Tag Archives: Pasadena

Three-City Walk: Photographic Evidence Only, Please

21 Feb

One of WiP’s standard walks takes us through three cities: Pasadena, San Marino, and South Pasadena. Here are the photographic relics of a recent three-city ramble.

Sometimes a boy just needs to scrawl his heart's true feelings for all the world to see.

Free opinions and junk: sound familiar, blogosphere?

Open Trench Warfare.

Quotes from Lennon and Camus used to sell Valentine's Day crap. Well done, America. Well done.

"I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway . . . seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

Something tells me that little Meggie was destined from birth for some kind of brokerage career.

All fruit, no tree.

And we end where we we started: at my humble abode. Please note: neither humble, nor my abode.

  • Ramble date: Saturday, February 19th, 2011
  • Number of miles rambled: 6
  • Places visited during ramble: Heirloom Cafe (South Pasadena); The Battery Books & Music (South Pasadena; highly recommended, small but meticulously selected stock of used books at reasonable prices)

Pasadena: City of Roses, Rain, Rapture

19 Feb

When you live in Pasadena, a mere cumulus can seem filled with theological import: All praise to the fluffy white vapor forms, to the infinite blessings of a blue-sky eternity mercifully broken. And rain of course can never be merely rain. Rain — that throwaway word that Easterners and Seattle coffeeniks and Kansan storm-yawners understand as one of the most basic components of everyday existence — rain, in this sense, does not exist for Southern Californians. We here in the City of Roses next to the City of Angels understand that rain — even one drop of the precious material, even the mere cloudy hint of it — must always be greeted as an event, as the lead story on the news, as perhaps even — no, as certainly even — the first wet proofs of a coming rapture. Yes, it’s true, we go about our lives, on the surface at least — we take our children to school; we shop; we fornicate — but it is raining. That knowledge lies deep within us at every moment. We are existing in a time of rain. The day of the rain is upon us.

Part of this feeling, of course, springs (pours! bursts forth!) from our area’s objectively biblical events. Our wildfires (not just forest fires for us, thank you very much) have now become an almost annual event. Our mudslides follow in the Springly wake of the fires. And not one seismologist we ever let blab to us via television or newspaper or blogsite has ever been able to resist the one warning that unites every Southern Californian, regardless of chosen faith or ethnicity or station in life: the “big one,” they tell us, is coming. These math-juiced prophets cry out to us from their number-crunched wilderness: we have built it — our houses on hillsides, our cities of poverty and movie stars, our megalopolis of freeways —we have built it all and it, they assure us, is surely coming for us. The Big One shall not be denied.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I would sometimes take a kitchen chair out to the front porch to watch a summer thunderstorm. The way the rain sheeted over the black pavement of our neighborhood road; the rips of lightening through the sky; the way we children were taught to count between the lightning and the subsequent thunderclap — the less time between sight and sound, the closer the storm; the glass of lemonade or mug of hot chocolate in my hand as the storm wind blew against my scrawny body. What a pleasure to witness such violence in such a safe space. What a sense of coziness that dichotomy worked to create.

And then inside the house, on several particular days, though I haven’t a clue exactly which ones anymore, I watched Bogart movies and perhaps even Chinatown, and Los Angeles solidified itself in my mind as a city of rain and gloom. Romantic rain and gloom, of course. Did the city seem romantically gloomy because it was raining, or was the rain simply an expression of the city’s beautifully poisoned soul? Whatever the answer, what a shock it was to me when I arrived in the City of Angels with my cardboard suitcase full of dreams and my just-so fedora and my spit-shined wingtips only to discover that, in reality, it never fucking rains here. Which is equally untrue of course, but that’s the living feeling of the area, and it’s the main reason we Pasadenians greet every spit of precipitation as something of a major event. (In celebration of these rain-events, we particularly like to drive erratically in the hopes that our local freeways can be lathered into an ultimate celebratory frenzy of rubbernecking and rage.)

I chose a rather more modest and less aggravating celebration this evening: a simple walk in the rain. I put on my warm but light Patagonia jacket and I grabbed my umbrella, the smallish one that was bought for me last month at the Santa Ana zoo. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly a child’s umbrella, though I also wouldn’t make many extravagant claims for its status as an adult’s umbrella. When extended, a colorful array of small animals protected at least the greater parts of my person from the evening’s rain event. As I walked, I thought of myself as the boy sitting on that kitchen chair on that front porch in western Pennsylvania. What a long time ago, it seemed, and what a joy too — to be out in the rain in my rainless city, in my weatherless world.

  • Ramble date: February 18th, 2011
  • Number of miles rambled: about 4.5
  • Places visited during ramble: Norton Simon museum; the Heffernan–Longennecker compound

Ambiguous Rapture: Saint Cecilia at the Norton Simon

11 Feb

Entrance to the Norton Simon

WiP has been working on an essay about Guido Reni’s Saint Cecilia, a painting which can be found at the Norton Simon museum. As the essay came about specifically because of numerous walking trips to the Simon, it seems appropriate to post at least the first two sections of the piece. The essay is still very much under construction; it’s a slow hike, but it’s moving forward resolutely.

Local Masterpieces

I’ve walked to the Norton Simon museum to read and drink a beer and spend a few minutes with Saint Cecilia, the early Baroque masterpiece by the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. The Norton Simon is of course flush with the usual suspects — van Gogh, Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso — artists that are, in a way, part of our general landscape. We know their works from textbooks and restaurant walls, from college campus print sales, from art.com and posters.com, from screensavers and stickers and fridge magnets.

But suddenly there it is, up on a wall in front of you, an arm’s reach away, the shock of the actual. You could blindfold the guard; you could add the oils from your fingertips to the oils of the painting. If we’re lucky, we react to this punch of the thing-itself by rising to the challenge. We set aside, for a blessedly calm moment, the cacophonies of our own lives. We concentrate until we’re able to see through the scrim of the artist’s commodified packaging — until we can stand alone with the artist’s creation to discover a familiar masterpiece anew.

Sadly, I’m not usually that lucky. Usually a childish mantra repeats idiotically in my head — a van Gogh, a van Gogh, an actual van Gogh — and I walk away with a vapid feeling of accomplishment (another ballerina statuette by Degas — check); and my heart on these occasions, I’m sorry to admit, remains firmly unmoved and no more the wiser.

However, to claim now that Saint Cecilia’s power over me derives primarily from my previous ignorance of its existence would only complete the second half of a particularly shallow equation: familiar is boring; new is good. To follow this equation is to imagine a museum patron puppy–dog, sniffing out every new art-bone or -dropping, licking its surfaces, moving on happily, the universe reduced to one question only: what’s next? Certainly, Saint Cecilia was a thing that I noticed immediately, a new thing over which my eyes enjoyed lingering. But quickly an inverse proportion took shape, a proportion familiar to any fan or scholar: as the newness wore off, my interest only intensified.

For me, Reni’s creation offers glimpses of a distinct yet uncatchable presence underneath the artist’s meticulous mixtures of linseed and turpentine, a presence conjured mysteriously by nothing more mysterious than materials and technique. And so I keep coming back to Saint Cecilia — on every visit to the Norton Simon, without fail. Not a friend exactly — the anthropomorphism feels too sentimental a description — but Reni’s painting does manage to move me consistently and complexly and that’s hardly a small thing either in this world.

Saint Cecilia (1606), by Guido Reni



How to adequately describe Cecilia’s red dress, both its color and fabric sumptuous yet somehow also completely devoid of ostentation? Are we to live, marooned, on an island of adjectives? Would it help to mention the diaphanous band of fabric cinched loosely above the saint’s waist? And the varying shades of gold that unite the painting — how exactly to reassemble them here on the page with any sense of satisfaction? I could begin above the painting’s focal point — the saint’s eye’s, that ambiguous, arresting look on her face — where we would find a gold-embroidered headscarf with golden tassels. The relative brightness of these golds echoes the faint halo that disappears in all but the most pristine of reproductions. Further down, the gold trim of a chemise modestly negates any possibility of cleavage. (We needn’t know one word of the saint’s legend to guess at Cecilia’s chastity.) And in the lower half of the picture we discover that our heavenly golds have come under the influence of brown: Find the scarf wrapped around the white ruffled sleeve that covers Cecilia’s left arm; notice the light yellowing the wood of the violin. These lower-half golds are darker and more subdued — golds of the earth and of the natural, mortal world.

We might pause then for a moment to note the violin’s peculiar position. Is Cecilia merely about to begin playing or is there something more ritualistic in the strange angle of her fiddle and bow? Is she making to the Lord an offering of her instrument? Or perhaps there’s even a third possibility (or at least a third possibility): Please, God, take this gift of yours away. I’ve had enough, thank you very much. It’s an ambiguity that mirrors the ambiguity of Cecilia’s rapturous gaze, just as the violin’s position of dominance in the bottom half of the frame reflects the overall dominance of the saint’s heaven-locked eyes.

And if ambiguity can be seen as a kind of positive multiplicity — an accretion of possible meanings that work together to express the mysterious complexity of being — then Reni’s brushwork itself could be said to travel an ambiguous, branching pathway. The halo’s perfect arc, as if compass-drawn, is a gesture toward an ideal, heavenly form. But this purity of line contrasts with the majority of the painting’s style. Reni’s brush strokes often provide crisp edges and meticulous detailing to the painting’s objects and yet always manage to maintain an overall flowing and entirely organic feel. Cecilia’s headdress, for example, exhibits, in addition to its delicate tassel work, the meticulous gold leaf details that are visible most clearly above the saint’s forehead, a last mortal stop between Cecilia’s gaze and the heavens. And yet, overall, the headdress is a twisting, almost living presence. It begins wrapped around Cecilia’s hair in a practical, workaday way — unfussy and modest. Does it disappear then just beyond Cecilia’s right eye only to reappear in a more somber-colored gold? Or is the scarf wrapped around the saint’s left arm a separate piece of accessorizing? In either case, the carefully constructed diagonal from right brow to left shoulder links the point of disappearance and the point of reemergence and allows a viewer to easily imagine the unseen line of fabric. This linkage heightens the organic quality of the headdress/scarf, which comes to rest finally by winding itself around Cecilia’s arm — a kind of pet serpent, tamed, perhaps even neutered, and yet still a serpent nonetheless. Even for a saint, temptation can never be fully extinguished. (Though whether Reni meant this winding scarf as a full-throated allusion, I’m not sure. Perhaps the painter was purposely riffing on images of The Fall that he had seen. After all, Eve’s left side is often illustrated as the side nearest to temptation: she picks the apple with her left hand; nearby, also to Eve’s left, the serpent hovers. But other paintings arrange the biblical scene differently — including Reni’s own Adam and Eve in Paradise, painted more than a decade after Saint Cecilia — and so it seems more appropriate to say that Reni was an artist of his time and, as such, must have absorbed the Genesis story deeply and through a variety of sources. This absorption then expresses itself — purposely or not — as Reni works on Saint Cecilia.)

And finally — finally being an operative word now — it seems necessary to mention the rich black nothingness that fills nearly half the canvas — not quite a warning this black, but certainly at least a reminder. Only the shadowy form of a pipe organ — a symbol of the recently uncatholicized Catholic Church — interrupts the background black. (To perceive a Catholic painting from the Baroque and Counter-Reformation eras involves an appreciation of the fiercely propagandistic framework under which the Church expected all of its artists to operate.) This uniformly black background was indeed common in Baroque portraiture, but Reni’s reminding-darkness achieves a more intense metaphorical power by insinuating itself into the material world of the painting: the bow’s strings blacken; the violin’s f-cut sound openings offer a glimpse of the instrument’s interior lightlessness; the instrument’s leather “comfort” strap becomes a snug curve of darkness around Cecilia’s left shoulder. And though, upon close inspection, the diaphanous band of fabric above Cecilia’s waist as well as the neck ribbon supporting a gold broach are actually a lively blue, this color proves to be yet another shifting ambiguity of the painting. Viewed at a distance of more than six or seven feet, the overwhelming blackness of the background subsumes the blue until all that remains is a subtle, dark shimmering. At even this modest distance, our finally washes in from its eternal void to occupy the diaphanous belt and the broach’s neck ribbon, which, along with various shadows and dark folds, work to balance out the gold costuming accents and give shape and meaning — both historical and figurative — to Cecilia’s clothing.

For me, the world of ekphrasis is a clumsy but loving world — loving in the way that a portion of love is a fine regarding, a close attention. Ekphrasis is the all-too-human attempt to transcribe visual into linguistic — which, in its wider sense, is what we always do with language. We subject the world to our description of it (to paraphrase nearly every philosopher who’s ever lived). But here in the stricter sense of the term — in the sense of an “intense pictorial description of … [an] art-object,” as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines it — ekphrasis contains more than a measure of the devotional within it. And what, after all — think again of love, think again of faith — inspires devotion if not a mystery, an ambiguity, a presence that we feel keenly — distinctly and clearly even — and yet so often, time after time, stumble to explain?

Schwartzman’s Simulacrum

6 Feb

Schwartzman/On Evil/Bubbleness

At Intelligentsia, the DJ looks like a shaggy version of Jason Schwartzman — who, come to think of it, is a fairly shaggy human creature himself. I order a red ale. Nine dollars. It’s good though, so why complain. I read. Terry Eagleton’s On Evil. I’m in love with this book. It fills my brain with ideas. The marginalia multiplies.

Then beside me the bubbleness. A young guy on his iPhone, texting. He works there, apparently, though maybe it’s his day off. It seems like his day off. He goes behind the bar to order himself a meal from the touchscreen ordering machine or whatever you call it that the bartenders and baristas use. It’s the only time he looks up from his iPhone and then it’s merely to shift to a bigger touchscreen. Then he talks to the bartender and they’re friends and I like them both because they’re comfortable in their own skins and because there’s that aura of things are definitely/probably/ maybe happening for them.

“We have a show in Palm Springs,” the bartender says and somehow just from the tone I know that he’s not talking about a band, as one might expect. More like some kind of film event. Or maybe I haven’t gleaned this insight just from his tone. Maybe my ears heard something but it didn’t register in my conscious mind. But it feels like I’ve picked up this fact just from the tone — and this, in turn, makes me feel minutely proud of my ability to decode social clues. But maybe it actually means the opposite: that we’re all sponges and everything washes through us but precious little is processed with any meaning.

Anyways, bubbleness. A friend recently bought a car that enables him to sync up his iPhone in a way that the car’s stereo will continue playing whatever song he was just listening to on his mobile device. All he has to do is plug in and turn on the car. Bubble house, bubble car, effortless transfer. No chaos or germs.

There’s an inverse proportion between this kind of thing and the romance we attach to, say, ham radio operators. Aren’t ham radio operators now the exclusive domain of movies in which they pick up the sounds of ghosts or past lives or alien lifeforms? That’s not a well-crafted thought but I’m convinced there’s a profound connection in there somewhere. The old technologies: once we have no use for them in the real world they tend to live on in our popular culture as clunky links to ephemeral, supernatural worlds. Although I guess at an opposite end, we see the same thing: techno-anxiety monsters its share of monsters too. The TV in Poltergeist, etc., etc.

These gentlemen can put you in touch with alien lifeforms. Extra charges apply.


Later, I try to get my favorite lamb roast wrap at Pita Pita but it’s closed and so I end up at Rubio’s, ordering a chicken quesadilla. This is the serendipity part. “I Shot the Sheriff” is playing in the restaurant and an actual sheriff is waiting for his burrito. I see his actual badge. I mean this guy is truly a sheriff and Bob Marley is truly singing his song of violence and freedom. I want to ask him if he hates the song, but of course I don’t. Instead I read a few more On Evil paragraphs.

And then — and really, it happens in the moment when I think: “I should write about this” — because that thought makes me check again, look closer and of course he’s not a sheriff at all. CHP instead. Which I take to mean that serendipities, examined, usually turn out to be works of the imagination — a thought that seems both depressing and comforting. Serendipity as a simulacrum of God? Well, that’s a pretty phrase. Wonder if it has any sense to it.

Better to stick to my wheelhouse and end with this: I think there’s a comfort in knowing that our minds construct such connections as serendipity. The busy narrative-machines of our brains (another kind of old technology in its way, often romanticized). You could say that my story of the doubled sheriff was a kind of company or companionship that I constructed for myself using my imagination. As too, I guess, this little written rambling here.

Ramble date: Friday, February 4th, 2011

Number of miles rambled: 4

Places visited during ramble: Intelligentsia, Vroman’s, Rubio’s