Archive for February, 2013

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, thinking he really ought to meditate more often.

“Peace can be found within, no matter the external circumstances,” Allan Lokos writes in “Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living.”

“Forgive me, Allan,” I thought, when I read his book for the first time. ”You may be the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, and you may be tight with the most celebrated Buddhists on the planet, but I have read this many times in many books. And the words roll off me. I prefer deeds: how people react under stress. As in the Zen saying is blunt about this: ‘Watch how the master puts on his sandals and peels his orange.’”

Well, now we know about Allan Lokos.

On Christmas Day, Allan and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were in a plane crash in Burma. They had to fight their way to get to the wing exit, which was on fire. Allan pushed his wife through burning jet fuel. But it was easier to save his wife than save himself: When Allan jumped, he was badly burned.

Susanna wrote friends:

We were in dire circumstances in hilly, rural Burma. After a rough ride on winding rutted roads on the metal floor of the “ambulance”, we spent the day in a type of rural hospital with virtually no care–there is no medical care for the local Burmese people. They are very kind people, and though there was no medical treatment, some of them gave their time and resources freely. Two US Embassy consuls were vacationing there and came to help us get out. At first it was impossible, all government red tape, but through some miracle, the president of the airline sent his private jet from Yangon to take us that night to Bangkok Thailand, the nearest city with any real hospital.


That whole awful day and then the flight to Bangkok was very hard on Allan, who needed immediate acute treatment. We spent four days in Bangkok in a good hospital trying to get him stabilized to travel, as he desperately needed to get to a Burn Unit. Two days ago we were medivac-flown to Singapore, where Allan had a major surgery of over 5 hours.

[Interesting that only at the end of her letter does Susanna write, almost as an aside: “I have some burns on my face and hand, not major, and I had a broken vertebra as the plane crashed.”]

Allan made it through surgery, a 30-hour flight in an air ambulance and eight weeks in a Manhattan burn unit. Slowly, slowly, he is recovering. His spirit, from all accounts, is more resilient than his body.

This gives his book unusual credibility. Like a ton. [To buy the paperback of “Patience” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

Suffering, writes every Buddhist, begins when you want things to be different from the way they are. And on this point, Allan is a world expert: “Wisdom evolves from seeing things as they are and patience comes from accepting things as they are…. Patience is born when we create a pause between our experience of a feeling and our response to that feeling.”

Reading “Patience” a second time, with Allan’s acceptance of his situation in mind, I am much more impressed by his thoughts. Clearly, his practice — especially the part about developing patience — helped him survive. It’s worth considering that it can do the same for us.

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Hello English Muse readers! Karen from A Simple Cup of Tea once again. Where did those two first months of 2013 fly away to? I can barely believe it’s nearly March already.

I’ve been studying at Royal Welsh College for nearly two months now and even though it keeps me ridiculously busy I’m mostly just grateful to be here and be taught by some of the world’s best tutors.

I have found that even though I’m swamped with work and can barely think what task to tackle first just taking a moment to be grateful helps. It helps my mind still itself and helps me focus. (And just because we’re real here, yes I do go back into panic mode after that…)

What are you grateful for these days?

Picture: Pinterest

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, here to present a woman who feels much worse than you can in the dull bottom of February.

The favorite writer of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is said to have been Jean Rhys (1890-1979). If so, that says a lot, for the main character in a novel by Rhys tends to be a woman in her 30s who is losing her looks and her ability to attract men. She drinks. She lives in a cheap hotel. She has no expectations that things will get better for her — indeed, she almost wills life to get worse.

Jean Rhys was a first-tier writer who deserves to be widely known, and I can easily understand why — on literary grounds alone — Mrs. Onassis would elevate her to her personal pantheon. I can also understand why Mrs. Onassis might identify with a Jean Rhys character: Mrs. Onassis was notoriously tight. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet she had an irrational fear that she had to hold on to every dollar lest she end up poor and alone — a bag lady. She wouldn’t be the first to feel this way; any number of rich people I know seem to tell themselves daily, “This could all go away.” [To buy an inexpensive paperback of 'After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie' from Amazon, click here.]

For Julia Martin — the main character in ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ (1930), probably the finest of the novels by Rhys — it has all gone away. It’s the late 1920s, and Julia’s in Paris, where her nightly companion is a bottle rather than a man. Outside, there’s an endless party, but she stays in her gloomy room all day, reading. And musing:

She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would lie thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.

That burst of writing is on page 3. It is both a tour de force of insight and a warning: Rhys has an unblinking eye. What that eye sees may not be pretty — but you can count on it to be the truth. Here is the key truth of this novel: a woman in her ’30s, already looking back rather than forward. You can’t help but worry for her.

Work? “By her eyes and the dark circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable.” Drunk, she looks out at the Seine and imagines it’s the sea. Dear Lord, how will she make her way?

That grotty topic — money — is ignored in most novels. People just…. have it. Not here. Indeed, the engine of the plot of ‘After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’ is money. Julia lives from check to check — on the kindness of the men who have used her and discarded her, you might say. Which is fine when the men are generous and guilty.

But now comes a lawyer’s letter, with a check for 1,500 francs, five times the usual amount: This is her final payment. Mr. Mackenzie is cutting Julia off. A prudent woman would — well, what good does it do to outline a plan of action that is unavailable to an imprudent woman like Julia? We know what Julia will do: seek Mr. Mackenzie out and have a scene. Which she does. In a restaurant. Where she ends her haughty, desperate monologue by slapping him lightly on the cheek with her glove.

Ah, but luck is with her. Reeling out of the restaurant, she encounters George Horsfield, a troubled, interior man who is attracted to birds with broken wings. Bars follow. Too many drinks. Much talk. From Mars, this could look like a mating dance.

England beckons. I can’t see why — there’s nothing for Julia in London except a sister resentfully nursing their dying mother. But the change of scene energizes Julia: “She had lost the feeling of indifference to her fate, which in Paris had sustained her for so long. She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.”

Her mother’s death triggers a complex reaction: the realization that she hates her sister (and vice versa), a sharpened resentment against the power of money, the feeling that she can almost see “the thing that was behind all this talking and posturing,” a sense of herself as “a defiant flame.” And on a more basic level: Can she cut a deal with George Horsfield?

Sex is ahead. Very 1920s sex — what passes for passion in that time will be an eye-opener for some readers. And more wine. A funeral. A kind of crack-up. And, finally, the return to Paris. All along, you cannot help but think: What is it with Julia? Has she just had some bad luck and it turned her sour? Is she a selfish bitch who’s getting exactly the life she deserves? Will she come to a “bad end” —- or does her decay roll on like the Seine?

Ah, but there is Mr. Mackenzie in a cafe. This time Julia doesn’t hesitate to approach him. And to ask him — with a directness she lacked earlier — a question. It’s a short scene for an end of a book, just two quick pages. But they are so stunning they take your breath away. If you didn’t know, from the terse writing on every page before this, that Jean Rhys is a great writer and that this, but for the grace of God, is the story of your life, you know it now.

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Illustration by Foxtales.

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In Motion

Feb 16, 2013






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The food of love

Feb 12, 2013

When you just can’t find the words, say it with food.


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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, checking in between winter storms. And thinking: It’s a lot colder in this classic movie. So why not suggest it? Readers will feel better about themselves as they watch a great film they may have missed.

Robert Altman liked to say he hated Westerns. He didn’t much enjoy working with Warren Beatty. He was silent about directing Julie Christie. He probably disliked her too.

But in the winter of 1970, Altman took Beatty and Christie to the Pacific Northwest and made one of the best Westerns I’ve ever seen.

Well, not exactly a Western as you may think of it: John Ford, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood.

In 1970, our President was a crook, we were locked in an Asian war we could not win, our kids were growing their hair long, smoking weed and fornicating in the stairwells.

With that going on, no way does Robert Altman make a traditional Western.

This movie is about much more than the plot, but here’s the plot: Warren Beatty (McCabe), a small-time gambler with more dreams than brains, comes to the tiny community of Presbyterian Church to open a bar and bordello. It is his great good fortune to run into Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), an opium-smoking prostitute who actually knows how to run a whorehouse. They join forces, get successful, have an awkward romance. A corporation decides to buy them out. Christie’s in favor of the deal — she understands the power of Big Business — but Beattie fancies himself a negotiator. So the corporation dispatches three gunmen to kill him.

I was just out of college when “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” was released. I was a disciple of Leonard Cohen (whose early songs provide a gloomy, dreamy soundtrack). I admired Altman, respected Beatty, had a crush on Christie. My reaction to the film was predictable: It was one of the greater films I’d ever seen. [To buy the DVD from Amazon for $6.35, click here. To rent the video stream and watch it now for $2.99, click here.]

Watch the opening sequence and see if you don’t fall under its spell:

Most critics didn’t agree. Here’s Vincent Canby, of The New York Times: “The intentions of ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ are…meddlesomely imposed on the film by tired symbolism, by a folk-song commentary on the soundtrack…and by metaphysically purposeful photography….Such intentions keep spoiling the fun of what might have been an uproarious frontier fable.”

Talk about wrong-headed! Canby wanted Altman to make another “M*A*S*H.” But Altman wanted to get inside a genre, to show that the West wasn’t Gary Cooper and John Wayne — it was just like now, with little people starting small enterprises and getting a town going, then the Big Boys muscling them out and sucking the soul from the community. The story of the hardware store and Wal-Mart. Kind of the domestic story of our time….

But forget all of that. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is no more about its plot than your life is. It’s about dreams. And wanting to build something for yourself when you’re over your head and you don’t really know the players and all you have is you. And then it’s about taking the next step — gambling on love, on dreams. The Leonard Cohen lyric about the gambler says it all: “He’s just looking for a card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another.”

And then it’s about weather. First drizzle, then snow. And as the snow blankets the town, the movie gets quieter and quieter. The climax is inevitable and dark; it’s played out in bright, silent snow. What ends badly also ends beautifully — so beautifully that you can only imagine what lies Altman told to get the money for this film.

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Illustration by the amazing Wendy MacNaughton.

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It was like discovering a hidden pirate’s treasure, for fashion lovers and art lovers alike. After more than half a century, museum curators have unlocked the doors to Frida Kahlo’s closet, at the same time unlocking many secrets of her life.

When Frida died in 1954, her heartbroken husband, famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, locked the doors to her closet, capturing inside it hundreds of her personal items just as they were on the day she died. Before he died three years later, the couple’s close friend Dolores Olmedo promised to protect the contents of the closet, keeping it locked her entire life (she died at 93 in 2002).

The day Hilda Trujillo Soto, the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum, finally opened the closet, the scent of Frida’s cigarettes and perfume still clung to her clothes. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? As though Frida’s ghost stood beside her in the room.

In wonder, they slowly explored the items inside: more than 300 items, including love letters, photographs, makeup, jewellery, shoes, and an extraordinary collection of dresses that were well ahead of their time and, according to ABC News, both a political and a cultural statement.

For example her beloved, vibrant ‘Tehuana dresses’ were made by indigenous artisans, and represented Frida’s tribute to the matriarchal Tehuantepec society, whose women were traders and considered equal with men.

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Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week wearing le smoking and smirking.

Arsene Lupin — you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Well, better than the Brit detective. Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar. A gentleman burglar. A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a Baron’s residence, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: “Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine.” (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

And how about this note, to a Baron so paranoid that he has had his chateau sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed ‘Jacob,’ and the Renaissance chest. In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, “Arsene Lupin.”

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There’s something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache — it’s almost as if he’s liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from nobles who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?) Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character has been easy to update — on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial — Arsene Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. A brandy. Chopin. After a while, Lupin’s cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you’ll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn’t really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured.

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