Sunday, January 3, 2010

"I Can Eat 50 Eggs." or Touchstones


"Sometimes nothin' is a real cool hand." I knew I would remember that line as soon as I heard it. The line where the title of the Paul Newman film, "Cool Hand Luke," comes from. Luke is playing cards, and wins the pot, with nothing in his hand, and when he is ball-beaten for it, that's his response.

We've all got personal touchstones that we come across. Things that when we see, hear, read, experience, we know are going to stick with us, become part of us, make us better, or in some way help define us. I've been thinking about some personal touchstones of late, and thought I'd throw some out there. The list is incomplete, non-exhaustive, not in order of importance, or alphabetical order, or any real kind of order for that matter, but here are some:

1. Cool Hand Luke - as mentioned above. A film where Newman makes life interesting on his own terms, in any situation or circumstance, and rises above with grit, moxie, imagination, a sense of play, and perseverance. Never mind the ending, etc., this isn't a film review, just some of the things that make the movie a touchstone for me. I dig a character who will come out of nowhere with a statement like, "I can eat 50 eggs."

2. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" - At present, I only have three tattoos. One of which is an engraving originally by William Blake (though he didn't do the ink on my shoulder). Blake's poem blew the doors off what I thought poetry was or was supposed to be. There was verse, there was prose, there were the "Proverbs of Hell"--this was substance, questioning, free form. This was life-changing. And after suffering through the strict and sterile (for me) Neoclassicism movement in Gillin's Washington College class, to have Gillin lead Romanticism with Blake, and coming into The Marriage, signaled to me that this was the proverbial shiznit. And Blake set me up for Wordsworth and his Prelude, which I sat alone reading and re-reading in awe. But Blake and The Marriage were the game changers.

3. "Paul's Boutique" by the Beastie Boys - This was the first album (cassette, actually) that I ever went to the record shop (Records Plus in Easton at the time) and bought the day it came out. I was more into punk, hardcore/skate music, and reggae when "Licensed to Ill" came out and never really caught that album the same. But I distinctly remember Eric Abell and I rolling into Records Plus, buying Paul's Boutique, then playing it while working on a painting job, an Ocean City trip to the Econo Lodge, and then that album becoming one of the backbones of our high school soundtrack, and indeed the soundtrack of my life. The pop-culture allusions, historical/Biblical references (Shadrach, et al), diversity of musical styles, this album never gets old for me, I still catch new stuff after 20 years of listening, and it works on so many levels.



4. Fallingwater - I took art history at Chesapeake College. Sitting in the dark, as Professor Plumb (Clue, anyone) flipped through and lectured about various paintings and artists, it was all blurry. Until Fallingwater took the screen. Blending a man-made structure with the natural surroundings intrigued me. But the idea that the family really dug this stream and that Frank Lloyd Wright turned around and built the house over top of it, so that it flowed through and then out of the house, completely thrilled me. I had never given much thought to architecture, and seeing those slides led me into Wright and his work and sparked a new interest. I have had subsequent discussions with artists about his work and its lacking humanity or a human touch (can't say I'd want to live in his houses), which has also been a point of departure on what I hope to do with my own chosen art form, but again, Fallingwater is a touchstone for my thinking here.

5. The Transcendentalists - I didn't accomplish much of anything at N.C. State, academically speaking. Just stringing together enough credits to help me towards an associate's degree and lead me to Washington College. But it was in Raleigh, while I should have been at class, that I really dug into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Straight spirit-chargers all three. You can't read "Walden," Civil Disobedience," or "Song of Myself/"Leaves of Grass," and not be amped. But one that hit me hardest is Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance." Here's a taste:

"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

Soul food for anyone who considers themselves "a loner, a rebel, Dottie."

6. "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis - I put this on in the truck a few days back and let it play for a few days. That is a ritual that can accompany any mood, mode, or muse. It's an album that can fill or empty me, inspire, relax, and invigorate. I won't carry on, but it's an album that's downloaded onto every computer I work on, ipod, and vehicle. Indispensable, aesthetically and spiritually.

7. Buddhism - I grew up Episcopal. Spent some time studying the Old Testament at St. James, but was never able to get any organized religion to really resonate with my being, soul, whatever-phrase-you'd-like-here. I've always leaned more toward philosophy than religion for Life questions and searching, but studying Buddhism at Washington College gave me a deep insight as to how to synthesize those two disciplines. Authors/thinkers like Thich Nhat Hahn and Chogyam Trungpa have been worldview changers for me; and the (not frequent enough) practice of meditation is both a sanctuary and a thing of beauty. If only I could be better about regular practice ;) Either way, Buddhism has been a big touchstone for me, even giving me new eyes with which to look at Christianity and other world religions. It has also given me a better lens through which to encounter East-meets-West writers, including Robert Hass and Gary Snyder.

8. Tom Robbins - leaving Washington College, I was set for graduate school in Philosophy, phenomenology and continental philosophy, specifically. When we opted out of that plan, I found a job working at an art museum. Higher learning and art both lend themselves to a high seriousness. Through a writer's group, I got turned on to Tom Robbins as a writer I would dig. Dig I did. I tore through every one of this books, in random succession. His stirring of great story telling, philosophy, history, religion, art, sex, cultural taboos, into a pot with heavy doses of humor and idiosyncrasies, was exactly the slap on the ass of high seriousness I needed at the time. I didn't realize you could laugh out loud while spooning down your existentialism. My voice and aesthetic and what I look for and expect out of my favorite writing was changed. Period. "Jitterbug Perfume" is likely my favorite TR novel, but all of them together form the touchstone for me here.


9. Paul Rand - You've gotta love anyone who busts out the Color Forms logo. I've always been a visual learner. To ace French vocabulary tests, I would write out the list of words a few times and then be set. If I hear something important, probably gone. I've got to take it in visually. Working at an art museum, in visual communications and design, and with great graphic designers has made me look at the world altogether differently. Logos and branding, sure, but also the way information appears on a page or website, the concept of negative space, the impact of words from what is not around them, or in relation to an image, illustration, or placement on the page. And one of the first graphic designers and writers that hooked me was Paul Rand. If you don't know design, you still know Paul Rand. From the IBM logo, to Ford, go look at the website dedicated to his life and work and it is unreal how many cultural icons he has had a hand in creating. And if the subject grabs you, his writing on design is equally illuminating.

10. Robert Hass - Hass built the house that Blake laid the foundation for. He's the guy still writing today, that I come back to again. And again. His books "Sun Under Wood" and "Human Wishes" I read and re-read. And when I try to think I am giving him too much credit and building him up in my mind, when I go back and check those out again, he pulls it off all over again. He pulls off East-meets-West, nature writing, prose, poetry, self-reflection, and there is always something deep there, along with the form and language itself. Hass received some recent props, winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book "Time and Materials." Every book I have of his has a prominent place on my book shelf and inclusion on my short list of aesthetic shaping works.

So there's ten, since that's a nice number for lists. I can't call it a TOP ten, but I couldn't build a top ten list without including a whole lot of those as touchstones. But The Clash's album, "London Calling," a cat I am reading a lot lately, Franz Wright, Bob Marley's album "Exodus," William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder--I'd have a hard time making a definitive ten. In part because touchstones are added and sometimes shifted for me over time. But you know them by the fact that they help define who you are, they affect or change you in some way. They are a part of you. So what are your touchstones?

2 comments:

Elizabeth Bastos said...

Great reflection for the New Year. Thanks for this. More Robert Haas for me!

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