Is this castle his home?


Josh and I went out to a bar last night, played some darts with the locals, and then (as is our yearly tradition) went for a late night snack at the local White Castle. We were in the downtown area late at night, and by Indianapolis standards this is somewhat dodgy. There were about three homeless (and inebriated, one quite severely) people inside the establishment. A couple of them were sleeping, but one of them was wandering around in a stupor. At one point he came over to our table and lingered, spouting a lot of mumbled, incomprehensible things. I finally gave him one of our sandwiches and he stumbled away, over to the counter where he tried to tell them he had ordered something and they gave him a drink. The people working at the White Castle were actually pretty nice about the homeless hanging around, and it was below freezing outside, so where should they go? The guy got his cup and wandered over to the soda dispenser where he unsuccessfully pawed at it and leaned into it for several minutes mumbling loudly, at which point Josh went over to push the soda button for him. This must have inspired him, because he came back to our table standing over us and mumbling some more, and we finally shooed him away long enough to eat in peace. Or so we thought. About 2 minutes later, a guy came in off the street and made a bee line for our table. He had the shakes and was asking us something that I couldn’t quite make out when Josh let out a loud-ish firm “No.” and the guy wandered off. I realized at that point he was offering us four dollars for a ride uptown. We finished our meal quickly and left after that. I thought for a bit on our discomfort when dealing with these men. And I realized that other than offering them a little food and drink, there was no (long term) fix for their suffering that was within our power right there and then to make happen.

Talk about things to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. And it really makes you wonder about why our society and its safety net has such big holes in it that allow people to fall so very far through them. In my own family, my older brother, who is on permanent disability due to a number of psychiatric problems, would probably be out on the street were it not for the actions of my family. They have given him a place to live and supplemental income and protected him from the worst. It has put an emotional and financial strain on the family to be sure. But what do people do who aren’t lucky enough to have a family like ours? The social and governmental safety nets we have around us are highly variable and dependent on so many factors, among them wealth,  family, geography, culture, ethnicity/race, and luck. And it is so easy for us to look the other way. Our (calvinist/protestant) society seems to have an emotional need to believe that God rewards good people with wealth and health and punishes others with poverty and sickness. This is not terribly different than what many in India and other eastern societies believe about karma and our given place in the world. And even if we do believe that some people are more or less deserving than others, we should wish suffering on no one, and do what we can as a society to alleviate it. The greater the peace and health and happiness of the most vulnerable in our society, the greater our own peace and happiness will be.

Nightmare of a futurist past


My friend Paul had an extra ticket to a performance art piece at The High Line park last night, and graciously invited me along.  The piece, entitled “City Symphonies Out of Doors” was part of the Performa 09 series, performed by “Acclaimed avant-garde ensemble Text of Light“. Basically, the ensemble played music to accompany a silent film from 1927 that had many scenes of life in Berlin. Their premise is to “improvise”, not “illustrate” in the presence of film. The film itself is seen as part of the Futurist movement, with its representations of dynamism in modern life. I studied the Futurists in college and was quite a fan of them, especially their work in sculpture (Boccioni, for example) and architecture (Sant’Elia). The antics of Marinetti and other founders of the movement were sometimes inspirational (trying as they were to shake off the chains of history) and sometimes merely petulant. It didn’t help that many of them aligned themselves with Mussolini and Italian Fascism later on. Be that as it may, the movement was one which tried to fuse art with the chaos and industrialization of modern life, to find a meaning and direction that was truly modern (and appropriate to the age). One hundred years later, it is still interesting (and sometimes comical) to look back on these preoccupations for what they tell us about the great upheavals and dislocations brought about by technology.

The film itself was mostly interesting for its historical content. There were some excellent compositions, but the only “avant-garde” thing about the film was its tenuous relation to “story”. I did find the scenes of early 20th century life to be fascinating in and of themselves. And although to modern eyes there wasn’t much particularly shocking, I can imagine a hundred years ago the sense of newness and chaos in the imagery and editing would have been more palpable and disorienting. The ensemble played “music” to accompany the film, and I struggled to find any structure, pattern or meaning in their noise. I played a game of trying to imagine their motivations for the screeching and at times physically painful sounds they were inflicting on the audience. Here are the possibilities:

1. They were trying to induce in the crowd the panic and disorientation of modern life, as close to the horror and dislocation as might have been felt by a farmer in the city 100 years ago. If they had played for merely 10 minutes, I would have gotten the point and enough already. But they continued on with this noisy one liner for over an hour.

2. They were trying to induce bleeding from the ears in the crowd. The level was so loud that at many points many of us had to put our fingers in our ears. I am not exaggerating to tell you that my teeth actually hurt.

3. They had a bet among them to see how many people they could make leave before the end of the hourlong performance. (They achieved about 20 percent attrition by my estimate)

My friend Paul professed to having loved the performance. Although I tried to elicit from him a clear explanation of what it was he found so wonderful in the “music”, I came away unconvinced. I can only imagine that a birthday gift of root canal would be most pleasing to him, if performed by an “artist” in drag with rusty implements. Ultimately, I was glad to be a part of this and get a look into another of the many worlds that layer over each other in this diverse and amazing city. That said, I think it will be close to the first of never before I would subject myself to anything associated with Text of Light again.

For your amusement (if not enjoyment) I am embedding a small clip from the event. To get the full effect, please turn the volume on your computer to maximum.