(Here’s something I tried writing when I was sitting around in Madrid last week. Since I’m sitting around in an airport, I figure I’ll post it and you can try to make sense of it.)

I saw my buddy Tina last Monday in NYC. She and two friends were visiting from Australia, and this led to my doing the one thing I know I should never do: drink with Australian men.

Yes, dear reader, I spent that evening at the Hi Life, knocking down G&Ts while the main songwriter for Anal Traffic paced me with pints of Stella Artois. Fortunately, no Flatliners were involved, but we had such a nice vibe at the bar that we bailed on our original plan of heading around the corner to my favorite Thai place in the city. We ended up meeting there a few nights later for dinner, before they left NYC for an appointment with a roller-coaster in Sandusky, OH.

In all, it was an entertaining evening, catching up with Tina and shooting the breeze with Paul, a prototype for campy gay men, while their friend Ruben (a Spaniard) stared at us, relatively incomprehending.

I met Tina during my trip to New Zealand two years ago. We had a great time not taking anything seriously for those two weeks, and stayed in touch since. If you’re interested in reading about that trip, click back on the November & December 2003 archives. Someday, I’ll get all my pictures moved over to Flickr, and that’ll make it easier for you guys to see some of the wonderful photos I took over there.

As great as it was to catch up with Tina and make a new (and impossible-to-take-seriously) friend in Paul, the conversation also was a sort of counterbalance/antidote for the previous evening.

That night, I went to my friend K’s apartment in NYC after dropping the offical VM fiancee off at her apartment (she’s moving in with me in a few weeks, so our Sunday ritual of bailing on the late football games and trying to avoid the bridge/tunnel traffic will come to an end). K is in broadcast journalism school, and wanted me to come by so she could interview me about a “turning point” in my life. It was mainly a technical exercise in setting up lighting, audio, etc., and less about interviewing.

Or maybe it was supposed to involve her interviewing technique, but that’s not how it worked out. She didn’t exactly make it clear, so I figured I’d go with the me-and-a-camera format, talk to the red light, and evolve out some conversation with myself. It was nice, being unabashedly self-centered, insofar as I didn’t know if I was supposed to be talking with K or not. Sure, a lot of you will contend that I’m pretty self-centered anyway, but it was my job this time, so that made it better.

Anyway, I just rambled on forever. How on earth she’s going to cut it down to 60-90 seconds, I can’t imagine.

I know, I know: Get to the turning point!

(Actually, just writing that phrase reminds me of the time in college that a girlfriend slipped Rilke’s poem “Wendung” under my door. The night we first hooked up, I read her a poor translation of “Archaischer Torso Apollos” on a bench at Mt. Holyoke College. Weeks later, she was mad over something and she put that poem under my door. I think it was all about a dark, brooding, self-centered guy who is too dark, brooding, and self-centered for his own good. In a hotel. I’ll have to reread it sometime. They’re my virtual memories, so deal, okay?)

K asked me to help her with the assignment a few days earlier, and it got me thinking about turning points. Amy & K both thought I’d talk about 9.11, and it’s a pretty easy conclusion to draw. I thought about it, and about the death of my “surrogate” dad, and the time I saw my buddy Drake in the ICU in Philadelphia, and my dad the night after his heart surgery. All those moments affected me pretty profoundly, personally and historically, but I thought, “They’re all about death and suffering, and that’s not who I am.”

So I told K that the turning point in my life was the two weeks I spent in New Zealand, and I talked about that for her camera.

Thing was, I was in a pretty bad emotional state when I went on the trip, having been dumped a few weeks before. So I spent some time over there being dark and brooding, etc., before I had a big realization: no one cared.

See, what struck me early in the trip was the immensity of everything. Partly, it was the fact that I’d traveled nearly halfway around the world, chasing nothing more substantial than some black-and-white images from a comic book. I’d already been feeling torn to pieces over this breakup, alternating between rage and self-pity, but my absolute distance from my life was about to make everything make sense.

What I thought was, “If you take everyone in the southern hemisphere, and ask them all, ‘Do you know who Gil Roth is?’, there might be five people who’d say yes.”

And then I thought, “Why are you acting like they have to know all of your backstory?”

And then I stopped.

I wrote about this a little last year, on the anniversary of the trip, and it’s held up pretty well.

So I told K’s camera about the trip, about the sense of uprootedness-unto-freedom (reminds me of college again; this time the classes on Heidegger), of watching those cares spiral down the drain (counter-clockwise, what with that coriolis effect), of coming back here and soon after meeting the love of my life, and of being able to meet love like that, of being ready to be happy.

I hadn’t formulated those thoughts before, so I puzzled through them and others as the camera rolled. Unfortunately, I think K was hoping for something more death-oriented.

She started asking about 9.11 and the tattoo on my arm (“9.11.01 Never Forget”). She wanted to know what I think about now when I look at the tattoo, since I’m a different person than the guy who got it.

That’s still a tough question. There are all those sad points, both personal and historic, in life. I explained that I’ve found joy now, found myself in joy, but that doesn’t make for great copy, I admit.

So I tried explaining how my take on 9.11 hasn’t exactly changed, but has deepened, grown more complex, filled with more emotions. Like life.

I talked about the experience of watching Ric Burns’ New York documentary this summer, with its 3-hour conclusion about the World Trade Center. Amy & I watched that last installment a week before the anniversary of the attacks, and I meant to write about it here, but I was so darned busy.

Now I’m sitting in a Madrid hotel room, waiting for my coworkers to show up so we can go get paellas. So here we go.

There’s been a lot said and written about the Twin Towers, what they meant to people, what an eyesore they were, how much they meant to the skyline. But beyond all the anecdotes and theories about them, Ric Burns managed to get a story from a guy who had a unique perspective on the towers: Philippe Petit.

Philippe’s perspective would be from about 110 storeys up, balanced on a tightrope. I knew there’d been a Frenchman who tightroped between the towers in the ’70s, but I didn’t know anything about his story. Burns let it take up about 15-20 minutes of the documentary, and it was all worth it.

See, the thing is, I had always assumed that the tightrope-walker was a pro who decided that the Twin Towers were his greatest challenge. Instead, to hear Petit tell the story, he was just a guy with a toothache, waiting for his dentist’s appointment, when he read about the construction of the towers in the late 1960s. He knew then and there that he had to walk between them.

But the thing is, he’d never walked on a tightrope before. He learned the skill and developed it for a few years, so that he could walk between the towers.

The documentary covered all sorts of details: How do you get a tightrope across the span? How fast are the winds up there? How do you find this out without tipping anyone off that you’re getting ready to walk across the towers? It’s a remarkable story, and I wasn’t expecting to hear such joy in Petit’s voice as he told it. It was the tone of someone who knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and doesn’t have any regrets at accomplishing it.

The loss of the towers saddened him, of course, but he managed to balance that against the utter joy he had while walking along that rope a dozen times.

My favorite photo from that story is one the police took of Petit up on the tightrope. He’s lying on his back, one foot on the rope, the other across his upraised knee, balancing beam across his chest. He’s weightless, at play higher than anyone had ever thought to play. He was home.

Now, when I think of 9.11, all my horror can balance itself against the image of Petit in his heaven.

I tried explaining this to the camera and K, but it kept coming out wrong. Just like now. I’m afraid someone will read this and say that I’m tossing out 3,000 lives because of the absurdities of some Frenchman. I don’t know how to show that I’m not. The images of that day still leave me wrecked. But now there’s also this notion that the towers mean more than what Al Qaeda turned them into. Petit, in his absurd French way, made me realize that the towers were the place that he became complete.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about leavening sadness with joy. K didn’t get it, I don’t think. When she e-mailed me a day later, she wrote about my “lifelong sadness,” even though I thought so much of the interview and our subsequent conversation was about joy.

You want to talk about this some more?

Unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter dawn

Okay, I’ve goofed on Frank Gehry before, with his “Ooh! Look at me! I’m using curved metal surfaces AGAIN!

But nothing really prepared me for his inane new design for Brooklyn, centering on Bruce Ratner’s new NBA arena for the Nets (guess what? It uses curved metal surfaces!)

Yes, as you can see below, by 2011, Brooklyn will look like the set of a Tim Burton movie. Congratulations. Glad the NYTimes likes it.

(Probably doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that real estate developer Ratner is the Times’ partner on their new building.)

Gehry’s also a bullshit furniture designer.

My City of Ruins

Theodore Dalrymple has a very thoughtful essay about Dresden in the new City Journal.

Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the disaster of Nazism is still unmistakably and inescapably inscribed upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look. The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly and irretrievably smashed up.Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they survey the devastation of their homeland. Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever.

“We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”

But who was this ‘we’ of whom she spoke?

Who, indeed? Dalrymple explores that notion of culpability, that almost Greek tragic sense of a cursed house, nation-wide Atreides, shame that pre-emptively annihilates the possibility of pride.

Perhaps I’ll give Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction a read this week.

Memory Hole

Yeah, it’s embarrassing that the New York Post ran a front-page headline that John Kerry had chosen Dick Gephardt as his VP candidate, the morning that John Edwards got the nod.

But for the Daily News to slam them for it is kinda pissy, especially since the News ran a back page headline last winter that definitively stated Mike Fratello was to be named the Knicks’ head coach. Lenny Wilkens got the job and, Fratello expressly TOLD the idiot NBA-writer at the News BEFORE THE ARTICLE RAN that he wasn’t offered the job and hadn’t even talked to Knicks about it.

Spring Fling

[There used to be a slideshow that accompanied this post, but my old ISP went down and took all my files with it. Stupidly, I never backed that stuff up. Oh, well. Them’s the virtual memories. . .]

Sitting on the PATH train into NYC from Hoboken, I look into my overnight bag and see a bottle of Tanqueray and a full prescription of Vicodin. I thought, “Wow, if I had some grass and a bottle of ether, I’d feel like Hunter S. Thompson’s intern!”

Friday was, to put it mildly, an eventful episode of The Gil Show. I had the day off from work (thanks, Christendom), but was suffering pretty mightily from an gum infection around one of my wisdom teeth. It’d been going on since Monday, but I was too macho/stupid to go to a dentist (there are two about 20 feet from my apartment). So, by Friday morning, I was suffering insanely from this pain, thinking, “Y’know, Gil, this is how They got David Lindsay.” Because that’s how I think, alright?

Went to one of the dentists at 9am. She got me an antibiotic prescription and told me to get back to her office at 1pm, so she could cut out a fold of my gum and clean out the area. I did so, and got to have Fun with Novocain, which I haven’t experienced since around 1987 (I don’t go to dentists much, unless it’s an emergency). Then she handed me a prescription for Vicodin. Before the minisurgery, I told her, “I plan on drinking pretty abusively this evening; is that a problem?”

“No. But don’t take the Vicodin if you’re drinking. And don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery when you’re taking the Vicodin.”

“Not even my forklift?” I asked, despite not owning one.

I was a bit worried about missing out on the evening, in which I planned to go to NYC to:

a) see one of my favorite singers perform;

b) attend my friends’ Spring Fling party (despite the 40 degree weather); and

c) get absolutely annihilated on gin & tonic and have some fun conversation with people I don’t get to see often.

Even though it wasn’t a huge amount of dental work, I was pretty wiped out by late afternoon. Didn’t feel like trying to eat anything solid, so I had an Atkins strawberry shake. Problem was, my mouth was still numb from the Novocain, which led to that curious sensation of drinking something and having no idea how much was in my mouth. It was pretty freaky.

The numbness wore off while I was driving to Hoboken, where I took the aforementioned PATH train to the 14th St. stop. It was a block away from the home of my friends who were throwing the party. I wanted to drop off the overnight bag (with “springtime clothing” for later in the evening) before getting some dinner and listening to some music.

Walked from their place on 13th St. to Crosby St., a block into SoHo. Not having eaten, I began getting some pretty intense chills, which worried me a bit, given that it was only 6:30 and I was planning for a pretty long night. The venue for the gig wasn’t open when I got there, so I went to an Australian restaurant called Eight Mile Creek, and ordered the soup of the day. It took awhile, so I ordered up a G&T, which meant I probably wouldn’t be having any Vicodin that evening.

Thing is, without the Novocain, I was back to experiencing some pretty intense pain in my mouth and my right ear. It hurt terribly to open my mouth much, and yawning was agony. Not fun. So I slurped my soup pretty ravenously, not having eaten for about 10-11 hours. Drank my gin. Saw Michael Imperioli walk down the sidewalk (because it’s New York, that’s why).

After that, I headed over to the gig, which was at a used bookstore that functions as a fundraiser for homeless people with AIDS. Do you call them AIDS patients? AIDS sufferers? AIDS victims? Every term carries a certain set of connotations, and I’m not sure which ones are inappropriate. I don’t personally know anyone with AIDS, although I recently published one of Samuel Delany’s novels on the subject (as well as a collection of his letters from 1984, a time when AIDS was still pretty much unidentified and wreaking havoc in parts of the queer community).

The gig was a triple-bill, but I was only there to see the first performer, a singer named Lori Carson. I first heard Lori’s singing back in 1994, when I lived in Annapolis and WHFS was a great indy (or Alter Native) radio station. She was with a band called the Golden Palominos, a rotating lineup sorta thing, led by a guy with the great name of Anton Fier. She sang on two GP records (which I consider two of the greatest get-it-on albums of all time, if you’re into a techo-rock-sex-funk vibe), then went off to do solo records. I have a tough time describing her voice, so let’s let these guys do it instead:

“…a super-high range that gives the effect of a young girl on helium…”

“…breathy, delicate vocals…”

“…a rawness beneath its soprano highs that make her songs resonate and tremble — she’s an unaffected singer who sounds like the bitter kid sister Joni Mitchell never had…”

The bookstore was SRO by the time I arrived. But the caf” area was open, and they were serving soup, which made me happy, since I was still afraid to risk solid food. So I noshed, bantered with a couple of women who were in a songwriting workshop that Lori Carson run out near her place in Long Island, and was given a second-row seat when the organizers decided to lift the “reserved” tags from those seats.

One thing about Lori Carson, and I don’t mean it in any looks-biased way, is that she photographs REALLY well, and doesn’t look as good in person. The proof of this is the cover of “Everything I Touch Runs Wild,” which has some pretty glamorous photography. In the flesh, she’s much earthier, though still strangely beautiful. I saw her play a few years ago at some music festival sponsored by Intel (ha-HA! No link for you!). Only about a dozen people came that night. Probably about 30-40 people at gig Friday (although some may”ve been there for the other acts).

She played a stylish-looking electric guitar, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist named Paul Pimsler. They only had about half an hour to play, so she only got in 6 or 7 songs. Most were recent, quiet, acoustic folk tunes. But she also played two older pieces: the title song to her second album, “Where It Goes,” and the very first song I ever heard her sing, “Little Suicides.”

I love certain pieces of art in a way that I don’t really understand. I think it might border on nostalgia (not a joy, but a having had joy). It was only in January, when I spent my birthday wandering through the Frick and the Met, staring at works by Rembrandt, that I started examining this feeling. A particular painting at the Frick, a self-portrait, caught me off guard. I was elated, looking at it, but the feeling more than just that of seeing a beautiful painting. It was like seeing an old friend, and perhaps it reflected the feeling of who I was in that moment of seeing Rembrandt the first time (the first Rembrandt picture I remember seeing (except for that cigar box one) was a philosopher meditating, on the cover of Gershom Scholem’s book on Kabbalah (not this edition, but a remaindered one that I bought years ago)). I’m not sure how to characterize that peculiar joy.

But I felt something similar when Lori started playing “Little Suicides” that night. “It happens in the smallest ways / It happens all the time . . .” she sang, and I was just transported, shedding years, remembering joy. (That last phrase puts me in mind of the closing lines from one of my favorite movies, where the narrator asks, “Is a memory something you have, or something you’ve lost?”)

The other old tune, “Where It Goes,” always made me think of a girl from college whom I knew as my One True Ex (you’ll have to find her tree in this forest). Our relationship, even when we were both involved with others long-term, was a strange affair. It was like a tango in which one of the partners is absent. For most of a decade, we continued to dance without the other. By the time we finally met again, we’d each become so familiar with our own steps that the other one seemed alien to us. The realities of who we’d become were not only superfluous to our dream-lives, they were inimical. And so we rapidly crumbled.

(Also, she was batshit and petty, and the last time we spent together was absolutely misery-inducing.)

But I thought of our old feelings while Lori sang, “I don’t know where it comes from / I don’t know where it goes / But clearly it’s going, gone / It’s time to let it / Time to move on…”

Then Lori was done singing, and I left for the party. I should write more about that, but the details are already a little vague (and somewhat boring). The things to know are:

a) I stuck with Tanqueray and tonic, eschewing the Vicodin;

b) One of my best friends came (at my invite), met people, and got hit on;

c) I impressed a girl by being able to discuss Churchland’s emergent principles of consciousness while personally bordering on unconsciousness;

d) I spent time in the company of friends, which always brings me joy;

e) I spoke the words, “Dude, I couldn’t stand up right now if you paid me”;

f) I put on a pair of bunny ears and tried to make a cartoony expression that REALLY didn’t photograph well; and

g) I got back to my friend’s place at 4am, crashed on her spare mattress, woke up at 7am, and decided to head back to NJ so I could sleep in my own bed.

And now the weekend is over and I’m trying to write an editorial for my magazine where I compare China’s coverup of SARS to the T-virus in Resident Evil. I’ll letcha know how it goes.