Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book twenty-two: My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos

Wow, the current depressing state of politics and the economy has totally invaded my reading choices.  It seems the last several books I've read are expressions of the current state of affairs in America.  None captures this national zeitgeist better than Dean Bakopoulos's My American Unhappiness.  It's a good thing this book is infused with a lot of ingenious humor, otherwise it would be a total downer.

Written in first person, this is the story of Zeke Pappes, a quirky character who runs a Wisconsin humanities institute.  After losing his first wife, Zeke's life is overtaken not only by his job, but also by his mother and twin nieces (April and May) all of whom now live with  him. His mother is dying of cancer and worries that as a single man, he's the wrong person to take care of the nieces after she's gone. Zeke learns that his mother's will stipulates that unless he is married, the beloved twins will fall into the custody of his sister-in-law.  The result: Zeke takes the advice of a woman's magazine and pursues a fiancee.

At the beginning of the book, I worried that the first-person voice somehow couldn't effectively communicate the strangeness of the main character.  I wanted to see Zeke through the eyes of someone else.  But as the book progressed, I realized that Bakopoulos was using voice in a clever way.  It becomes obvious that Zeke doesn't realize how off-tilt his life has become.

Bakopoulos's writing delights, largely due to the literary devices he sets up from the beginning of the book. The titles of projects funded by Zeke's humanities institute (which are generously scattered throughout the book) give the story a strange wit.  A few of my favorites include The Weather as Divinity in World Literature, The Miracle of Found Objects: Joseph Cornell and the Assembled Language of Loneliness (yes, that would be a Joseph Cornell reference!), and Kirkegaard's Labels: Multicultural Identity Politics and the End of Community.

Zeke's personal project, A Survey of American Unhappiness (for which Americans are asked "Why are you so unhappy?") also adds to the novel's distinct personality thanks to quotes from respondents who blame their unhappiness on all manner of things.

In the end, this book is a reminder that life sucks.  But hidden in that reality is also an equally strong reminder that life is often joyful and magical.

Bring out your gays; Erasure is in town.

I need to start this post by admitting that I am not the Erasure fan I should be.  I like a lot of their songs, and can at least usually sing along to the choruses.  Felix is a true Erasure fan and bought tickets to their recent concert at Salt Lake City's Kingsbury Hall.  He invited me.

I'll start with a great big thank you to Felix.  I liked this concert a whole lot more than I thought I would for a bunch of reasons. 

I'll start with the opening act.  Frankmusic (which by the way, the lead singer produced Erasure's upcoming album) was really fun.  I'd be perfectly happy to show up at a dance club and have a DJ play one of their songs. Plus, the lead singer was charming when he signed their latest single during the break.

Then we got to the main act.  I've never seen Erasure live and I'm sad I haven't.  This performance was spectacular.  I love concerts in a small theaters like Kingsbury Hall. And when you pack that theater with gay men who absolutely love Erasure, the experience is even better.  I haven't had this much gay concert fun since I saw the Pet Shop Boys in San Francisco.

Lead singer Andy Bell sparkled, literally, with his sequin coat that he shed to reveal his corset/vest, which was later cut off to introduce one of the best onstage costume changes I've seen since Carol Channing's cabaret show.  (Wow, how gay was that last sentence.)  But he also sparkled vocally.  This guy can sing and he can sing live, even if his voice is being processed digitally.

Just like seeing the Pet Shop Boys in SF, the crowd was one of the best things about this performance.  Here's a general crowd shot of all the party boys. And a shot of the boys two rows in front of us who had more fun than just about anyone else in the theater.

Some in the crowd were having more fun than the rest of us.  This guy in the row in front of was smoking something. I'm not sure what it was but he was puffing all night long.  I have proof:

I also loved how the crowd, even though they were as old as me, have embraced the new social-sharing attitude.  People video taping this concert were rampant.

As with all great 80s synthpop duos, you have to have the quiet partner.  In Erasure's case, the quiet partner is a little creepy.  Every 80s synthpop duo should have a quiet, creepy guy:

I can't end this post without acknowledging my favorite Erasure fan, Felix, who bought the tickets and invited me to an amazing concert experience.  Here's a photo and super-short video that hopefully communicates how much fun we had.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tokyo goes traditional.

One of my favorite Tokyo site-seeing adventures was a trip to Asakusa.  This is Tokyo's working class district.  And it trends less toward skyscrapers and more toward hidden alleyways with lots of small local shops that charm and enchant.

At the heart of Asakusa is Senso-Ji, a temple which enshrines a golden statue of Kannon.  That statue was fished from the nearby Sumida river by two fisherman in 628 AD.  Although most of the structure isn't that old.  One thing you learn about Japan is that just about everything has been rebuilt thanks to fires and earthquakes continually destroying things.

I'd heard this shrine can be unpleasant due to the huge crowds.  But we got there early on a Monday morning and it was sparsely attended, mostly by the locals going about their daily routine.  Many of the shops hadn't even opened.  So I found it delightfully peaceful.

Here are a few photos:

I particularly like the two girls in this photo on their way to school.  They're dressed in adorable uniforms.  That's half the fun of Japan, seeing all the different school uniforms.

Here are few of the other sights at Senso-Ji:

For 200 Yen, you could shake a wooden box and release a metal rod on which was written a number in Japanese characters.  By matching that number with the same number of one of these wooden drawers you could find your fortune.

My fortune was surprisingly reassuring: "No. 33 REGULAR FORTUNE; When spring comes, withered tree blooms so charming. The sweet smell fills in the wood field and the sky. Your fortune will go developing your chance. The bright moon comes to shine among the fading clouds. Meeting a person of high social status, his help will bring you a happy."

"*Your request will be granted. *The patient get well soon. *The lost article will be found. *The person you wait for will come. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *Marriage and employment are both well. *To start a trip is well."

I don't know about you, but I'm for anyone or anything that will "bring me a happy." And thank god that building a new house and removal are both well!

Felix, who was having a couple of rough days in Japan, didn't fare so well with his fortune.  So he just kept trying until he got something more positive.  Maybe he'll include the contents of his multiple fortunes in the comments of this post.

There's a delightful shopping street that leads to the shrine.  We spent a few moments here browsing the touristy trinkets and Japanese snacks.

There was also an amazing little bakery where we stopped for breakfast.  I was just getting ready to make a photo essay of the shop when our visit was cut short.  You can ask Felix about that.  But I did take one photo of the delicious baked goods in production.

Ririe-Woodbury rocks the Rose Wagner.

Last weekend was the season opener for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.  And while I almost always enjoy contemporary dance performances, Polychromatic was extra great.

Let's start by talking about the new dancers.  Ririe-Woodbury replaced an amazing 50 percent of the company.  And the new dancers are brilliant. They offered everything I want from contemporary dancers: They're skilled, they're charming, and they're hot.  Oh, I know I'm not supposed to talk about the hotness of the dancers but as someone who shells out plenty of money for tickets to dance performances, it's a nice bonus to get talent AND good looks.  It was surprising to see how cohesive the company looks when half the dancers are new.

But I should probably talk about the program.  The opening work, 80's Night (2007) by choreographer Larry Keigwin was pure joy. This is total crowd-pleasing contemporary dance with it's 80s soundtrack and giant dose of Tchaikovsky (yes, you can effectively combine Tchaikovsky with Salt-N-Pepa's Push It).  And let's give a big shout out to costume designer Cynthia Turner for her sexy, sparkly creations.

Next was a new work by Ririe-Woodury's artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, Push.  I expected the initial moments with their intense, on-the-floor physicality that is the hallmark of Boye-Christensen's work. It always get me excited and pushes the dancers to excellence.  What I didn't expect was the emotion (was that love I saw?) in the closing duet danced brilliantly by Jo Blake and Elizabeth Kelley-Wilberg.  Charlotte delivered some unexpected romance and I liked it.

The second half opened with John Jasperse's Spurts of Activity Before the Emptiness of Late Afternoon,(2010).  It's work like this that makes me a big dance fan.  The slouchy, metered choreography with it's precise, organized attitude reminded me of Marina Abromovic's performance art.  And as long as we're on the fine art references, is Damien Hirst responsible for that title?  I also have to mention the brilliance of Boye-Christensen's programming.  I loved how the stage started the program completely dressed, and then got more and more naked as the evening progressed, until at this performance we saw the raw stage, without it's curtains or backdrops.

The show ended with GRID (2009).  Once again, a big shout out to Boye-Christensen for some perfect programming. This is such a brilliant work for Ririe-Woodbury to perform.  Is it just me, or does this seem reminiscent of the rubber-band tension of Alwin Nikolais's work Tensile Involvement, a favorite of Ririe-Woodbury audiences?  Then again, I could also suggest a reference to the art of Olufer Eliasson.  The powder released as the elastic bands were snapped reminded me of many of Eliasson's misty water works. Whatever the reference, the performance made me happy.

Polychromatic was a fantastic opening to the fall performing-arts season.  The bad part: Ririe-Woodbury just set the bar high, not only for other performing arts organizations but also for themselves.  I'm expecting big things from the company at their December performance.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tokyo at night.

I've been to plenty of big cities at night and many of them can be brilliant and vibrant, New York City's Times Square comes to mind.  But few cities I've been to have the bright liveliness of Tokyo after hours.  Here are a few photos and a short video from a night out in Tokyo.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Art in the sky.

In the ultra-modern Roppongi Hills development, there's a skyscraper that has devoted its top floors to art and other wonders, not the least of which is an art museum known as the Mori Art Center.  We rode the high-speed elevator to the 52nd and 53rd floors to pay the museum a visit.

Showing at the museum was an exhibit Metabolism, about a significant Japanese architectural movement that emerged in the 1960s.  I'm beginning to realize that the Japanese approach to museums mimics the same chaotic enthusiasm that makes Tokyo such a fantastic place.  Which means there was a lot of stuff crammed into each and every gallery. 

No photography was allowed in this exhibit.  But it was a great, technologically-dazzling presentation with hundreds of cool architectural models with futuristic flair.  One could easily imagine Godzilla trudging through the galleries, destroying all the sci-fi inspired buildings. The show was very Japanese, to the point that I can't imagine seeing it anywhere other than Tokyo.  And it definitely gave me a new appreciation for the buildings of Tokyo.  This was one of the best exhibits I saw in Japan.

Also at the Mori Art Museum was a video installation that I liked.  MAM Project 015 by Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-Wah offered words of wisdom in a mesmerizing setting.  But rather than talk about it, why don't I just show you a video.

I was prepared for the Mori Art Museum to be on the top two floors of the building.  But there were other things that I didn't expect.  Like the city view that allowed you to see a 360 degree view of the Tokyo.  Here are a few pictures including one taken through a clear aquarium filled with gold fish.  You'll also see amazing views of the Tokyo Tower and the National Art Center, both of which are the subjects of previous or future posts.

The gold fish are a nice transition to the biggest surprise of the 52nd floor of Roppongi Hills, the strangest aquarium I've ever visited.  The opening gallery featured a Japanese spectacle with imagery projected through walls of aquariums filled with giant koi.  Yeah, it's tough to describe.

The second gallery was a study in color.  The completely black gallery had various sized tanks set into the walls.  Many had LED lighting systems that shifted through spectrums of bright, candy-coated colors.  It's a magical place.

The last gallery was even more fantastical.  I can't describe it.  Watch this video of a place which is so Japanese.

Finally, I have to mention the Roppongi Hills Art and Design Store.  I spent way too much money here.  The Takashi Murakami stuff alone was incredible.

If you're ever in Tokyo, I definitely recommend a trip to see some "art in the sky" at the top of Roppongi Hills.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A trip to "The Best City Landmark."

If there's an iconic architectural landmark that represents Tokyo, it's probably Tokyo Tower.  In fact, the Tokyo Tower proclaims to be, "The Best City Landmark." 

That means if you're looking for the perfectly touristy way to experience Japan's largest city, then plan a night time visit to the Tower.

Tokyo Tower was within walking distance of our hotel so we headed out on foot.  Here are a couple of photos of the Tower as we approached.

And here are photos of the spectacular night time views experienced from the main deck.

Felix dressed for the occasion sporting one of his many purchases from visits to a variety of Comme des Garcons shops.

Finally, here's a short video of the red blinking lights that are so much a part of the Tokyo nighttime sky line.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Maybe it's time for a new toy car.

I'm the proud owner of a Scion XB.  And it's not one of those new curvy versions.  It's the original boxy version.  I love its utilitarian, toy-car design.  I've had it for seven years so I've started thinking about what my next car will be.  Unfortunately, there aren't many cars out there that have inspired my imagination.

But like me, the Japanese love their utilitarian, toy-like cars.  And those cars are head turners.  So here's my plea to foreign car manufacturers: Please bring your adorable cars to the U.S.  Here are a couple I'd be happy to own.

I'm in love with the Daihatsu Tanto.  Seriously, I would totally go for a tricked out version of this ultra-cool, toy car. 

Suzuki has a whole slew of fantastic, boxy cars that made me happy.  My favorite is this vehicle, which I could never find parked so I couldn't figure out what it is called.

I know car companies think we Americans aren't interested in these types of cars, but I think they're wrong.  From Scion, to Volkswagen, to Fiat, I think there are a lot of Americans who have demonstrated that we love the quirky foreign cars.  I'm totally ready to buy an ultra-cool, Japanese toy car.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Zen and the art of . . . well, zen.

We visited a lot of shrines/temples while we were in Kyoto. But without question my favorite was the zen Buddhist beauty that is Daitoku-Ji.  This grouping of gardens and temples was so peaceful, so beautiful that it was impossible not to feel more loved, more connected to the rest of the world, even more charitable.  From the dry gardens with their stories of the circle of life, to the lush green gardens with their calming beauty, I loved this place.  There are few places in my life that have asked me to be a better person.  But after visiting Daitoku-Ji, I want to be a better person.  Here are a few photos that can't begin to express the beauty of Daitoku-Ji.

I seldom felt like a giant Caucasian man in Japan, but this picture makes me feel huge.