Monday, June 21, 2010

Works in Progress

It's tempting to say that getting my home the way I want it is taking a long time because I'm trying to balance the desire to get things just so with the desire to be able to entertain people, and that might be true, but it ignores the much larger considerations: a) I'm really not that picky, and b) I'm lazy. Or I have other priorities: take your pick. Regardless, I have been making some progress, and the areas of progress include a couple of things that I built myself.

Despite having done my best to cull the herd before moving, and despite the losses suffered in the basement flood of '09, I still have some books, where "some books" means more than most people but a shockingly small proportion of what I used to own. Still, they needed to be housed, and rather than give yet more of my money to Ikea (which probably doesn't need it as much as I do), I thought I would build something.

The idea of something other than more bookshelf holding up one's bookshelves is not original to me, of course. In college, I had planks of wood layered with cinderblocks. Immediately after college, I had the same thing, when more affluent people had moved along to glass bricks. Glass bricks still make a great, albeit costly, support, of course, but the last time I was living on my own (maybe six years ago), I decided to try other things for supports. I considered all manner of options before arriving at bottles. The environmental and aesthetic benefits of bottles are fairly obvious, but I was also glad to have an excuse to buy expensive seltzer water.

Back in the day, I used Blu Italy bottles, and they were very pretty, but not long after I bought this house, I happened to find myself in a Costco in Northern Virginia, and I came home with a case of Acqua Panna, a very tasty Italian water that comes in very attractive bottles. I regularly purchase, mostly for EFU's benefit, Pellegrino, and between a case of the AP and two cases of Pellegrino, I had plenty of bottles.

The construction on these shelves is extremely simple, but it still took a while, and only got finished when I decided that I really did like the look of unfinished wood, after all. I'm sure I'll find another use for the quart of stain and the quart of clear acrylic, though.

Aside from the bottles, the only things necessary to build these shelves are some wood planks, a dowel, and wood glue. I originally wanted a tight-fitting dowel, so I purchased a dowel just slightly larger than the inside diameter of the bottleneck. And then I began to sand, and I sanded, and I sanded, and I sanded, and I went back to Home Depot, and I bought a dowel just slightly smaller than the inside of the bottleneck, and I came home, and I cut, and I marked, and I glued. The planks are six feet long and ten inches wide. I wanted the ends of the shelves to stagger somewhat, so I glued a pair of dowel pieces four inches from one end and twelve inches from the other end of each plank. I flipped half of the planks around when the glue was dry. Then I yelled for YFU, and together we started assembling the shelves. Alas, I was a bottle short for the plan I wanted, so I had to regroup, and then I had to reassemble the shelves when no one else was around. That part was a bit dicey because the shelves, which are extremely stable once loaded with books, give the impression of wanting to jump when they're empty. But I persevered, and I soon had six shelves together, without major incident. At least until I put the books on, at which point it became clear that I needed another bottle in the middle of each shelf, to counter bowing. But that was pretty easy to do, and I soon had a set of bookshelves that I'm very fond of.

Organizing the books, of course, was another matter entirely, and the "other European author" section is still horribly disorganized. Also, there are still more books in boxes, so they don't quite all fit, but I got at least 80% of my boxes empty and stored in the basement, so that I can actually walk around my office/library/computer room most of the time now, and that's a good thing.

Speaking of unfurnished furniture, behold my new bed. My old bed, which was due for replacement anyway, broke a couple of weeks ago, and I'm not quite sure exactly how that happened, even though I was there when it happened, and even though there was another witness present. Regardless, I considered my options and decided that the best way to balance economy with a desire to own more power tools was to build my own bed out of 2x4s.

I know nothing about building beds, of course, so I went over to the Instructables site and looked at what they had. And what they had wasn't exactly what I wanted, but I did get some very good advice from someone who had built a similar bed: don't overengineer it. So I made a sketch on a piece of scrap paper, and I headed to Home Depot with EFU and, more importantly, her station wagon, and I came home with a ten-inch miter saw, a sander, a box of screws, an assortment of bolts, and six eight-foot two-by-fours. I took everything to the basement, I measured, I cut, I drilled, I screwed, I swore, I brought partially assembled bed parts upstairs, I drilled and screwed and swore some more, and soon I had a frame upon which to affix the platform slats that I had saved from the prior bed.

The whole thing took about half a day, but I ended up with an extraordinarily sturdy bed. I still need to change out some of the nuts for locknuts, and I misjudged the height somewhat, but having to climb into bed is good exercise, right? Alternatively, in the future, I can always date high jumpers.

In addition to making a bed that is very strong, building my own allowed me to add some uncommon features. For example, at each corner, and in the center foot of the bed, instead of using two regular bolts, I used one regular bolt and one eye bolt. This gives me a place to fasten things to if I ever need to secure something to the bed. Like balloons, for instance. A bed should be a festive place after all.

I get that a bed platform made out of unfinished 2x4s isn't for everyone, but if you don't count the cost of the power tools, which I will use again (I already have projects planned), the cost of the materials for the bed was less than $30. So until I'm ready to spend the money on the bed of my dreams, this one is pretty cool.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Unified Dating Theory

I accidentally ended up on a date a couple of weeks ago. It turned out pretty well, but I feel like inadvertent dating is the sort of rookie error that I should have learned to avoid ten years ago. Still, nobody's perfect, I reckon.

As ever, it is important to define one's terms. There are, as I'm sure many of you are aware, a nearly limitless number of ways in which two men can interact, but for our present purposes, let's consider two broad categories: the social and the sexual. Under the social column (hereinafter column A), we have things like extended conversation, meeting for coffee, catching a movie, and going out for dinner -- all of which are perfectly respectable, and fun, activities. Under the sexual column (aka column B), we have things like holding hands, making out, and, well, this is not the particular venue in which I want to get too graphic, so just use your filthy, filthy minds imaginations. All of these activities are (or at least can and should be) perfectly fun, though they may not all be perfectly respectable. Some people, indeed, have posited an inverse relationship between fun and respectability, but I offer no opinion on that supposition except to say that if it is true, then it is almost certainly also an oversimplification.

Anyway, it's pretty easy to determine which activities go within each group, and in cases where an activity might be considered theoretically ambiguous (you might, for example, give a shoulder massage to someone with either sort of motivation), in practice, you always know what's what. If your activities with a particular person on a particular occasion are purely social, then you're hanging out with a friend. If your activities are purely sexual, then you're hooking up. If your activities are something from column A and something from column B (I believe the column A/column B meme is still reasonably common, but I was unable to find any current examples of the menus from which it springs. Back in the day, if you went to many Chinese restaurants, there was a group dining option where, depending on the number of diners, you chose a certain number of dishes from each column to get a communal meal. It must have made splitting the check easier.), then you're on a date.

And your activities have to be intentionally mixed, which is to say that you can't hook up with someone and then turn it into a date by having a conversation, of whatever length, in the afterglow. Or even in the glow, for that matter. If you invite someone over for horizontal quality time, and you somehow discover a common interest in Dickens, discussing Our Mutual Friend while you're making out doesn't transform the hook-up into anything else.1 Though I suppose you could always go on a date later, and, in fact, you probably should if you happen to run into a fellow Dickens lover, though you might want to keep a close eye on your facsimile edition of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Anyway, I traded some messages with a guy whom I found on a gay social networking application that is popular with iPhone users. This particular app is dedicated to the pursuit of column B activities, but it mostly manages to annoy me because most of the people who are on there pretend that they're there for column A. I tend to think this posturing exists because a lot of gay men are stupid enough to think that if they post a shirtless picture showing off their flawless torsos but say "Partnered and just looking for friends" in their profile, then their partners are stupid enough to believe them. This is not the case, but whatever: I should really not get started (and I really don't judge on moral grounds; aesthetic considerations are another matter, however). This particular guy claimed to be looking for both columns, not necessarily in the same guy, and while that would normally have made me roll my eyes, he had a sense of humor and a Ph.D., so I was willing to make some allowances. More to the point, he likes to cook, and he lives within walking distance of my house, so -- when he gave no indication whatsoever of any sort of column B interest -- I invited him to my place for dinner. These days, I'm doing my best to keep the columns separated, and while I haven't been entirely successful, I couldn't help figuring that having a food-friendly friend within walking distance would be better than having a random hook-up, it being the sad but undeniable fact that worthwhile -- albeit transitory -- column B companions are in much greater supply than their column A counterparts.

I hate dating, and I'm really bad at it. (These two facts may not be altogether unrelated.) I believe I have said before, only partly in jest, that the best reason to stay in a relationship is that if you become single, you might find yourself dating again at some point. But if I don't know I'm on a date, then I'm fine, so the evening went just swimmingly. I took the guy at his word when he said that he liked to eat, so I made some pickled Szechuan cucumbers as a pre-dinner snack, then for the main course, I cooked some very thick pork chops with mushrooms, rosemary, and red wine; some green beans boiled, shocked in ice water, and sauteed in butter; and a salad of chick peas, black beans, corn, tomatoes, and avocados in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Everything was delicious, though, uncharacteristically, the lemon pound cake that I made for dessert would have been borderline dry if it had not been well soaked in lemon syrup.

Anyway, the food was good, wine was consumed, and the conversation was funny and fluid and went into all sorts of subjects that I would never discuss on a date, but, hey, this guy wasn't interested in column B, so why not, right? But at some point, it's getting pretty late, and I'm surprised that he hasn't made noises about it being time to go home, and I'm feeling very content but also very tired and stuffed, and I look up from my plate, and he's giving me this look, and it suddenly occurs to me that a) he wants column B, and b) it's my responsibility to make the first move. At this point, I may have uttered an internal expletive, simply because this was not a situation I was looking to be in. I did realize, however, that in the universe of all possible situations, this was well above the median, and as I am not the sort of person to refuse a tasty bon bon when it is placed before me, I did my duty as a good host. I would say more, but I have always thought that detailed explanations of column B activities on the Internet are horrifically tacky.

I've been pretty good in the past at avoiding inadvertent dating, so I'm thinking this was an isolated incident. Nonetheless, I'm currently undertaking a thorough review of my policies and procedures to avoid this sort of columnar commingling in the future. I understand that a full report is due out in the fall.

1Not that I would know anything about such matters, of course, but if you're going to discuss Our Mutual Friend, shouldn't you do so in the context of a threeway?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Blogger Is Present

If you stare long enough into the 3-D glasses, the 3-D glasses stare into you.
I heard, via my online knowledge base, about the Marina Abramović thing (installation, performance, exhibit, whatever) at MoMA, and I thought it was silly. I am not really a visually oriented person, I don't follow the art world, I don't read the New York Times, my knowledge of performance art begins and ends with Laurie Anderson (I used to own a number of her records, on vinyl, and I saw her in performance in Boston back in the 1980s: it was a fun show.), and if the OKB hadn't mentioned her thing (presence, staring, whatever) at MoMA, I would surely not have been aware of it, much less taken the time (ok, three seconds) to formulate the opinion that it was silly.

For those of you similarly provincial and ignorant of the performance art world, The Artist is Present works like this: Marina Abramović wears a long dress and sits in a chair. Someone sits down opposite her. They stare at each other until the other person decides to leave or the museum closes. Then, unless the museum closes, another person takes the place opposite Ms. Abramović. Sometimes one or both of them cries. Nobody speaks. And that was it. It went on for seventy-two days.

I likely would not have taken more than the aforementioned three seconds to consider the whole shebang if someone hadn't pointed me to a Flickr set containing a picture of each and every person who sat opposite the artist. They are some seriously great photographs. (There is also one photo of the artist for each day that she sat, but those pictures don't do so much for me.) And it is apparent that the vast majority of these people didn't find the thing (installation, bench warming, ogling, whatever) at MoMA silly in the least.

I did a modicum of reading and discovered just how serious many of the attendees were about participating. In order to sit, people had to wait in a line, often for hours, without any assurance that they would ever get a turn. Some of them had to wait on line several days before getting to sit. And many of them appear to have been genuinely moved by the experience, which raises (but does not beg) the questions: if someone has a profound experience in response to something that's silly, does that make the experience any less profound? Does it make the stimulus any less silly?

The answer to both questions is no.

Having looked at hundreds of pictures, I'm unable to question the intensity of the experience for the majority of the attendees. There are, of course, some exceptions, probably beginning with the people who came to sit multiple times. Most notable among these was one guy who was there over and over again and sat, on one occasion, for the entire day. The people on line must have been livid, and, indeed, he has a couple of e-stalkers in the Flickr comments to his pictures. I'm sure most of these people (especially this woman, who sat about a dozen times) would claim that they returned again because of the intensity of the experience, but it appears that most of the multiples were performance artists. For example, I counted four different sittings forTehching Hsieh. I didn't know anything about Tehching Hsieh, either, before I saw him in the Flickr set, but the "Works" section in his Wikipedia entry makes me giggle. Or perhaps snort derisively, I really can't decide which. Four sittings really wasn't that many, and I only include the pictures because I think he's cute. (Yeah, whatever: like you never had an e-crush on an age-inappropriate performance artist.)

Anyway, despite the presence of people who were likely there, at least in part, to further their own agendas, it's clear that many people had a sincerely moving experience as part of the Marina Abramović thing (inertia, revelation, dust collecting, celebration, whatever) at MoMA, and I would be the last to deny them that experience. It seems to me entirely reasonable to wonder how much of the experience's movingness was due to the hype around the event and/or the long amount of time standing in line, combined with the desire to find meaning and/or the desire to see the emperor's new clothes, but none of that makes the experience less real if the participant perceived it as real, and moving.

But let's face it: it's still just some chick in a long dress sitting in one place and staring at people for hours on end (and, one presumes, being compensated for doing it). It's silly. I have honestly not bothered to go into all the reasons people will claim that it's not silly, but I can rattle a couple of likely candidates off: the Presence should be considered in the context of Marina Abramović's entire body of work, the Presence creates a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between the observer and the observed, and the Presence creates a response in the participants that gives the performance a sort of reciprocal value. I just don't buy any of these arguments. Talented artists, of all sorts, create crap stuff every day. Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus, neither of which are worth performing (though, sadly, they occasionally still are performed) simply because he also wrote King Lear.

As for the audience-based arguments, well, let's just say that if you can have a profound experience staring at someone who stares back at you, you can have an equally profound experience staring at a blank wall, or a mirror, or a stained glass window. Especially a stained glass window, because what the people who stand on line to sit across from Marina Abramović are doing is, essentially, worshipping. I would go so far as to guess that a majority of the attendees are atheists and reject the notion of a higher being, but they are merely replacing one god with another. They are worshipping at the altar of art, and Marina Abramović is their idol. Or their Pope, depending on where you want to go with the metaphor.

For the record, I believe that everyone believes in something, whether they acknowledge it or not, and art is as good a thing to believe in as any, and perhaps better than most. I just probably wouldn't choose this particular so-called art, and I certainly wouldn't think that standing in line to stare at Ms. Abramović is any different than kneeling in a church, praying to the Blessed Virgin (or to whomever). They're both pretty much equally silly: it's just that one of them has had a couple of centuries to build a following and the other had twelve weeks or so at MoMA. I'm sure that, given enough time, Marina Abramović could build a much larger following, and get her own recognition as a church, along with the concomitant tax benefits.

None of this outrages me, particularly. I know that a significant number of people feel abused by organized religion and despise it in all forms, but once you realize that everyone worships something (even if it's just a vague notion of humanism, which is probably what I believe in: I can't be bothered to figure out exactly what I believe in), it's maybe more appropriate to be amused than angry, except perhaps when a particular religion and/or its devotees have done you harm or are trying to do you harm. (One supposes that a similarly high proportion of the sitters support gay marriage, something that can't be said for most of the kneelers.)

Anyway, the photographs are great. I liked them so much that I wanted many of them on my walls, which are still rather barer than they ought to be, so I downloaded bunches of them to see what I could do with them. As it happens, the pictures are very nearly square (787x783 pixels; cropping them to a 4x6 or 5x7 picture ruins them, to my eye), and Costco will do an 8x8 print for about a buck and a half, which is pretty cheap. But I didn't realize that option was available at first, and I also wanted a larger array of the photos, so I used Gimp to arrange twenty-four of the photos into a 4x6 set and sent the very large resulting file to Costco to print out as a 20x30 poster. My previous experience with Costco poster printing had not been entirely great, but I figured that might be because I'd used files that did not have sufficient resolution. And, indeed, the large photo array that I sent came out perfectly. I could not be happier with it, and it's going to look great on my living room wall, once I figure out just how I want to hang it. It cost $8.99, plus tax, which really is a price that just can't be beat. I also got a number of 4x6 prints of the same file (at thirteen cents a print!), so that I can use them as postcards.

You will notice a certain theme among the photos that I chose for the poster. When I showed the picture to my OKB, one of them asked me "Why glasses? And don't say 'Why not?'" Sadly, I didn't really have a better answer for him than that I just liked the way it looked, but I'm sure that if I were to worship at the altar of art, I would come up with something about how it was a comment on the nature of perception. Just like the photo at the top of this entry, which shows my everyday eyeglasses opposite some 3-D glasses that I picked up at a viewing of Avatar, sitting on top of my bed. The piece of lint in between them represents man's inhumanity to man.