Holy Noir, Part II
April 21st, 2017 | Comments

Palm Sunday

Holy Week arrived like a kiss from heaven. On the heels of a warm, sunny week, during which I learned how to German bike ride (the objective skill of riding a bike is different than learning the sport of the German bike ride) and victoriously made small talk with a five-year-old, entirely in German, I strode confidently on a sunny spring day to the local Catholic church, where I was met with a subdued wisp of palm frond and a full house of families.

The church was packed, but it was less participatory than I excepted. It neither started with the celebratory procession outside the church, during which the congregation makes holy fools of themselves, nor did the Gospel re-enactors pause for the crowd to say “Crucify him,” as we are instructed to do as Episcopalians during the trial of Pilate. Making the congregation complicit in this important trial scene underscores the weight of responsibility will all bear in condemning Christ. Nonetheless, the Palm Sunday service, with its lack of a traditional sermon, still leaves you contemplating the words of the Gospel, in which we see the forces of the Temple, Rome and personal betrayal conspire to bring Jesus from the heights of adoration to the depths of crucifixion in one brutal week.

For me, the week was similarly brutal: I discovered some gaps in my visa paperwork, continued to slosh through the process of being evicted in Los Angeles and came up against an unrelenting spate of writer’s block. As the week continued, the weather quickly deteriorated from the fresh, spring weekend into a dark, rainy week. I made use of my new umbrella for the first times, slogged around in soggy feet, and got a serious dressing-down from an angry woman in a nearby suburb for trying to take a photo of her lovely house on the sidewalk. “Ich mache ein photo, weil die Haus ist einfach schön. Ich kanne das Photo delete!” I told her in a haphazard German reply. I just took a photo of the house because it’s pretty! I’ll delete it! See! She wasn’t impressed. (My friend, who lives across the street, later confirmed she is the neighborhood’s Crazy Neighbor Lady.)

What Palm Sunday teaches us is that glory comes for but a moment, and it is usually in moments of triumph that we know foreboding chill is just around the corner. Especially during Holy Noir.

Maundy Thursday (Gründonnerstag)

I’m beginning to appreciate how dark Berlin is. It makes for some exquisite shadows, the perfect winter chill, and the ear-curdling sounds of water rushing through tires on the streets. I think the wetness helps high heels clunk a little louder and smoky jazz fill your lungs a little deeper, too. Slushing around the quiet streets of Berlin at night, it began to feel like a city abandoned, betrayed by darkness as the week progressed. It’s an actual matter of fact that the street lights are dim, making it exceptionally dark. Nobody’s kidding around about the cover of darkness.

By Thursday, the city had reached a low, long, rumbling pause, as shops sputtered to a close and the city retreated into darkness, or vacation. Who knows? I went to another German-language service, this time at the Anglican church, with ecumenical liturgy shared by Anglican and Catholic priests. Muslim, Jewish and Hindu holy people offered prayers. A Pakistani played the harmonium and sang. Representatives from five faiths and five continents participated, all in a church built in the 13th century on Alexanderplatz, which (miraculously) survived the air strikes of World War II, one of the only churches left entirely intact. Feet were washed by priests, songs were sung. But prayers, in Hebrew, in German, in Arabic, in English, were truly the most spectacular part of the service. In a moment of peace, a moment of true communion, the church rests before the darkness descends.

Good Friday

Friday came, sunny but frigid. I rode my bike for almost an hour and a half to the Anglican service on the far side of town. It was a slide show of the Stations of the Cross, set to the soundtrack of  five congregants reading scriptures. They did not describe the stations, but rather dovetailed with the message. It was a beautiful and solemn service. The city itself seemed forgotten and quiet, its chillingly cold air already recalling the barrenness of a cold tomb.

That night, I went to see Bach’s Matthew’s Passion, performed by a chorale at  the Philharmonie. Strangely, the 1970s-era concert hall, across the street from its cousin-building, the Stadtsbibliotek (made famous in Der Himmel über Berlin) cast its own sacred spell, even before the music started. I sat next to a group of Greek ladies, sharing a program with text in German as we heard once again the brutal story of the suffering of Jesus. My friends complained it was performed too fast, a modern indictment on our age’s refusal to suffer: we want to skip all the hard parts and get straight to the happy ending. It surprises me that Germans fall victim to this seemingly American response towards hardship. Another friend commented, “Even though I don’t believe in Jesus, it still breaks my heart to hear this story. How are we humans so cruel to each other.”

Again, the night was cold and the bus nearly empty, as it seemed the city had disappeared, scattered into the darkness.

… to be continued…

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Holy Noir, Part I
April 18th, 2017 | Comments

I have been looking forward to Holy Week in Berlin with great expectation since the beginning of Lent. These are the high holy days of the church, something I did not fully appreciate before joining the Episcopal church about 10 years ago. On my first Easter Vigil service, when my priest asked me to be a filler robe in the procession, I was delighted. Together with my friend Todd, also a recent convert to High Church fanfare, we gleefully donned robes and tried to conceal our geeky excitement about walking to the front, sitting near the altar, and being surrounded by the angelic voices of the choir. But I had no idea just how exciting it would be. First there was the darkness, broken only by the light of the Paschal candle, carried up the center aisle accompanied by haunting chanting, effusive incense-spreading, and slow-walking; then, there were the scripture readings, which included the ominous “valley of dry bones” reading; and finally the instantaneous snapping-on of the lights, accompanied by a cacophony of ringing bells and the impassioned singing of “I will raise him up on the last day.”

The theatricality, I find, really places me in that moment of time – the moment of the Resurrection. And, together with the other services of Holy Week, I find myself each year taking a journey from death to life, stumbling through the void into eternity.

Ten years later, Todd is a priest at our same beloved St. James, of which he says, “It’s our version of Coachella – there will be music, weird smoke, and crazy clothes.”  In contrast, I’ve decided to see how the Germans of Catholic, Protestant and Anglican persuasion do it. And while the warm-weather vibes of Coachella comparisons don’t necessarily apply here, there are still plenty of robed figures, loud noises and the ubiquitous physical metaphors between darkness and light. A week of Holy Noir, you might say.

This year, Lent and Holy Week and Easter provide a perfect way to sum up my experience of the last three months, making a transition that I hope will be permanent, from Los Angeles to Berlin. A different type of “death to life,” which started with my deep life purge of 2016, a journey too personal to chronicle on a blog — but suffice it to say, after a year of serious convalescence, 2016 was the resurrection and rehabilitation that brought me back to life and actually culminated in my move to Berlin at the beginning of this year.

So, of course the last thing I expected was a new and different type of rebirth once I got here.

During Lent, I often find myself moving from the novelty of self-examination to eventual crippling boredom at the repetition, especially when I constantly have to explain myself – “Oh, I’m not drinking during Lent,” or “I’ve given up chocolate” or “I can’t have rice,” or – choose your own adventure. But in some way, slogging through the boredom of repetition eventually transforms itself into finding new meaning, or exploring a different micro-facet of the same thing. I shared Lent this year with people from my new Anglican church, St. George’s. We watched films about artists together, and then discussed the elements of their process that relate to our journey during Lent – the repetition, the boredom, the joy, the beauty. It surprised me how much this journey dovetailed with my own experience of being new in Berlin.

The journey of moving to a new city, a new country, a new continent, has already led to a lot of contemplation over that essential question, Who am I? And that’s a question whose shades become more nuanced in every new circumstance. Having stripped away the ease and the comfort of routine, familiarity, language, family, community, autonomy, aesthetics, I was confronted with the very real idea that I could become a different person. Suddenly, you start to wonder what is essential, and what is external; and, if you’re not practicing the essential, will it disappear? Piece by piece, I am being asked every day to reconstruct this new identity, to find it, and to own it. This can be tedious work, and it’s not something you can just switch off, when you have nobody from home, no essence of that self tying you back to the reality that once was.

This work, which just naturally begins to unfold as you learn to reimagine yourself in a new place, flowed seamlessly into my experience of Lent. There are dark days, and there are bright days. Total freedom and complete alienation. The comforting embrace of feeling yourself to be known, and the eternal frustration of, literally, not understanding. And enveloped in this window of paradox, I encountered Holy Week.

Which I will tell you about next time.

… to be continued…

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Algorithm, Algorithm, No! No! No!
April 3rd, 2017 | Comments

I recently published a zine, on the theme of online dating, and distributed it at cafes and coffee shops around Kreuzberg and Neukölln. There were 25 copies.

I like the idea of doing something completely analog, but here I am, three months later, completely caving to the pressures of modernity, and posting a few poems here on the WorldWideWeb:

Chantilly Creamboat

So far away sleeps the small-down dreamboat

The lover of ice cream floats

Sat with two straws ‘round the soda-stream trough

Where can I find the chantilly creamboat?

Pining away with love unrequited

Grunge and grease and the song “Uninvited”

Forever masking a passionate basking in melancholy,

That’s the domain of the chantilly creamboat.

Lover of wine bars and adventures

Netflix and chill or a weekend bender

“Partner in crime” is the best way to describe

The one I will style the chantilly creamboat.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

Flipping the phone at the fury of faces

Pausing the thumb on a whim or a hum,

That’s how I find the chantilly creamboat.

-Emily Manthei


twothousandandeight

Oh. Oh shit. Is it too late?

I accidentally liked your pic from 2008.

I wanted to see what sort of person you are

But 8 years ago is quite likely too far.

There’s no hope for me, this is it, I am gone,

For in this day and age, this is sin number one.

But ‘DING’ what is this, you still want to meet?

You found my enthusiasm really quite sweet?

Oh, it’s your friend, stopping our date,

‘Stay the hell away from 2008’.

-Nick Horton


Paradise

Hello your name is paradise

And music is the bird within you

The cage is gold

But don’t sing

Unless you listen

Unless you let go vibrant

Unless you see yourself for what you really are

Your name is paradise

-Elle Spencer-Lewis


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Letter from an Admirer
October 19th, 2016 | Comments

The response to every unreturned email or letter that I am forever hoping for:

E,

I do so much wish I could compose a response to your proudly-penned provocations without the shameful knowledge that my untrained exhortations must be disappointing to the literati intelligentsia. If it were only enough, if I was only so bold, if I could only express what it is to ingest such an exceedingly streamlined spewing of conscious psychologizing and incessant prognosticating – or proselytizing? – of my inherent characteristics of extreme inertia as you so artfully describe, it would only then be fitting to mount a response sufficiently deserving of this unendingly airborne volley of exchange.

And another thing: It’s unnerving to be so honestly – nay, abrasively – appraised in your alternately thoughtful but uncompromising terms, made to look outside myself to see myself in a mold not of my design; and thus my voice stretches outside the comfort of its warmly accepting throat but fails to grasp the swiftly falling words it might otherwise assemble so gracelessly to at least symbolize an approach, a stance, a swing – if not a return – at that cutthroat wound of introspection that you bring.

And so, for all those reasons enfolded above,

I remain,

Faithfully yours,

Silence.

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Rest in Peace, Piggy
July 26th, 2016 | Comments
A final requiem for my dear old lady cat, who I laid to rest yesterday.

She came into my life as a little old lady who knew how to weasel her way into anyone’s heart: with croak-meows, snort-purrs and big green eyes staring up at you. Her name was Candy. Thanks to those unique snort nuzzles and honk purrs, and how she could make herself as cozy as pigs in a blanket, I couldn’t help but adopt a new name for a cat who was already 15. For the last two and a half years of her life, she has been Piggy, Pig, Pigums and Piggsley, all in turn.

Her life started somewhere in Oakland, as the runt of a rather large litter. Growing up she was always the little one, but somehow fought through her first 10 years before some new parents came to town and took her into a home with just one bigger sibling. They nursed her back to health, bulked her up to 7.5 lbs and unlocked the sweet, gentle lap-sitter who I met on my first visit to their house. She found my comfortable lap and immediately climbed on board.

That, I would discover, was her great charm. Far from being a regal beauty with a big, fluffy tail or exotic markings, she was a plain-Jane herself, and didn’t discriminate against any equally undistinguished potential lap, blanket or bed. That was her sophistication, her grace, her emotional intelligence. Instead of being set in her ways, she was always open to new laps for naps and noses or knuckles for nuzzles. On her first night at my house, she snouted her way under the covers and curled up right next to me, as if she had always belonged there. She even snuggled in with my visiting sister once, who is far from the cat lover I am. Nearly every visitor to my home has witnessed her un-cat-like toleration of love and indiscriminate dispersion of nose nuzzles, drool puddles (during all that lap-sitting and snoozing) and breathy honk-purrs. Piggy and my grandma have even napped together.

She would often sit in the window and croak a short series of three ”mow”s when I left and later when I returned home. Even if she was curled up sleeping, her immediate response to a little pet or even a sensed closeness was that gentle, surprised series of croaks.

Her only unhappy sounds were the mournful “mooow” she would howl when a sudden flash of dementia or loneliness shook through her little body, or the guttural growl she let out at the odious sight of another cat who, at this point, she had all but vanquished in her life-long journey to becoming an only cat. As with most older ladies, you can’t expect them to be sweetness and gumdrops all the time — a lady does have standards.

But for the better part of every day and every hour, she hobbled about on her arthritic back legs with a sense of dignity. Her supervised outdoor playtimes in the yard were literally a journey to stop and smell the flowers, nuzzle the steps, tickle the grass and sniff wistfully into the air. With those meandering rituals complete, she would make her way into a slow seat on the porch, and turning a few corkscrew circles to find the right orientation, bathe in the sunshine and enjoy the greatest joy of a Piggy’s life: the great tradition of napping.

Through the last year and a half, as she has bravely fought cancer and illness, her grace and dignity has never wavered. Even her sense of humor continued to evolve. In fact, she had lately deduced a more playful way to wake me up: stroking my face ever so gently, letting her claws tickle down my cheek slowly until I opened my eyes right into a little nuzzle.

On July 25, she gave her final nuzzle in the comfort of her favorite closet. A sensitive vet came to administer some relaxing kitty drugs, and she drifted off into her final flowerbed. That’s where she is buried now.

These are my parting thoughts to a cat who came into my life to be nursed in her last days, and in the process nurtured me to health and happiness. Rest in Peace, Piggy (also known as Candy).

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ISIS Attack: the New Sign of Pluralist Society?
July 1st, 2016 | Comments

A little more than three months ago, I sat at a little table inside Holey Bakery in Dhaka, drawing storyboards, drinking tea, and eating the nicest croissant I’ve ever had outside of Europe. As opposed to most “upscale eateries” in Dhaka’s most foreigner-friendly district, Holey doesn’t feel like a local approximation of what Bengalis think Westerners like; it actually feels like being in the West. The interior is comfortable and well-designed; the waiters pay attention to tables without being intrusive; the food is objectively delicious, instead of the more common, shoulder-shrugging “good, but different”; an outdoor space with what might legitimately be called grass provides space for kids to play outside; the music is even a mix of lounge-y, atmospheric tunes you might hear in a trendy hotel lobby in New York or Paris or London.

None of that is the most shocking thing about Holey Bakery, though. What’s incredible, stunning and unquestionably unique is that it’s run by Bangladeshis. Yep, Holey is the passion project of two Bangladeshi restauranteurs, who enlisted a European baker to teach them a craft that no one else in Dhaka has mastered, even at the Gulshan district’s upscale hotels: European bread and pastry making.

Sure, they are part of Dhaka’s small, wealthy, elite class. And sure, one of them has a Western wife. But that doesn’t diminish their utterly singular achievement in bringing European bread and Italian gelato to a country where it has never existed before, to a public place frequented by Bengalis as often as foreigners. It’s a symbol of a growing pluralism, a willingness to try new things, an acknowledgement that something that’s different can actually be okay. And although it’s hidden behind a block of apartments on a dead-end street, with a tall gate that makes its patchy grass patio invisible to anyone on the street whom it might offend, Bangladesh’s pluralist society have all found it.

Today, Holey is the site of a hostage takeover, and maybe the most organized act of terrorism in Bangladesh in recent memory — or ever. And it’s not that Bangladesh doesn’t have terrorism, lone gunman lunatics or unruly civilians.

It’s that Bangladesh doesn’t generally have organization.

On my last visit there, I learned more about the series of small, chaotic, one-off murders that have been happening for almost a year now. There was an Italian aid worker, gunned down on a rickshaw in the streets of the capital; a book publisher, hacked to death in his office. A secular blogger, local journalists, Buddhist monks and Christian pastors followed. Each small, targeted act of violence more brutal than the last. And in each case, the corrupt police and “elite” para-military squad befuddled, lining up the usual suspects to hide their cluelessness.

The violence is not about backlash against foreign involvement in the country. And it’s probably not, as the ruling government says, about the opposition party’s desire to create instability and force an election to get them back into power.

The message seems clear: we are not pluralists.

Over the years that I’ve watched things change on the streets of Dhaka, it has seemed at times more possible than not that Bangladesh could succeed at being a one of the world’s only pluralist, secular Muslim majority countries. Maybe they could aspire to the relative success of Morocco or Turkey. But today, hearing frantic news from a friend in Dhaka, who lives just minutes away from Holey, I wonder… Is this what happens when we embrace pluralism?

Whether it’s in the Muslim world or in the West, ISIS terrorism always strikes at the same target: a competing worldview. It doesn’t matter if that competing worldview is a different religion, lack of religion, a minority subculture, a different race or even a different faction of the same religion. It’s the competition that kills. The knowledge that there’s someone out there, someone who’s not like you. Someone who is other.

Unlike in Orlando, where vigils were held and parties were resumed, in defiance of the violence perpetrated at Pulse, or in Istanbul, where Kamal Ataturk Airport reopened less than an hour after the attacks, brightly proclaiming the message Business as usual!, the heartbreaking thing about Dhaka is that things will change there: go back to the past. People will be more confined than ever to their houses. Holey Bakery will resume daytime hours only (if they reopen at all). The foreign diplomat clubs will close their doors to non-members and tighten their security. Bangladeshis will resume homogeny. And the police will continue to bumble around, flailing weapons they probably don’t know how to use.

Maybe some progressives in Bangladesh are beginning to wonder, Why fight for pluralism when every step forward results in two steps back?

Instead, lets hope they unite in recognizing the elite club they’re joining. The pluralism that Holey represents. The club Islamic State is trying to fight. The one that values difference and protects the other. That’s a club that, perhaps, will finally thrust Bangladesh onto the world’s map and into the future. Let’s hope the people of Bangladesh agree on one important thing: that they want to go there.

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The Choreography of the Subconscious
June 2nd, 2016 | Comments

Sometimes I write stuff for publication, and I like my draft better than the final edit. So this is a little profile I did on choreographer Rosanna Gamson. Hope you enjoy…

Where do creative collaborations with Lithuanian improvisors, Mexican dancers and martial artists begin? At the neighborhood copy shop, of course. Back in the late 80s, when Rosanna Gamson was starting out in New York City, she stood in the copy line behind a man with “Worldwide” written on his business card, and decided that was a good name for her dance company.

“When I moved to Los Angeles, I met dancers who came from all sorts of different backgrounds — tango, flamenco. There’s a lot of international influence already here,” said Gamson by phone between rehearsals for her new show premiering at REDCAT on June 2, Still/Restless. “I ended up doing a project in Poland that was inspired by seeing amazing Polish theatre work here in Los Angeles.”

And so begins the story of many of Gamson’s World Wide dance projects: an international inspiration, inquisitive study, exploration. “For me, it’s more about collaboration and learning than me thinking I’m the world’s authority. I like finding out about something new. Especially if it feels like a metaphor. That’s curiosity in a poetic way.”

Curious about Dreaming

It is this curiosity that drives all of her work, including Still/Restless. An expansion of her piece from 2014’s NOW Festival at REDCAT, Gamson was inspired by seeing a Lithuanian dancer and actor named Petras Lisauskas improvise a dance at a Polish festival. “It was an amazing happening that sparked my curiosity.

“People who improvise professionally can consciously turn off the front of their brain, which is the inhibitor. Then, they’re in a zone where everything they do is right, but they’re not exactly deciding it. So then I had the question, is there a parallel between being able to hit that groove in improv, and in dreaming?”

In a dream state, some people believe they can solve their problems and find answers that elude them in waking life. Others believe dreams predict the future, or can shed symbolic meaning on one’s life. Most of all, sleep can be a metaphor for mortality: a sort of half-life or afterlife.

“It’s about the idea that your brain connects in unexpected ways. When we dream, parts of the brain connect that don’t normally talk to each other. I like to think of that as a metaphor for creativity in general,” Gamson muses. “What is it that happens to your brain that can’t happen while you’re awake, and can you make it happen when you are awake, somehow?”

Gamson consulted scientists doing sleep studies, which led to some interesting conversations, but not exactly any big answers. “I can’t say I know anything for sure now,” she admits. “But I did develop a series of improv games that are performed as part of the piece. So somehow, there was a payoff for it all.”

Collaborating with Los Angeles

The choreographer, who says she came to Los Angeles “under duress,” was slow to find her cosmopolitan menagerie of performers initially, but once she did, it led to an enthusiastic reception. “People were interested in my work! It was so shocking to me. I had been kicking around New York forever, and all of the sudden, in Los Angeles, people were interested.”

That included REDCAT’s Executive Director, Mark Murphy, who first saw one of her sold-out shows at the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo. “I was very impressed with the intelligence and theatricality, and the great attention to stagecraft and detail,” Murphy remembers.

That led to a co-production of Gamson’s Aura at REDCAT, along with appearances in the NOW Festival and finally Still/Restless, which will be her third main stage production there. “One theatre in Los Angeles commissions dance work from local artists: REDCAT. They have been so helpful to the ecosystem,” says Gamson of her positive relationship with the venue.

In this piece, Gamson’s eight dancers perform in relationship to the shadows and light on the stage that surrounds them. In the first act, the dark stage is lit selectively; in the second, bright colors are added to a white stage. “It’s like seeing two sides of consciousness,” Murphy explains. The movements are mostly choreographed, but improv beats give the dancers imaginative prompts that allow choices in the piece.

“These dancers can be very intuitive with each other. You can tell by one’s physicality where they are in space. It’s about having their bodies become so legible that you can tell just by watching. You can see that they’re listening to themselves and each other in a very unique way.”

Gamson gives the audience much of the credit for this communication. “We human beings read each other so exquisitely. We see micro-expressions, read body language. So how do I exploit our seeing and recognition?”

Audiences embraced the first act of this piece at the NOW Festival, when Murphy recalls audiences talking about it for weeks after. “She can tap into emotional memories in a way that really sticks.”

For this performance, there is already strong interest among long-time fans of Gamson’s work. And as there are only three performances, Murphy urges people to snap up the remaining seats soon, remembering the seven full houses during her last run.

Besides being entertained by what Murphy calls the “sumptuous movement” of Still/Restless, Gamson hopes the piece will tug audiences’ hearts.

“This year has been very dark for me, and that crept into the piece. I want the audience to ask, how do you carry the people that you’ve lost on with you? How can we be more tender with each other?” Gamson speaks contemplatively. “I guess the outcome I would like best is if everybody left the theatre and realized we should hold each other closer because we’re not going to be here forever.”


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Clifton’s Cafeteria: A Morbid Millennial Fantasy
October 15th, 2015 | Comments

The following ode to Clifton’s was written to my former DJ partner, DJ Taste aka Meredith Rose, over the re-opening of Clifton’s, once one of our favorite downtown hangouts. Allow us to indulge, for a moment, in the melodramatic…

Here are the Undertwins at The Clifton's That Was...

Clifton’s Cafeteria.

A hallowed downtown haunt that requires only a name to draw a reaction: nostalgia, whimsy, even aching melancholia. A wistful desire for days long gone, and a downtown that once was. A downtown not afraid of its own glory amidst the beautiful ruins. (And a downtown lacking in teacup-pig-style dogs, entry lines outside nightclubs and rooftop pools — save the Standard, which once and always was and is and will be to come.)
Yes, this downtown, circa 2007, was a natural home to you, the Clifton’s that was. You attracted the neighborhood riff-raff behind your heavy doors, inviting smelly, partially hydrogenated old people, fashionable black men selling knock-off Italian suits, Quincenera ballgown proprietors, Skid Row tent dwellers and fashionably retro Undertwins into a dark embrace of stale air and friendly faces. In this parallel universe, Clifton’s, you were a warm, pudgy center, bathed in 40s big band and woodsy brown bears, serving up (slightly) overpriced iceberg lettuce salads topped in jell-o and partially hydrogenated mac and cheese from your elementary-school-style cafeteria. Sitting beneath a waterfall or near the rings of your thousand-year-old redwood in the semi-darkness, you made me feel like part of a world already long extinct – the same world that the rest of the hallowed Historic Core inhabited. Traveling up a flight, the Chapel to Nature was a great place for a rest to contemplate. I could sit inside a dark booth and stare in front of me at a shadow box where the Yosemite peaks stretched on for inches while melodic organ music accompanied a verbal ode to the sanctity of the woods. Finally, your top floor was a grand jazz age lobby of sorts, with red velvet wallpaper printed on fleur de lis, a few scattered tables, and a pictorial history of your family-style generosity. Ah, Clifton’s. You, that once was.



After a four-year hiatus and extensive renovations by an eccentric billionaire with endless money and imagination, that is no longer the Clifton’s that is.

New Clifton’s, by contrast, has a lot more windows. Neon. Open Space. And trees.

On opening day, I walked into New Clifton’s – or, rather, I stood in a six-person line, waiting to be welcomed to New Clifton’s by a waitress clad in the traditional 1950s brown cafeteria dress who was there primarily to distract from the behemoth bouncer eyeing me from the other side of the door. “Welcome back to Clifton’s,” she said.

The new bakery section, to the left of the entrance instead of the right, pulled me into the cave-like darkness of the cafeteria line, just like before. But there were a few new additions. Some, like the Yosemite-themed murals, were original details that had been covered at some point and now returned to full display style. Others, like the cooler of coconut water, Vitawater, boxed water and several other types of free range, organic, sustainably expensive water, were glaring additions.

The cafeteria itself has been completely remodeled and expanded, supposedly to ease congestion. Now, the middle section serves carved meat and daily specials, while an outer section for salads, soups, pizza, staple entrees, sandwiches and desserts cover the perimeter. As this was New Clifton’s first day up and running, the multiple lines kind of made it a madhouse. It also made me mad as a house! Prices were listed on digital TV screens above each section, which was already almost enough to walk away: $2.50 for a ramekin of salad. $10 for half of a gourmet sandwich. $6 for a bowl of soup. The choices were endless, but the prices were jaw-dropping! I ended up with a bowl of minestrone soup and a four-bite pot of ambrosia for $12. So far, I was not impressed.

I sat down on the second level to survey the main dining room. Largely, it remains unchanged. Besides removing the comforting cabin with the brown bear that used to welcome visitors, most of the first floor dining decor stayed. But it was beyond the first staircase where things began to unravel. A three-story tree, beginning on the second floor and piercing through the third by way of an atrium-style interior wrapped by a balcony is the beginning of the end. Leather wing-backed chairs, taxidermy big cats and a wallpaper-stripped, minimalist third floor complete with French provincial furniture complete the transformation. A brand new back room is dark and all to closely resembles the Redwood Room at San Francisco’s Clift Hotel (but in a too-squeaky-clean-to-be-vintage type of way). There are at least three separate bars in the New Clifton’s, and the adverts for 10-cent, all-you-can-eat meals are all gone for the count. Even the paintings of the Cliftons themselves are conspicuously missing! The upper floors are a palace of 21-st century retro decadence for which one cannot forgive Sir Andrew and his minions. Of this I am sure.

Oh Clifton’s, as we lament your passing and begrudgingly accept the “new normal” that is The New Clifton’s, I must say that I, for one, will never again eat of your overpriced jell-o or drink of your coconut water nectar as long as I live. And all I can do to console myself is have an overpriced, new-phangled cocktail with too many liquors, served in a redwood goblet with feathers plucked from a miniature peacock for garnish.

And DJ Taste responds:


Oh dear.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

It’s worse than I feared.

Oh dear.

The tragedy of downtown’s Hipsterworld transformation is now complete. It’s been a ten plus year struggle, Downtown, and throughout the years, you fought bravely to maintain your vital skin of authenticity. That texture of grunge and imperfection that made you so special. Like any young hollywood starlet hiding her chardonnay-breath, cigarette stained fingertips and dark secrets behind blond ringlets and painted cheeks. I will miss you, of course, but I will honor your fight every time I’m forced to clink copper mugs with a bearded unicyclist in a courtyard designed to look like a biergarten designed to look like a tree house in Portland, whether it be at “Clifton’s” or somewhere in the “Art’s District” or “Grand Central Market” or “Chinatown.” Downtown, you have gone the way of the valiant Mudpuppy; may you and she rest in peace.
(And someday rise again.)

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Empty Calories: what makes so many film endings so unsatisfying?
September 15th, 2015 | Comments

When I sit down in a cinema, I want to have a feast: maybe start out with a bright appetizer (the brilliant opening scene), be tantalized early on by the main entree (the main characters and their immediate problem or mystery), and let the subtlety and depth of the flavors, as well as the conversation (interesting dialogue, mis-en-scene, plot), sustain me through an elongated and satisfying meal. When I finish the last bite of desert (the epilogue or ending), I want to feel satisfied but not heavy; I want the taste of the strong flavors to stay with me and remain satisfying for the rest of the evening. I want to think back upon where I’ve just been. To listen and feel it long after the credits roll. This is not a sensation that I get that often anymore. These days, I tend to find the endings of most films so unsatisfying and forgettable, so I started to ask myself… why?

Recently, I, like so many hundreds of thousands, sat down in a darkened cinema to listen to gansta rap take shape in Straight Outta Compton, the musical biopic about not one, but three, cultural touchstones in the hip hop landscape: Dr. Dr, Ice Cube and Easy-E. The film tells the story of the three co-founders of NWA and their rise to fame, forgoing loyalty and brotherhood when the (poorly dealt with) subject of money appeared.

All in all, I felt like the plot was a thin veneer stretched transparently over a visual and auditory vehicle showcasing the depth of the group’s lyrics and beats. The artistic process of music-making was dealt with quite well, if straightforwardly. We saw the frustration of Cube, and how he channeled that into powerful lyrics, as in the case of his perpetual, violent encounters with the police leading up to the composition of “F– the Police”. We saw Dre listening to beats, mixing beats, making beats and directing vocalists in the booth, all with thoughtful subtlety. We even saw small-time drug dealer Easy-E, frustrated and aloof, transform into an impassioned poet under Dre’s leadership.

But artistic achievement was so far from the film’s main story, which was sketched in such broad strokes you had to stand back pretty far to see the big picture. The central conflict in the film is not NWA versus the law (in spite of violent encounters with the police, sometimes unprovoked, but sometimes completely justified by our boys’ bad behavior), or even NWA as a band (most of the band’s non-founding members received short shrift, with little to no dialogue). At no time did conflicts arise from the group’s casual misogyny, either (most scenes with women showed them topless and dancing, or silent in the background as the wife/lover of a band member). The conflicts weren’t even about the shifting balance of power between artistic leaders Dre and Cube vs. the financial leadership of Easy-E and the band’s manager, played by Paul Giamatti.

No, none of that was the “plot” — those were the uncritical elements of the band members’ lifestyles, worked in as part of the “history lesson” aspect, but not massaged into the very thin plot, which was this: as Giamatti’s character takes charge of their management, he doesn’t pay Dre or Cube enough to justify them staying in the band. Maybe Easy-E is his ally, but eventually he’s not paying him enough, either. One by one, all three co-founders quit the band and decide to go off on their own. You may think I’m summarizing, but you would be wrong.

That is the entire plot. The “Where’s my money, bitch?” line is repeated ad nauseam, as if it were a chorus in one of their songs. But no – it’s just lazy writing and a repetitive plot point, reducing character relationships (and the whole legacy of the band) to a legal battle over money which we never get to hear any details about (probably for, ironically, legal reasons).

So, how does one end a film like this — which is the true subject of this blog post? The answer here is not well. *Spoiler alert*: Easy-E died from AIDs, which seemed like as good a place as any for writer-director F. Gary Gray to wind the story down, so he reunites the three at the end for a few heartfelt apologies and calls it a day.

My summary? Good acting, bad storytelling.

My summary? Good acting, bad storytelling.

What?

As we know from Robert McKee 101, storytelling is about creating a whole, made up of beginning, middle and end. Where do we start? In a place with an interesting character. Who has a problem. A flaw. A need. A lack. Where do we go? Our character takes a journey to answer her question or solve his problem. Unravel a mystery, maybe. And in the end, there’s a resolution to the initial question. Sometimes, everything is tied up in a neat little bow and loose ends are wrapped up (not my preferred method, but let’s acknowledge this as solid storytelling). Sometimes, questions from the beginning that seem to be answered re-emerge (take, basically any horror film with a “he’s baaaaack” ending). And sometimes, in the best of times, the question/problem/journey of the story ends, but through the course of the film we’ve come to see the character as more than just his problem; more, even than just her arc. The character, we’d hope, exists in a world beyond the story and, while the story may be finished, we see several directions in which the character can still turn.

This is the type of ending I prefer to see. I’d like to know where the story ends, but also imagine a future life of the character in my mind.

So the problem, in my view, with a film like Straight Outta Compton and [insert any and all other biopics here] is this: there is no defined story to a biopic. The story of someone’s life doesn’t generally have that one central question or problem, which starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Screenwriters feel they need to cram all of the subject’s life into a movie, instead of letting the characters breathe and expand, like real people, within the frame of an event or circumstance that happened to that character — a story! (For a counter-point, consider Selma: it’s not a biopic about MLK; it’s a story about the march from Selma to Montgomery, in which MLK was a major character. And the movie works: it has a story.) I suppose critics here would argue that the “story” is “the rise and fall of NWA.” I say that’s got no structure, no balance. And, more importantly, no central character. The film is split between three character, their three rises and falls, and ends with the downward spiral of one. And then tries to wrap up loose ends for two people who are actually still living! Structurally, it neither cleaves to a story/issue/problem within the world of NWA, yet it also does not cleave to its characters to let them expand. Instead, it aims to fit them into the nice friendly box at the end, typing up their loose ends and painting them into a corner.

Straight Outta Compton is far from being the only film that pulls this trick. Most films start strong with a solid premise and action-packed first act, then either find (or lose) their story in the second; what we would hope is that they find a solid, satisfying conclusion in the third. But what I find lately is that films seem to either realize they’ve run out of time, and abruptly come to a close, or they enclose their characters so tightly in artificial circumstance that there’s no room for that “afterlife,” the precious flavor that keeps an audience chewing on the bones of a story after its last credit rolls. And that’s why this film, like so many, is an empty calorie feast.

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Practicing Lent
March 13th, 2015 | Comments

Every year, I come back to the question, “why do I practice Lent”?

It’s a very pertinent and meaningful question to me each time, since I didn’t grow up with any observance or awareness of Lent, really. As non-denominational Protestants, my family was of a “cut out the ritual, skip to the end, Christ is risen” mentality, probably adopted from their branch of Lutheranism. So when I first started hanging out with the Episcopalians, it all seemed very odd and solemn and exciting to me to practice Lent.

I faithfully began giving up things every year. Coffee once (never again). Alcohol, sweets, rice, bread. I’ve tried it all, sometimes more as a spiritual fad diet than actual religion. It’s a difficult balance to achieve: sometimes it’s too hard, and I find myself coming to terms with my own lack of discipline; other times it’s too easy, and I end up feeling bad about how self-congratulatory I’m being. Either way, it does always inspire repentance, which I thought was basically the point.

At the same time, I’m always curious when I learn about other people “doing Lent” around me. People I would have never otherwise known as Catholic make a big deal of what they’re giving up. I do my best not to judge what appears (to me) to be a disingenuous practice that has no bearing on how they live the rest of the year, nor on the actual spiritual beliefs they hold about the suffering and risen Christ. It seems to me like holding up a big, garish sign that says “LOOK AT ME! I’M A LIAR!” (Ok, I admit I am not so good at that “not judging” part.)

But for the last few years, Lent has really been more about reflecting than changing dietary habits, and I’ve had to come to terms with the question, “Why do I do this?” It’s still voluntary  in the Episcopal tradition, yes; it’s a spiritual discipline, to some extent, yes. But there’s something else.

Did I really say it was easy to give up sweets?!

Did I really say it was easy to give up sweets?!

This year, I gave up dessert. I have to admit, it was as much of a dieting concern as it was a Lent concern. And although I am a bit tested from time to time, I’ve found it pretty easy. So much so, in fact, that it makes me realize what a lack of discipline I have in the rest of my life. The other disciplines of Lent – prayer, good deeds and charity – are so much harder, and I *think* about practicing them so much less, that it really holds up a mirror to the inconsistencies of my life.

During a quiet time in church last Sunday – the second Sunday in Lent – I actually thought more carefully about what I should have given up. It finally occurred to me: emotional dishonesty. If there’s anyone lying here, it’s been me. If I think I’m doing Lent to practice spiritual discipline, I’m lying to myself – lying to God. Because when my eating habits are detached from consistent spiritual habits, it’s just like a token, isn’t it? Like the “token” those nominal Catholics chip in with a pious show of not eating meat on Fridays. It really doesn’t mean anything without those more important disciplines.

So, I’ve asked myself, how do I give up emotional dishonesty? It’s pretty hard. It means that I have to tell myself, and to tell God, “I don’t really care” when it’s clear that I don’t. I have to tell God what I DO really care about, even if it’s stupid and unimportant and makes me feel like a fool. Because when I admit to myself who I truly am, and admit to God that I am really failing – when by all outward appearances no one can tell – that’s the only way that I can seek repentance and come to forgiveness. By admitting that I don’t really care, I hope I can turn around and then TRY to care. To really seek out the charity, good deeds, prayer. Seek out the places God is trying to show me. If I cared, it would be there for me to see. Yet it’s so easy to be apathetic, put in a paltry token here or a smidgen of an effort there and call it a day. “Okay. I’ve done enough for God today. I don’t owe him anymore.”

But I owe Him nothing; what I owe is everything.

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