Culture Guerrilla

I’m really not a culture snob, or not much of one.

I don’t want to have my favorite things be obscure, it’s just that I have obscure tastes and enthusiasms. I actually get quite excited when things I like get popular, since there aren’t that many things that do. “My Name Is Earl” was the probably the most recent pop phenom that I endorsed with full fervor, but that’s since bit the dust, so I’m feeling ungrounded when it comes to TV of late.

That being said, I do have to admit that few things have made me grieve more for the soul of my Nation than those sad, dark nights when I forgot to take reading material to the gym, and realized that the only things left lying around the treadmills or spin cycles were piles of celebrity magazines. I picked a couple of them up thinking “Well, how bad could they be? They will certainly make the workout go faster, right?” Nope. They were far worse than I thought they might be, and it felt like time stopped as my brain seized in the face of the overwhelming vapidness, crassness and stupidity that filled them.

So it occurred to me that maybe I should try to shine a small candle of intelligence and taste into the cesspool of celebrity idiocy and reality show freaks that the gym magazine rack offers. I started by leaving my own copies of The Economist magazine when I finished with them. They are a good spot smarter than the latest issue of (I Wish They Were Friends of) Us or People (Who Would Ignore Me If I Saw Them on The Street), I figured.

And then I stepped it up a notch: I left my copy of the 33 1/3 series of books about Steely Dan’s Aja album. It’s a little, interesting book about a big, important album, filled with taste, style and intelligence. I figure if anything can repulse the forces of fake, shallow, hebetude that our pop culture inflicts upon us, then Aja most certainly must be that thing. In fact, the world as a whole would be a better place if more people asked themselves What Would Don and Walt Do?, rather than trying to figure out how to get reality shows by stuffing their uteri with babies or pretending to launch the ones that already fell out of them into space.

While I haven’t actually seen anyone reading the Aja book yet, I have spotted it in a variety of different places next to a variety of different pieces of equipment, so it’s being carried around the gym, if not actually digested. But as long as it’s there, I will feel good thinking that somebody, someday, opted to read about the chord progressions in “Deacon Blues” rather than reading about some couple of simpering idiots called Branjovi or Catapelt or Benjaweesie, because the pop culture media assumes our attention spans are too short to actually read both of their empty, meaningless names in their entirety.

Okay. So maybe I am a culture snob.

Greatest Album Cover Ever?


Miles Davis and Horns, a disc released in 1956, culled from a pair of sessions in the early ’50s, and featuring the first recorded collaboration between Miles and Sonny Rollins. Which is interesting, but not quite as much so as the album cover, a truly bizarre (especially for its era, especially for the music it presents) illustration, in a shocking color scheme, that takes several viewings before you really figure out what you’re looking at. Then, once you get your head around the image (legs!), you get to have it exploded again when someone informs you that the cover was drawn by cartoonist Don Martin, a decade before he made his mark with Mad magazine. While Martin’s distinctive “hinged” bodies were already fully formed at this point (a great touch, to me: all the runners’ wrists hinge vertically, except for #21 in the front, whose hands splay out to his sides), he apparently left the sound effects up to Miles and company, since there’s nary a FOINSAPP, POIT, SIZAFITZ or GISHGLORK to be seen (or heard) on this album. Pity, though I still consider this be a (silent) masterpiece of modern graphic design.

Food, (Less Than) Glorious Food

Two things about it . . .

1. Where has all the Puffed Rice gone? Long time passing. Where has all the Puffed Rice gone? Long time ago. I’m a huge fan of this cheap, filling, low-calorie, low-taste breakfast cereal, either in the big red Quaker boxes, or the generic bags of it that most grocery stores carry. But I’ve had a problem lately: for some reason, the two grocery stores where I shop have stopped carrying any kind of Puffed Rice. So I need to know if you can still find it at your grocery store, or whether I need to find some secret online source for bulk ordering. And if it’s all gone, then I need to know why. Explosion at the puffing plant? Rice weevils run amok? This mystery must be solved.

2. I’ve written about my love for diners before, and have a rotation of several in the Capital Region that I hit on regular basis. My standard order is a grease group masterpiece comprised of a grilled cheese sandwich on rye bread, with a side of link sausages. There’s a stunning variety of experiences possible within that seemingly simple order: different tastes and textures of sausage, different thicknesses of bread, whether it is seedless or seeded rye, how melted the cheese is, what type of cheese is used (pasteurized American cheese food product is the proper ingredient, though it’s up to you as to whether you use the orange or the white kind), how dark the bread is grilled, whether there are sides provided with the sandwich (I deduct many points if you put cole slaw and/or a pickle on my plate and either of them touches my sandwich, and I will eat potato chips if you give them to me, but I am happier if you do not), etc. etc. etc. You can go to the same diner two days in a row and have a completely different grilled cheese and sausage experiences. So I am happy to report that I’ve had a couple of nearly definitive breakfast experiences over the past couple of weeks at the Metro 20 Diner in Guilderland: thick, seeded rye, grilled dark, oozy white American cheese, no chips, no slaw, no pickle, and two firm links of mildly-flavored sausage that crunch when you bite into them. Bravo!

Magnification in Maplewood: An Ethnographic Essay

The intersection of Route 7 and Interstate 787 is one of the busiest traffic hubs in New York’s Capital Region, a swirling vortex of collector and feeder roads inhaling, redirecting and expelling commuters, long-haul truckers, delivery people, schoolchildren, and leaf-peeping day-trippers with equal and impersonal efficiency. For most people, this expansive exchange is nothing more than a point in passage, a course change made gentle through the physics of banked curves and the mechanics of baked asphalt as they travel from one place to another. But for the people of Maplewood, the cloverleaf is their place, or at least a part of it, tucked as they are into its southwestern arc, and washed by the continuous, oceanic sounds of rubber tires running over pockmarked pavement.

Maplewood is briefly visible off your starboard bow as you rocket downhill on Route 7 from Latham and sweep rightward and southward on your way to Albany. It does not have its own exit from the busy highways that loom above it, but is served instead by pitted, two-lane, Route 32, from which one may access the tightly-packed peninsula of half-a-dozen dead-end roads fanning out behind the hamlet’s three marquee, roadside attractions: Maplewood School, Spiak’s Restaurant and The Purple Pub. The cloverleaf pens and isolates Maplewood to the north and east, while an active railroad line and the sprawling AquaClear chemical plant define the limits of its western and southern borders. Near the geographic center of this small and surprisingly isolated urban community sits St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church, shoulder to shoulder with the two- and three-story walk-up row houses around it. It’s hard to imagine a modern zoning board granting such a placement for such a structure, although despite its size, you are not likely to stumble upon St. Basil’s unless you are actively looking for it.

The traffic noise from the cloverleaf provides a relentless white noise background as I sit in St. Basil’s parking lot on a Saturday night, windows rolled down, awaiting the start of the evening’s worship. My car is conspicuous in the largely empty lot, as most of the worshippers, most of them elderly, and most of them in small groups, walk to church from their homes in the blocks surrounding St. Basil’s. Five minutes before the start of the service, I follow a pair of women slowly up the Church’s grey stone stairs and through the pair of heavy brown wooden doors into a foyer, which incongruously features a little window to the right, just like a ticket box office, with candles for sale, and bulletins. The foyer is dark, and modest, and smells of incense and blue hair.

I enter the sanctuary and am immediately struck by the impact of having dozens and dozens of eyes fixed upon me. Not the eyes of the worshipers, mind you, who number a mere twenty or so, but the eyes of the icons, large and small, solo and group, that appear wall to wall, and floor to ceiling, around the entire worship space. The gazes of the saints do not drift heavenward, nor do they stare reflectively into middle distance, lost in rapture. They look directly down at us, the gathered worshipers, with visages clear and penetrating. These saints are not here to watch over us. They are here to watch us. The reaction of everyone in the room, me included, is to drop our eyes and heads submissively, and to not attempt to stare down the unblinking holy ones displayed before us in all of their majesty. The weight of their gaze also creates a palpable sense of resistance to approaching them too closely, and the worshipers who have arrived in the sanctuary before me are all clustered in the back pews, seemingly pushed back by the force of their presence.

I join those back-pew worshipers, furtively glancing about through downcast eyes to take in the opulence of the space. A massive crystal chandelier hangs above us in the center of the sanctuary, with smaller clones of in about the room in geometric patterns. The sanctuary is ripe with gold: there are two large, round plates that look like reliquaries, flanking the steps going up to what I presume to be the altar area, and most of the icons are bright with gilt and filigree, especially the ten life-sized ones in the front of the worship space, five on each side of a central archway with twin doors and a curtain drawn across its span. Black metal cross shaped trays on either side of the altar area are filled with candles in red votaries, and a small icon sits behind glass at the center of the altar area. The contrast between the wealthy majesty of the sanctuary and blue-collar, hardscrabble Maplewood outside is clear and evocative. There are riches here. And power.

Three older women enter the sanctuary after me and quickly approach the altar area, rapidly making the sign of the cross in front of the shadow-box icon, the two black candle stands, and the doors between the full-sized icons, then just as rapidly retreating to the rear of the sanctuary where the rest of us sit, eyes downcast. The ladies’ gestures in the making of the cross are different from those I’ve seen when visiting Roman Catholic Churches: their obeisance included an element almost like a curtsy, as they evoked the Orthodox foot-bar of the cross by dipping their heads low and reaching almost all the way down to the ground. When they reach their pew after paying their respects, one of the three ladies continues crossing herself while muttering prayers beneath her breath. She finishes just as the overhead lights come on above the altar area and the first disembodied voices emerge from a heretofore unseen and unnoticed choir loft above and behind us.

“Phew,” she says to her companions. “I made it!” These are the first, and only, words I hear spoken by members of the community after entering the sanctuary. As the choir begins to chant a litany, the curtain and doors across the central archway at the front of the sanctuary are opened from behind by the Priest, revealing that I hadn’t been looking at an altar at all. The true altar is behind the door, with another whole layer of opulence, gold, crystal and candles within, barely visible from where I sit at the back of the sanctuary. There are more icons behind those doors, and directly behind the altar is an elaborate complex of starburst reliquaries, arches, candle arcs, and what appears to be a large crystal dome; the overall effect is like looking at some fabulous clockwork mechanism, its purposes magnificent, yet unknowable.

As the doors to the altar open, everyone rises, and the choir’s voices settle into long strings of words hung over open, unresolved chord structures, with breaks between the sections identified only when the dominant chords finally re-emerge, creating palpable senses of relief. The choir sings the entire liturgy, the words within the service subsumed into the effect of the chants themselves, which in turn becomes white noise, something that is heard, but not actively listened to. Except, that is, when the worshipers perceive the name of the Trinity being invoked, at which point they all make the sign of the cross, though not with the element I’d seen earlier of reaching toward their feet. There are clearly concessions made for the architecture of the pews.

The Priest wears a high-shouldered, ornate white cassock. As he works at the altar, his back to the sanctuary hall, head down, his robes move quickly and rhythmically as his (unseen) hands move through (unseen) motions before him. I can only occasionally view a thick shock of grey hair sticking out from above the built-up cassock collar, leaving the Priest looking from behind like some sort of opulent badger or other shovel-headed, burrowing animal digging into the holiness that lay before him, unseen by those gathered to worship there. When the Priest finally turns toward us, he holds an incense censer in his hands, and begins waving it rhythmically, circling the altar several times, then leaving the altar area to enter the main sanctuary via a pocket door behind one of the five large icons to my left. He walks the length of the central aisle to the back of the sanctuary, wafting fragrant smoke behind him, and then returns to the altar via another pocket door at my right, never looking at the worshipers, who in turn keep their eyes down as he passes. He is clearly busy in his commerce with the divine, and the worshipers seem intent on not distracting him from his ministrations.

The censer jangles as the Priest walks and waves it, its chains buzzing like the bottle-cap resonators nailed to African thumb pianos, keeping time with the never-ceasing chants of the still unseen choir. The liturgy is offered in a mix of English and Russian, and is very repetitive, with certain elements reoccurring verbatim several times throughout the ceremony. When the Priest returns to the front of the altar, he chants his own list of invocations, prayers and blessings, for names recognizable (our President, Watervliet’s Mayor, soldiers fighting on our behalf abroad), and not (presumably parishioners, suffering and seeking relief). When he finishes, he closes the doors to the altar area, remaining behind them, hidden from most of us out in the sanctuary. Some of the worshipers sit down for the first time in the service (me among them), though one of the older ladies to my left and a younger woman in front of us stay standing throughout the entire service. As the choir continues to sing, we can hear the Priest and his censer moving behind the closed doors, and occasionally catch glimpses of him through the gingerbread woodwork at their tops. Then the original cycle is repeated again, as the Priest emerges from the pocket door on the left, blesses the items in public view with incense, walks down and back up the aisle, and goes back to the hidden altar area via the right side pocket door, choir chanting and worshippers crossing themselves all the while.

The Priest opens the doors to the altar area again, and goes through a third cycle of ritual blessings, at the altar, down the aisle, back again. He devotes a tremendous amount of deference to the altar throughout the service, regularly bending to kiss it, or something laying upon it that we cannot see from the sanctuary. Except for the few moments when he paces purposefully down the aisle streaming incense smoke in his wake, the Priest’s back is toward the worshipers throughout virtually the entire service. His role is less one of tending to a flock than one of tending to the divine as it manifests itself on and around the altar. We cannot clearly see what happens there, though it is apparently of great importance and carries an active sense of urgency. There is a sense of watchful anticipation from the worshipers as the Priest works, as though they are hoping that everything turns out to his satisfaction, and thereafter to their benefit. Their role is passive while his is active, as their involvement with the service appears to be couched in terms of obedience and observation: they stand, they sit, and they make the sign of the cross whenever the Trinity is mentioned. They do not sing, they do not read from hymnals or prayer books, they do not interact with each other, or with the Priest.

After the third cycle of blessing the room, the Priest closes the doors to the altar area, and emerges through the left-hand pocket door to face and address the worshipers directly for the first time, making a few simple announcements about upcoming services. He holds in his hand a small gold cross. The sense of tension in the room dissipates as the worshipers leave their pews and walk up the aisle to greet the Priest and kiss the cross, moving in a counter-clockwise fashion around the shadowbox icon. It appears that the Priest has closely and successfully approached the divine, and then returned to share some small portion of it with those gathered before him. The heretofore unseen members of the choir end their chants, and leave their loft to file up the central aisle behind the congregation, equally eager to receive the blessings of the Priest, equally quick to adore the cross which he holds. They all leave the sanctuary more lightly than they entered it.

There are quiet, familiar conversations underway as the worshipers gather their belongings and leave the Church building, filtering out into the Maplewood neighborhood, the background murmurings of the unseen choir replaced by the background thrum of unseen traffic on the cloverleaf. A few people walk directly from the Church down the block to Spiak’s Restaurant, which seems to be doing hearty Saturday night trade as I drive slowly past it and turn up the steep Elm Street hill toward my home in Latham. St. Basil’s cemetery hugs the hillside on my left as I climb, the sprawling jumble of distinctive three-barred Orthodox crosses indicating generations worth of interments there, and a population likely greater than that of Maplewood itself today, with many of those buried there having no doubt worshiped at St. Basil’s as their descendants and neighbors did tonight, under the watchful stares of the Saints.

Bad Blogger

You’d think that the unusual confluence of being a college employee, parent of a college student, and college grad student myself would give me all sorts of interesting perspectives and insights into the experience of higher education in America with which to fill my blog. And, actually, you’d be right in thinking such things. The only problem is, that combination creates such a strain on both time and mental resources that all of those perspectives and insights generally stay stuck in my head, since it’s hard to get excited about sitting in front of my blog admin page during those rare moments when I have some time on my hands. So sorry to be a crappy correspondent of late. It’ll all come gushing out at some point.

In other news: I wish I didn’t know how to spell plantar fasciitis. It feels as bad as it sounds.

In other, other news: the girl is home from college this weekend for the first time. It feels as good as it sounds.

In other, other, other news: Go Marcia’s Twinkies! Go Nico’s Rockies! Boo, major market behemoths! (I’m looking at you, Yankees and Dodgers).

Hello, Shelter Island

Not the lovely spot between the North and South Forks of Long Island (where I went to summer camp, decades and decades ago), but rather another meteorite on the surface of Mars, spotted by Rover Opportunity, which is checking out all sorts of amazingly cool stuff on its way to Crater Endeavor. Opportunity’s sister rover, Spirit, is likely never going to roll again, bogged down as she is in high sand in the Troy site near the Home Plate Plateau, so it’s delightful to have at least one of our friendly neighborhood robots making good time and distance, and finding excellent stuff while doing it, on the surface of Barsoom. It awes me to see another world looking like something you might encounter in the deserts of the American southwest (only 200 degrees colder). Huttah, Opportunity!