Monday, December 31, 2012

Arborcide Survivors

 
 

Trees were downed by Sandy on this corner, Monmouth and Columbus. During the next few weeks, major arborcide – the cure was as much as a catastrophe as the storm. Trees removed down to the stumps – they don’t seem like they are going to be replaced – one former stump is gone entirely, all sidewalk now.

 



Sobering and stark – not just the empty spots where trees once bloomed but the removal of the branches and the boughs. It’s winter and the leaves have fallen, but those twigs attached to branches where new buds become leaves every spring, they’re gone too.

 

 

 
It’s sad – nature giveth, nature taketh away – our municipality– trigger happy when it comes to arborcide if you ask me – decided better safe than sorry and who can blame them. There’s electrical wires draped and streaming on the sidewalk. Still, the trees look positively butchered.
 

 



Like the trees, we suffer loss of companions and even the limbs of our youth, yet we endure. We may not be so lucky next storm but we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.
 
 

St. Ann’s Home

 
West Side, Greenville… who am I, Rand McNally… I go five blocks from my apartment and I get confused… used to be a nursing home for the elderly, now it’s a rehab place… a friend of mine broke his hip – get well soon – I have nothing insightful to say, I just dug the statues around the facility – which was across the street from what looked like a former school, and was also near a church – you have go through an ultra-urban section to get there from here but then there was like a compressed suburb. The statues enhanced a placid atmosphere. The name – St. Ann’s Home – is a possessive, but isn’t it also a contraction. Think about it… Get well soon Charley.

 





Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: My Favorite Reads


I had so much fun summing up last year’s best reads, even though this will be a shortened version, I am giving it another shot.

I had a personal crisis this year regarding my salaried work, which impacted my reading. Depression and anxiety can leave you little ability, much less motivation, to discover, evaluate and experience new prose. And, too many of the new books I read failed to make a notable impression.
 
Seeking solace and inspiration, for much of the Summer into Fall, I re-read exclusively – Raymond Carver, Hart Crane, not to mention my northern stars – the King James, Whitman, Rimbaud and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.

Frederick Barthelme – Elroy Nights and Waveland were stand outs. I also reread Bartheleme’s Two Against One, which is such a great book, his best and equal to any post WWII American Novel still being kicked around. Raney by Clyde Edgerton, one of the most stylistically mischievous Southern novels of recent vintage, I reread for the third time. For the holidays, I delved back into A Confederacy of Dunces (for the untempt time),  that rare work of fiction that in addition to gaining more meaning with each encounter, is actually funnier the more familiar it becomes.

Waveland, Bartheleme’s most recent novel, which depicts the Katrina experience as felt by a small group of inhabitants of the titular Mississippi town, I read around the Sandy days. It’s about a group of people coping with a new reality, and the differences between that reality and the “Katrina Show” constantly on the news. Maybe out of all my re-reads, I recommend this the most. Barthelme, perhaps our greatest prose stylist, has sustained his comic gifts but now in his golden years, he has become more external. He has become more Lenny Bruce than Jerry Seinfeld, and it suits him, and him, it.  Don’t let the comedy fool you though, this book is about keeping what you got in the face of adversity, which is not just the natural disaster, but shifting your own personal morality when confronting an over-achieving brother and a wife who probably murdered her ex. I haven’t delved back into the Barthelme for several years. This time around he seemed more edifying and his newest book is as good as any other masterpiece in his oeuvre.

And, like I do almost every autumn, I dived into my annual Moby Dick immersion. One of the myriad messages in this greatest of all works is to be (like the whale) in this world but not of this world, a notion that seemed excruciatingly relevant during this time and what has proven to be a very trying year.

But reading continues. My obligation to text is as strong as a farmer’s devotion to the soil, even during those years when personal tragedies, disappointments and set backs leave you at a loss, you still fulfill those obligations even if the enthusiasm – not to mention concentration – levels are much depleted. You get behind the mule and plow!

Books included in my favorite 2012 reads are in no particular order
 

2030 by Albert Brooks

Published in 2011, I read the paperback upon its April 2012 release. I realize if I had an e-reader, I would not have to wait for the less expensive, more conveniently portable format. I guess I’m old skool.

I was expecting a comic novel, and while quite funny, there are only a few laugh out loud spots, which is meant as a compliment but in a novel by Albert Brooks one is justified in assuming it is a criticism. The novel surprised me with its literary qualities and its intelligent social insight.

You get a lot of Albert Brooks in the novel, but not as much as his better films. However,  if you want a Brooks fix you’ll be more satisfied with 2030 than some of his recent cinematic letdowns, like that dull-witted misfire about contemporary Islam. Which is to say, you get his voice. But, you also you have to go back to Reel Life for this amount of sharply drawn, cleverly subtle social satire. In a way, 2030 is better than his films but that might be due to the intrinsic superiority of the novel, when this expertly achieved, to film, but I digress.

In 2030 (the novel is named after the year in the not so far off future), cancer and everything else is cured. The Baby Boomers are living healthy lives into their 100s, sucking up the nation’s resources and giving no hope for young people. America is in debt to the Chinese, and there are no jobs for young people. An earthquake devastates Los Angeles and the Chinese offer to rebuild if they can own 50 percent of the city. A terrorist ring made up of people under 50 begin targeting groups of elderly, including a plot to assassinate the Nobel award winning doctor who cured cancer. And, America’s first Jewish president is having an affair with his 80 year old secretary of state. I read this book on a lark, expecting a few snickers as I pass PATH time. I could not put it down, and I muttered right on as much as I chuckled. Best Dystopian future fiction for people who normally read literature since Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson.

But can it make a good movie? Well, probably, although maybe consider an animated HBO miniseries, with Brooks voicing the mensch of a president, of course. I say animated, because creating the future might mean a very hefty budget, such as the Charge & Chew stations where people recharge the electric cars while they eat, so a Toy Story like cartoon movie would be economical (and really cool) and miniseries, because this may be a “lite” read, there were enough characters and episodes to really justify a miniseries.

 

Grammar school teachers dealt a near fatal blow to John Steinbeck when they introduced him by “teaching” Travels With Charley and the Pearl. These inexorable works may have their positive aspects, but not many of them and do not belong in classrooms. In my teen years, Grapes of Wrath, which I first read then, on my own, because it was the widely acknowledged  antecedent inspiration to On The Road and Kerouac was a major force in those Wonder Bread years.

Overall, Steinbeck’s reputation has never been what it should be, or what it used to be. I might hazard a guess that the reason those grammar school teachers forced Steinbeck upon us was that in mid-20th century, he had an esteemed place in the pantheon. But in spite of the Nobel, his best sellers and the fact that John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest films ever made, Steinbeck’s reputation waned.

 It took me decades and a dear friend who is a tireless Steinbeck promoter, to discover such sublime works as Cannery Row and to realize that no one quite universalizes the American experience like Steinbeck. He was also quite prolific, so alongside masterpieces like Grapes and mawkish misfires like Travels, there are forgotten gems in his oeuvre waiting to be read.

 Like Hemingway and Faulkner, Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize but he is rarely viewed as the literary artist that Papa and Bill are. All of them are in that American generation of white male writers between Sherwood Anderson and Norman Mailer, which also includes Fitzgerald and John O’Hara. Steinbeck seems declared an important writer solely by default. MFA students don’t study and unpack his style like they do a Hemmingway short story. I think this should change. Travels and Pearl are still cloying, but there’s a poignant realism and humanity to Steinbeck that when he is at his best, no other writer attains the same veracity. Literature of the people is still literature. The social is internal! We must restore his place among our best writers, at least an equal to the big mid- 20th century trio – Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – (and their overlooked step-brother John O’Hara).

Grapes of Wrath might be a masterpiece, but it is long and at times a slog – especially when you read it the first time. The reason I’ve gotten my soapbox so I can embark on a Steinbeck restoration tour is that I read two of his thin novels – long novellas? – that are taut and entertaining endeavors.

In Dubious Battle is an organized labor thriller. I could not put it down. It is the story of a strike, union organizing and members of “The Party” who infiltrate the union and are as morally questionable as the strike busters. A very noirish novel – at one point a party member beats up a scab just enough to make him bloody but not to seriously hurt him. A chilling scene, as labor organizer assure the young man they just want him to be an “advertisement” as they proceed to surgically pummel him. I would bet good money that’s s where Jim Thompson got his inspiration for the similar “the Oranges” scene in The Grifters. If old Tom Joad leaves his family to organize workers, In Dubious Battle shows the dark road one hopes he was able to avoid. Steinbeck may have been a humanist, idealist and lefty, but he was no fool. Reading In Dubious Battle was like reading Sanctuary by Faulkner or To Have and To Have Not by Hemmingway. The excursions into thrillers by the so called lions of American literature, who were probably trying to prove they could be as much fun to read as their contemporary Dashiel Hammet.
 
 

To A God Unknown was my other 2012 Steinbeck revelation. This early novella contains, like In Dubious Battle, a darkness we do not associate with Steinbeck. Instead of a noir however, To A God reads like a gnarly fable, or one of those old folk songs filled with death and sorrow.

It takes place in some mythical 19th century American, where Joseph moves to California in search of better farm land. His brothers follow. Joseph marries a woman who his younger brother seduces, and there’s another brother, resentful of the older sibling, who girds a tree, essentially murdering the tree and the farm. The land of California is an unseen character propelling this this allegory as much as the people trapped in the narrative and unable to escape their fate. Reading, you are not sure what is symbolizing what, because you’re so caught up in the unfolding complex tragedy that touches on Christianity, Eastern Religion, Native American Culture and pantheism. It reminded me of Robert Hunter lyrics, especially ineffable ditties like Franklin’s Tower as well as Desire Under the Elms, a Eugene O’Neil play that was made into a great film staring Burl Ives, Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren.

Sibling Rivalry, adulterous love triangles and the inescapable power of nature – To A God Unknown is the stuff of Greek tragedy or the Old Testament. This novel is awash in the same blood as antiquity. That just makes it all the more terrifying, because the lethal fable is placed in a familiar, oft-idealized America. Steinbeck questions the optimism that drove our westward expansion. California now has another layer of metaphor for me.


 

I was lucky enough to see Harold Bloom speak in the spring. He mentioned his “orphan” book The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post Christian Nation, an early 90s work that is indeed, notably unlike his other works. As the title implies, Bloom looks at all the native forms of Protestantism that have sprung up in America and finds out how different they are than the Protestant sects that sprouted in Europe during the reformation. His use of “Post-Christian” in the subtitle is due to his thesis that, without knowing much less acknowledging it, American Protestantism actually is a form of gnostic Christianity. In Bloom, gnosis is a big deal, and is derived from speculation about the Gospel of Thomas and other Dead Sea texts and Christian Sects two millennia  ago that existed before and during the Council of Nice. With Gnosticism, I know enough to understand and follow but not enough to separate fact from hypothesis. With Bloom though you’re always hanging on to the edge of your intellectual seat as you take the ride and after reading a few of his books, you learn to trust the master and follow along, knowing that his trails of excess will eventually lead to a place of understanding.
 

Where American Religion really diverges from his other books of “religious criticism” – such as Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine – is that Bloom awakens his inner historian, tracking the unique evangelical nature of American protestants to the “Cane Hill Revival,” where some 20,000 mainly farmers gathered in 1820 Arkansas and expressed their faith together, giving birth to a Pentecostalism utterly distinct from the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Calvinists. He looks at the various iterations of American protestants—including Christian Scientists, Southern Baptists, 7th Day Advantest,  Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as profiles of some key leaders – Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.

And while critical, in a general sense, he is objective in his analysis and respectful of their views. His intention is to analyze distinct theologies and why they emerged in America at certain periods of our history. Within just a few decades of the American Revolution, American Protestants had their own reformation, resulting in several new variants of Christianity. Bloom looks at what were the beliefs that resulted from this theological upheaval.

In addition to the insight and wit that accompanies his essays, Bloom’s book is informative. In the year of Romney, his chapter on Mormonism proved astutely relevant. He rightly points out that Mormon’s relationship to Christ really has more in common with Islam – Christ, the Son of Mary, is a revered prophet as depicted in the Koran – than with Christianity, who sees Christ as God in the trinity.

Bloom sees another strain of belief peculiar to many of these American born and bred sects – the personal relationship with a Jesus Christ, specifically, with the Resurrected Christ – the post-Crucifixion, pre-Ascension Jesus, who according to the Gospels, existed for forty days and nights. Although as Bloom points out, little is known or written about in the Gospels. The main teachings of Christ’s, the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and even the miracles, take place before the crucifixion. The resurrected Jesus doesn’t talk about caring for the poor or doing unto others. He is the perfect Christ for believers in the American experiment to project their own notions upon. As Bloom applies his observations about the beliefs and biblical interpretations of these Christian sects to their growing allegiance with the Right Wing in more recent times, the reader not only better understands the Great Awakening movements of the 19th ceuntry, but comes with new insights about America. Christianity helped shaped our history, culture and legal system. Bloom shows us how America returned the favor.

 

Creole Belle. Any year there’s a new Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke means there’s going to be a new novel worth reading. He comes out with one every other year, always in the Summer. Perhaps the last Great Robicheaux was Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002) which featured a memorable villain, Legion Guidry, an unreconstructed prison racist prison guard who was diabolically unforgettable, but to say truly great may be more opinion than an objective fact since Burke always delivers.

While I’m mostly unimpressed with Burke’s other work, the Robicheaux series I love. Some may seem better than others, and there are times Burke seems to be running out gas and recycling his tropes – how many times can you describe moss or a sunset on the bayou – but the novels are always so well written. His lyrical sentences lack all pretension and resound with authentic regionalism.

 Besides the craftsman-like sentences, Burke deserves to be considered alongside Chandler and Hammet. He is one of the best practitioners history of the genre. If you’re a fan, immersing yourself in his world is an eagerly anticipated biannual reading pleasure. That anticipation was higher after the preceding novel, The Glass Rainbow, a taut thrill-ride that had an unusually abrupt finale. The story ended in a bloody shoot out,  our favorite Knight Errant and his cohort Clete Purcell, are riddled with bullets and holding on to each other for dear life. Saving the day and enabling good to triumph is never easy in Burke’s fiction, but the heroes are rarely this banged up, even so, the novels always conclude with a coda where all the loose ends are tied up and life returns to New Iberia with its slow and humid pace. No coda in for The Glass Rainbow, just the sudden realization that our two main characters are barely alive. It was the closest thing to a cliff hanger Burke has ever wrote. He was playing with our expectations.

 This led me to believe the next novel, Creole Belle, would be fare-thee-well, maybe even killing off of Robicheaux, which would be honorable, something not granted to Spade or Marlow. Besides, how long can Burke keep it up?  Would Burke be willing to kill off this beloved and profitable protagonist and end his series with a satisfying conclusion?

No, at least apparently not. In an audacious meta-move (it would not be meta if it was done on say a television show, but leave that for another discussion), Alafar Robicheaux gets a bigger role – she is now a lawyer/novelist, much like Burke’s real life daughter – and he introduces a new character, the never known to exist daughter of Clete Purcel, who like Purcel, is damaged, great in a fight, but has a good heart. Guess what, the two daughters hit it off and help solve the crime, hit men and/or hit women are after Dave and Clete, one of whom may be Purcel’s daughter. The climax takes place in a comeback concert by a musician who is so blatantly based on Jerry Lee Lewis that Burke steals a real life incident twixt The Killer and Chuck Berry, which is known to even casual fans and amateur rock historians. The reference is hiding in plain sight, as is Burke’s grin.

Write sentences like Burke and you too can get away with sheer audacity and even pure commercial motives. This installment is at least 100 pages longer than even the longest previous Robicheaux and instead of ending the series, it basically sets up Dave Robicheaux-The Next Generation.  As long as this writer has breath in his body – he’s 76 – there still stellar, lyrical prose to be found in those foggy swamps and humid streets.

Zola is one of my favorite novelists and this year I discovered the most-Zola American novel ever, The Octopus by Frank Norris. A an acolyte of the great Emile, Norris combines both The Human Beast, Zola’s masterful train drama, with The Earth, his study of farmers (yes, I’m using the English translated titles because I love Penguin Classics you snob), in this story of, well, trains and farms in California. The main character is a poet seeking to write about the west, another character seeks vengeance for the murder of his lover. The rail road men are the bad guys, who are looking to take back land farmers have been leasing for more than a decade. Melville and to a large extent Zola as well, can be seen as chroniclers of the human condition under early Capitalism; Norris writes about the next chapter, the so-called gilded age of post-Civil War America where early industrialization, especially with the proliferation of steam engine locomotives, cross continental railroad companies and the telegraph, nurtured capitalism and its unforeseen consequences on humanity. Rail Roaded, a terrific though slog of a read by economic historian, Richard White, about the growth of the transcontinental railroaded and how its greed inspired partnerships between corporations and government prefigured our current financial crisis mess. White praises Norris’s novel for its contemporary accuracy, but The Octopus is as much about the human condition as the social history. He’s a lefty to be sure, but more of a poet than Sinclair Lewis or Upton Sinclair. The other novels of his I’ve read are McTeague (turned into that Stroheim silent classic, Greed), and The Pit: A Story of Chicago – the second in an unfinished trilogy of which The Octopus was the first installment – which is about commodity trading and high finance, both are worthwhile reads but The Octopus is the classic.. Besides lots of trains, there’s a shoot out and the working class hero sets off a few explosives, where innocent people die – they played it rough in 19th century class war America. The bottom line though, if you love Zola, reading this near-forgotten book by his American grown progeny is a must. Regrettably, some spots of casual anti-Semitism, endemic to the era, crop up and cause reluctance in declaring this novel to be an unmitigated masterpiece.
 

Lydie Salvayre is the best novelist writing in French today. I don’t read French and can’t name another living French novelist worth reading, but I still stand by that statement. Browsing a book store may be an activity whose days are numbered, so I indulge in it at every opportunity as the end times approach. I rarely find anything that catches my fancy so discovering Salvayre is truly a rare event. I picked up Everyday Life, a thin, almost-novella length novel, started reading and had to buy it. Narrated in the first person, this manic and claustrophobic work is probably the best (this best I can substantiate) depiction of office culture I’ve read. The narrator is delightfully unreliable, a nut-case obsessing about the new secretary and rival at the job. Perhaps imagined pettiness is ultimately the most destructive. I had to pick up another of Salvayre’s, which was The Writer as Domesticated Animal, which dealt with a ghost writer of a jet setting billionaire’s autobiography who gradually becomes seduced by the lifestyle. Equally entertaining writing, and also in a first person, unreliable narrator format, it was not as moving as this sly work. With Salvayre, you escape entirely into somebody’s head and there’s no way out until the last page, but by then all you want is more.


Full disclosure: Eric Berkowitz is a buddy of mine. He is a lawyer, wrote this legal history book, that I began without enthusiasm – legal history, really? – but could not put down or stop thinking about. His scholarship has implications for us all. On the basis of relevant subject matter, if there's any book you have to read on this list, this may be it. Eric's not just a good writer for a lawyer, he’s a good writer.

Otherwise, I’m just reprinting my Amazon review.

 

Hypocrisy, Tragedy & the Illegal Libido

"Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" by Eric Berkowitz is that truly rare animal: a scholarly work that is fun to read. In fact, a book of legal history has no right to be this entertaining. Perhaps the fact that it is so enjoyable has to do with the subject matter - Sex - and while there are plenty of opportunities to get attention through prurience, Berkowitz thankfully prefers to showcase the inherent absurdity of sex law, which is based on what is ultimately a misbegotten notion, that personal choices in sexuality jeopardizes society as a whole.

 Since the dawn of time, or least recorded civilization, society has attempted to restrict sexual practices. Attempt is the key word, because Berkowitz points out that at every turn, the astonishing amount of corruption, hypocrisy and non-compliance accompanying every new sex law - not to mention the tragedies of the victims of this blatant injustice. In addition, he shows how arbitrary sex laws tend to be. What outrages law makers in one society - same sex relations, the age of consent for instance, even incest and bestiality - are treated indifferently by another.

 Beginning in the ancient world, the combination of the ancient Hebrews, who Berkowitz credits not just with inventing bans against incest, homosexuality, and sex with menstruating women, but creating the concept of sin: "...the moral strictures of the ancient Jews, held together with the molasses of shame and the terror of God's punishment, have been more influential on Western sexual attitudes than any other collection of ideas."

 Of course Hellenic culture of the ancient world eventually became intermingled with Hebrew thought, creating Christianity and Western Civilization. While Greek culture may on the surface seem more permissiveness than the Torah, they had their own immeasurable contribution to sex laws, or as Berkowitz credits the "...Greek Obsession: Litigation... the Greeks loved nothing more than a good sex trial."

This book may be about law, but it reads like a ripping good - and yes sometimes bawdy - yarn as Berkowitz applies his sardonic 21st century perspective to analyze ancient Rome, the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, ending with a splendid look at Flaubert's obscenity trial for Madame Bovary, Anthony Comstock's crusades against vice and obscene material in United States and Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for the love that dare not speak its name.  In spite of society becoming more enlightened - advances in science, public education expansion, ending of serfdom and slavery and the growth of a working and middle class - it is stunning how sex laws gained momentum in the 19th century. No matter how ineffective to their stated purpose, and how often tragedy resulted from the hypocrisy required to enforce penalties, new zealots gained public support for new laws and sadly, as more and more repressive laws were enacted, the only thing they spawned were more new victims, and more lawbreakers. 

Throughout the breadth (he's not kidding when he says 4,000 years) of this immensely readable narrative, Berkowitz echoes 20th century incidents, including lingering miscegenation laws, Bill Clinton's lying about sex under oath and the advent of same sex marriage, but he wisely stops short of looking at the gnarly sex laws that, as he puts it, "roiled" the last century up to the present day. Now that he has set the stage, the reader is left wanting more. "Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" makes you desire the sequel. Berkowtiz comprehensively tells us how we got here:  where we are in terms of regulating the private - sex - in the public sphere - the legal system; let's hope next time he tells us more about the here and now so we can end at least some of the mistakes that have plagued humanity for so many millennia. An important book and great read.

 

 

 

 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Creative Grove Ends Year

 

The weather turns increasingly frigid with each passing second. The holidays are winding down; a new year begins in a few days and the forecast is for snow tomorrow.

But as it does for most Friday afternoon-into- evenings,Creative Grove rolls on. Due to the freezing temperatures and the fact Christmas was just a few days ago and the peak of the shopping season so obviously done, the vendor presence was lite. Few commuters lingered in the chill on their way home from the PATH for the New Years holiday weekend.
 
 
The Creative Groves before Christmas can be packed, but on this the final Friday in December, traditionally the last Creative Grove of the year, attendance is lite. An ongoing, consecutive Friday art event to achieve collective goal – a space where community coalesces – requires consistency, but that also means while some Creative Groves are packed with shoppers and vendors and abundant energy, other Fridays are scarcely attended and the vibe is muted.

The last outdoor event at the Grove PATH Plaza of the year was the Last Creative Grove of the year. The motley, free-form and Technicolor flea market that fills our Fridays with new life goes into Hibernation until spring.

Seems like only yesterday, the first Summer-like Friday ofthe year, Creative Grove was packed with tables and customers, drum circles, children and hula hoops. Time flies, another year concludes and one way to mark the time in Jersey City is the weekly Creative Grove.

Like the Farmers Market and Groove on Grove, Creative Grove is a multi-generational, multi-ethnic and somewhat low-key gathering point where community is visibly manifested.

Creative Grove lasts for more months of the year than other outdoor local events. It braves harsher weather conditions. But more so than any consecutive or even one-time J.C. event, indoor or out, at the end of the day when the final account is tallied, Creative Groves gives a wider variety and number of artists, designers, crafts makers and other DIY types an opportunity for commerce.

There’s always a DJ, occasional live music and vendors selling art, crafts and food. The now nearly ubiquitous food trucks are parked on the periphery. Activities for children are almost always part of the weekly event. Creative Grove has a home grown feel, but alongside the NJ/NY born-and-bred are international artists, this event is also a unique hybrid of the local and the global. There’s really nothing quite like it.

 



 

 
Maybe because it’s every Friday, we can take Creative Grove for granted. Pulling it off every Friday requires constantly navigating through and negotiating with the municipality, downtown real estate interests, and the often eccentric personalities of the vendors. Not to mention that most people, like me I admit, come more to hang out than to purchase. Community support can be intermittent at best and Creative Grove lacks some key advocates that other local art events possess. Any financial pay off is meager.

Organizing the weekly Creative Grove means oodles of frustration and under-appreciation. And yet, here it is, every Friday, for all of us to experience and enjoy.

Uta Brauser, proprietor of Fish with Braids and an artist in her own right, is the Creative Grove creator. I’ve written about her a few times, most recently at the opening of her new gallery space, so I’m a little short of words of esteem. I just wan to say thanks, farewell to the 2012 edition of Creative Grove and a heart felt, see you next year.

Uta’s booth, comprised of two or three canopies, is both a pop-up gallery and the nerve center of the weekly event. She makes sure the children’s events are not too rowdy, the sound level of the DJ stay at a reasonable volume and the vendors are happy with their tables and locations. As the sun sets, Uta assembles portable lamps so the fair is illuminated as evening descends.

On warmer, more crowded evenings, when there’s dozens of vendors, and Creative Grove is a-buzz, Uta is constantly shifting gears, dealing with Creative Grove business as well as a the constant flow of customers. Her booth showcases her fashion creations, which recently includes some outlandish apparel but is always more focused on her popular line of funky, one-of-a-kind headwear. It also is a mobile gallery for a select group of artists. Recently, she is exhibiting more examples of her illustrations. She seems to be in a highly productive phase of her visual art. Images on view combine accents of Asian-inspired minimalism with a Frank Miller pop-sensibility. There were a series of nude women whose heads were a skull –death mask juxtaposed with a maternal ideal. Femininity as the source of life coexisting with the ultimate realty of lifeless bones. A larger drawing, also new, showed apparently topless women, jeans, sitting on a floor or maybe a futon, paused in introspection. The work is melancholic and moody; feminism sans ideology.

Uta mentioned that for next year, expect more art events to augment and enhance Creative Grove and Fish with Braids.
 
 

 
 
 

In spite of the chill, the lack of customers and only a smattering of vendors, the last edition of Creative Grove lasted to its 9:00 pm closing time. Jersey City can be tough for a weekly art/crafts flea market. Places like Union Square have a sizable local following and is a destination for hordes of non-local potential customers. Jersey City will never – well, at least not yet or for the foreseeable future – attract the same kind of numbers, from both here and the nearby, that a Union Square does. But what Creative Grove lacks in commercial potential, it more than makes up for in community.

See you again Creative Grove, some Friday sometime after February.
 



 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Post-Sandy Erie Lackawanna


 
Hoboken Train Station may be functioning but its grandeur has yet to recover. Dislocation features lots of posts with this train station; I’ve been transiting through this transit hub for much of my adult life. I hadn’t been back since Sandy.  The Hoboken PATH is finally back on line. I was taking the Christmas express to the suburban land of my birth, as I do every year. A FEMA trailer is the ticket station. Everything was closed, the mini-food court, whose renovation was, only completed a couple of weeks pre-Sandy, as well as the newsstands and coffee stands. The waiting room lobby, with its clock and stain glass and lion water fountain, behind doors locked since the catastrophic weather event. I wonder if the furnishings were destroyed, not just the long classic benches but the model train display – you press a button and an HO scale train spins around a fake Jersey town. You put in quarters as a donation; it’s for a charity run by the NJ Transit conductors. Need to heed the call of nature? Port-o-potties  outside. Commuting through here must be depressing as hell. It is like a 3rd world country now. Actually, it is exactly like reality. A climate changing caused storm that was the double the intensity what was prepared for hit a decaying infrastructure. Two months have passed but as a conductor reminded me when I asked if there is any place where you can a beverage for the train ride, we had six feet of water in the stations. Sandy has ravaged not just the Jersey Shore, but one of the few working vestiges of America’s glorious Railroad past.  The Erie Lackawanna is now more memorial than a relevant presence in the day-to-day. We transit through storm-damaged, purely operational space with no where to pause, no reason to linger and reflect. Our ability to endure may be the overriding feeling one gets, but the hope and optimism related to travel that Train Stations inspire, especially around Christmas, is no where to be felt. One cannot escape thinking about the severity of the storm, the inadequacies of our preparations and response, the lack of investment in our infrastructure, and the vast amount of pollution our society has produced, irrevocably altering global weather patterns.  The Hoboken Train Station, instead of symbolizing the potential of our civilization, now is just another sign of the ways that civilization has enabled its own demise.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jersey City Main Branch Library Reopens

 
Garrison Keillor once wrote Libraries are mini-temples of Democracy. I love that quote and use it at every opportunity. I have a library addiction and Jersey City’s Main Branch is not just a splendid old building, it is one of the better public libraries in our state. The holdings feature a solid selection of civil war history and music history books and of course, you can use the inter-library loan, which unlike many libraries across the land, is still free. The DVD selection is likewise well-stocked. Jersey City’s Main Branch library is a mecca of downtown democracy.
 

My favorite place to hang out anywhere is the New Jersey Historical Room, on the third floor. The source of many a blog, you can look up any address in town and unlock mysteries of the past. Vast maps tell their own history of our city. Folders filled with clippings are available for many of the more famous addresses, as well as for places and events shaping our town, are in those folders. If you ever had the pleasure, you know, and if you haven’t, try it – slip your mind through this portal to the past that is simply unique and proves how much research cannot be complete if conducted only online. The New Jersey Historical Room just a great place to spend an hour or two, and the specialists who work there are not only as helpful as possible, they inspire. My imagination is strengthened every time I have something to seek through the old for something new.
 




 

The best part of the Jersey City library are our librarians, who are just so nice and encouraging. Their love of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, their commitment to being access points to that knowledge, is simply impressive. I’ve seen them help teen agers trying to get a paper done with the same professionalism and reassurance they’ve handled… well salty old writers like yours truly.

Sandy knocked out the furnaces in the Main Branch. I had to feed my addiction at the Five Corners Branch, which is funky and fun and more than adequate, but smaller and sort of noisy. The hushed tone atmosphere was not as well enforced or respected. The main branch was closed an entire month and I would see some of the librarians working at the five corners and inevitably the talk would be about Sandy’s impact. I wondered how many folders would Sandy finally take – the aftermath is still unfolding so that number is unknown.

But, one chapter is over, the Main Branch has reopened (the heat was working and it was very comfortable). Christmas decorations had been set up throughout the four floors, including a cheerful tree with presents in the lobby, where the children’s library is situated on the Southside of the ground floor. Blue and yellow balloons, tied to the railings, greeted us. The library is opened they proclaimed. Once again you can free your minds by expanding your knowledge.

The library has a policy prohibiting picture taking. It is only allowed if you don’t get caught. That’s why these pictures look surreptitious; they were taken clandestinely.
 


 

Better than even the grandfather clock, the fallout shelter sign – what a great old building – is the hand propelled elevator. A free thrill available in few places outside the Jersey City Main Branch library – an elevator operator operated elevator – a bona fide working antique.

I shouldn’t let you take pictures, she reminded me when I took a picture, but don’t take one of me.

Seriously, you tell the operator what floor and they have operate the lift with a handle, often missing the exact level by a few inches, when they then must ease up the elevator, using the handle, as it lurches towards the edge of the floor. You see these elevators in old movies. Now of course, you get in an elevator and push the button to reach the desired floor. Every time I take the Library elevator – and I take it every chance I get – you get a noir feel, like you’ve suddenly put on a fedora and a trench coast, your 38, safe and ready at the side of chest in a shoulder holster. Take it up to the fourth floor and walk down. It’s a unique experience, and one unique to Jersey City and its fabulous Main Branch Library. Welcome back, you were missed.

 

 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Newport Mall Christmas

 
Some went up before Halloween, some you don’t see until Black Friday, but by the second Sunday of December… the Newport Mall is decked out and the hold outs have joined the early adapters in accepting the inevitable fact Christmas is here once again. Just as inevitable is a visit to your local mall, ours being the always refreshed but still ghetto fabulous Newport Mall. Before we know it, the decorations will be gone….
 
 

 
Unlike the Christmas decorations of our family, friends and neighbors, Malls are mostly new every year. Part of the routine of celebrating the holiday. At home we take out the box of decorations from the attic, each ornament invokes a different memory, but the malls and the anchor stores plan and design the decorations every year. A group of professionals sat down last spring and decided on the decorations for the mall – huge stockings with drippy strands of lights. Each Department store has its own Christmas decoration design team.

They discuss consumer trends, current events, the latest marketing theories and translate these into design concepts that emphasize the holiday theme while maximizing the desire to make a purchase.

What we see at the Newport Mall is being seen by shoppers in malls and mall stores across the land. The only thing that makes Christmas at our mall unique is us.

The drippy strands of Christmas lights have a melting icicle feel to them, the day after a rainy ice storm. These are climate change lights.

Our amoral consumerism and commercialization of Christmas offends me, as it does most of us, but that gripe like the falling of leaves and first flakes of snow, is just another sign of the changing of the year, a familiar thus comfortable complaint.

There’s no escaping consumerism and commercialization at the mall. The entire complex is devoted to turning consumerism and commercialization into near-sacred aspirations. Shopping Malls as cathedrals of capitalism may not be a new analogy but it remains an apt one. Both malls and churches are committed to Christmas and they each recognize the season as distinct. Both erect special ornamentation. Both change their messaging to fit the season –the stores hang Christmas sale signs, the church implements advent then nativity liturgy.

But the mall message and church message are not the exact opposite sides of the same holiday, not completely at least. Consumerism at Christmas is about, at least overtly, gift giving, a very different notion than greed or unquenchable consumption. Mall Christmas messaging, exemplified by the decorations, contain – an amount varying by degrees – of generosity. At Christmas we shop for others in our lives. Presents are a sign of affection, a proof of a relationship’s sincerity or a sign of how significant the relationship is, which determines the degree of obligation. There’s a thoughtfulness that can’t be denied. Oh, I’m not suggesting the act is pure and altruistic or denying that part (the best part? Leave human nature of it for now) of giving is the getting of the gift in return. What is pure anyway? Gift or personal acquisition, the shareholders still get rich, the house wins and workers remain oppressed. But the retail Christmas decorations, encourage consumption, it’s consumption for the sake of others. That has to account for something. The Mall decorations are not entirely vapid or banal.





 
 

 










 



A Triumph of the Will Christmas Mannequin. Dressed in the Winter Ideal, with the red matching the Macy’s Christmas red. Dress like me, follow me, and join the ultimate in winter beauty.
 
Tommy Hilfiger has stunning balls. I guess to be a designer, you need some ego. Jokes aside, what is the point of having gigantic Christmas ornaments– too huge for any tree? This how Christmas tree balls seemed during our earliest holidays, when we were infants and toddlers and the balls were way too big for tiny hands, dangling high above our crib. Nostalgia drives the Christmas feeling. Maybe the marketing encourages us to see our selves as our parents wanted us to be: well-behaved kids, dressed in the preppy attire to which Tommy’s designs aspire. Well, we let them down but we can still buy the clothes and some recompense might occur.


 







Kohl’s marketing goes with the Dream Gift idea, reflecting that other Christmas motif, sugar plum fairies dancing in your head. Again, nostalgia, a child dreaming of what Santa will leave under the tree. You can make that dream come true for the one you are buying for. The ornamentation in the store was almost completely mobile – dangling from the ceiling, hovering like a dream like those preternatural plums must have danced
 
 
Victoria Secrets. The adult Christmas. Here the decorations –Christmas-themed lingerie – are also the merchandise. Well, you can buy your sweetie the red velvet nightie, but you probably won’t. The flimsy outfit for the night before you visits with the folks. Keep this up, you’ll have kids have your own and your romantic Christmas eves will be thing of the past. Married goombas can still buy them for their goomas but still….
At the center of the Mall is the center of Christmas, the ultimate wish granter, Santa Claus. The first job I ever had was at Paramus Park Mall, where we would Christmas lights on the trees in the mall. I also escorted Santa back and forth from Santa land – where he sat on his thrones and met with the children – to the backroom spaces hidden behind the corridor walls of the mall. Kids squealed when he passed by. I remember once, after Santa took off his beard, the guy said, anybody got anything for the head? That was hipster code back then for got any drugs? I was one of the elves not holding that night.

It’s a rite of passage, sitting on Santa’s lap and telling him what you want, swearing you have not been naughty. Easy to be creepy and cynical about, but admit, there was at least one Christmas where you visited Santa, got what you wanted a few weeks later, and believed that magic is reality. At first you probably are not sure what’s going on and then later, you are too big to sit on the lap and notice that the beard was not made with real hair and then next year, instead of bugging your mother to take you to Santa you bug her about the new X-Box or Nintendo or whatever. But there are those middle years, the one or two trips to Santa, when everything works right and you feel happiness on Christmas morning that Santa had kept his promise and you remember that happiness all your life, and you try to recreate every year, every Christmas.

Ever notice too, the older kids, the ones only a year two away from believing in Santa. Just a year or two away from being small enough to sit on Santa’s lap? When you are that age, you are the most enthusiastic proselytizers for Santa with the younger kids. You energetically try to convince the younger ones to have the belief you only recently grew out of. There’s no bigger promoter for belief in Santa Claus than the kid who just grew out of that debate.

The only time in life you are truly happy, purely and only happy, is when you are a kid. Growing up and adulthood have many pleasure, but pure happiness is a feeling that only becomes more rare with age. We instinctually realize this, and when are around ones who are at the age to have it, we are compelled to encourage and nurture it in them. The parents have let you in on the secret of Santa, now you are obligated to wait in line with your little brother and sister at the mall. Waiting on line, seeing Santa, making your request, is the first seed of hope – do you believe –and then there’s that morning hope is fulfilled, under the tree wrapped presents are piled, how many Christmas mornings are there, two, maybe three? Yet, those two or three determine Decembers for the rest of our lives.

 






Sears is so blatant about the presents motivation of Christmas shopping it put the idea in its marketing, emblazoning in its tagline and Point of Purchase materials. Gift as a verb probably started with “re-gift,” now it is trying to make Gift synonymous with Sears. Notice, How to Gift (gift is a verb), with this is Sears (sears is a noun), all highlighting the real message –price and affordability – 75% off! A very utilitarian concept, save money. Gift giving may have a higher aspiration, but let’s be realistic, times are tough and every penny counts. The cleverness of this copywriting is borderline awe inspiring.
 
 



 


Toyzam! For decades, this store was a pet shop with puppy mill puppies, I guess it went out of business a coupla three years ago. I recently noted that for the nightmare before Christmas it was turned into a Halloweencostume pop-up shop. I guess toy stores are now pop up shops. There are no toy stores at the Mall anymore, KBCO is long gone, and there used to be another one. In fact, except for huge Toys R Us outlets, I can’t think of any other toy stores, only toy departments in Targets. Does Sears even have a toy department?
The toys seem here seem like the same cheaply made, hope the child doesn’t choke to death on one of the pieces when it breaks in less than a week type of toys you see on CH Martin. Ghetto fabulous toys. I wonder what will pop up here come February



 

Bakers is going out of business. What, you never went to this store, it has the best…. I don’t know, I never shopped there either. I don’t feel compelled to make a memorial purchase this holiday season. This was thelocation of B. Daltons, a book store that had been in the Mall since the Mall first opened, closed two years ago as the brick and mortar bookstores consolidated. I think it was another store before it was this one. In other words, a long standing, successful retailer was eradicated while new ones can’t gain footing. Those who make decisions that affect our lives are far removed from our lives, yet we suffer the consequences
 
 
Pay Half – the cheap stuff store where most of the clothes are irregulars. A single strand of garland, no merchandising message, no POP. Let’s not kid ourselves, regardless of the yuppies amongst us, they still shop in NYC or Livingston. Newport is forever and irrevocably, ghetto. Garland sometimes suffices.
 
 
 
 
 
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