Category Archives: SpikeLife

Posts about me

Crazy Busy

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There’s just not enough time in the day (or the night).

I’ve been so busy with various things (not least of which is getting ready for a trip to London and Paris; I leave tomorrow) that it didn’t dawn on me today that I’ve never really finished going through my shots of Faye Wan. I picked one out for an upcoming exhibition but then never returned to the rest of the photos. So I’m doing that bit by bit. (Did I mention here yet that I’ve got a photo in a group exhibition running in a gallery in Soho next month? I do.)

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Friends asked me to shoot their wedding. I’m not a wedding photographer by any means but I think I did a fairly respectable job of it.

Then I was hired to shoot a CD launch party, complete with live sets from three bands. That was a paid gig, so I had no excuse not to finish that one off quickly.

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And earlier tonight we had a bit of fun at our studio, PASM Workshop.  It was supposed to be a competition amongst the partners, all shooting a model at the same time and seeing who would come away with the best shot – with the loser buying dinner. We never got to the competition bit, we just shot and then filled our bellies.  During the shoot I was asked why I stopped shooting so soon. Well, I knew I already had some good stuff and there’s only so many hours in the day (and night).

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Now I don’t consider myself a commercial photographer. If I was, like my buddy Richard Chen, then I’d be looking at every detail and making the sorts of minor adjustments to skin tones and texture that only a trained eye would notice. I did try something different here though – bringing out the eyes a bit more. I also have to say that we have a great crew. With this model (Yumi), Harris and Victoria setting up the lights, Tim on hair and Ash doing make-up, it made my work easy – and fun.

As always, more to come.

 

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Ancient Tales From the World of Advertising

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Sunday morning and I’ve got work to do but I’m feeling lazy so I’ll sit here and type instead. Hope this isn’t a repeat of older stuff – after all these years it’s getting harder and harder to keep track.

From around 1976 to 1980, I worked for director/cameraman Bob Gaffney. I had a weird progression of jobs for him. First I’d come in on a part time basis to edit the house reel. Then I got hired to work as a production assistant on various shoots. Then I became the receptionist in the office and from that somehow got promoted to being his business manager. I figure that in those four years I worked on at least 100 TV commercials in various capacities.

Bob had a pretty amazing career in the business. He started out working on March of Time newsreels and ended up with a more-than-20-year relationship with Stanley Kubrick, shooting second unit stuff on Lolita, Strangelove and 2001. He directed one feature film on his own, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster. He was the producer of Kubrick’s never-finished Napoleon – which led to him to leaving the feature film business and starting his own production house to do TV commercials (although he continued as a friend and advisor to Kubrick, which is how I ended up doing tiny bits of stuff for The Shining).

Here’s one of my favorites of his spots, a Christmas commercial for Miller Beer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvbR1ppzNiI

Here’s another notable one – Dannon Yogurt, the first U.S. TV commercial to be shot in Soviet Russia – in the 1970′s!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYng_oCaL3w

Bob came back from Russia with some great stories about the shoot, which was in what is now the Ukraine. They would go from farmhouse to farmhouse, generally around 5 a day. At each farm, the story was the same. They’d walk in and be introduced and the people there would break out the home made vodka and start drinking with their new American friends.

Each day, by the afternoon, almost everyone would be passed out except for Bob. As I went through the rushes, I noticed that while everyone else was passed out, Bob’s focus would get sharper as the day went on. I asked him how such a thing was possible and he told me that before they’d enter each farmhouse, he’d have a cup of the Dannon yogurt, which he believed lined his stomach before the drinking would start up.

I’ve never tested this theory to see if it would work for me. One of these days I will.

Anyway, here’s one of my favorites of the many stories he had.  The first American TV broadcast of the film The Sound of Music was in 1976. McDonald’s wanted to do a big music commercial. The concept was to mimic the film’s opening, with a girl spinning around and singing – but instead of on a Swiss mountain top, she’d be in a field of wheat, ready for harvest.

Given the time of year, they had to go to New Zealand to shoot the commercial. So they’re in this field, mountains in the background, a perfect sunny day. As they’re getting ready to shoot, about a mile away in the background Bob notices a cow herd (or shepherd or cowboy or whatever you want to call him) driving a herd of prime cattle. He figures this has to be a gift and calls out that they should hurry up and get the shot.

Not so fast! The representative from McDonald’s came running up and told him, “No! You can’t shoot that!” Bob couldn’t understand it. He thought it was the perfect touch. But the guy from Mickey D told him, “Those are prime beef cattle. If you have those in the shot, people will think that’s what our burgers are made from. We’ll get sued.”

Anyway, I found this short documentary about Gaffney on Youtube. In this part he talks about his work on 2001 and a story from the time when he directed Orson Welles.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djK2PrS7Qhc

 

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New Year’s Day Rambling

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Some of this may/will be a repeat. Such is life.

I’ve been out of the office for 12 days (using up 5 vacation days).  I’m really not in the mood to go back to the office tomorrow, so I’m doing a blog post, which helps me put off going to bed, which helps me put off thinking about returning to work.

My time off was not as exciting or event packed as one might think – I caught a cold a few days before Christmas and so mostly stayed close to home. I had been thinking about a brief Macau or Shenzhen run but didn’t make it to either of them. Also, I’ve got a business trip to the UK coming up in 3 weeks and following that, my wife will meet me in Paris for a proper honeymoon, so I might as well save my money for that.

(Brief grumble: She needs a visa for France. The French consulate web site says 3 to 10 working days for visa processing and she needs to present her plane ticket and hotel reservation with her visa application. It also says one must make an online appointment; one cannot merely show up and wait in line. So I booked everything and then went to their web site to make an appointment for her and the earliest available appointment is January 16th. This is cutting things awfully close.)

After not shooting anything of consequence in a long time, I did do one shoot at PASM that turned out rather nice. Here’s a sample:

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The girl in the photo is Faye Wan, who was the lead singer of HK indie band Hazden. “Was” because she’s just left the band to concentrate on her studies. She’s not a professional model but I knew she not only looked good but that there aren’t too many Chinese women in HK with such prominent tattooes.

I needed something new because I’ll be one of the participating photographers in a group exhibition in Soho in February. It’s called Scraped (link is to the Facebook event page, in case you’re interested) and I needed some new shots for the show.

(Note: I had this thought – having just shot Faye and now planning an upcoming shoot with Chris B from Underground HK, it might be interesting to shoot an entire series featuring tattooed women. If you’re a woman and have tattoes and are interested in having me shoot some portraits of you – or if you know someone who fits the bill – please drop me a line.)

Following that shoot, I went out with friends to one of those places in San Po Kong that every local and almost no expat knows about - 七喜粥麵小廚 –  a place with no English name and no English menu but where people were pulling up in Rolls Royces after midnight for a break. They’re famous for their crab congee – but we were there after midnight and the crab was sold out. We settled for prawn and fish maw congee, which had some amazing huge and tasty prawns in it. Usually I’m not a congee fan but this dish changed my mind – I’d definitely go back for this, or to try the crab. Other dishes maybe not so much. There was raw, marinated fish skin. Goose intestine with noodles. And something that my friends said had no English translation, just “funny fish,” which was mostly chunks of fish bone with some meat on it, tasty but not easy to eat.

So mostly what I did aside from the photo shoot (and the post-processing, which is still not complete) is work on my CD and DVD collections.

I’ve got somewhere around 2,000 to 2,500 DVDs (including Blu-Ray and HD-DVD) and have sorted out around 750 to unload. Using a Mac program called Delicious Library, I can scan the bar code for most of them, build up a catalog, and check the current value for used copies on Amazon. Of course many of them are going for $1 or less, but some are in the $30 or $40 range, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason that I can figure out as to why some of these things are worth what they appear to be worth.

Then I turned to the CDs. That’s far more difficult, as I have at least 5,000 of them and a relatively small space to work in. I got them all out of boxes (I hope), then went through the task of alphabetizing them and sorting out which ones to keep and which ones to lose.  (I’ve only done Rock A-M so far.)

The “get rid of” stack grows depending on my mood at any particular second. I’ll hit some artist and be really brutal and then, for no rhyme or reason, decide to hold onto all of my Peter Hammill or Robyn Hitchcock discs.

Some discs I feel emotionally attached to for one reason or another and want to keep the physical disc, even if I ripped it to MP3 a long time ago. Maybe it’s the packaging or maybe I just feel that I have to have the actual CDs of every Bonzo Dog Band album.

And each time I put a CD into the “sell” pile, I feel a sense of defeat. I bought it once, with all high hopes, thinking it would be something I’d love, something that I’d absorb and it would become a part of my life, and then that never happened with that particular disc. Which in and of itself isn’t anything big, except when I stop to think about what I spent for it times how many I’m getting rid of equals what I might have done with that money.  Oh well. You can’t undo what’s been done, you can only learn and move on.

In the past year I’ve basically stopped buying physical CDs. There are some exceptions (like the super deluxe Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat, which comes with a marvelous book) but mostly, every time I hit a CD shop (an increasingly rare occurrence) and see something I want, I stop and think not just about the money but also about the space it’s going to take up, and more often than not put it back on the shelf.

I’ll run the CDs through Delicious Library soon. I’ve got no delusions at this point about what they’re worth. (I did note that on Amazon, if you look at the Mobile Fidelity gold disc version of Cream’s Disraeli Gears, someone is asking over US$1,000 for it. Good luck to him.)

The last movies I watched ranged from okay to pretty good – Saving Mr. Banks, Don Jon, Prisoners, Riddick, The Butler and American Hustle.

Also, I re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, now that Criterion has released it on Blu-Ray (and the image quality is amazing). I remember watching this in film school, it was my first Bergman film, thinking it was really perfect. I think at the time I saw my parents in it. This time I wondered if it was me.

And mostly I’ve been playing Springsteen’s new album, which leaked out on the net a few days ago. It’s a real odd grab bag – covers, studio versions of things previously only done live, a new version of Ghost of Tom Joad, some stuff from the archives with Clarence and Danny. Mostly it works for me.

Anyway, Happy New Year everyone. 2013 started off shitty for me and seemed for awhile as if it would only get shittier. Then I got a new job that doesn’t suck and also got married. Let’s see what 2014 has in store …

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Just One of Those Days

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Warning, a post with me bitching and whining in public just because I can. No comments necessary.

I woke up this morning and it was 11 degrees C (51 degrees F) and raining. Coming from NYC, one would think that 51 is nothing, but I’ve been living here for more than a decade and when most of the year is 85 degrees or higher, 51 is frigging cold. The rain just made things more miserable.

Then I had the one bit of good luck I’d get all day – when I got off the mini bus in Tai Po and walked over to the big bus, it was there at the stop waiting for me. This is the first time in 8  months that has happened. Normally I have at least a 5 minute wait and sometimes as much as 20. (The 307 is supposed to run every 8 to 12 minutes but it’s more like every 15 to 20. Local people tell me it used to be much worse. KMB sucks on so many levels I’d barely know where to start.) The bus made it from Tai Po to Causeway Bay in 30 minutes but it took what seemed like another 30 minutes to make it the last couple of miles from Causeway Bay to Wanchai, thanks to heavy traffic due to the rain.

(Hong Kong drivers tend to forget how to drive when it’s raining – well that’s the same the world over, isn’t it? Sunday, driving home from the movies, it took us an hour instead of 30 minutes because there was an accident every couple of miles. Every lane closure in Hong Kong is 20 times worse than it needs to be because at least half the drivers here don’t understand the concept of alternate merge.)

And then, coming home tonight, a 30 minute wait for the bus. I get on the bus, sit down, open my bag and … I left my iPad on my desk in the office. And with it still raining, traffic on the way home was record slow – including one lane closed in Tate’s Cairn Tunnel due to an accident.

It took me almost 2-1/2 hours to get home tonight – about an hour more than usual. Normally I don’t mind if it takes awhile, I’m watching TV or a movie or reading a book on my iPad and don’t notice the time. Tonight, no iPad and low battery on my phone so just sitting there, staring …

Mini bus ride home, seems like a new driver on the route, who didn’t know where any of the stops were. People were calling out “bah si tsam” multiple times and he’d keep going until they’d have to yell out “yau law li do!” and he’d jam on the brakes and apologize and then it would start up all over again in advance of the next stop. I mean, native Cantonese speakers were calling out their village names and the guy was getting them all wrong. “San Tong? I thought Kwun Tong.”  My Cantonese – well you know I get the words mostly right but the tones mostly wrong, which is the equivalent of getting everything wrong to some people. My stop isn’t at a bus stop but it’s a place all the drivers know to stop – except this one. (It’s double weird – you don’t ask for bus stop, you don’t ask for the name of the street, you ask for the name of a collection of houses that’s halfway down the street that the bus doesn’t go down. That’s Hong Kong style for you.) So there was that, but in the end I got home.

Oh, and my upstairs neighbors, adults all, don’t seem to have ever been taught one of life’s most simple lessons – lift the fucking chair when you move it.

There. I feel SO much better now.

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We’ve Got a Pole! Also, Village House Demolition

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I don’t really have a photo of the pole, except in this picture below. I’ll explain the dual significance of this photo in a sec ….

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First off, that pole on the right-hand side of the frame is new; it went up this week. This means that PCCW service should be just around the corner for us – a wedding gift from them? Well, they haven’t called yet to confirm an installation date and a few days later, there are still no wires running to the pole. But I guess it’s soon. My wife will once again get her daily dose of Eat Bulaga.

Now note the guy on the roof of that house. It’s an abandoned house and I thought perhaps someone had decided to repair it and make it livable again. It turns out the guy was “harvesting” the roof tiles before the house was demolished. Here’s the tiles, all ready to be re-used or recycled, I guess.

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And today, I woke up to the sound of the other houses in that row being demolished. The funny thing is – these are the houses that PCCW wanted to run a wire over, but neither they nor me were able to contact the owner to get permission and the people in my village told me the owner had moved to the UK and no one knew how to contact him.

The other thing that strikes me as funny is that in other parts of the world, people would have preserved these houses and completely modernized the insides and then rich kids would pay a premium to live in something charming and authentic like this. But here they’re simply being torn down and will more than likely be replaced by the same 3 story rectangles that you see everywhere else. I suppose a three floor village house can bring more money than these smaller old houses.

Anyway, I’d never seen one of these being demolished before, so I shot some photos before heading out to work. A man who identified himself as “the builder” came over to ask me why I was taking the pictures. I pointed out my house, told him I looked at these old houses every day, and just wanted to capture some final pictures. “Oh, for your memory!”

Here’s a few shots of those houses being torn apart:

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DSC00369Can you see the blue graffiti on the interior wall? Kind of cute. It’s gone now.

And then, the worker stopped and leapt out of his cab. He spotted something in the rubble.

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DSC00378Looks like a teapot. He looked around, as if he was hoping no one saw him grab this treasure. He may have whispered “My precious!” for all I know.

Well, for a short while we’ll have a very open view until the new houses go up.

Someone has also started construction on a new village house in the empty field behind our house. This may also be vaguely interesting to watch as the weeks go by. First they cleared the field, then they dug down only around 3 or 4 feet, levelled it out and poured a concrete base. Now they’re getting ready to do the walls.

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Yes I’m Married

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Yep, I did it. No, I’m probably not going to be posting wedding photos here, but I will share some of the details with you after the fact.  I’ll preface this by saying that while my gf wife was married once before (and me twice before), she was very young and very poor the first time she got married, and the marriage was kind of bare bones. This time she wanted to go all the way. A fancy formal wedding dress, bridesmaids (and me in a suit and tie).

The day started with all of the bridesmaids arriving at our place to get their hair and make-up done. It was insanity in our living room for hours! One friend drove over to pick up the two of us (he’s getting married next month, so I’ll be able to return the favor), which meant the others had to get taxis to make their way from Tai Po to Central, which led to the only real problem of the day.

We arrived at the Cotton Tree Marriage Registry about 45 minutes early. We waited till 15 minutes before our scheduled time to go in to do the final paperwork. And … some of the bridesmaids hadn’t yet arrived, including the woman whom my wife wanted as her witness. But this marriage registry, located in Hong Kong Park, is always fully booked and has to run on schedule. So we had to ask another woman to stand in.

And then the ceremony, a simple civil ceremony but nicely performed by the magistrate. I didn’t try to count how many people showed up for the ceremony – at least 50.

After the ceremony, we did the posing for pictures thing in the park. One very minor annoyance – they have this perfect spot right outside the registry for taking photos, and this day – a Sunday! – it was roped off and there was a guy working away at the concrete with some electric tool, throwing up dust everywhere. So we found another spot. But construction work in Hong Kong Park on a Sunday? Then back into the car – our friend had a bottle of Moet and two glasses so we could toast and giddy for the drive to dinner.

Our dinner was at Anthony’s Ranch in Sai Kung. Why there? Because we have known “Anthony” and his wife for years and the place has been a hangout for us and many of our friends. (We’d arranged for a bus to pick up our guests at Hong Kong Park and take them to the restaurant – it’s cheaper than you’d expect and it made things much easier for everyone.) We knew they’d do right by us – and they did. A huge buffet dinner, plenty of booze, no live music but I had already prepared a playlist, going with straight classic rock love songs.

That’s tougher than you’d think. I didn’t want anything too obscure and I didn’t want anything that’s not rock & roll. And a lot of the bands I really love haven’t done that many love songs. Think about it. Dark Side of the Moon? Not a lot of love songs there. Rolling Stones? Well, of course I threw in Keith’s Happy but most of their other songs tend to take a dark turn (Wild Horses? Wild horses couldn’t keep me away? Try, “I’ve watched you suffer a dull aching pain, now you’ve decided to show me the same.”) Zeppelin? Does anyone really know wtf Stairway to Heaven is even about? Nevertheless, I managed to come up with a few hours worth of stuff. I recall that I did sing along with the Springsteen songs – perhaps a bit loudly, but if I can’t do it on my wedding day, when can I do it? I can’t carry a tune for shit but no kids cried and no adults went running for the exit.

No honeymoon yet. I figure we’ve been living together for more than 5 years already, so there’s no rush. I’ve got a business trip to the UK next month and we will probably do something in Europe right before or after that trip, if everything works out.

Postscript: This morning, the motherboard on my computer decided to die. We had to go to Wanchai anyway so I brought it in to the one shop that I trust there to be diagnosed and fixed. As long as we were there, I figured we should go someplace nice for lunch and opted for The Pawn.

I’ve run hot and cold on The Pawn ever since it first opened but today, everything there was as good as it could be. Not to mention that it was a sunny day and warm enough for us to sit on the balcony and take our time through the three courses.

Tomorrow back to work. But with a big smile on my face and very happy memories of a great day.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hannukah!

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U.S. Thanksgiving and the first day of Hannukah occur on the same day for the first time in a very, very long time.

Last night was my gf’s hen night (she’s still recovering) and my pre-bachelor party. Tonight will of course be Thanksgiving dinner, at a friend’s place. Friday will (hopefully) be my real bachelor party. Nothing on Saturday because I don’t roll on Shabbos. (Well, not really true.) Sunday is the wedding and wedding party. Need to figure out plans for an after-party too. (Honeymoon will be pushed back to January.)

With all of this going on, it’s a good thing I’m taking a few days off from work!

Anyway, for those of you who take note of either or both of these holidays, hope you have a great one!

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Some of this and a little bit of that

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Life remains busy, but tonight I’m wide awake and so …

While I don’t travel often in my current job, two weeks ago I had a trip to Manila (leaving one day before the typhoon hit) and last week I was in Singapore.

I suspect one reason I like Singapore so much is that I only see it through a tourist’s eyes. I’ve been down there 10 or 20 times, always less than a week, and my last trip there was at least 5 years ago. I didn’t have a lot of free time while there but I did eat in one “real” hawker center (Maxwell Street), one tourist-y one (Makansutra Gluttony Bay) and one food court (Food Republic at Suntec), also managed one fairly authentic Sichuan place in Chinatown. And I had a chance to catch up with a few friends while there.

Right now, most of my attention outside of work is spent on putting the finishing touches on our wedding day, which is coming up on December 1st (hopefully an easy date for me to remember).

So first, let me mention an album I’ve been listening to, Live at Davies by Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.

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Dan Hicks, if you don’t know him, and you probably don’t, came out of the psychedelic scene in SF in the 60s, a group called The Charlatans (not the UK group that came later). Back in the 70′s, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (featuring the Lickettes) released 5 albums that combined western swing and several other influences, with a heaping helping of comedy, all of which I love.  Only one song ever broke through – and that was Thomas Dolby’s cover of Hicks’s I Scare Myself (and the original, not a typical Hicks song, is essential listening).

Since then, it hasn’t all been gravy. Starting from the mid-90s, there have been a few sporadic releases, mostly just live reworkings of the songs the fans know and love, usually with a few big name guests brought along to hopefully shine some light on the release.

Live at Davies is somewhat different. For one thing, there’s more famous friends, and if you’re of a certain age (like my age or older), a lot of these names will mean a lot to you – Ray Benson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bruce Forman, David Grisman, John Hammond Jr, Rickie Lee Jones, Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldaur, Van Dyke Parks, Roy Rogers, Harry Shearer, Tuck & Patti.

Some tracks feature a reunion of the original Hot Licks, including Sid Page, Naomi Ruth Eisenberg and Maryann Price.  What’s different is the jazz covers here – Hicks takes on Horace Silver’s Song For My Father, Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train and Charlie Parker’s Yardbird Suite. The best is saved for last, two untitled medleys that each run over 12 minutes.

For Dan Hicks fans, this is a must.

(My second most-played album is Elvis Costello & The Roots’ Wise Up Ghost – and it’s been at least 10 years since I’ve played a Costello album as often as I’ve played this one. My third most played album is the new Arcade Fire – I expect that to move up the list.  I haven’t gotten to Jake Bugg’s new album yet but I’m sure it will be worthwhile. And Jonathan Wilson’s latest seems promising.)

In terms of films, I’ve watched a lot of really shitty movies lately but also one truly great one, an Italian film called The Great Beauty.  Here’s the trailer:

Briefly, the film could be thought of as a sequel to La Dolce Vita.  Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring a truly wonderful Toni Servillo, the story is about a man who published a great novel at the age of 20 and then partied away the next 45 years of his life. Right after his 65th birthday, he gets news that his first love has died. And he ponders where his life has gone.

The film is about the beauty and ugliness of Rome. It’s about the beauty and ugliness of life. And it’s about so much more.

It is the best film I have seen this year.

(BTW, I did like the comedies We’re The Millers and Heat. I quite liked horror film The Conjuring. I wanted to like 2 Guns but in the end it never quite got me there. Man of Steel – completely blows it in the second half. Pacific Rim? Sorry, I couldn’t get past the basic silly premise that if the Earth is under attack and all of our planet’s resources are pooled, what we will come up with is giant battling robots that fight these aliens by hitting and kicking them.)

Anyway, just felt like posting something. Presumably my life will return to what I refer to as “normal” by the end of the year – or maybe not!

 

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Cathay Camera Club Exhibition This Weekend

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This year I joined the Cathay Camera Club. I attended a few meetings first to check it out and found a great group of people to hang out with every other Monday night. So I finally broke out the checkbook and joined just in time to be able to participate in their upcoming annual exhibition.

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It starts this Friday night and runs through the weekend at the HK Cultural Centre. I’ll have 3 images on display and there will also be images from more than 20 other photographers. I think it’s going to be a great show – and it’s free! I’ll be there Friday night for the opening and also will be there late Saturday afternoon. Come check it out!

P.S. If you’re into photography as a hobby or student or semi-pro, this is a great place to meet like-minded people. Check out the web site and then come to one of our meetings, free, to see if it might be for you.

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On Being Jewish

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I’m writing this as I go and I think it’s not going to make much sense but I’m going with it.

I’m Jewish. I make no secret of that fact. I am, as Sigmund Freud described himself, “a godless Jew”. I do not believe in God whether it be Hashem or Jesus or Allah or Buddah or any of the other multitudes of supreme beings worshipped through the ages. I’m “culturally Jewish.” Over the years I have only half-jokingly referred to myself as an “oven Jew”, meaning by that that when the next Hitler comes along (and I have no doubt that he will), he won’t care that I don’t believe in God or don’t go to temple. “Your mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish. Get in the oven with the rest of them.”

I went to Hebrew School for six years. I no longer speak or understand Hebrew yet, oddly enough, I can still pretty much read the language, though I have no comprehension of what I’m reading. I was Bar Mitzvahed and spent a very brief period of my life – less than two years – trying to be religious. I went to services quite a bit when I was 13 or 14 years old but, after awhile, feeling nothing, I stopped.

My parents were both Jews. Neither of them were very religious. They didn’t keep kosher and they didn’t observe the Sabbath, though they did observe the major holidays. My father said it was because he was superstitious. While my father understood the religion very well, I think my mother knows next to nothing about it. However, over the course of decades, she raised thousands – if not millions – of dollars for Jewish and Israeli causes, and I went to a lot of luncheons and dinners held in her honor. I know she was trying to set an example for me, but it was one I did not follow.

Growing up, I knew a lot of people who had survived concentration camps. I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. I was too young to ask them any details of their experience – not that I’m sure they would have wanted to share them.

I don’t know too much of my family history going back more than 2 generations. One can check records to find out when people arrived in the U.S., but before that? Most of the records in Europe were destroyed. Much of my family came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly fleeing Russian pogroms.  There is the story of one aunt who somehow made it to the US alone at the age of six, presumably most of her family had been killed and there were people helping her along the way and waiting for her once she arrived. How many of my family never made it to the U.S.? How many were killed by Russians and eastern Europeans and Nazis? I will never know. I can only guess that it must be a signficant number.

My family name is not my family name. My father always claimed his father snuck into the U.S. and changed it to avoid being caught. I always figured he was joking and it was more like that scene in Godfather II – that he arrived at Ellis Island, didn’t speak English, was asked his name and perhaps thought he was being asked if he had a trade and that was the answer he gave and that was the name he got. (Curiously, in my paternal grandfather’s passport, he spells his name differently than my father and I do – but my father was dead when I found that passport, so I couldn’t ask him about it.) But the fact is that I don’t know for sure and probably never will know.

On my mother’s side, I have a cousin who is into genealogy. Her hobby has been tracing back the history of our family – though her work doesn’t help me much with my father’s side of things. Another of my cousins is currently working on a book and has shared an early draft with me – I won’t go into details since the book is still a year away from publication so I’ll just say that it concerns the Jewish experience in eastern Europe prior to WWII.

I have always lived with this spectre of death hovering in the background. I have lived my life knowing that for two thousand years the world has had this habit of killing Jews. Millions of them. Lenny Bruce would joke that he found a note in his parents’ basement that admitted that the Jews killed Jesus because he didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer. Mel Brooks reacted to centuries of mass murder by turning it into a several musical productions – The Producers, of course, and also the big musical dance number for the Inquisition in History of the World Part 1. Humor is one way we have always coped with unspeakable tragedy.

I can tell you that I have had to deal with anti-Semitism at various stages of my life. Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in The Bronx, there were a few times when I was chased down the street by people shouting “Jewboy” at me. It stays with you.

It’s perhaps difficult to put into words how one can be both Atheist and Jew and yet I believe I can be both. I think that trying to say, “I’m not a Jew, I’m an atheist,” would be a betrayal of the suffering of the millions who came before me. I know this probably makes little sense to others. I certainly can’t explain it. And yet I’m comfortable with the decisions that I’ve made.

What’s got me thinking this way? Why am I posting this?

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“The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.”

 

Simon Schama is a British historian. His series “A History of Britain” has brought him much international acclaim.  The BBC has just aired a new 5 hour series by him, The Story of The Jews. It aired in the UK last month and was easy enough to find via “the usual sources.” So I brought that with me to the U.S. and showed it to my mother. Although I hadn’t watched it, I guessed correctly that it was something that she would like. Unexpectedly, I found it enormously moving as well.

It’s not a strict chronological history. And it doesn’t go through a checklist of who is or was Jewish, like Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”

David Lee Roth lights the menorrah,
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah

Guess who eats together at the karnickey deli,
Bowzer from Sha-Na-Na, and Arthur Fonzerrelli.

Paul Newman’s half Jewish; Goldie Hawn’s half too,
Put them together–what a fine lookin’ Jew!

You don’t need deck the halls or jingle bell rock
Cause you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock–both Jewish!

Each of the five episodes has a distinct theme and each moves somewhat chronologically, but also impressionistically through that theme. Schama asks questions, many of which cannot be easily answered, some of which cannot be answered at all. But they are all worth asking and all worth thinking about.

While the reviews in major press outlets have been almost uniformly positive, I should mention that many pro-Palestinian groups have had serious issues with some of the things said in the fifth episode, which discusses Zionism and the State of Israel. (I should also mention that while I am a supporter of Israel, I am not a supporter of apartheid and so I have never been to Israel and have no plans to go. I don’t even have a glimmer of an idea as to what the answer is to all of this.)

One thing I took away from the series is just how much the American Jewish experience in the 20th century is an anomaly – the degree to which Jews were assimilated and the cultural influence they’ve had, through films and music. I guarantee that all of you know at least a few Yiddish words, even if you don’t realize that they’re Yiddish in origin.

Another thing I took away – something I always knew but learned in much greater detail – is about how Jews were treated over the last thousand years. The series is very Euro-centric, so there are very few details given about just how extremely well Jews and Muslims co-existed prior to Zionism. And nothing is mentioned about Jews in eastern Asia, a topic that would be well worth covering in some form. (China welcomed Jews prior to 1949 because, unlike Christian missionaries, they made no attempts to convert others to their faith. And I have one Indian friend who is Jewish – though I’ve never really asked him how that happened.)

Okay, I’ve got no idea where I’m going with all of this. The series has weighed heavily on my mind, that’s for sure. I believe I will watch it again, and soon. I’ll buy – and read – the book from the series when it’s published. Will my Catholic regular-church-going gf watch it with me? (I also just purchased Criterion’s blu-ray reissue of Shoah and will see if she has the patience to sit through that with me (it runs over 9 hours).

Beyond that? Do I have a renewed sense of Jewish identity? Will I rejoin HK’s JCC and start participating in their events? Will I attend Seders and fast on Yom Kippur? It’s all too soon to tell. The point is that Schama has got me thinking about this more deeply than I have in a very long time. I hope that others will also view this series and start thinking about it as well.

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