Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bud, holy cow!

I just went to the Seoul Museum of Art, and saw Vincent Van Gogh. This guy...

you know the difference between looking at pictures of your friend, and actually sitting down and chatting -- you know the way NOBODY gets your vacation photos the way you do, just because bud, the food looks great in the picture, but they didn't get to eat it, and you did.

Well, dear readers, art is like that too. I didn't actually see Vincent VanGogh. He died. Quite a while ago, now. But if you think these pictures are impressive -- wow! You really gotta see them in person. The paint on the canvas, the little knots of colour, the texture that jumps out at you -- it's like the difference between a photo album and a person (which makes sense, but still didn't really click until I saw these in person).

This one was there. Girlfriendoseyo disagrees with me, but I think Van Gogh was overwhelmed by the sun. The sun seems so close here -- it strikes me even as being accusing. The sun almost totally dominates just about every painting where it appears in Van Gogh's work. The field is so mundane next to that glaring eye. You can barely even see the birds eating the sower's seeds -- they're totally irrelevant next to that sun.

I stared at this one for about three minutes without blinking. I don't know how, but Vincent got to me, like a fisher with his hook, he got a hold of something in me.

This next one wasn't in the exhibit, but you can see here, too, Van Gogh's feeling about the sky. I said to Girlfriendoseyo today -- Raphael's or Vermeer's paintings are so perfect, so realistic, it's like they're just seeing. Picasso's paintings are so intuitive, so emotional, it's like they're just feeling. Van Gogh sees and feels. It's amazing how raw and visceral these paintings are in person.

This one WAS in the exhibit, and Girlfriendoseyo and I were both totally gobsmacked. I just can not convey to you how powerful this painting is in person. I really can't. Even if you eat the computer screen where the painting is displayed, you won't be as deeply impressed by it as we were. Go, seek it out, and see it yourself.

This next painting was there too, the only of his self portraits (I think).

This one broke my heart, and also caught hold of me for several minutes: every line said, "dude, I've lived a f***ing rough life." He died at age 37, but this, one of his early paintings, already looks about fifty.

Everybody loves these next three. . . they weren't at the exhibit, but they might have been too much for me if they were. My old roomie Anthony once told me the story of his buddy, the self-proclaimed "biggest Bjork fan in the world", who, when he got the chance to see Bjork perform live, ended up having to leave the auditorium after the first few songs, completely overwhelmed with the power of his experience. I scoffed at the story then, and called dude an idiot for flinching away from a potential high-point in his life. . . but now I think I might understand a bit.

Considering how these three are still amazing, gorgeous, and fresh to me, even though they pop up of every tea room wall, on every Starbucks mug, in every poster-shop window. . . to actually see them in person, to have their impact amplified that much -- I might have to look away for a while, too, before staring into the sun like that.

Dear Lord, the man's night skies were breathtaking!

This one WAS there. In person, it's almost a different painting entirely.

And I wish I could explain what he does with flowers. . . but there's just no way. (This is why people write poems, I suppose.)

This wasn't at the exhibit, but again, look how he just lays his soul bare in the skies. The indoor still life paintings' backgrounds were totally flat and dull, but this Vincent fellow, he had some kind of a thing about skies.

Thanks to him, now I do, too.

Wasn't at the exhibit, but just -- wow. Just wow.

I love painters.
The German poet Rilke (my personal poetry hero) wrote, in the First Duino Elegy

"already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world"

And this is why artists draw -- because there doesn't have to be a story, or a meaning, or anything but a field and a sky. . . but that field, and that sky -- WOW!

Here it is! Be amazed!

We're right back to that again, aren't we? Can't that sometimes be enough? Can't that sometimes be the entire end and purpose of some art? As John Keats said,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

But with words, Keats had to say beauty is truth. These painters just show something beautiful, and they don't even have to add a single layer of interpretation if they don't want to, and they can just leave it at "here it is. be amazed."

(Girl With a Pearl Earring, by another Dutch guy who was pretty good: Vermeer. Here it is. It's beautiful. Be amazed.)

Yeah, sometimes there's other stuff in there, too. . . but there doesn't have to be. With writing, it's almost impossible not to add in a little pontification, a little theme or interpretation or explanation -- it's why I get bummed every time I read Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey -- he starts off with a "here it is. be amazed" and then starts adding other stuff. Sometimes in other poems, he got it right, got it pure, but often he was so busy explaining the perfection of his moments, or describing his own feelings, that he clouds the beauty with too many traces of his own voice -- kind of like an amazing photograph with a text line across the middle of the composition saying, "taken on a fuji finepix E550"

For your benefit, I've created a visual representation of what I mean. Which of these pictures would you rather have on your wall?

Here's a Picasso painting I talked about in a previous post.

I love about Picasso that he stripped away everything in his paintings except the things he decided were important for that particular painting.

Form? Not needed.
Proportion? Why?
Perspective? Does it serve the painting's main theme?
Conventional Placement Of Body Parts? Let's talk about that again later.

But what he DID keep in his painting, distorted, exaggerated, or rearranged for proper emphasis, maintained the exact emotional content of his subject, even when the recognizable form was long gone, and so, even though you wouldn't recognize her to pass her on the street, you FEEL this woman crying (the painting is named "La Femme Qui Pleure" - the woman who cries), more (or at least as) clearly and authentically than/as a hundred photos of women actually crying.

The other thing I love love love about Picasso is his face. Look at his eyes. Those are eyes that have been trained, for an entire lifetime, to see into the heart of things, and find wonder there. "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." That he not only learned how to SEE the world that way, but was also skilled or intuitive enough to translate what he saw onto canvas is as much a miracle as the way Mozart heard the music perfectly in his head, or the way Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony while stone-deaf, or the way John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison managed to be born in the same city, in the same era, and meet each other.

Even when he's very old, you still see a child in his eyes. You see a mind still open. Still dancing.

That kind of wise simplicity appears from time to time, in somebody's eyes. . . not even in every artist, though. My favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, has a sharper edge in his eyes.

but it doesn't surprise me that someone who uses words (which are basically boxes, categories, and judgements impressed upon the things that actually reach one's senses) would have a sharper edge than someone who uses colours and shapes to lay bare his soul.

Would you believe that behind those eyes lies one of the finest religious-scholarly minds on the planet?

I hope, when I'm an old man, I have eyes as encompassing, innocent, and simple, as that.

But more than that, I hope they look that way because I've worked my whole life to see the world simply and wonderfully (wonderful meaning full of wonder, of course), and maybe even that I've been clever enough to transmit some of that tight-packed wonder into some books that other people can read.

How long does it take to write a poem like Rilke, or paint a painting like Picasso, or a story like JD Salinger?

A few hours, or a few days, or a few months. . . and an entire lifetime, of course.

Friday, November 23, 2007

with my family, and the friends I've loved in my short life I have had so many people I've deeply cared for

(the pictures are explained at the end of the post.)

Before I get into that:

a thought on music: the measure of a great songwriter, I think, is that other artists can take the song and do something interesting with it. (submitted for consideration: Bob Dylan songs, Beatles songs have been covered meaningfully [or otherwise] by so many artists. See also: jazz standards, where any artist can give it their own take. If your song has been covered by a jazz artist [or by more than one] you can console yourself that it's pretty darn well-written.)


the measure of a great musician, I realized today, is that people don't dare cover the song, because they know they could never measure up to the standard set by the original (or at least THE version) -- Every artist who sings "Hallelujah" will be measured against Jeff Buckley, every artist who sings "Watchtower" will be measured against Jimi Hendrix. Some bands just never have, like, ANY of their songs remade, because their musical identity is so unique that no artist could measure up. Really, who's gonna cover a Led Zeppelin song? You'll never top them, so why bother trying, unless you take it in such a different direction that it's barely the same song anymore, or only do it live, where Zep is sure to fire up a crowd? Even in jazz -- "My Funny Valentine" isn't done much anymore, because that's Chet's song, and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" is cute, but you won't be as cute as Louis and Ella. Mark of a musician.


a Roboseyo observation on life:
Problem is, the worst 1% of a demographic is usually also the loudest.

OK then. Blog soundtrack time: hit play, and then read.

I don't know if this blog actually qualifies as a public forum. . . though theoretically it is, much in the same way you can hold up a sign on a street corner and people can choose to read it or not. . . maybe this blog is more like holding up a sign in an alley at night, I'm not sure how many people come here, really . . . nor whether anybody other than folks who used to be on my personal mailing list still care, but. . .

In going through my old e-mails from the year before, and then the year after Mom died (no small task: over 500 pages just from the five I e-mailed the MOST during that time) I've been struck, staggered, and humbled, by the amazing quality of friends I have.

The thoughts and emotions shared during that time were pretty raw, I was basically bleeding through e-mail a bunch of the time, and my friends (in descending order of number of pages sent back and forth) Tamie, Anna, Melissa, Matt and (before we broke up) Exgirlfriendoseyo really worked like a life buoy (or maybe a tourniquet) for me.

So here are some specific things I'm thankful for, concerning each of these friends:

(in descending order of pages)

Tamie - was my grief buddy. We were peripheral friends during University, but she stayed on my e-mailing list, and then suddenly, when Exgirlfriendoseyo and I broke up, she sent a letter so gentle and compassionate that we've since become good friends. We connected deeply and instantly for several reasons, but you'll just have to ask HER what they are, for privacy reasons and such. Our e-mail correspondence was extensive, and traced a lot of changes in my character and faith, as they were happening. Tamie is wise, gentle, and compassionate. She doesn't give unsolicited advice, or answer without thinking deeply first. She was really diligent in speaking with compassion and without judgment, and by doing that, gave me a space where I could poke around at myself, during a time when I really didn't like being in my own company. Thanks, Tamie!

(also, for a while I think Tamie and Mel were the only ones actually reading my blog. . .)

(it's American thanksgiving, so I guess I can get away with this.)

Anna - my friendship with Anna was one of those "friendship least likely to happen" situations after university ended, but despite (or maybe because of) a knotty beginning, we became good friends later. She lives in my brother's hometown, and she has brown eyes full of wisdom, and she's my age, but she's still the kind of person who listens to birds, and goes outside to look at the frost on the grass in the streetlights, when it shines like diamonds. Like Tamie, our lives followed a somewhat similar arc in certain respects over the last while, and between conversations and e-mails, she's been a good travel companion through some rough patches.

Melissa - didn't get as many pages of e-mail, but it's not because I love her less (it's because we'd meet while I was in Canada, and back in Korea, I phoned her more - hard as that is to believe, considering how sporadic my calling habits are). If I had to be stuck on a desert island with one person, I'd have to choose Jesus, because then we could walk on water back to the mainland (and chat along the way) but if I got to pick three people, it'd be Matt, Dan, and Mel.

One of the things I love about Mel is that she'd beg me to choose someone else so that she could remain with her wonderful husband and her amazing two little boys (you can go read about them on her blog, which is linked on the side here). Mel makes me laugh beyond all reason, and she's been my most loyal university friend. Our friendship has had some amazing give-and-take, and I'm so grateful to have her around. She's extremely smart (but never arrogant), and she takes no crap from me, and chops me back down to size if I get too preposterous, at the same time praising me when I do well. She's one of those rare friends who can give a person the truth honestly, but also kindly enough for a person to really learn something, and maybe become a better person. She has an amazing family, and she needs support right now because her husband is far away in RCMP boot camp, so you should go put encouraging comments on her blog. She's also a badass paramedic, and you can read some of the blood-and-guts stories on her blog.

Soundtrack 2: press play when the other one ends, then scroll down and ignore the images that run as the music plays. Seriously, PLEASE scroll down so you can't see the images that play. They're really cheesy.

The song's "Call it Off" by Tegan and Sara. They're Canadian, and great.

The original version vanished, but this live version has a great crowd singalong.

Matt - Again, more that passed between us was conversation than e-mail. While I was in Canada, with Mom, he got the concentrated stuff, and the korea-related stuff, but once I returned to Korea, well, I might have made it without his support, but it would have been a much rougher, slower go, and I might be a different person than I am now. Matt's the most loyal friend, and the best friend, I've met since university, and he's influenced me more than probably anybody outside my immediate family.

Matt's smart but not arrogant, gentle but tough, honest and tactical. He, like Mel, will call me out if I'm out of line (I really appreciate people who do that), but, like Mel, when he does, it comes from a place of compassion, of knowing me well, and knowing what's important to me (sometimes I get called out by people who misunderstand me or my situation, or who press their values onto my life. . . then it's more of a "thanks for your opinion" than a "I never noticed that before. . . I'll adjust accordingly" as it has usually been with Melissa and Matt. He's funny and he keeps me light-hearted when I need it, and he's ready for a sauna, a poetry reading, a night of revelry, or a mountain-climb, as suits the situation. I love him to pieces. His wife Heyjin is so amazing she, like Melissa's family, really deserves a post of her own, so for now I'll say, I'm glad and grateful for my friendship with her.

Finally, Exgirlfriendoseyo:

Before things fell apart on my return to Korea, she was a good e-mail pal, and she got a lot of the day-to-day updates on Mom's condition. I'm glad she was in Korea waiting for me, because having someone to look forward to sure makes a difficult time like watching your mom die a little more manageable. Exgirlfriendoseyo was (and probably remains, for all I know) a sweet-hearted woman. She's caring and lovable and I'm glad I met her. We weren't quite ready to go the distance together, but I learned a lot about loving from her, and then I learned a lot about grieving from losing her, and for that, I ought to be grateful.

There's a song I wanted to have as the soundtrack for this post: Red Cave, by Yeasayer ends with the repeated lyric, "I'm so blessed to have a good time with my family, and the friends I've loved in my short life I have had so many people I've deeply cared for" -- which sounds nice, but it's miles better set in the rest of the song.

At some point in the future, some cut-and-pastes from the e-mails that passed between me and those five (e-mailing was basically my version of therapy for those two years, along with a few other habits and activities), might appear on this blog. They might not. It depends on the context where they seem most appropriately used.

There are a lot of other people who have been there for me through this time -- shout out to my brothers and sisters and my dad, of course, as well as some other e-pals and coworkers, and the people pictured throughout this post. I love you all and I'm so glad you're in my life. I haven't attached names because I don't necessarily have permission, per se, to name these people on my blog, but you've meant a lot to me. But the five mentioned that bore the lion's share of my grief (certainly my e-grief), and as I look through the old e-mail records, I'm wildly, ridiculously grateful they (and the rest of you) were around when I needed them.

Thanks, eh?

all the love in the world:


(Actually, when I think about it again, maybe the one person I'd choose to be stuck on a desert island with is Dick Cheney, so he couldn't f*** up the world any more than he already has. . . but that's another post entirely)

(Morning has broken, by Cat Stevens)