June 12, 2009

Farewell to Yr

What is it about madness that so fascinates? Is it a tentatively acknowledged fear that the grasp on sanity is tenuous? Or is it an attraction to the honesty of insanity, the letting go of our internal guard in exchange for freeing the deeply buried urges inside of us?

A couple of decades ago, perusing the crammed shelves of a used bookstore, I picked up a copy of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The story of Joanne Greenberg's experiences (told through the character of Deborah) is stunningly eye-opening, with stark descriptions of the patients' characters and behavior, and of the treatments they received, off-set by the intelligently sharp wit Greenberg possessed even then. One passage that's always stuck with me takes place after several patients gang up on one of the ward attendants and Deborah is called upon to explain what took place:

"Well... Hobbs came down the hall and then there was the fight. It was a good fight, too; not too loud and not too soft. Lucy Martenson's fist intruded into Mr. Hobbs's thought processes, and his foot found some of Lee Miller. I had a foot out, too, but nobody used it."

... Deborah knew why it was Hobbs and not McPherson... Hobbs was a little brutal sometimes, but it was more than that. He was frightened of the craziness he saw around him because it was an extension of something inside himself. He wanted people to be crazier and more bizarre than they really were so that he could see the line which separated him, his inclinations and random thoughts, and his half-wishes, from the full-bloomed, exploded madness of the patients. McPherson, on the other hand, was a strong man, even a happy one. He wanted the patients to be like him, and the closer they got to being like him, the better he felt. He kept calling to the similarity between them, never demanding, but subtly, secretly calling, and when a scrap of it came forth, he welcomed it. The patients had merely continued to give each man what he really wanted. There was no injustice done, and Deborah had realized earlier in the day that Hobbs's broken wrist was only keeping him a while longer from winding up on some mental ward as a patient.

That's it, right there. Experiencing the insane is to walk the fine line between Hobbs and McPherson. When I found out that I lived only a handful of miles from the sanitarium at which Greenberg was treated, I was of course elated. The place was Chestnut Lodge, in the historic district of Rockville, MD, a huge Addams Family-ish building set on 20 or so acres of huge old white oaks (the chestnut trees after which it was named fell victim to blight many years ago). In its time, the Lodge was world-famous for its treatments. A few decades later, those same treatments would bring it notoriety, as the doctors there clung to ice-packing and electro-shock, along with psychoanalysis, while the rest of psychiatry turned towards chemical treatment.



For years I would drive by and peer at the building through the foliage, wondering what went on behind the windows on the upper floors. But I never went there. Even after the hospital closed and the building sat empty, I never stopped the car, never got out and wandered under those trees to see what the place looked and, more importantly, felt like up close.

As it sat empty, a developer bought it and the grounds and began to build luxury homes behind the main building. The Lodge itself was apparently to someday become million-dollar condos, which would bring an end to it being a hangout for the homeless and partying teens.



And now it's gone. At 3:00am this past Sunday morning, ninety-five firefighters responded to a call that the building was on fire. The condition in which it was left apparently made it ripe for burning, and it ended up nothing but a shell. When I finally had a chance to drive by this evening, demolition had already begun and all but the rear portion of the building had been reduced to piles of bricks. But I snagged some memories of what was left, and finally spent some time close enough to see through those mysterious windows, and to wonder, for one final time, about the people who had once passed through those rooms.











 






















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June 3, 2009

Searching for Zee Deveel in the City of Sin

I just got home from a business trip in Las Vegas (The annual JCK and Couture jewelry trade shows, which are a BIG DEAL in the luxury jewel trade). Last year was the first time I took this trip and I tried my damnedest to blog about it, but it was so overwhelming I couldn't put it together coherently. When I began jotting notes on the first day of the trip, my intention was to put it together linearly, with day-by-day entries. But I quickly became disoriented by the dichotomies in my experiences, and by my reactions to those dichotomies. This year, I'm going to try again. Any linear time-frames have been thrown out the window and this has become just a jumble of thoughts and impressions from both trips. I wouldn't be surprised if you become as disoriented as I was.

Cast of characters for both trips: The Boss (owner of the store), the President (the owner's son), and The Boss's wife, plus one co-worker, The Buyer. Plot twists: 1) because this is a work trip, I'm having to put on my work persona, and 2) these people live a vastly different lifestyle than I do. I'm gonna have to work on controlling my gag reflex. They're all lovely people, really, in their way, but to listen to them talk about what they consider "quality" food and shopping makes me feel a bit queasy. What they consider "the finer things in life", I consider ostentatious luxury. They'd possibly fall out of their chairs if I told them that I'd be as happy eating at Waffle House as at any of the high-falutin' places at which they've apparently made dinner reservations for our group for the week. With those reservations in mind, I ended up in a bit of a tizzy while packing for the trip, trying to figure out what clothes in my limited, inexpensive wardrobe would be appropriate for a place like Robuchon.

Airport slot machines (All photos can be clicked for full-sized view)


The full impact of Vegas took some time to hit me. It started with slot machines in the airport as soon as we stepped out of the gate and, of course, a casino between the swanky hotel lobby and the elevators to our room. The Buyer and I are staying in the brand-new Palazzo (named the largest green building in the world), which is connected to the Venetian, which is famous for its inside shopping arcade replete with Venetian canal, singing gondoliers, and blue "sky" painted with fluffy clouds.



The canal at the Venetian hotel begins along Las Vegas Boulevard..


...and continues underneath the building to flow...


...past the Grand Canal Shops and Vegas' version of St. Mark's Square.


Wandered for a bit through the swanky shops, barely bothering to glance in any windows until I found a jaw-dropping exhibit of photography by Peter Lik. Despite the fancy framing and mounting and the slick way in which his photos were displayed, there was a weird dichotomy (sorry, I couldn't find another suitable synonym) in seeing these awe-inspiring, reverent depictions of nature in the midst of one of the most superficial, artificial places on earth. I had to wonder whether the rich folk for whom these gorgeous works are intended buy them just for the eye-appeal, or whether they actually appreciate the sacredness of the places captured.

And after that, I stumbled across Baumann's Rare Books and just about lost my already exhausted, over-loaded mind: a shop full of first editions such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Darwin's Origin of Species, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, assorted works of Mark Twain, Einstein's Out of My Later Years (of which I own an identical copy, though mine's not in anywhere near as fine condition and probably nowhere near as valuable) and, the piece de resistance, a $175,000 Leaves of Grass from Whitman's personally financed first run of only 795 copies. I walked through that place alternately with my jaw dropped or grinning like a fool, and they probably had to clean my nose prints from all of the glass display cases when I left. It was amazing, though. There's an energy that emanates from books like that, even the children's books, an energy of art and knowledge imparted, of what's best in humankind, that is glaringly out of place in the midst of the ritziness of the Venetian and Palazzo shops.







But those books weren't the only things that seemed out of place. Much of this trip became about finding pockets of beauty amidst the neon, glitz, and general ostentation of Vegas. One thing I wanted to check out but didn't have time for was the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. I have to remember it for next year, though I did get to see the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures that comprise the lobby ceiling of that hotel.

The next day was spent mostly in what The Boss calls the "rabbit warren"-- from the hotel room, through the hotel casino, into and all around the hotel convention center, back through the casino, up to the room, only to realize that I hadn't been out of doors in over 24 hours. I begged out of tonight's fancy dinner so I could take a walk, and a look, around the (in)famous Vegas Strip. Wandered down as far as the Bellagio, where I stopped to watch the water show at their famous fountain. Noticed a street person-looking woman strolling along with a cigarette in one hand and a gorgeous white cockatoo in the other. I watched her watching a passable Jack Sparrow impersonator who had a six-pack of Coronas and a pair of colorful parrots with which he was posing for photos with some scantily-clad and equally tipsy tourists. When the woman continued along the sidewalk, I caught up with her and learned that the cockatoo's name was Angel. Fitting name for a beautiful bird.

Stopped in McDonald's for a quick dinner and found myself wondering whether I had made that choice in reaction to the surroundings into which I've been thrust on this trip. I needed a meal that didn't cost as much as a month's utility bills. Sitting outside to wolf down my cheeseburger, fries and chocolate shake, watching the crowd hustle by, I was suddenly surprised to realize that I could hear crickets chirping nearby. It was a strange and unexpected sound under the cacophony of the Strip, and again, a bit of beauty that was very much out of place.



Day whatever: Finally had the chance to check out the other side of Vegas-- took a cab from the Palazzo down to Fremont Street and wandered up and down the covered pedestrian walkway (which was featured in U2's video for I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For). The Boss warned me that Fremont was the "seedier" section of town and that I'd see some of the dregs of society. Not surprisingly, I had more fun and felt more comfortable while there than at any other point on this trip so far. It's been a great big smorgasbord of experiences-- from The Boss' refined, "finer things in life", moneyed lifestyle and the opulence of the resort hotels in which we're staying, to the all-American, trailer-trash, glitz and seediness of Fremont St.







God says please do not go to hell... go to the $15.99 seafood buffet instead.


Fremont Street light show.




To top all of that off, there's been the luxury jewelry trade show that is, of course, the main purpose of the trip. At one vendor appointment, I found myself wondering wtf I was doing in such an environment, as The Boss and The President discussed which of their clients would be happy to snap up an $80,000 yellow diamond bracelet if we were to order it for the store. A few appointments later, I was amazed and fascinated by the beautiful design and technical craftsmanship of a really unusual necklace of the same price. Last night I shamelessly wolfed down a $35 veal scallopine (so much for my Buddhist aspirations) at Mario Batali's newest restaurant, Carnevino, while tonight I dined on greasy pizza from a joint on Fremont. The dichotomies (there's that word again) from one moment to the next have left me with a lot to think about.

Just what did I hope to see in Vegas? A Devil's playground of the Seven Deadly Sins? Well, Vegas isn't called Sin City for nothin'. I think I flew to Vegas with visions of lustful, avaricious cravings dancing in my head, little old ladies glued to slot machines and drunkards leering over mostly naked showgirls. Those things were around, to be sure, but the vices I witnessed were more mundanely insidious than sexy. Lust, gluttony and avarice showed their faces in the guise of massive over-consumption. Now, I work in the luxury jewelry industry, so this is something I see on a regular basis. But Vegas is on a scale that's off the charts. From ridiculously priced hotel rooms (yes, the service was great but, really, I've slept just as well at Holiday Inn) to tony shopping arcades, to absolutely fantastic yet exorbitantly priced restaurants and shows, the amount of money shelled out on non-necessities is mind-boggling. And I have never seen so many obese people in one place within so few days.

So which is worse: uncontrollable acquisitiveness driven by craving, or acquisitiveness based on a sense of entitlement? I was exposed to all of this through the largess of my boss. Yes, I was there to serve a necessary function on the business trip, but he went out of his way to include me and my fellow co-worker in the non-business dining and entertainment reservations his wife had arranged. And I do truly appreciate his generosity. The chances of me shelling out $175 for a single Cirque du Soleil ticket are slim-to-none, and their Beatles "Love" show is mind-blowingly awesome (seriously, it was the most amazing thing I've seen yet in my life). And a couple of the meals we had were truly, elegantly sublime. But was his generosity based on altruism or ego? He and his wife and son would certainly have enjoyed these luxuries even without the attendance of us on the payroll, but there did seem to be a hint of preening in his response to our expressions of gratitude. Or was that just projection on my part, an attempt to raise my humble aspirations above his more conspicuously consumptive ones, to assuage my guilty conscience in having taken part in such indulgence?

Compared to all of this, how do I live my own life? And how do I feel about how others live theirs? I was entranced by a book costing $175k, but looked down my nose at the wastefulness of hotel/restaurant/jewelry/clothing prices in Vegas. How does one define principles and values of this sort in a way that encompasses all the levels of society? In doing so, how on earth do you avoid hypocrisy? And of course this brought up the specifically personal questions of how and why I've ended up working in the luxury jewelry trade, and whether I'm willing to trade the stability and paycheck this job affords for a career that would have more meaning for me, but most likely involve a tremendous financial sacrifice.

So, I'm conflicted about my job in jewelry trade: The Boss lives a lifestyle I find vaguely repulsive, despite the fact that I continue to struggle at reaching out to help others. Yet The Boss is very generous, both towards his employees and to charities. Does that make me a self-righteous hypocrite? I've written several times in the past about my conflicted feelings toward the job in general, but these days, with the current economic climate, I'm damned grateful to have it. And I'm conflicted that there are places like Las Vegas on this earth. Perhaps there are lessons to be gleaned through being in such an environment, such as learning what's really meaningful to me while finding compassion for the cravings that drive all of that superficial consumerism.

A little irony at the airport on the way home: A very roly-poly woman sat down a few seats away from me at the gate. Clutched in her chubby fingers was a bag from one of the airport food vendors which read "I SNACK LIKE I MEAN IT".

Zee Deveel

Nice car!
Where'd you get your ride?
A trophy? Badge of honor? Over-compensation?
Price tags advertise your pride!
Since when did what we paid for colored cloth
gauge our gravity?

Yeah, you got your little world
Picture perfect, it's a pearl
Now go and try and sleep in the bed you made

You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause everyone of us has a devil inside
You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause all of what amounts becomes you

Nice watch!
Man, d'you got the time?
There's never enough,
and it always goes too slow, too slow.

Yeah you got your little world!
Picture perfect, it's a pearl
Now go and try and sleep in the bed you made

You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause everyone of us has a devil inside
You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause all of what amounts becomes you

Nice watch!
Man, d'you got the time?
Theres never enough,
and it always goes too slow.
Price tags advertise your pride!
Since when did what we paid for colored cloth
gauge our gravity?

You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause everyone of us...
You should be careful what you wish for!
'Cause all of what amounts becomes you




For the record, Incubus are not big fans of Vegas. And, after this year, I'm not so sure I am, either.

(Click here for more photos.)