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Steve Jobs Memorial, Chicago

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm

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When Steve Jobs passed away last week, I was astonished by the global grieving that followed. I never expected such outpouring of emotion, because I had always knows Jobs as a mirror-image of Bill Gates—both wealthy, both innovators in the computer business, both immeasurably powerful. But people seemed to really feel his passing, on a scale I couldn’t remember since the death of Princess Diana.

Jobs wasn’t perfect. Unlike Gates, the man was famously un-charitable. Jobs liked to unveil new toys, with the magical flourish of a David Copperfield, but he seemed to have little interest in, say, global poverty or health issues. I am, like nearly every plugged-in American, somewhat biased as I say this: I am a regular contractor for Microsoft, and my laptop runs on Windows. That said, I am typing this on an iMac, and I plan on taking an iPod on my run this afternoon. Apple would never give me a job or support causes I care about; but Jobs helped steer this technology into existence. He also helped make Pixar and Apple some of the most remarkable brands in corporate history.

The mourning struck me as symbolic, since most people don’t know anything about Steve Jobs, but they respect his vision, and they felt he faced mortality much too soon (at 55 years old, Jobs reminds me of Jim Henson, who died unexpectedly at 54).

Passing an Apple store in downtown Chicago, I was astonished by the monument that had risen there: Hundreds of sticky-notes with handwritten eulogies quilted over the storefront. Flowers lined the sidewalk, and people stopped to take pictures and gaze at the glass. I was heartened that Jobs, who had worked so hard to digitize our existence, could be commemorated in such a simple and timeless way. This memorial has no app.

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One Million Elephants

In Uncategorized on August 12, 2011 at 11:13 pm

 

One Million Elephants

An excerpt from my latest book project, tentatively called The Rocket Festival. The chapter tells the tale of the founding of Laos, a story that mixes historical fact and fairy tale.

 

 

 

 

Luna-cy

In Uncategorized on August 6, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Photograph of the Earth’s moon, taken from behind my house. The moon is a natural satellite that orbits our planet and is home to legions of man-eating creatures, a fact known by the government since the late 1960’s, apparently.

A perfect question for a lazy Saturday: Why is Hollywood suddenly screwing around with NASA conspiracies?

I’ve seen the trailer for Apollo 18, one of those mocku-horror movies with a “true story” and jittery cameras. While the footage has “not been modified,” the faux-casual dialogue is a dead giveaway that the movie is fake. The premise is that the so-called Apollo 18 shuttle blasted to the moon, astronauts hopped around, and then they were slaughtered by creepy-crawly aliens.

The super-scary tagline, already ruined by the trailer: “IT’S INSIDE MY SUIT!”

The movie might be cute enough to see, maybe not at Loews (like Cloverfield), or at a ragged indie theatre (like Blair Witch), but certainly as a Netflix impulse.

But after seeing Transformers 3, a cinematic car-wreck that transforms into a cinematic robot-wreck, I started wondering about all these blockbusters based on moon landings. Transformers 3 doesn’t have much to do with the Dark Side of the Moon, as its title would suggest; Michael Bay was much more concerned with tearing up the Windy City, using post-9/11 imagery that I can only describe as “uncomfortable.” But the teaser trailer, which even caught Kylan’s attention two years ago, preys on the story of the original moon landing. The movie even hired John Glenn, mythic astro-hero and personal conqueror of the Soviet space program, to insist that NASA discovered Decepticons and then lied about it.

I am of two minds: Partly, I want to congratulate Michael Bay for his iconoclastic filmmaking. Literally, nothing is sacred to this man. Blowing up skyscrapers with airplanes? Urinating freely all over America’s most majestic accomplishment? Using John Turturro and Frances McDormand as bobble-head dolls? I was warned about the “ground zero” reference and torrents of paper flying through the air—though it barely softened the blows. Only a sadist would make John Glenn act, much less mock his own heroism for the sake of a plastic Hasbro doll.

My other mind thinks: What an artless douche-bag. And what does it say about humanity that the film has grossed nearly a billion dollars?

It’s fitting that NASA has fired its final manned shuttle. Everyone is disappointed, given our pride in the space program, but I am of the opinion that NASA could use some serious soul-searching before sending billion-dollar machines into space (maybe Michael Bay could fund one. Better yet, we could leave him out there*). Meanwhile, Hollywood has found its chance to rip up the floorboards, crack the foundation, and turn space exploration into an extraterrestrial joke.

We’ve come a long way since 2001 and Star Wars, when the universe seemed so large and full of possibility. Never mind the goodwill and curiosity of Star Trek, which not only shaped my childhood but much of my worldview. The galaxy-spangled blackness that once promised Star Children and The Force is now a black hole of overgrown locusts and giant robot warriors with swords. Why go where no man has gone before? You’ll probably just get eaten by space monsters. Remember: IT’S INSIDE MY SPACE SUIT!

These movies may be one small step for men, but they’re one giant stumble for mankind.

My solution: Michael Bay needs a midnight jaunt. He needs to drive out to the middle of nowhere, far from his celebrity parties and CGI graphics. He’ll drive a dirt-road, somewhere in the desert, until he can’t see any lights or billboards. Then he’ll park, kill the engine and headlights, and step onto the sand. He needs to take a hundred paces away from the car, and he needs to spend three solid hours. No pharmaceuticals, no cell-phone, maybe a flask of whiskey and a milk-jug of tap water. And he needs to stay there, with only the sky for company. The only sounds will be the distant song of coyotes and the occasional mosquito.

Then, at the end of those three hours—roughly the length of his last film—Michael Bay must return to his parking spot to discover that his car’s been stolen. Now he has to walk all the way back to the highway, and then he has to hitchhike.

Now go make a real movie.

* Not that I wish any actual ill-will toward Michael Bay, who might be, in personal, a totally cool guy. But the thought of leaving people in space did remind me of that terrifying Dr. Poole scene.

Guided Tour : SPACE Gallery

In Guided Tour, Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on August 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

This month, check out Drawn in a Day at SPACE Gallery. Photograph of 2011 Gallery Crawl, originally taken for Pittsburgh Magazine.

Downtown Pittsburgh has experienced an artistic renaissance in recent years, now that the Cultural District has come alive with theater, symphonies, and independent film. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, we can enjoy yet another contribution: SPACE, a gallery and performance venue that directly complements the nearby Wood Street Gallery. Sharing themes and concepts with Wood Street’s innovative high-tech installations, SPACE promises easy, street-level access to the city’s most intrepid exhibitions. Continuing the building’s artistic tradition (it used to be a theater, back in the 1920’s), SPACE grants local artists the room to explore their ideas, and invites visual artists from across the country and around the globe to exhibit their masterpieces. With ceilings 17 feet high and 4,130 square feet of floor space, visitors can enjoy art pieces that range from abstract paintings to mobile sculpture and dizzying lighting and video effects. The latest in a series of exciting developments, SPACE deserves all capital letters.

Casey Anthony: Cultural Fall Guy

In Uncategorized on July 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Without warning, I was sucked into the Casey Anthony trial. That is, my girlfriend Kylan became obsessed, and because the trial was always streaming on the Internet, in real time, I was drawn into the case as well. But we are attracted to the infanticide for different reasons. Kylan enjoys the drama and courtroom procedure. Her sister is a former assistant district attorney, and true-life murder mysteries are a favorite pastime in her family. For Kylan, the hopeless dysfunction of the Anthonys is irresistible.

But I’m fascinated by the case because, at first, I couldn’t understand why anybody would be so fascinated by it. For sheer sleuthing, the evidence seems absurdly one-sided, and even if Casey Anthony didn’t slay her child, as most of humanity believes, her lies are too sloppy to make her an interesting villainess. At best, Casey Anthony is a spoiled brat and neglectful parent, who seemed completely unconcerned that her daughter was kidnapped. At worst, she is a cold-blooded killer who carefully snuffed out her own progeny and celebrated with liquor shots. Either way, the woman is bluntly horrifying.

Throughout history, certain courtroom operas have captivated the public, and Casey Anthony is just another example of instant legal celebrity. But most of the cases had broader significance, a tension that started with cultural anxiety. When the Dreyfus Affair tore France apart in the 1890’s, the trial exposed anti-Semitism, a corrupt military, and the paranoia of global espionage. Sacco and Vanzetti made anarchism and labor struggle front-page news. Rodney King showcased racism and police brutality. O.J. Simpson questioned whether famous people in hyper-televised America could even receive an objective trial. And so on.

Even the Lindbergh Baby offered enough confusion and red herrings to keep readers riveted. The Lindberghs’ maid, Violet Sharp, was also a highly imaginative suspect with a penchant for wild nights, but unlike Casey Anthony, she was also a sympathetic human being. At the very least, the Lindberghs were world famous and national heroes, which explained the case’s hysterical following. (H.L. Mencken dubbed it “the biggest story since the Resurrection”).

The closest media frenzy, thematically speaking, may be the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco scandal. The investigation challenged no cultural norms, only affirmed our disgust. Yet the draw of the Amy Fisher case was the weirdness of its circumstances. Combine “affair,” “underage girl,” “auto body shop owner,” “shot in face” and “survived,” and the headlines write themselves.

Casey Anthony isn’t famous, and hardly a day goes by in America that some adult doesn’t kill some child, either through scheme or neglect. Kylan theorized that the Sunshine Law has something to do with the trial’s popularity, but Florida has plenty of murder trials to televise, and none of them have hooked mass consciousness like this trial. So why Casey Anthony? Why has her story become this summer’s reality thriller? What’s so special about the so-called “tot mom”?

I think it’s the case’s sheer, uncomplicated banality. Casey Anthony is white and middle class, and she’s also an unrepentant party girl; her own lawyer called her a “slut.” Americans enjoy feeling indignant, and the Anthony trial is something that everyone, no matter what their class or politics, can feel indignant about. The murder itself is indefensible, regardless of context. Everyone can condemn Casey Anthony for her daily behavior, and that makes every American feel like a better parent and citizen. In a way, The People vs. Casey Anthony is the feel-good story of the year. Whatever the verdict, we can all join together and despise a trashy, narcissistic liar. We may have our faults, but at least no one believes we would duct-tape our children and let their corpses rot in the trunk of a car. This is one opinion Sarah Palin and I have in common. For once, we are all on the same side.

Add to this the media, whose melodramatic coverage borders on self-parody. Take Nancy Grace, legal commentator on HLN, who has spent three years covering the murder and delivers her rants like an enraged minotaur. Footage of the trial’s key moments is warped by filters and cinematic soundtracks. Pundits micro-analyze every mouthed word and emitted tear from Casey Anthony’s marble face. This is not the American justice system. It’s ESPN.

As the jury deliberates, you could say that Casey Anthony is a kind of cultural fall guy. As we reel from moral relativism, she is the one personality that everyone can hate, wholly and unapologetically. There is no debate, no ulterior motive, no hidden theme or skulking hypocrisy. She is a boon to our Schadenfreude. If all our sins look tame by comparison, then Casey Anthony may die for them. Guilty? Innocent? It doesn’t matter. She’s serving us just fine.

Capture the Flag

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Capture the Flag from Robert Isenberg on Vimeo.

Each year, residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts celebrate the Fiesta of St. Peter. Part of the celebration is walking “The Greasy Pole,” wherein local men balance on a 40-ft. telephone pole and attempt to snatch a flag.

The : Ark captured some of the more dramatic attempts.

Documentary: Country Road

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on May 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Country Road from Robert Isenberg on Vimeo.

I’m pleased to present The Ark’s first documentary, Country Road.

The Panhandle Trail extends from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the hills of West Virginia. Last week, I decided to test this route by biking from Coraopolis to Wheeling, WV, a distance of 64 miles each way.

Combining elements of both Les Stroud and Rick Sebak documentaries, “Country Road” is my attempt at a pensive, good-humored film about long-distance trail riding.

The Lost Lake

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain a journal about environmental concerns.

For a few years, Kylan and I have rounded North Park Lake. She runs, I bike. In summer, this is a fun, sweaty outing. In winter, we duke it out with flogging winds and clumped snow. So far, we have sprained no ankles.

          The lake isn’t much of a lake — it’s more like a serpentine pond — but I’ve always enjoyed the views. And Pittsburghers reallytake advantage of North Park. I’ve attended weddings here. I’ve seen anglers tossing lines. In mid-winter, some daring souls walk onto the ice. The only thing you can’t do is take a boat on the lake. And my girlfriend’s favorite event: The Frigid Five Mile Run.
         For Kylan, who has run two marathons and has two more scheduled, the Frigid Five isn’t much of a run. It’s more like a parade. All kinds of jocks gather together at the starting line, clad in Spandex unitards and nylon shells. Kylan is perhaps the cockiest of all: She wears Vibram Five-Fingers, which enable to run, effectively, barefoot.

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The Other Cancún

In Mexico, Uncategorized on May 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Photograph of Mexican youths, side street, Cancun.

The Ark Podcast: The Other Cancun

Each evening, Juan opens the bar, switches on the lights, and waits for customers. But it’s not a bad place to work – the third-floor terrace has no ceiling, because the air is almost always warm and dry. Breezes whisk across the floorboards and playfully lift the plastic tablecloths. Most nights are relaxed and easy, and even if that doesn’t mean much tip-money, he doesn’t have to scrub dishes in the scullery or push a mop.

And there’s the view – the lounge overlooks a wide plaza, and every single night of the week this square floods with families and merchants, teens and policia, taxi drivers and buskers. A half-shell stage looms over the scene, and every night there plays an endless, hours-long variety show – mariachi singers, modern dancers, a woman singing the Mexican national anthem, a fashion-show, a torch-singer, an acrobat – nearly any act imaginable. Juan serves drinks, then he goes to the bannister, listens to the music, and yearns for a cigarette.

“It’s good,” Juan says, shrugging. Juan is so petit and skinny that a shrug requires most of his bodyweight. “But what I really want to do? I want to be a tour guide.”

Juan is a full-time student and a full-time waiter. He and Carlos work nearly every night, no matter how busy or how void, because you never know when customers might show up, and they need all the hours they can get. Juan paces the deck, passing empty tables and long couches. Music videos are projected on the wall, like a 12-foot television set, and the music of Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera blasts through the open-air, but it doesn’t take long to ignore the flash and volume. Juan is busy dreaming. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bird Man

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain journals on environmental concerns.

A man stooped over the sidewalk, but I could barely see him. He was surrounded by a cloud of pigeons. They whirled around his arched body, a great cyclone of feathers and heads. Beneath his feet, a pool of pigeons rippled, their hundred heads pecking at the ground.

When I got close enough to take a picture, the man turned suddenly — which startled the entire flock. They all took wing at once, the air whipped with sound and movement, and I could feel the breeze of their bodies as they whisked just past my head. I ducked, and a moment later, there was only me and the old man.
          The man glared at my with yellowed eyes. His tongue lay over his bottom lip, as if paralyzed in mid-smack. His face was pruny and leathered, and when I nodded to him, he only jerked his head from side to side. His throat made a little sound, but no words came; and a second later he rotated, revealing the worn-through spots in his coat. As he walked away, he groped popcorn from his pocket and tossed it to the pavement, which spawned a new pool of pigeons.
          “They’re just rats with wings,” my ex-girlfriend used to sniff. “They’re disgusting.”
          I’ve always been drawn to city pigeons, these odd ducks of the avian world. They could be no city pigeons without cities, and their global migration is owed entirely to humans. What’s odd is that doves (the symbol of peace and hope) are practically identical to pigeons (the symbol of urban pestilence). It’s hard to imagine your average park-pigeon carrying a fig-leaf in its beak, but there’s not a lot of genetic objection.

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