonish intellectuals. At any rate, they were all successful achievers, all men who "wanted something". Now they're just uncouth losers with no ambition whatsoever.

It's an intriguing observation, but I'm not sure it's true. Denby provides a number of examples, but I think he's cherry-picking. Take Cary Grant. In I was a Male War Bride his Henri Rochard is tetchy, immature and inept - there's even a scene where his girlfriend's friends sit around wondering what she sees in him. In The Awful Truth he certainly seems successful, but if we're ever told what he does (or whether he does anything at all) I'm sure I don't remember. And while there are certainly a number of driven, ambitious men in The Philadelphia Story, the character Grant plays is a former alcoholic who used to be a boat designer but has been spending time in South America working for Spy Magazine. In fact, the main reason for the failure of Grant and Hepburn's marriage in that film is that she needs to loosen up and he needs to grow up - exactly what Denby claims is the norm now. And while it would be hard to call either Ann Sheridan in I was a Male War Bride or Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth uptight, it's certainly true that they both come across as being the more grown up of the twosome - emotionally mature, clear about their own feelings and just trying to figure out how to get their male counterparts to see the obvious. And on the flip side, it's hardly as though male leads in romantic comedies have to be unsuccessful or scruffily dressed.

I'm not saying Denby doesn't have a point, just that he's exaggerating the difference between the movies of old and the new slacker films. It is true, I think, that male romantic leads in the old films were invariably dapper and well-dressed, and also often rich enough to not let anything get in the way of their romantic interests (as Denby puts it, they needed "to be wealthy in order to exercise their will openly and make their choices"). But their wealth, often inherited or somehow accruing to them as a kind of privilege, was merely a background fact, and didn't necessarily represent an ambition to get ahead or make an impression on the world in general. If that has changed today, I suspect it has more to do with contemporary definitions of what is stylish, and the greater acceptability (remember, we're comparing to the 30's and 40's here) of the casual, almost slovenly look. There's also, I suspect, a more active interest in what the main characters actually do, and a sense that the action of the romantic comedy should be more grounded in the everyday lives of its characters, rather than taking place removed from it all.

Where Denby is right, I think, is in the declining attractiveness of both male and female leads in these films. If male leads have become less ambitious and less elegant and less charming, so that you often find yourself wondering what women see in them [1], female leads, as Denby (accurately, I think) asserts, have become blander and less joyful. Less sparkling wit, more stolid self-seriousness.

In the old movies, recognition, for the audience, was instant. You only had to watch the first five minutes of the film to know that these two people, both almost supernaturally attractive in their own right, were meant to be together, and you watched with amused delight as they parried and fenced their own way to this conclusion. In the new films the attractiveness of both parties is a little less obvious, so that the character's discovery of who they were meant to be with closely parallels (and sometimes outstrips) the audience's equivocality about the character. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how you feel about realism in romantic comedy, but there it is.

What's interesting, and what Denby doesn't speculate much about, is what's driving this shift (whatever that shift may actually consist of). One could argue, of course, that changing gender roles in society, and the growing independence of women has caused male anxiety to get sublimated into a changing romantic equation in the movies - with slack, unsuccessful men being feted as (unlikely) heroes and successful (and therefore threatening) women being portrayed as bland, joyless corporate slaves - so that the new romantic comedies are merely a prop against male emasculation. But that's too easy.

What I think is really going on is that the increasing directness of socio-sexual relations is forcing filmmakers to find new difficulties to place in their protagonist's path. In a world where the proprieties had to be maintained and there were rules about how men and women were supposed to behave, getting to the point where you both acknowledged your interest in each other required the mannered dance of repartee that the old comedies were built around. If you were a woman interested in a man, for example, you couldn't just come out and tell him so (at least not in the movies), you had to manipulate him into asking you. That worked in the 40's, I suppose, because it reflected the social realities of the time, but in our more communication obsessed age it would seem just silly. If two such incredibly attractive were to meet in a movie today, they could (horrors!) just tell each other that they were interested and be in bed before the ushers had finished seating the last stragglers. And without the problems of parental disapproval, family feuds, class distinctions or any of the dozen other tropes that our own Bollywood films have long survived on, what would stop them, at that point from living happily ever after? Since Shakespeare (if not before), romantic comedy has been built on the knowledge that "the course of true love never did run smooth" - and making the two people involved only dubiously attractive is just the latest (and perhaps the cleverest) of all the traditional difficulties that lovers have to surmount. If there is a reversal here, it's from the question "what's stopping these two from getting together" to "what's making these two want to get together" - the resolution of that question, in each case, being the substance of the film.

Personally, the thing that's always struck me about the new romantic comedies vs. the old ones is that the old classics seem to understand that they're meant to be comedies, and romantic is just an adjective, signifying only that one element of the plot is the love of two people for each other. Watch The Awful Truth or Bringing up Baby and you'll be laughing right through to the last scene, but watch any of the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks schlock that passed for romantic comedy when I was growing up (and gave, in my opinion, the genre a bad name) and you'll get about a half an hour of clever laughs, followed by another half hour of borderline bittersweet amusement, followed by a final half hour of the most sickeningly saccharine sentimentality, complete with eyes brimming with tears and plaintive jazz. Obviously, there's a selection bias here - I'm sure there were plenty of such movies made back in the 40's that simply haven't lasted - but I think the real test of a great romantic comedy is whether you're still laughing in the last ten minutes of the film.

Phew! All that said, it's an interesting article, and how can you not love a man who, in speaking of Annie Hall and Manhattan says "they took romantic comedy to a level of rueful sophistication never seen before or since". Hear, hear!

[1] Okay, so I'm jealous. But let's face it, if you were me, wouldn't you want to live in the Woody Allen world where gorgeous women regularly fall for physically unimpressive, smart-talking, Bergman-loving neurotics, instead of a world where women will fall over themselves to date some uber-cool slacker dude who owns a used record store, provided he looks like John Cusack?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Romancing while stoned

Scenes we'd like to see department

Since July is fast turning out to be movie month on 2x3x7, I figured I'd keep the ball rolling by throwing in a post about remakes of five romantic classics that I'd like to see:

1. The Snows of Manhattan

Scene opens with Isaac Davis, divorced 40-something Manhattan dweller, making his breathless way downtown in order to stop his high school sweetheart, Tracy (not his sweetheart from high school, you understand, his sweetheart who's currently in high school) from leaving for England. He arrives at her apartment just as Tracy is leaving for the airport, escorted by her grandfather. Isaac realizes that all this while he's been banging Hemingway's granddaughter. Hemingway realizes that a bespectacled little git has been banging his underage grandchild, and reaches for his combination harpoon-cum-elephant gun. Isaac manages to lose Hemingway in the subway system by pretending to take the N train when he's really taking the Q (a move he's perfected through years of playing competitive Scrabble) but Hemingway eventually manages to track Isaac back to his apartment, mostly because it's the only bachelor apartment on the Upper East Side with a split-level living room and four bedrooms, each one the size of Grand Central. Isaac makes a desperate run for the savage wilderness of Elizabeth, New Jersey, but Hemingway gets a hook into him as he's crossing the turnpike and proceeds to reel him in in an epic forty-five minute struggle that leaves Hemingway, as well as his readers, with aching arms and bloodshot eyes. Hemingway then tries to take Isaac's corpse home to frame above his mantelpiece, but on the way the body is nibbled away as tips by cab drivers, so that by the time the old man gets home he has nothing to show for his pains but Isaac's spectacles.

2. Before Midnight

A remake of Before Sunrise starring Julie Delpy as Cinderella and Ethan Hawke as Rat-turned-Coachman. Cinderella is on her way to the ball to meet Prince Charming when The Rat points out that once they get there he doesn't have, like, any plans or anything, and will just be goofing about being human, etc. so maybe the two of them could, you know, hang out together, because well, at some point in history they must all have been part of one soul, see, but now...At this point Cinderella (thankfully) shuts him up by saying yes, after which the two of them spend two supremely blissful hours wandering about Fairy Tale City, where none of the other two-dimensional cartoons notice them, because they fit in so well. Through a series of long rambling conversations about death, relationships, and (in his more poetic moments) cheese, they discover that they are made for each other, since she's an insecure neurotic pretending to be a romantic while he pretends to be a cynic but is secretly a rodent. As midnight approaches Cinderella gets all mournful, thinking that she'll never see Rat again, but he promises to stay in touch provided she gets rid of the cat and stops putting down traps. Eventually, they have sex, mostly because as Rat points out, his chances of ever getting any girlie action once he's gone back to being a scabby rodent are nil, and because the way he nibbles at her ear makes Cinderella swoon (though it could be just her complexion - it's hard to tell in the moonlight). Afterwards, he recites Auden, taking care to skip over the odd stanza or two, while she tries to retrace their steps to the carriage by looking for the crumbs they scattered on the way there, until she realizes she's in the wrong fairy tale. Finally, the happy pair promises to meet in ten years or whenever the director manages to raise enough money for a sequel, whichever comes first, after which he vanishes with a squeal while she walks home thinking about how much fun the ugly sisters are going to make of her.

3. Gone with the Surge

Remake of Gone with the Wind where the South wins the war. The black people's struggle for life, liberty and the right not to talk in phony accents is ruthlessly crushed. Ashley becomes a nationally acclaimed war hero and eventually goes on to become President, with Melanie as gracious First Lady and Rhett Butler as a cynical Vice President who answers all allegations about alleged leaks by his aides and missing WMDs with the line "Frankly my dear Senate Commission, I don't give a damn!". Scarlett ends up with the loser she married before the war, but is rescued by Rhett, who has been impressed by her singular courage in shooting six Democrat volunteers when they came to Tara with a petition for gay men's right to have abortions. Rhett takes Scarlett's husband out on a hunting expedition and accidentally blows his head off with a shotgun. Rhett and Scarlett get married and have a good life together, until one day Rhett buys their daughter a pony despite Scarlett's protests, and the girl, in trying to jump her horse over a fence, turns lesbian. The grief of this drives the couple to drink and Rhett eventually leaves to go invade a faraway desert country while Scarlett returns to Tara where she is seen jumping up and down on her father's grave, cursing Melanie for having made it to the White House with Ashley (oh Ashley!).

4. A Taxi Fare to Remember

Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) meet on a Transatlantic cruise and fall in love. Arriving in New York they agree to meet six months from the day at the Empire State Building if they still feel the same way about each other. Nickie spends every day of those six months going to the Empire State Building in the evenings and staring dreamily up at it. Terry, on the other hand, has a terrible accident at her hairdresser's the next day and spends the entire time trying to get her hair back to that impossible shade of red. When they finally meet, she tells him that she's not in love with him anymore, while keeping her hair entirely covered. Nickie is heartbroken, but eventually realizes that something is wrong and manages to trick Terry out of her burkah, at which point the whole terrible secret is revealed. Nickie assures Terry that he loves her anyway, and doesn't mind that she's now a blond, but breaks up with her when he realizes she wants him to move to Boston, which he refuses to do because in the six months he's been waiting he's secretly fallen in love with the Empire State Building and can't bear to leave Manhattan [1].

5. When Harry Sallied Through The Met

Remake of When Harry Met Sally set in an alternate universe where every New Year's Day 10% of the population is randomly reassigned to different life situations, their memory of their previous lives completely obliterated by a special brain scanning device brought down to earth by aliens who bear a striking resemblance to Jim Carrey. Movie approaches grand finale. Harry gatecrashes party and makes big speech: "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees outside, I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a skim milk latte and then you have to go back to the counter because you forgot to ask for decaf, I love that when you crinkle up your nose to tell me that I'm nuts I can totally see your nose hair sticking out and it makes me feel so well-groomed...and it's not because it's New Year's Eve and it's not because it's in the script and they're paying me money to say it, though actually, it is, and it's not because this is my last shot at being taken seriously as a romantic lead before I end up starring in City Slickers two years from now. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." Sally looks at him all teary-eyed and says "Oh, Harry!". Band strikes up tune to Auld Lang Syne. Then just as they're about to kiss *poof!* Harry disappears and is replaced by his fellow Oscar host, who then enters into an hour long debate about whether it is ever possible for a woman to be just friends with another woman when one of the women in question is Ellen DeGeneres.

[1] Alt take: Remake of Affair to Remember starring James Gandolfini as Nickie and Paris Hilton as Tracy. Nickie and Tracy meet on a transatlantic cruise in the summer of 2001 and fall in love when Tracy sees Nickie whack his gracious, eighty year old grandmother. The two have wild sex on the boat and put copies of it on the Internet, then decide to meet six months later at the top of the World Trade Center, if they still feel the same way about each other. Movie ends with shot of Tracy (Ms. Hilton) crying because she can't figure out how to get to the WTC and everyone she asks just glares at her.

To see the world in a cup of coffee

Girl: Is poetry formative, or is it only embellishment?
Ivanoff: Well, everything that embellishes is formative.

- Jean-Luc Godard, 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle

Can't resist posting this clip from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which I watched over the weekend, while everyone else in the Universe was apparently watching the twaddle that is Harry Potter (clip possibly NSFW) [1]. How can you not love a film where a conversation between two complete strangers in a cafe about the meaning of conversation is interrupted by a shot of two people, named, inevitably, Bouvard and Pecuchet, seated at a table surrounded by books, reading extracts from them at random and jotting them down?

Unfortunately, I couldn't find a clip with subtitles online, but the text of the commentary is given below (translation by Alfred Guzzetti [2]).

Commentary 10

Here is how Juliette, at 3:37 P.M., saw turn the pages of that object which, in journalistic language, is called a magazine. And there is how, about one hundred and fifty frames further along, another young woman, her likeness, her sister, saw the same object.

Where then is the truth? In full face or in profile? And anyway, what is an object?

(Music enters. The coffee is stirred and the spoon is put down on the saucer)

Commentary 11

Maybe an object is what permits us to relink...to pass from one subject to the other, therefore to live in society,

(The young man looks at Juliette. She returns his gaze)

to be together. But then,

(he looks down again)

since social relationships are always ambiguous, since my thought divides as much as it unites, since my speech brings nearer through that which it expresses and isolates through that about which it is silent,

(He looks at her again, then back down. She returns his gaze, then looks away)

since an immense gulf separates the subjective certitude that I have of myself from the objective truth that I am for others, since I do not cease to find myself guilty although I feel innocent, since each event transforms my daily life, since I ceaselessly fail to communicate -

(The spoon enters the frame and stirs the coffee)

I mean, to understand, to love, to be loved -

(The spoon leaves the frame)

and each failure makes me experience my solitude, since...

(Juliette looks up, off left. The bartender looks off right, then at what he is doing, then off right again, then again at what he is doing. He exits left. A hand pulls the faucet, lets it go, pulls it again, lets it go again.)

Commentary 12

since....since I cannot tear myself from the objectivity that crushes me nor from the subjectivity that exiles me, since I am permitted neither to lift myself to being nor fall into nothingness, I must listen, I must look around me more than ever at the world, my likeness, my brother.

(Juliette is looking at the young man. He turns to look at her, then they both look away. Pause. Just before the commentary starts, Juliette again looks at him.)

Commentary 13

The world by itself today, when revolutions are impossible, when bloody wars threaten it, when capitalism is no longer very sure of its rights and the working class is in retreat, when the advance...the lightning advances of science give to future centuries a haunting presence, when the future is more present than the present, when distant galaxies are at my door: my likeness, my brother.

(The young man smokes, looks down. He looks at Juliette, then looks away.)

Commentary 14

(A sugar cube plunges into the coffee. Pause.)

Where does it begin? But where does what begin? God created the heavens and the earth, of course. But that is a bit cowardly and easy.

(The image is out of focus and is becoming more so.)

One should be able to say something better, to say that the limits of language are those of the world, that the limits of my language are those of my world. And that in speaking, I limit the world, I end it. And that one logical and mysterious day death will come to abolish that limit and there will be neither question nor answer; everything will be fuzzy.

(The image starts to come into focus, becoming sharp after the word 'nettes' i.e. sharp)

But if by chance things again become sharp, this can be only with the appearance of consciousness and conscience. After that, everything will connect and proceed.


The swirling shapes in the coffee, conjuring both galaxies and the beginning of life (Pascal, anyone?), the haunted whisper of the monologue, the refrain from Baudelaire, the perfect evocation of the experience of sitting in a cafe thinking your own thoughts and looking up every now and then to notice the world around you. Brilliant, just brilliant.


[1] And which, incidentally, is been screened two weeks from now at the MOMA, along with Masculine Feminine - for those of you in NYC who may be interested.

[2] The translation of the conversation between the girl and Ivanoff later in the film is what I remember from the subtitles in the film. Guzzetti translates this exchange - which in the original reads "La poesie forme, ou bien est-ce qu'elle decore seulement?"; "Et bien, tout ce qui decore la vie est une formation" - as "Does poetry educate, or is it only decoration?"; "Well, everything that decorates life is education". His translation is probably more accurate, but it lacks a certain something.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Take One

"Is that your girlfriend?"

"I'm sorry?"

"I said, is that your girlfriend?"

"Oh, errr, no, no actually she's my wife."

"I see. She's very beautiful."

"Why thank you."

"You're a very lucky man."

"Yes. Yes, I suppose I am."

"You suppose?"

"I am."

"Doesn't it strike you as strange that I, a complete stranger, and a woman at that, should be complimenting you on your wife?"

"On the contrary- if you were a man I would be offended."

"Are you that insecure?"

"No. But for a man to be checking out my wife and then telling me about it would be, as you put it, strange."

"And for a woman to 'check out' your wife and tell you about it?"

"I'm grateful."

"Really. Why?"

"Oh, I don't know. For taking an interest in me, I suppose."

"You mean an interest in your wife."

"I mean an interest in us."

"Do strangers not normally take an interest in you then?"

"Not normally, no."

"How do you know? Have you ever asked them?"


"Why not?"

"Because if I struck up a conversation then they wouldn't be strangers anymore."

"So you just assume they aren't interested in you?"


"Are you that uninteresting?"

"No. At least, I don't think so. Not particularly uninteresting."

"Well then?"

"I suppose it's just that, once one is married one assumes that strangers, especially strange women, don't take an interest in one."

"Why? Does being married stop you from taking an interest in strange women?"

"It stops me from showing my interest in them."

"So you wouldn't, for example, go up to a strange woman and tell her you thought she was good looking?"

"I might. I would if she were as good looking as you."

"Are you flirting with me now?"

"Not at all. This is purely academic. Besides, you complimented my wife. I'm just returning the favor."

"Oh, so you're only complimenting me out of a sense of obligation then?"

"It isn't that. I'm perfectly sincere. It's just that..."

"Just what?"

"It's just that your having paid my wife a compliment expanded the scope of our dialog, don't you see? In a sense, it gave me permission to compliment you in return."

"You needed permission? Are you that tame?"

"No, no. I'm not expressing myself well. Let's say that my pleasure in complimenting you is heightened by a sense of symmetry."

"Very good. But I said your wife was good looking, not you. Surely symmetry would demand that you compliment me on my husband"

"Do you have a husband?"

"Does it matter?"

"It does if I'm to compliment you on him"

"Only for that?"

"Well, also, now that we're no longer strangers, I need to know if you're married so I can introduce you to my wife properly. I don't know whether to call you madame or mademoiselle."

"You don't know my name either."

"I was coming to that."

"So the reason you want to know whether I'm married is so you can introduce me properly to your wife?"

"Among other things."

"I'm not wearing a ring."

"You could have taken it off."

"I could give you a false name."

"You could."

"What if your wife never comes back?"

"From the restroom you mean?"


"All the more reason to know whether you're single."

"So you are flirting with me!"

"Perhaps. What if your husband never gets here?"

"He will."

"So you are married!"


"My wife will come back."

"What if when she does you're not here?"

"You mean we're not here?"

"I suppose."

"Where would we be?"

"Does it matter?"

"I suppose she'd wait and meet your husband."

"I suppose."

"Do you think they'd like each other?"

"I think so. She seemed his type."

"How convenient. I suppose then he would be a lucky man?"

"Oh, I think he is already."

"Quite. One question though - who'll pay?"

"The bill?"

"The check."

"You're American, are you?"

"No, but I went to college there."

"I see. I suppose she would."

"My wife?"


"Your check or my check?"

"Both. Why not?"

"It hardly seems fair."

"Is anything?"

"Besides she doesn't have her purse with her."

"Isn't that it over there?"

"Yes, precisely. I can't just leave it here and walk out."

"Why not?"

"Someone might steal it."


"So she wouldn't be able to pay the check. She'd be embarrassed."

"So it's okay for someone to steal your wife's husband, but not her purse?"

"I believe in avoiding embarrassment."

"You're a capitalist."

"I'm a snob. But where does that leave us?"

"Let's say my husband pays the check, as you so charmingly call it"

"So you are married."


"Then how can your husband pay the check?"

"Let's say that some rich, kind man pays the check and because of his generosity I start to consider him my husband."

"Perhaps it'd be better if I paid the check."

"Is that a proposal?"

"If it were, would you accept?"

"If it were, I wouldn't."

"But since it's not?"


P.S. By rights, this should be in French, but my French isn't that good. Just imagine that the real dialog is in French and you're reading the subtitles.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Black Mamba's comment on my post about travel reads reminded me of one other incredible travel read that I forgot to mention - mostly because I tend to think of it less as a book and more as an experience.

This happened on a trip my parents and I took to Darjeeling and Sikkim a decade and a half ago. I was twelve (thirteen?) and had discovered Wodehouse (starting with Joy in the Morning) some six months ago. On this particular trip, we were carrying two Wodehouses with us - Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves and The Luck of the Bodkins - brand new books bought less than a week before the trip as part of 'essential supplies'. On the first day out, sitting in our hotel room, we decided, just for a lark, to try reading one of the books out aloud. The plan was that we would take turns reading - each person taking one chapter (though when my chapter proved to be only a few pages long my parents were kind enough to let me 'share' theirs - even then I was infatuated with the sound of my own voice) and the whole thing progressing at three chapters a night.

I don't know if you've ever tried reading Wodehouse aloud. Hilarious as the man is read in the quiet of your own room, he's positively side-splitting when shared aloud in a group. Part of it is that reading him aloud forces you to linger over every little nuance, every clever aside. Part of it is that sharing the book with a group (and especially a group that includes one precocious twelve year old) creates an atmosphere of almost hysterical merriment, so that even some of the master's more predictable usages begin to seem uproariously funny. Part of it is that having the story drawn out over a whole week tends to amplify the element of surprise (not something I'd paid much attention to reading Wodehouse by myself) so that every new plot twist (arrived at, as it is, after days of chugging through the story) begins to feel like a wondrous discovery (remember, none of us had ever read the book before - so we didn't know what was going to happen), one that makes you laugh out loud. Finally, there's the inevitable gap between what the reader is reading out loud and what he or she is reading in his / her head, which means that every punch line, every comic turn of phrase hits you just one second before you actually read it - with the result that you have the reader breaking into a chuckle in the middle of a sentence, putting the book down and having a good long chortle, then going back to read whatever it was that was so funny; at which point, of course, the other two would start giggling and the whole room would rock with laughter. The closest thing I've ever experienced to the merriment of those is the experience of sitting with a group of friends while blindingly drunk (though obviously this was not something I was familiar with at the time).

At any rate, it wasn't long before this nightly ritual of ours had become one of the highlights of the trip. Even today, looking back on it fifteen years later, what I remember most vividly about that vacation is the nightly adventures of Messrs. Wooster, Fink-Nottle, Sidcup and Plank. Reading Wodehouse on that trip isn't just one of my happiest experiences on a vacation or one of my happiest associations with a book - it's one of the happiest memories of my life.

Oh, and Mom and Dad, since I know you're reading this - thanks.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I dreamt you died

and they laid your death out,
elaborate as a table,

then watched, horrified,
as I ate and ate.

Forgive me.

I did not think
I would have such appetite,

that I would prove so hungry
for the thought of you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Trains, planes, buses and Ambassadors

Over at his blog, zigzackly points to a Guardian series about travel reading, and invites comments on favorite travel reads, thus providing me with a convenient excuse (as though one were needed) to talk about books.

My reading when I'm traveling tends to be mostly poetry, because a) it's easier to read in short spurts, b) it's more amenable to re-reading so I can take fewer books with me and c) I tend to take only books that I own when I travel, and this usually means either philosophy or poetry (I almost never buy fiction anymore).

Not surprisingly, I have travel associations with dozens of volumes of poetry, though the ones that stand out most in my mind are a second-hand copy of Robert Lowell's Selected Poems (in a now obsolete Faber & Faber edition) that was my constant companion on DTC buses all through my second year in college, and Walcott's Midsummer, read on the flight three years ago that brought me to the United States.

The award for my most memorable reading experience, however, goes to Henry James' The Ambassadors, read on a seemingly interminable train journey to I no longer remember where. I'm something of an insomniac anyway, and find it even harder to sleep on trains, so on this particular trip I simply stayed up through the night, wedged awkwardly in the side lower bunk of a second AC train compartment, the gap where the two halves of the bed meet digging into my waist, and read and read and read. Something about the momentum of that journey - the constant sense of motion, the measured metronome of the train, the knowledge of great distances being covered, contradicted every time I looked out of my window by the sameness of the landscape - all this seemed to resonate with James' exquisitely baroque prose, so that lying there, cocooned in the semi-darkness, the book seemed to glow brighter in my hand, seemed to burn in the incandescence of its language, every finely tuned phrase lit up like a tongue of fire. To this day The Ambassadors remains one of my favorite James' novels, and I can never think of it without instantly evoking the memory of that night ride, that long, weary voyage, a cradle endlessly rocking, plunging me into the night.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Meanwhile, Billy Strayhorn is taking the swan into Harlem

Finally got around to opening the new double issue of Poetry that arrived while I was away in Oregon. And what a lovely issue it is. New work by Billy Collins, Wendy Cope, Tony Hoagland and Dean Young (among others), this clever little ghazal by Patricia Smith, Naeem Murr's side-splitting piece about what living with a real poet is like, Sven Birkerts reminiscing about the time when Heaney, Brodsky and Walcott were all in Boston and used to hang out together getting drunk and telling silly jokes (the very thought of which sends yours truly dizzy with fanboy excitement) and this hilarious, brilliant take on Yeats by Joan Murray:

Leda and the Train

A sudden jolt: the A train stopping short
Upsets the staggering girl, her body goes
Out with the crowd, her handbag caught on board,
It holds her helpless as the train doors close.

How can those terrified vague fingers draw
Her handbag out before the subway leaves?
Or let it spill out on the subway floor,
And let some strangers scoop it up like thieves?

A shudder in her gut predicts some pain.
The wall's ahead, her steadfast feet have raced her
To the platform's end.
Being so caught up
So mastered by the swift speed of the train,
Did she come to a knowledge of what faced her
Unless her reluctant hand could let it drop?

- Joan Murray

Monday, July 09, 2007

Cooking, with Gusteau


[some spoilers]

There's a scene towards the end of Brad Bird's Ratatouille where sneering food critic Anton Ego (voiced with blue-blooded superciliousness by the incomparable Peter O'Toole) arrives at the up and coming restaurant Gusteau's, intending to crush its fledgling reputation under an avalanche of scorn. Served a humble peasant dish (the ratatouille from which the movie gets its title) by the restaurant's unlikely chef (a rat - yes, really, a RAT - called Remy), Ego finds his eyes filling with tears, however, as the subtle flavors of the dish bring back memories of his childhood in the French countryside and his mother's cooking.

And there, in a nutshell, you have the experience of watching Ratatouille. Silly to the point of being ludicrous, predictable to the verge of cliche, Rataouille still manages to be, magically, a deeply endearing film. Part of it is the superb animation - the rattiness of the rats, the foodiness of the food, the Paris-ness of Paris - everything, in short, that we've come to love and expect from the wizards at Pixar. Part of it is the clever, clever trick of making a movie that ends with the vicious critic eating, if not quite humble pie, then at least modest ragout, thus effectively hamstringing anyone who thinks of writing a scathing review of the film. Mostly though it's the joie de vivre of the script - the sheer exhilaration of making a deliciously simple yet entirely outrageous film based on a premise that is, in turn both simple and outrageous at the same time. This is meta-cinema at its best - the idea that people would actually enjoy food made by a rat is just about as ridiculous as the idea that people would enjoy a film about people enjoying food made by a rat, which is why you're inclined to believe it.

At its heart, Rataouille is a retelling of that oldest of creative myths - inspired young artist with no formal training and an entirely impossible background comes to big city and wows the connoisseurs, thus transcending both the establishment and his own roots. The fact that the impossible background here happens to be membership in the genus Rattus and that the art form involved is culinary is a matter of mere detail. Okay, so there's a brief period right after you walk out of the theater when you feel an overwhelming urge to reach for a skillet [1], but the exuberance that sizzles and flambes through this film has little to do with food per se. Remy's problem is not that he can't cook - that comes to him as naturally as nibbling cheese - it's that as a common pest he's rodentia non grata in every kitchen on either side of the Seine. Egged on by the imagined spirit of his culinary guru Chef Gusteau (a disappointingly un-Anatole like figure whose specialty seems to be potage de poulet pour l'ame and whose motto 'Anyone Can Cook' becomes the film's battle cry) Remy adopts a hapless garbage boy named Linguini - a limp noodle if there ever was one - and proceeds to rise to the top of the cordon bleu food chain. It sounds bizarre, I know, but somehow, between the multiple near escapes that Remy goes through, his wild adventures through the kitchen, his relationship with his old-fashioned father and one particularly brilliant slap-dashing chase through Paris, you tend not to notice.

If Ratatouille succeeds (and succeed it does, though it isn't, in my opinion, quite the movie Bird's The Incredibles was) it's because the real fantasy here isn't a rat making good as a chef, it's the idea that with sufficient inspiration and a little bit of luck we can all beat the odds and succeed at whatever it is that moves and / or inspires us, just as long as we're clear on what that is. Ratatouille may not be great cinema, but as an appetizing way to spend a Sunday morning, delicately balancing the flavors of humor, charm, fantasy and excitement, it's pretty hard to beat.

[1] In my case it lasted all of five minutes, during which I pictured myself dicing and slicing and sauteing with the casual ease of that Jackie Chan of the kitchen - Martin Yan. Then reality struck.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

I spam what I am

It just occurred to me yesterday how I respond differently to different kinds of junk mail.

When those noisome advertisements for penile implants show up in my inbox I turn my nose up scornfully, thinking "Ha! Have they got the wrong man now!" [1].

When I get offers from credit card companies offering me their Super Premium Titanium Platinate card with 0% APR for the first six months (provided you don't actually buy anything) I let out a low hollow laugh, like a hyena with a good credit rating, thinking "Don't they know I have no money?! Why do they mock me this way?! Why?! Why?!!"

And yet, when I get a letter from the ACLU asking me for a donation, or a form letter from Bill Clinton in the name of the Democratic Party asking me to join the fight against Bush, I suddenly feel the glow of vindication running through my veins. Clearly these folks have done their homework. Clearly they know they're dealing with a man of principle and character. "Oh, Bill", I imagine Hillary saying, "have you sent that letter I asked you to? You know, the one for Falstaff, that man of the people, that outspoken champion of civil liberties everywhere, that staunch defender of the right to life, liberty and, especially, the pursuit of happiness. Oh, say you have, Bill. We need him on our side." "Why, I'll send it right away, dear. But you needn't worry. You know how old Falstaff has always stood for truth, justice and all that's logical. He won't let us down. Not Falstaff."

The truth is, of course, that the Democratic Party probably knows no more about my uprightness than the guys promising to help me "keep her up all night" know about my lack of it. Self-delusion, thy alias is Falstaff.

[1] It's not even, in my case, a question of whether I need enhancement or not. It's the much simpler question - who would know? [1]

[2] Scanning through my spam folder to write this post, I find that the mails I used to get for penile implants have now been replaced by offers to help increase my Internet speed. So maybe these guys do know something about my sex life after all.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Oregon Trails - Part 2

[continued from here]

Day 4

Day 4 finds MR and BM both obsessing about reaching Tillamook, a town famous for its icecream (as well as other dairy products, but it's the icecream these two are drooling over). Fortunately, the navigation for this trip is in saner, more discerning hands, so that instead of driving hell for leather for Tillamook as the yen for icecream would have us do, we take the longer route via the Three Capes scenic highway, passing the town of Oceanside, where gaunt elbows of rock jut out from the sea and a dog chases gulls with the diligence of a process server, and finally stopping at the Cape Mears lighthouse. Here, the air is raucous with the cries of gulls and cormorants and a muffin shaped rock just off shore bristles with birds like a cupcake covered with candles. We have a 180 degree view of the Pacific, its blue expanse stretching into the unimaginable distance. Directly below us, a seal hunts in the water, its gray-white belly curving over the waves like an accent, before vanishing into the depths in search of fish.

From here we go to Tillamook, where MR and her icecream are finally united [1]. We stop at the Tillamook Cheese Visitor's Center which features a fast food restaurant, a fudge counter, a store selling Tillamook cheese products and a factory tour; but all we're really interested in is the ice cream. I plug my way through a large waffle cone's worth of German Chocolate and Coffee icecream, while BM eats a relatively staid Chocolate and Strawberry sundae and MR pigs out on something bathed in chocolate fudge. It's good icecream, but far from being exceptional, and our pleasure in it is somewhat dampened by the fact that everyone around us seems to weigh in excess of 250 pounds, so that we're reminded, with every bite we take, just what these calories we're snarfing down could do to us. It's like sitting down to share a turkey with the obese ghost of Christmas Future. MR is so dismayed by this that she actually stops eating for a while, and I have to lend her the base of my waffle cone before she starts to stuff her face again. We then go back into the store and pick up a small packet of daintily packed cheese cuboids, just to convince ourselves that we are connoisseurs, not gluttons.

From Tilamook we continue to head North, our destination now the trailhead for the Neahkanhie mountain that BM and MR intend to climb. This proves more difficult to find than we had anticipated. Our first turn-off takes us down a miles long road into rural Oregon. Our second turn-off clearly says Neahkanhie mountain trail, except that it turns out to be a dirt road barely one lane wide and climbing steeply up, which we eventually deduce is the actual trail itself and not a path meant to be driven on at all. It takes us a while to turn around and come down off that one, after which another mile's drive takes us to a parking lot by the side of the highway from which two trails branch off - the first (or so the map put up there claims) going up to the top of the mountain, while the other runs along the coast to a charming little suspension bridge and then on to Cape Falcon.

MR and BM take the high road; I, being less keen to go scrambling up mountains, take the low one. Five minutes later I'm wondering if this was a bad idea. The trail leads down a steep, rocky incline from the parking lot, then plunges into a thicket of seven foot high bushes, the plants so close together that the trail is barely visible anymore and you have to push your way through the branches, with leaves and twigs scratching at your face. If I hadn't seen a family of six go this way five minutes ahead of me, I would probably have turned back, convinced that I had lost my way and was following not the trail itself but the track of some deer. In the next ten minutes, I twice spot little brown snakes crossing the path just in front of me, their wriggling tails passing inches away from my descending shoes. My feet keep getting tangled in creepers, and my legs, exposed in shorts, are whipped and stinging with the undergrowth.

Some 250 metres down the trail the path finally emerges from this thick vegetation into a more open, wooded copse. At last, I think, and settle in to enjoy a pleasant walk along the coast. But 50 meters later the trail ends! There's a wire fence stretching across the path and a small bench looking out on a scenic overlook. Something that looks vaguely like a trail leads up into the mountain. It's going the wrong way from where it's supposed to, and since we're at the very edge of the land it's not likely to switchback, but I try to follow it anyway. One fork of it peters out in about 30 metres, becoming a one foot wide ledge that skirts along the cliff, a drop of about a hundred feet onto black sea-foamed rocks below it. The second fork, which is really little more than a deer path, leads up into the woods, but after I've clambered over my third fallen tree and jumped up the odd rock or two, it becomes pretty clear to me that this too leads nowhere and is certainly not a proper trail. I go back to the main trail. Could I have missed a turn-off at some point? I return to the parking lot for another look at the map, keeping an eye out not only for snakes but also for other trails leaving the main one. At one point there's a slight depression in the grass that might, with a little imagination, be a trail, but if so it's one that doesn't seem to have been walked on any time this year, and I'm not the kind of person who believes in being a pioneer.

I go back to the parking lot to check there are no other trails leaving from the lot, then finding none, brave the snake-infested trail once again, and decide to spend the hour or so before the others get back on the bench at the end of it. It's a nice spot. Below me a small inlet called Devil's Cauldron churns with green water, the cliff wall lined with ledges where seabirds nest, and broken, at its base, by a series of small caves, that give the whole thing a vaguely Enid Blyton air (the next cove along the coast is called Smuggler's Cove). There's a glorious view of the Pacific, with Cape Falcon stretching its languorous arm out to sea directly in front. Seagulls soar on eddies of wind all around me, their wings balanced and motionless, coming down to perch on a rock a mere ten meters away. The bench itself is in the shade of tall trees - an exceedingly comfortable place to sit. Best of all, there's no one else around - this is clearly not a popular trail.

I try reading for a bit, then lay the book aside and content myself with just staring out at the sea. What was it Keats said? "O ye who have your eyeballs vexed and tired / feed them upon the wideness of the sea". Thinking of Keats makes me want to quote some out loud. I look around guiltily, go a little way back on the trail to make sure no one is coming. Then, satisfied that I'm quite alone, I proceed to recite Ode to a Nightingale (or as much of it as I can remember). It's enchanting to hear the sound of those glorious syllables sifting through the branches, half-echoing through this deserted little woodland on a nameless headland at the very edge of the Western world.

After a while, I make a discovery. I'm staring at the rock face opposite and I realize that there's a whorl of rock that looks kind of like an ear. I decide to take a photograph of it. When I start to focus the camera I realize that it's more than just an ear - there's a whole face carved naturally in the rock face, complete with an overhanging slab of a nose, a grim mouth, a quasi-beard and even a small crescent like depression that could be horns. It looks like a satyr or a devil of some sort! I wonder if I'm imagining this. Maybe it's just my hyperactive imagination channeling Pan's Labyrinth. I take a couple of pictures to show MR and BM when I meet them, to test if they can see it too. I feel very kicked about this, because it's not something that ever showed up in a guidebook or a map. It's my own personal sight.

I'm still sitting there when a couple of large black dogs come running out of the forest, mouths open and snarling. They look like something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Omen. One of them goes scampering off to investigate the nearest trees, but the other one comes right up to the bench and stares directly at me. I'm just beginning to wonder what my odds of surviving the drop into Devil's Cauldron are when their owner (an elderly woman) arrives and rescues me. I watch as she and her dogs make their way up the quasi-trail along the mountain that I'd followed earlier, and feel a sense of vindication when they too turn around and come back, having found the way unpassable. I let them return down the trail, then follow five minutes later, figuring the dogs must have scared any sunbathing snakes away. Back at the parking lot, I spend ten minutes waiting for BM and MR to show up, issuing friendly warnings to strangers considering taking the coast trail that goes nowhere, then decide to follow the trail going up the mountain until I meet the other two coming down.

From here we head to the town of Cannon Beach, where we plan to have lunch. By this time we're all in the mood to take life easy and relax, having got through four days of fairly hectic traveling. Cannon Beach turns out to be a picturesque little town, the epitome of Oregon's seemingly universal endeavour to be quaint and charming. It's an effort that almost every town we've passed through on the trip seems to share, but here, in Cannon Beach, it actually feels like the real thing. MR, predictably, has a yen for seafood, so we stop at the first restaurant we see that offers some. This restaurant (whose name now escapes me) turns out to have the most inattentive (to the point of being rude) service I've ever seen, so after ten minutes of waiting for someone to take our order we walk out.

Our next choice, The Driftwood Inn, proves more congenial. Here we're met by an extremely chirpy waitress and find ourselves relaxing on a sunkissed patio sipping cold glasses of beer and tucking our way into some delicious food - broiled salmon and seafood chowder for me, crab salad for BM and halibut with dill cream for MR. It's a glorious, relaxed lunch and we experience a sense of tremendous peacefulness, a casual initiation into leisure. Half the customers out here are locals who know each other (and the dog sleeping at the door) on a first name basis, and for an hour or so we feel as though we lived here too, or at least were here for a long, sleepy weekend, rather than just passing through for a quick meal.

This sense of well-being stays with us as we make our way down the town's main boulevard, stopping at a little cafe / bakery where MR gets the root beer float she's been craving while I get my daily caffeine fix in the form of an espresso sundae - one scoop of espresso ice-cream with a shot of hot espresso poured over it (yum!). We then drive to the Ecola state park - our final stopping point on the coast before we head back to Portland.

The trail that leads South to the beach from the Ecola Park parking lot is closed due to slides, which suits us fine because we're feeling too lazy to take it anyway. There's also a trail north upto Indian Beach, but once we discover that we can just drive up there instead we lose what little enthusiasm we had for this as well. So instead we walk the 0.2 miles to the observation point, taking in yet another sweeping view of the Pacific, staring contentedly at the circling gulls, peering through the binoculars at a lighthouse just off the coast and staring down with interest at Sea Lion rocks, which look like an artist's rendition of the evolution of stone.

MR fidgets around with her camera, taking picture after picture of the surrounding scenes. BM and I people-watch, taking in the man who's come on a vacation with his camera and brought his family along just in case; the photography buff who has attached a tripod to his camera and is now taking pictures holding both tripod and camera in the air; the two families bonding about the cuteness of each other's dogs while the animals in question attempt to tear each other's throats out; and most entertaining of all, the desi couple who are actually HOLDING HANDS IN PUBLIC (a gesture that they doubtless see as deeply romantic, but which, because of the man's regrettable tendency to walk faster than the woman and drag her along after him, as well as his reluctance to come within more than four feet of her - after all, some proprieties must be maintained - makes it look like they're wearing handcuffs), and who, doubtless feeling that the Pacific ocean by itself is too tame for their family photographs, insist on taking 'action' shots, including one where the woman pretends to swing from a tree, a second where she sits astride a grungy skull-and-crossbones painted bike wearing her floral knee-length skirt (not a pretty sight), and one where he, ignoring the danger signs posted all around, crosses over to the closed off section of the trail, and, paying no attention to the 50 foot drop yawning behind him, proceeds to panic because he has entrusted his beloved camera to a woman (horrors!), and spends the next five minutes shouting across frantic instructions at her.

We spend a good half hour lazing about at Ecola point, then head out, stopping for a few moments to take in the view from Indian Beach, where, against a backdrop of stone arches and great seething waves, surfers swerve and swivel on the surf, and small groups of people play with frisbees on the glowing sand beach.

An hour and a half's drive from here takes us back to Portland, where we make our way to the southern suburb of the city where R. lives. We'll be spending the night at his place, and he's promised to show us the nightlife of the city. R lives in a quintessential suburb, a dystopia of carbon copy mass-manufactured houses that he himself describes as a kind of mini-Stepford. The neighbourhood has all the character of a Big Mac. For all that, the man has a huge house - three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a living room larger than my entire student accommodation. It's a nice house, though perhaps more appropriate for, say, the Windsors. The three of us grab showers, reveling in the luxury of being able to do this in parallel, and then head out to Portland, intending to paint that city, if not quite red, then at least a modest maroon.

The next couple of hours have a distinctly surreal quality in my memory. We start at this place called the Brazen Bean, which seems like a nice, cosy place from the outside, housed as it is in a oldish looking mansion. Once inside, it turns out to be yet another trying-to-be-hip-but-only-succeeding-in-being-wannabe bar, with some species of noise blaring from the speakers that sounds like scrap metal being force fed into a concrete grinder and a drinks menu that includes 32 kinds of cocktails and exactly one ("house") wine. We get through the ritual of showing our ids [2] - mine, being beyond the comprehension of the cretin serving us, having to be referred to the Higher Authority of the bartender - and then ask if we can sit outdoors. Unfortunately, this being past 10 pm, outside seating has shut. So we endure the hellish tone-iness of the place, mostly because R. informs us that it is one of the most popular night spots in the city, and we can hardly insult him by walking out when he's putting us up at his place. After a while, the music quietens down, and I get enough Glenfiddich in my system to take the edge off my annoyance, so things aren't so bad.

Not that the conversation is exactly stellar. R., it turns out, is one of those people who are very concerned with 'philosophy' which means they've read Stephen Covey and think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is practically holy writ. His fundamental tenets in life, it seems, include the observations that a) all people are horny (this seems very important to him - he mentions it at least thrice) b) everyone's ultimate goal is to be happy c) Americans are happier than Desis because Americans are goal oriented and Desis are not and d) Portland is a really great city to be happy in, especially with the way property values are likely to rise. Not quite Wittgenstein, but there it is.

BM sits there trying desperately not to giggle. Yours truly throws in the occasional bon mot about the examined life, and watches it sink to the bottom of the conversation like a dropped stone scattering fish. MR, who's never let mere banality come in the way of her appreciation of a night out with a good looking man, tries gamely to keep the conversation going.

At some point in the evening, we move to another bar (having made our way through large groups of extremely drunk frat boys accosting strangers on the street), this one called Club 21, which is a lot nicer for being more relaxed and informal. Here things get a lot happier, and a little wilder. MR, under the influence of her third Bombay Tonic, flirts happily with R., causing him to panic a little. BM gets sprayed with water repeatedly: first when MR, in revenge for my having confiscated her camera (she was trying to do embarrassing things with it), tries to throw a glass of water at me and ends up dousing BM instead; next when R., in the course of making some forceful point manages to bring his hand down on his straw, sending cubes of ice arcing through the air onto BM; and finally when MR, this time making a particularly expansive gesture, manages to spill a second glass of water all over the table. BM takes refuge in the ladies room. I take away MR's drink and gulp it down before she can have any more. It begins to dawn on R., who has so far been too caught up in expounding his theories on life, that instead of a quorum of admiring disciples, he is, in fact, surrounded by a group of drunken near-lunatics. Amazingly, this makes him feel better, and he lightens up a lot. Our tattoo-bearing, nose-pierced waitress stops by our table to ask if we need anything else, then goes straight over to the 6 foot 2 guy in the cowboy hat checking ids at the door and whispers something in his ear, after which he proceeded to eye us suspiciously for the rest of the evening. I sit there, sipping my Jack Daniel's, thinking this is what it must feel like to be a character in a F. Scott Fitzgerald story.

Eventually we head back to R.s place, MR informing us along the way that she isn't really drunk, because the surest sign of someone being sober is that they refuse to walk a straight line even though they can. We ask her if she'd be willing to walk a straight line, and she refuses, so we know that she's really drunk. In retrospect, it probably isn't a bright idea to let R drive us back, but he seems to know what he's doing, and does, in fact, drive home pretty sensibly. We go to bed having made a few desultory plans to go to the Columbia River Gorge the next morning - plans that we are forced to leave incomplete because MR is in no shape to participate in any discussion.

Day 5

The last day of the trip. BM, R and I are up by 9, and sit around drinking tea and chatting about doctors and health service woes in what soon comes to resemble a meeting of Hypochondriacs Anonymous. MR finally makes her bleary-headed way down by around 10, soon after which the four of us leave to head out to the Columbia River Gorge, stopping on the way to pick up a breakfast of bagels and espresso.

The Gorge itself is beautiful enough, except that today being the Fourth of July (and a beautiful day in the bargain) it's turned into a horrendous tourist trap. We stop at this thing called the Multnomah Falls, and it takes us a good ten minutes to find parking, after which it's like walking around in Grand Central Station. We go a short way up the trail, stopping at a pretty little stone bridge that arches across the base of the falls. It would be a lovely spot, if it weren't for the fact that every inch of the bridge, on both sides, is lined back to back with people, and a third row of folks are trying to push their way between them. We stand on one edge and discuss the pros and cons of this bridge as a point to commit suicide from (no prizes for guessing whose contribution to the conversation that is) then head back to our car and onward to the next waterfall.

This turns out to be the Horsetail fall - a swishing little ribbon of water pouring down from a low hillside, not particularly high, really, but sparkling and gorgeous in the afternoon sun. A small rockpool spreads out at the base of the fall, and a path from the road leads right down to it, so pretty soon we've pulled off our shoes and are paddling about in the water. The pool is icy-cold, of course, but it's a welcome relief to feel the chill of it between your toes on such a hot day. I tread carefully about, feeling the treacherous sliminess of the rocks under me. We linger here for a half hour or so, while MR tries out every setting in her camera trying to capture the luminosity of the falling water, as well as the delicate green of the undergrowth around it. We're not sure we want to go any further on this road (how many falls can you see, really?) and finally decide to head back to town. On the way we stop at a couple of view points to take in the majesty of the gorge, one down by the river itself, the other up at an overlook called Vista Point.

Then it's back to the city for a generous seafood meal at Salty's on the Columbia - a couple of glasses of Riesling, some delicious chowder, and a wonderful triple appetizer of Fried Calamari, Coconut-flaked prawns and smoked salmon cakes - all this while sitting right on the edge of the river, watching the sailboats and the powerboats and the jet-skis go past, observing the bushy nests that some bird had built on the pilings of the abandoned pier. Even the presence of two very drunk men at the next table, who insist on coming over to tell us dumb blond jokes, only adds to our sense of holiday. It's a splendid way to round off a deeply satisfying trip and we leave the restaurant parking lot (throwing a last farewell glance at the hazy spectacle of Mt. Hood towering in the distance) with a sense of something very like accomplishment.

BM's flight leaves at 6.00 pm, so we hop off at the airport and I see her off on her flight before settling in to wait the four hours to mine, filling in the time by revisiting Mozart's Symphonies 21 through 26, as well as Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (MR is off doing the whole spoilt New Yorker deal by trying to find a massage place in Portland). Our four and a half hour flight from here will get us to Newark at 5.30 am local time, from where I will make my way back to Philly, collapsing in exhaustion by the time I get back to my place and waking up only late in the afternoon on the fifth to start blogging about this trip.

[1] MR is one of the most widely traveled people I know, but somehow all her travel stories seem to end up being about food. Ask her about her trip to Macchu Picchu and you'll be regaled with descriptions of the 12-item dessert buffet she had in some little town in Peru. Talk to her about her trip to Bryce and Zion, and you'll hear all about the incredible steak place she discovered in some little known Utah hamlet. Mention her recent trip to Morocco and she'll tell you how great the goat cheese there is. It's like traveling with a live version of Asterix and the Banquet.

[2] Oregon isn't just law-abiding about traffic rules. They also seem to have the strictest policy on checking ids I've ever experienced in the US. The first time we got asked for our ids, in Bend, we were are all rather flattered, since none of us looks like he / she could be even close to 21, let alone under it. It soon became obvious though, that this was standard practice here, though the combination of ids from California, Illinois and Pennsylvania continued to invite comment from the waitstaff.