Saturday, 9 October 2010

Modern Art, Modern Living

As much as the hyperactivity of this city can be overwhelming at times, it also brings good things with it: great theatre, music, famous intellectuals who speak all over the city, and, more recently and personally, a good friend of mine from the UK has come to live and work here for the year. This of course means that I get to play hostess/tour-guide and even do some of the things that I never get around to doing otherwise, like visit the many museums this city has to offer.

Which is what we did last weekend when we took a trip to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). But walking around it I started to remember what I dislike about modern art exhibitions: namely that it is often art about art. In situations like this, I start getting philosophical. Philosophy, for me anyway, often begins in frustration (and not, as some might have it, in disappointment). One of the best interpreters that I've read of modern visual art is the American philosopher Arthur Danto. In Beyond the Brillo Box, Danto argued that "to see something as art is to be ready to interpret it in terms of what and how it means" and, " to interpret a work is to be committed to a historical explanation of the work." In other words, in order to understand a work, one must understand how it fits in and relates to previous work: "A red square of 1915 by Malevich," he writes, "is a very different work from a red square which might otherwise resemble it minutely, by Ad Reinhardt, done in 1962, and that in turn is very different from one done in 1981 by Marcia Hafif."
The meaning of the elements of a work of art is not immediately obvious or static, but involves a deep understanding of the 'language' of art, as it were. This concept of art might not be universally accepted, but it is hardly controversial. And I felt the weight of it come down on me while perusing one of the exhibits. Having no deep familiarity with modern art I was struck by how much I did not understand. At one point my friend came up to me and said, 'this is a nice piece.' I replied that I couldn't tell. Modern art so often, it seems to me, is not only its own language, but it is a language that talks to itself.

There was also an exhibit on the significance of the helicopter for civilians during the Vietnam War, and finally an exhibit on the transformation of the kitchen over the latter part of the 20th century. One of the panels on the wall noted that towards the middle of the 20th century arose a new kind of drama, the 'kitchen-sink' drama, which moved the focus of theatrical subjects from the higher classes or aristocracy (Wilde, Shaw etc) to more 'ordinary' people (Michel Tremblay). This makes sense, as the kitchen is a kind of hub of social activity in many (most?) households. And yet what struck me about this exhibit was the complete lack of subjects. Sure there were a couple of videos, some ads from previous decades featuring housewives and kitchen appliances, and even one eerie video of a what seemed like a Stepford wife, following a recipe in a kind of robotic way, making a mess of the ingredients in the process. But mostly there were 'machines of better living' on display, in their varying styles and manifestations.
Appliances with smooth and shiny exteriors, made for efficiency and housing various commodities in both times of economic boom and recession/depression filled the displays, demonstrating what kitchens should be rather than what they necessarily are. In his book The Look of Architecture, Witold Rybczynski writes that "both homes and clothes convey values." Put more generally: style conveys value. Sleek, shiny machines are built for sleek and shiny living.

But real living, or dwelling, is not always so simple or easily contained. I was reminded of a time when I was little, when my mum was making a tiramisu for a dinner party the following evening. It was the end of a long day, she had made everything else, and I suppose I was getting bored. So, I thought it might be funny, while she wasn't looking, to turn the blender up to the highest setting. Naturally when she turned it on, the entire eggy-white contents of the blender flew all over the kitchen - onto the ceiling, into the cracks between the cupboards, everywhere. Machines of better living? Not always.

The kitchen exhibit had made us all hungry by that point, so the day ended with another iconic New York experience: Katz's deli (where Meg Ryan has her infamous fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally). I remember once in a cafe in Edinburgh ordering something called the "New York-style pastrami sandwich". What I got was one thin slice of rubbery pastrami on a stale bagel. Contrast that with the Reuben sandwich I got from Katz's: so much meat I could barely fit it in my mouth. Now that's value.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Weddings, weddings, weddings...

I seem to have arrived at the age where everyone is getting married. In the past few years I have been to weddings in Ireland, in Canada, in Scotland, Chinese weddings, weddings I've been in, weddings I've simply attended, weddings of friends, weddings of family. I've been to more weddings than funerals (which is saying something since the Irish have a long history of bringing children to funerals), and so I've seen a wide array of brides and wedding styles.

On the whole, I'm not that big on weddings, especially religious weddings. The white dress, father walking her down the aisle, giving the bride away - the whole women-as-property aspect of it really just sets my teeth on edge. Especially in the UK and Ireland where the bride never speaks - I find that especially irritating as not only do we have the bride on display with the vestigial indicators of purity and property, but she doesn't get a voice either. Ugh.

But recently, I've been enjoying myself more and more. And I'm not sure if it's because I've been attending the weddings of people I know and love, or if it's just that, well, I'm getting older and as a prof of mine said recently, none of us is bigger than our culture. Sure, weddings might be originally a property transfer sanctioned by the given religious inst
itution, but they are also just great parties celebrating the love of two people, which means even more if you know the people and their history. They are also great reunions - like the wedding I attended in Edinburgh in June. Folks that I knew during my Masters were there, some returning from various parts of Europe just for the occasion. There was a steampunk theme, which could have gone either way but most of the guests had fun with it and so it worked. It was a humanist wedding, another plus, and then the reception was in a pub, and included a ceilidh (pronounced CAY-ley), a Scottish dance.
And the bride made a great, if slightly drunken, speech. We danced, and drank, and ate (delicious) vegan food.

Oh, and the bride wore turquoise.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Would you like a side of crazy with that?

New York has more than its fair share of crazies. In fact on any given day, on my way to the shop, or to university, on the subway or on the street, someone will yell something unusual at me. Usually I can't hear them because I've got my headphones on, but it's obvious when it happens. And I'm sort of used to it. In New York, anyway.

But I'm realizing that Toronto has its fair share of crazies as well. And I'm not just talking about the folks who I serve at the restaurant that I work at, who certainly do their fare share:

"OH so there's chicken already IN the Thai Chicken Salad, is there? I didn't realize!"

"Can we get two waters and split a salad?"

"Could I get a veggie burger, no bun, side salad, no dressing, and a diet coke?" [me (thinking): sorry, this is a restaurant, did you want to order anything with actual CALORIES?]

People seem to be getting crazier and crazier, but today I had an experience that wins the gold medal of crazy. After lunch with a friend, I was walking north on Yonge Street (the main street of Toronto) and there was a small pedestrian detour because of some construction. So there was a sort of 'pedestrian merging' that was happening, when all of a sudden the lady in front of me slowed down and stopped. So I waited for another lady to pass by, and then started walking past her when I noticed that she was saying something, so I took off my headphones to make sure she was ok, only to hear her yelling: "STOP FOLLOWING ME!" At first I was wondering if she was even talking to ME, so I gave her something of a confused look to which she responded, "OH YEAH you people always look so confused when I say this..."

Me: "??? Lady, you are seriously paranoid."

Her: "YES I KNOW, I KNOW!" she continued as I put my headphones back on and continued on my way.

Next time can I get my crazy on the side?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Put it back in your pants, fellas.

I am a single girl, and the past year has been an adventure in dating, both in NYC and in Toronto. I've experienced the horrors of the 'non-talker' (ie guy who can't put two words together or hold up his end of the conversation), the guy(s) who talks with his mouth full, and the guy who, with no regard to body language or sense of social decorum, pounces on you in the street.

But none of these surprises me as much as the guys who whip it out: yes ladies, the guys who bring out their cell phone in the middle of your date. I mean, seriously? Is this what we're doing now? When did this become acceptable? How do you make someone feel interesting and special if you answer every single text you get during a couple of drinks? Has our culture become so ADD that we simply can't help ourselves?

I've even tried pulling out my own cell phone in response, as a joke, but the joke gets lost. Or goes over like a lead... phone.

Word to the wise, guys: keep it in your pants. Seriously.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

March Madness and Existential Crises

So March happened, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on my end. NYC, Toronto, NYC. Unfortunately, I left NYC just as some seriously nice weather hit, only to get to cold, gloomy Toronto. But it was good to see friends and family again. Over coffee one day, a friend in Toronto mentioned that she had been talking about career goals with her mom recently, and that her mother basically said that her goals had been something along the lines of: to get married and have a family, and to do it better than her mother did.

By contrast the expectations of our generation, what has been ingrained in us since we were small, is that we could be anything we wanted to be. I think that this is especially true of women, since this has not always been the case. When my mum was in school, women became (for the most part) secretaries, nurses, or teachers. Or they simply stayed home to raise a family. Our generation, on the other hand, has (allegedly) unlimited choice.

Now, this sort of choice is paralyzing. You grow up being told that everyone is 'unique' (just like everyone else) and that you need to find your path in life. As a result I think that many of my friends and colleagues have not really started career paths. The choice is overwhelming. Will this particular thing be 'special' enough? Is it my true path? What about this choice over here, is this the better one? Which to choose? Which is good enough, special enough, interesting enough, impressive enough? What are the standards that we are measuring these by?

Multiply this sort of anxiety by a million when you live in NYC. Not only are you trying to design your life path by attempting to make it special, unique, impressive, ambitious etc, but so is EVERYONE ELSE. And a lot of the time, it seems as though everyone else is doing it better than you are. Oh, and they're usually dressed better than you are while they're doing it.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Canadian Gold

So the Olympics happened. And, like most Canadians, mostly what I cared about was the hockey. In fact, I probably cared MORE about the hockey this year since I now live, most of the time anyway, in America.

So some of my Canadian friends and I joined five hundred other Canadians at a mid-town bar at an event organized by some Facebook group called Canadians in NYC. We got there at around noon for the 3:15 game. There were no tables left. "Well," said the waitress, pointing to the one table at the very front, "those guys over there are here for brunch, and if they're not staying for the game then we can reserve that table for you. We don't usually do that but there's ten of you so it would be ok for today." So we checked it out, and they didn't even know there was a game, and said sure we could have their table. So we grabbed some drinks from the bar and stood around. And stood around some more. Finally, at 2pm their food came out. Because their food had taken so long, they were drinking up loads and loads of the free champagne that was coming with their all-inclusive brunch. By 3pm, only half of them left and there was barely standing room in the bar. So we went over to get our table. "OH, we're not leaving," one guy slurred. Excuse me? "Well... this lookslikefun. And I like fun." So our waitress had to go over and bully them. (As a waitress, I know how incredibly satisfying that sort of thing can be, esp when those customers have been assholes, which these guys were. Still, I could have kissed her.)

By the time the actual game started, you couldn't move. After the first period, I had to go ACROSS THE STREET to go to the bathroom. And then plead and con my way back in. ("But I have a table, and food getting cold!") Drunken Canadians pushed at me from almost all sides, though at one point I was in the corner, with no one jostling me, and a great view of the bar: a sea of red and white, Canadian flags and hockey jerseys. Honestly, Canadians don't get patriotic about much, but holy shit do we get patriotic about hockey. Which is something that some American friends learned that day. They were great sports, but they sat there the entire time with bewildered looks on their faces, like they had encountered a strange alien species. When Canada finally won in overtime, the bar ROARED. And the Americans looked bewildered. And then we all got gift certificates to Porter Airlines.

Hockey: more than just a game.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Celebrity Sightings, Volume 2: Cool or Creepy?

Ok so I don't know what's going on with my celebrity radar this week but they keep popping up everywhere. I'm not sure if I'm becoming more observant/aware or if it's just a coincidence. Anyway, I already saw SJP, which was MY 'ultimate' celeb-sighting experience, but last week I saw the person who most other New Yorkers would deem the ultimate New York celebrity-sighting: Woody Allen.

I was on my way back from work, and had decided to walk down to 68th and Lex, instead of getting on at 77th. So I'm walking south, and just as I am coming up to 70th Street, I look up and I see him. Not JUST Woody Allen, however. Woody and Soon-Yi. (Cool. But creepy. But cool. But.... creepy) She was standing there holding some sort of box of something or other, and he was standing on the corner, wearing a hat that was partly shading his face, with a cane, and on his cell phone. What interesting, though, is that unlike all of my other celebrity-sighting experiences ('hey I know that girl from somewhere... where is it? Uni? Toronto? Oh no wait... that's Mary-Kate Olsen'), this time I recognized him *immediately*. But not only did I recognize him immediately, for a brief second I actually felt like I was IN A MOVIE.

Just as I thought that, he looked up at me, ready to recognize that I was recognizing him, but only making eye contact for a moment, because I was already looking away, and he went back to his phone conversation.