‘What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.’
Comfort can be warm – cf. a comforter, the American term for bedclothes somewhere in the duvet genus – or cold, to mean inadequate consolation, or worse, as when Grumio addresses a fellow servant in The Taming of the Shrew: ‘But wilt thou make a / fire, or shall I complain on thee to our mistress, / whose hand, she being now at hand, thou shalt soon / feel, to thy cold comfort, for being slow in thy hot office?’ There’s the instant gratification of a favourite dish – who doesn’t love, say, potatoes mashed with chives, cream and butter, yet very possibly regret it a day or two later when getting reacquainted with a pair of just-washed jeans? On the other hand, there’s respite that goes on too long, to the point of complacency: ‘Get out of your comfort zone’, admonish myriad self-help tomes. When they’re right, they’re right. A surfeit of ease breeds laziness and often boredom, whereas stretching oneself to the edge of unease often yields the most vivid and treasured experiences: a trip to a country where your language isn’t spoken; your first oyster (it may look like mucus but it tastes like a mermaid’s kiss); listening to an unfamiliar aria that will come to haunt your dreams. These scary-seeming things are better enjoyed with a gentle expert by your side, the kind of friend who, upon hearing you’ve never tried bachata or gone kiteboarding, showers you in infectious enthusiasm and relentless invitations, until begging off is just embarrassing. ‘I always felt that the great... comfort of friendship was that one had to explain nothing’, wrote Katherine Mansfield. A good friend can tell from your face whether you’ve been made a convert or remain a skeptic, and will love you either way.
When Jeffrey Cheung isn’t gracing this column with his delightful pen-and-ink sketches, or working on a zine or three, he's devoting much of his time and energy to Unity, a company he launched at the beginning of this year, initially as a resource for queer skateboarders but ultimately in the name of yet broader diversity. In his West Oakland studio, Cheung handpaints luscious Picasso-esque nudes, accompanied by the text ‘like it or not!’ Since Jay Adams and the Z-Boys reimagined skateboarding in the 1970s, taking it from dressage-like restraint to something closer to a jazz solo on wheels, the sport has been a counterculture whose athletes are known for their independent streak. Cheung’s initiative hopes to add a measure of team spirit. ‘I am hoping that by being an all-inclusive project, it could be a bigger idea than a gay skate company – and that we can break down barriers together’, Cheung told an interviewer. The new decks are beautiful enough that it’s a little painful to contemplate their exposed flesh and joyful expressions getting scuffed by a hard curb, steep railing or the lip of an empty pool.
Whether the singsongy strains of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ calm you down, lift you up or send you into tailspin trying to find the kill switch, you are certain to find succour and happiness in the jazz singer’s 2002 album, Beyond Words. The 16 tracks range from spiritually tinged numbers like ‘Invocation’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Mass’ and ‘Monks / The Shepherd’ to quick, bright compositions like ‘Kalimba Suite’, ‘Fertile Field’ and ‘Dervishes’. McFerrin’s oeuvre is virtuosity personified – he can sing melody, harmony and arpeggios all at once, leap several octaves without pausing for breath, perform strutting scat routines and polyphonic overtones and credibly impersonate an electric guitar. His earlier covers of James Brown, Smokey Robinson, and Lennon and McCartney are artful; but Beyond Words established McFerrin as an artist in his own right. As a critic for Jazz Times put it, ‘After years of experiencing everything from Nat Cole to Holly Cole, Beyond Words struck a chord with me that few discs ever have. Simply put, I wanted to crawl inside the album and live there.’
‘I don’t believe in healing through violence’, Nise da Silveira, a psychiatrist and student of Carl Jung, tells her colleagues at a psychiatric hospital near Rio de Janeiro, in Roberto Berliner’s moving drama Nise: the Heart of Madness (2015). The year is 1944, and Dr Silveira has just joined the staff. She is shocked at the brutal ‘therapies’ – lobotomies, undiscriminating electroshock – then in fashion, and wagers that they don’t much help schizophrenics and others with serious mental illness, who suffer enough as it is. That stance is met with disdain by higher-ups, who give her what they think of as heaps of busywork, which she transforms into a programme of painting, music and unstructured time. Some of her patients display legitimate talent, but that isn’t the point: This quiet film lends dignity to an array of severe conditions. ‘Our job is to cure patients, not comfort them’, says one of Silveira’s colleagues. ‘My instrument is a brush’, she replies. ‘Yours is an ice pick.’
David Hinton has translated the Tao Te Ching and Mencius, and his renderings of ancient Chinese poetry earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. In 2004, he published an epic poem of his own: Fossil Sky, a long, corkscrewy line of verse that folds out in the form of a map, inspired by a ‘year of walks’ near Hinton’s home in Vermont. You can read it from any angle, meaning there’s no wrong way to comprehend the poet’s hodgepodge of language – a freeing feeling in the sometimes-fussy milieu of experimental poetry. ‘Perhaps I should have stayed home,’ he writes, where there is ‘a roof a family a fire / But there are other forms of shelter: Boundless sky cocoon light whisper snow.’ As Hinton explained to an interviewer, a thought ‘comes and goes’ in a motion that reminds him of ‘a mountain range grinding up out of the ground, soaring into the sky, and then disappearing grain by grain as erosion erases it back into nothingness.’
‘I dream of lost vocabularies,’ wrote the poet Jack Gilbert (1924–2012) in ‘The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart’. The richness of language as well as its limitations fascinated him, especially as they pertained to women and affairs of the heart. Having flunked out of high school in Pittsburgh, he worked as a door-to-door salesman and exterminator before a clerical error got him admitted to the University of Pittsburgh, where he began studying and writing poetry with Gerald Stern. Upon graduating, he travelled to Italy and fell in love with Gianna Gelmetti, but returned without her to the U.S. and later decamped for the Greek islands with fellow poet Linda Gregg. ‘All Jack ever wanted to know was that he was awake’, Gregg told The Paris Review in 2005. ‘That the trees in bloom were almond trees – and to walk down the road to get breakfast.’ His third great love, Michiko Nogami, was a sculptor 21 years his junior with whom he moved to Japan. In 1982, Nogami died of cancer; Gilbert wrote a memorial chapbook, Kochan, in her honour. ‘By insisting on love we spoil it,’ goes a line in his poem ‘Tear It Down’. ‘We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.’
The German artist Anselm Kiefer is famous for his bracing engagement with the past. The Kabbalah, the poetry of Paul Celan, the names and signatures of prominent historical figures, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the sculpture of Auguste Rodin have all inspired Kiefer’s works in straw, ash, lead, shellac and clay. To mark the centenary of Rodin’s death, the Rodin Museum has given Kiefer carte blanche to take over the main exhibition hall with his wild, roiling pieces. Another draw: a never-before-displayed plaster sculpture by Rodin, Absolution (1900), recently restored by conservators, which features three elements – a torso, a head and a rock – two metres high and draped in soft fabric, a fragile relic that presages Kiefer’s experimentations. The exhibition runs through October 22.
Pasture, which opened last year in the Auckland suburb of Parnell, is a sui generis place that combines a spirit of coziness with avant-garde ambitions. The dining room seats 25 for a six-course prix fixe steered by what thrives in the local landscape, season by season. Chef Ed Verner and his wife Laura worked at the Michelin-starred Kadeau in Copenhagen, and their foraged creations are at once simple and exotic thanks to flora best handled by pros – manuka, bottlebrush, spruce needles, crab apples, onion flowers, wood sorrel, gorse petals, kawakawa leaves, hay and citronella geranium, which Ed Verner variously bruises, ferments, air-dries and occasionally sprinkles in the smoking tray above the open fire in the kitchen to create something like edible incense. Don’t miss the Verners’ organic sourdough, made from hand-milled flours and spread with buffalo butter. ‘We have no rules for almost everything, except bread’, says their website. ‘Our loaves are old-school, and proud of it.’
The Long Now Foundation was formed in 1996 to combat the trend of ‘civilization revving itself into a pathologically short attention span’ via accelerating technology, a jumpy stock market, ‘the next-election perspective of democracies’ and incessant multi-tasking. Long Now’s projects have a Stonehenge flavour, as with the computer scientist Daniel Hillis’s large mechanical clock: under construction at monumental scale in the Sierra Diablo Mountains of West Texas, it is ‘powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.’ Long Now are also putting together a ‘living library’ of 3500 crowd-curated books intended to help reboot society, should this be necessary – and in the meantime to spur discussions around cultural evolution. It incorporates recommendations from the musician Brian Eno (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty) and the sexologist Violet Blue (erotic short stories by Boccaccio, Jean Cocteau, Erica Jong, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Oscar Wilde). The latter selections might be regarded as hot comfort, but will they still smoulder in the deep future?
Illustrations by Jeffrey Cheung
‘What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.’