Saturday, February 17, 2018


While Kim Jong-un's sister gets her photo snapped at the Olympics, the people of North Korea, as they have for decades, suffer unimaginable isolation, suffering, and oppression.

This week's arts and culture column starts like this:

Suki Kim was born in South Korea to parents whose family had been separated by the Korean War. In the early 1980s her father, a successful businessman, suffered a sudden financial reverse and went bankrupt, a “crime” that could have drawn prison time.

She was woken in the middle of the night, shuttled off to a relative’s house in a faraway city, and did not see her parents for a year.

They were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport. The family was now poor, and the 13-year-old girl knew not a word of English.

These events make her memoir, “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite” (Penguin Random House, $15), of her time undercover in North Korea, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to 270 young males at a Christian evangelical school, all the more astounding. For in addition to being a gripping “insider” story, her work is a literary tour de force: lyrical, nuanced and haunting.


Thursday, February 15, 2018


Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.

It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.

Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.

-John O’Donohue, Four Elements: Reflections on Nature


Friday, February 9, 2018



This week's arts and culture column begins like this:

For all you ink aficionados, through April 15 the Natural History Museum is featuring a special exhibit: “Tattoo.”

Tattoo culture has been 5,000 years in the making. Since the 20th century, L.A. has formed a significant part of it.

“Before it becomes a mark,” the museum notes, “a tattoo is process. Its results can be a sign of identity, a rite of passage, a type of protection, a form of medicine, a memory made visible, or a piece of art to be collected and worn on that most intimate of canvases, the human skin.”

The exhibit, which costs 11 bucks in addition to the entrance fee, features commentary on the wide and varied history of tattoo, vintage photos, flash sheets of pinup girls, dragons and Catholic iconography, and videos.

Silicone arms, tattooed in various styles and backlit like medieval manuscripts, are displayed throughout in glass vitrines. There are tribal designs; a giant, writhing octopus by Kari Barba (b. 1960), whose Long Beach shop occupies the site of the legendary Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo; and my own personal favorite, a style honed by Montreal tattoo artist Yann Black (b. 1973) that he describes as “somewhere between German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism.”


Saturday, February 3, 2018


This week's arts and culture column begins like this:

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-Portrait at the Age of 34,” on loan from the National Gallery in London, is on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through March 5. The appearance marks the painting’s U.S. debut.

A little background: Rembrandt (1606-1669), Dutch painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in Leiden to prosperous parents. His mother was Catholic and his father a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Though as an adult he seemed to have practiced no religion himself, this Christian influence of his childhood clearly marked and helped form him.

In 1932 he moved to Amsterdam, and in 1934 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of his art dealer.

Prodigiously talented, and prolific in a wide range of styles and subjects, his oeuvre includes landscapes, mythological and religious works, and portraits.

Though now widely considered one of the greatest artists the world has known, and certainly the most important in Dutch art history, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial catastrophe.


Monday, January 29, 2018



This week's arts and culture column reflects on a documentary in which old people (a term I, being one of them, much prefer to "seniors"--better yet, why not elders?) take to the tennis court, swimming pool, boxing ring, track, golf links and more.

Here's how it begins:

We’ve all heard it. Seventy is the new 50. You’re only as old as you feel.

Enter “Impossible Dreamers,” a documentary about competitive “senior” athletes.

The film opens with legendary golfer Gary Player, 80, distinguished silver hair neatly combed, hopping spryly onto a treadmill.

“Instead of spending money at the bar, and overeating, buy yourself a treadmill,” he suggests, pounding away. “Put it in your bathroom … all you do is spend five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. It’ll be like the greatest miracle. …This is the best doctor in the world, right here.”

A mad gleam in his eye, he then goes into the “speed” portion of his workout, huffing and puffing like a demented steamboat.

Many of us live in apartments so — let’s say cozy — that the living room wouldn’t accommodate a treadmill, never mind in the bathroom.


Thursday, January 25, 2018


Here's a girl after my own heart: Japanese choreographer Kei Takei.

Here's an article about her.

“For my stone dances, I was just walking on the street one day and I found a sudden connection with a rock,” she said in a telephone interview from Tokyo.

She picked it up and could sense reverberations. “It’s like a creative message,” she said. “I follow it and see where it leads me.”

 Plus check out the totally weird felt tunic she's sporting!

I myself have been a teeny bit, and ever more, obsessed with rocks. It all started as I was planning my native plant garden and somehow came upon a whole cache of buried river rocks in the backyard of my Pasadena bungalow. I dug many of them up with my bare hands to lay out boundaries and line paths.

Also the ground itself is filled with smaller rocks of various sizes that are good for making little circles around the plants, so I started collecting them, in spackling compound buckets, too.

Then a friend gave me three beautiful stones he'd found on a hike in the mountains which I arranged on a window ledge in my kitchen.

Back to the garden, I made the acquaintance of pea gravel. And again by hand I painstakingly collected pebbles, slightly bigger than pea gravel, but smaller than a small rock, with which to line the area beneath the rose arbor.

Then I went out to Joshua Tree last year during Lent and stayed at a cabin without electricity and after about 14 hours, rock collecting came to seem like THE most absorbing activity imaginable.

Now I look for rocks wherever I go, and have come to consider them companions and friends.

Most recently, and this could turn out not to be a really great thing, I chanced upon a picture of a mobile made out of small rocks in which holes had been drilled.

Well! That fired my imagination. And let's just say I am now the proud owner of a Makita 18v cordless drill AND the "rotary tool" known as the Dremel, 3000 series.

I have also learned neither of those do a really wonderful and quick job of drilling through even a small stone. The youtubes say to hold the stone under water but can that be good, esp as the Dremel is not cordless?

Anyway, no matter for I have now discovered--copper wire! I envision all kinds of creations of seed pods, sea glass, small stones, pieces of driftwood and the Lord alone knows what else. The Dremel as well has myriad uses outside pebble-drilling and will come in handy not only in the pottery class (my second) I plan to take in the spring, but for removing foot callouses.

Plus I already did a little home repair job with my drill! So watch out.


Monday, January 22, 2018


Giselle and Rachel Cruising down the Malecón,
Havana, from the series Habana Libre, 2009,
copyright Michael Dweck

This week's arts and culture column reflects on a photography exhibit called "CUBA IS."

Here's how the piece begins:

The almost yearlong, greater-L.A.-wide Pacific Standard Time LA/LA Festival, showcasing Latin American and Latino art in L.A., officially ends this month.

But there’s still plenty to see, including, through March 4, an exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography called “Cuba Is.”

The images promise a peek inside and beyond “aspects of Cuba not easily accessed by foreigners, and sometimes not even by Cubans themselves.”

Well, sign me up.

It’s all here: Cuba’s indigenous African and European roots, the enforced exile of its citizens, its poverty, sugar cane fields, classic cars and love for ballet and baseball.

But what’s also here are race divisions, class conflicts, the uncertainty of the future and up-close-and-personal looks at people’s kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms.


Man with Crocodile,
Ciénaga de Zapata, 2006
copyright Raul Cañibanoyou

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


LOUIS KAHN, 1901-1974

The subject of this week's arts and culture column is Louis Kahn--who was a genius architect, and also had a compelling personal life.

Here's how the piece begins:

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), one of the most well-known architects of the 20th century, died of a heart attack in Penn Station at the age of 73. He was nearly bankrupt and on his way home from India.

He was born in Estonia. His family moved 17 times in his first two years of life, a pattern that repeated during his own nomadic adulthood.

Kahn was short (5 feet 6 inches) with a gravelly voice and conspicuous facial scars from burns sustained as a child. He was also magnetically charismatic and an almost fanatically hard worker.

“He was not controllable,” people said of him. “He didn’t know day from night.”

Symmetry, order, principled, fundamental, primitive and exhilarating were some of the words used to describe his work.

“It’s important that you honor the material you use,” he once told a group of students. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ and brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ ”


And don't miss Wendy Lesser's wonderful You Say to Brick.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018




"From my present point of view, the sky is the most important landscape, the sky reigns over all things, forever changing their aspect and making new spectacles of the most familiar sights.
--Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France

I found the quote in a wonderful book of photographs, by Jennifer Gough-Cooper of Rodin's work, called Apropos Rodin

Which in turn Geoff Dyer turned me onto (he also contributed an essay), I think in The Ongoing Moment.

I also learned from Geoff of photographer Miroslav Tichy, who is also well worth a look.

In fact, I wish I had time to write of all Geoff Dyer has given me, and to the world His But Beautiful is a book about jazz that you can read and be changed by even if you know next to nothing about jazz.

Then there is Zona, which is about his obsessive love for Tarkovsky's Stalker...but don't get me going.

I am headed out soon for my afternoon walk.

All I'm saying is that reading--a practice of steady, eclectic reading--has opened up universes for me, my whole life. And continues open up more. 

A few other books on my list right now are a biography of the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs called Let It Blurt, by Jim DeRogatis, Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," and a book about Indian untouchables (there may be a more p.c. word now) called Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla, who actually grew up as one of this despised caste. Things are changing, apparently, and about time.

I have had approximately one hour of "free" time in my time at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, where I arrived last Tuesday. Every time I hear from someone from home, they say, "I hope you're enjoying your retreat."

I have to refrain from shrieking, "It is not a freaking RETREAT. It's a "residency." Where I have been working my ASS off since the moment I arrived."

My God! Do people know nothing of "the writing life?"  There's not just the writing. There's the collecting of pebbles, rocks, twigs, and seed pods. There's the incessant observation of the sky. There's the prayer, the stoking of the wood-fire, the sitting with one's head in one's hands, the inability to sleep because you so don't want to miss the stars, the coffee-drinking, the pacing, the talking to oneself, the practicing of the Haydn sonatas. The reading of the book on Rembrandt, the book on Illuminated Manuscripts, and the book on North Korea by Suki Kim, all for future columns.

Oh, okay, the NYT and the New Yorker blog.

The stretching exercises.

The looking through the binoculars at the acorn woodpecker.

The snatched watching of the Brisbane and now Sydney WTA tournaments. 

The realization, all over again, of how truly petty and touchy and impossible I am, and no wonder I'm  not married, and God, please don't hold my MYRIAD character defects against me.

No but seriously, I have only had to get into my car and drive, anywhere, once, the whole time I've been here, which was to Sunday Mass. So no driving, no social obligations, no dentist or doctor appointments, no "having" to talk to people (the bane of my introvert's existence), no food shopping even, as I stocked up before I came. Just enough phone calls to keep me involved and interested in the stream of life. But basically none of the stuff that makes life so unbelievably stressful.

This morning, walking down the hill, I realized that for the first time in probably years, my entire body did not ache. My back didn't hurt. More notably my neck, which lately has seemed more or less permanently crippled, did not hurt, or at least very much. So that was a treat.

Just then I spotted a whole cache of weird spiny sponge-like-looking objects that had clearly fallen from or been blown by a nearby tree, cactus, or shrub. Of course I had to nab a few.

I feel so bad for the people in Montecito who were killed in this week's mudslide. I've been on retreat there, and attended Mass at their beautiful mission church, and hiked in the hills above, many times over the years.

Here's what the sky looked like this morning in Temecula, after the rains here.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


photographs from the hill i walk every day--
or turner paintings!?

Maria Popova's weekly column "Brain Pickings" is often thought-provoking and a good source for reading and watching tips.

Here's the link to a lovely article, just out today, entitled "A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics That Is Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves." 

I couldn't agree more. I have resisted with every fiber of my being the notion of "branding" (vile!)  or even categorizing my life and work. The only reasons to reduce a human person to a brand or a categorized identity are to consume, market, defend or attack.

I've also wondered these few months, Am I the only woman in North America who has not been fondled, groped, harassed, insulted, demeaned, propositioned and raped since the moment of my birth?

Now that we have mindlessly destroyed the careers and publicly excommunicated a whole bunch of sometimes otherwise talented and basically decent men, with no due process, no capacity to shade, differentiate, listen to, weigh the evidence, or reconcile, we are beginning to see the first rays of a a restoration of sanity. I now predict a mass abdication from the latest "identity movement" by the very virtue-signalling, self-proclaimed spokespeople for my glorious gender who first advanced it.

As usual, the deepest issue isn't political, but rather human. Shaming, lording it over, reproaching, insisting on one's superiority and rightness, and shrieking never change anything or anybody one tiny real it. Not the shamees, not the shamers.

What does, and I come back to this again and again, is story.

I just finished a wonderful book: Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo.

From a thumbnail New Yorker review:

"The author, a Harvard-educated child of Taiwanese immigrants, volunteered for Teach for America in a small town in the Arkansas Delta. In this memoir, she recounts arriving determined to empower her students through the study of black American literature and civil-rights politics. Sobered by the challenges she encounters, she leaves the program at the end of her commitment, only to return, guilt-stricken, when a former student, Patrick, is arrested for murder. As he awaits trial, the two resume their lessons"...

Kuo came to the Delta thinking to energize her black students, to educate them to the way their race has been so cruelly bowed down, to rouse them to action. She showed them photos of lynchings, which were passed around in horrified silence until one boy put his head down on his desk (a punishable offense in Kuo's classroom) and mumbled, "Nobody want to see that." She introduced them to Malcolm X--they were bored. Obama also elicited yawns. She shoved at them all manner of scholarly, political and historical material (Patrick at one point ventured that the Civil War--"Was that the one where the slaves freed?"--began in 1940): no discernible effect.

Deciding to try one last time, she introduced Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

"It was a hit. The angry banter between Walter and Ruth, husband and wife, got laughs. Their complaints about living in a crowded house got nods. Ruth's despair over discovering she's pregnant made the room go silent. And the students universally loved the grandmother. All seemed to know her. Born in Mississippi and religious, she scolded her son for wanting to start a liquor store, slapped her daughter for saying there is no God, and yelled at her daughter-in-law for wanting an abortion.. As I assigned parts, the students clamored to be cast in her role. 'She don't play,' they said admiringly."

I've been out in a cabin in Temecula since Tuesday, in silence and solitude, and when I read that passage, tears sprang to my eyes. One, because to write a story, to be able to write a story, takes everything a person has. All his or her time, energy, heart, muscle, memory. And two, isn't it interesting that the poorest of the poor, the recipients of generations of unspeakable violence, oppression and trauma, still have a truer moral compass than many of us who would now "free" them?

Yesterday I saw an acorn woodpecker on the kindling pile. His head, a splash of blood-red, was like a longed-for love letter.

Let's invite everyone to, or back to, the table. Then and only then will we be able to say, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."

farewell. sublime Christmas season, until Advent 2018...
may we all be magi... 

white people can sing spirituals, too! this was the closing hymn at St. Catherine's 8 am Epiphany Mass--