The Fable of the Mask Maker

I really enjoyed the concept of this fable I wrote, but had a tough time writing it.  Mostly because I didn’t want it to be too long.  I think just about everything worth saying can be beautifully fit into a few paragraphs at the most, and most of the words beyond that should have been edited out.  This is especially true for a parable or fable.  Neither you nor I came here to read a novel, so I hope this isn’t too long for either of us.

The fable of the mask maker

Some time ago, there were two sisters, both in their early teens.  Perhaps you know of them, perhaps not, but this is the story of Ann and Kate.

The sisters were very close in age, and they lived in a large city with their parents. Both had close friends and, because they were young, they were both in the process of discovering who they were.  They had dreams and fears of what the future held.  They both wanted close friendships, they wanted to make their parents proud, and, like many young women their age, they wanted to fit in with their peers.

One evening, they were both invited to a masquerade ball.  It was to be a grand event, with many friends attending and numerous people coming from out of town.  Everyone was going to be there.

When the invitations arrived, their Mom gave them some money and sent them to the mask maker, telling them, “Picking out the right mask is very important.  You get to choose who you will be the night of the ball. Because people won’t know who you are, you can choose to be anyone or anything you want.”

The girls were excited and ran to the mask maker’s shop.  When they entered his store, they found all sorts of masks that were perfect for a masquerade.  The girls could choose to look like high society ladies in Venice, or have cat’s faces with whiskers, or have steampunk gears on their cheeks, or anything else they could imagine, both plain and fantastic.  The choices were so many, they were overwhelmed and had a terrible time deciding.  Their parents had suggested a traditional masquerade mask, while their friends had said they were going with masks based on a popular show of the time.  They even had suggestions for each other, but each sister had to choose a mask for herself.  The choosing process was difficult, but finally a decision was made by each of them, and they brought their money to the mask maker sitting behind the cash register.

The master artisan told them, “You have made some excellent choices!  There are no wrong decisions to be made here and these are among my best work.  Let’s see what you have picked out.”  Ann had selected a stunning mask, the face of a character from the most popular show in town.  It was the mask of the heroine who was loved by the audience.  She was certain that this would be accepted by all of her friends and that she would fit in perfectly.  She knew many would be wearing the same face the night of the ball and she drew comfort from this.  Kate, on the other hand, had found a more unique mask, that of the face of an exotic merchant of the stars.  This mask spoke to her heart, but though she had always been drawn to becoming a star trader, it was neither the traditional mask her parents would have picked for her nor one that would be popular or common at the ball.  Ann was quick to point this out to her.

As he took their money, the mask maker said, “Because my masks have to be able to fit any face, the fit is never perfect.  When you dance and enjoy your party, remember that your mask may slip off from time to time.  When this happens, just remember, if you keep in the character of your mask, nobody will notice that it has slipped.  You can put it back into place as if nothing has happened.”  The sisters thanked him and left with their prizes.

The ball was everything Ann had expected, though a bit bland and predictable.  She saw her friends, many of whom wore the same mask she did, and they all enjoyed the drinks and dancing.  They watched the other partygoers, sometimes with fascination, and commented on everyone who attended and what they were wearing.  As teenage girls sometimes do, they often had biting remarks for those who were not well dressed and for those who didn’t see the wisdom of picking a mask others could easily recognize.  But this pettiness was kept to a minimum and they enjoyed each other’s company. 

Throughout the night, Ann worried that her mask was slipping off and kept fixing it.  Even when it had not moved at all, she kept adjusting it and feeling it to make sure it was in place.  It was a constant distraction and by the end of the night, she could focus on little else, always worried that if it slipped off, someone would notice and she would become the object of ridicule.  But fortunately, that never happened, though there were a few close calls.  By the end of the night, Ann, fully exhausted with the mask and the ball, was ready to leave.  All in all, she had a good time, or at least that’s what she told her parents the next morning as she wondered what had become of Kate, who she had lost track of early in the night.

When she arrived at the ball, Kate was nervous.  Her mask was different from everyone else’s and she could tell right away that this singled her out.  Though she loved the star trader’s mask, she wished her sister and her friends would love it too, would accept it.  But they didn’t, not at all.  They laughed at her choice, they poked fun at how poorly she fit in.  And so Kate had to forge out on her own and make new friends.  She feared the coming “I told you sos” from her parents, friends, and sister, who would never have worn such a mask and were either embarrassed or worried about her choice.  Nonetheless, Kate wore her new mask and carefully followed the mask maker’s instructions.  She kept in character so that if her mask slipped, no one would notice.  She made a number of new friends that night and met many interesting people, but it was a very difficult process.  She wondered to herself, “Why must it be so hard to meet new people, to make new friends?  Why do my friends judge me so harshly, why do they mock me?”  But by the time the evening was over, she barely noticed the mask at all, she was so fully enjoying herself.  She danced the night away and everyone commented on the remarkable star trader in their midst.

When the night was almost at an end, Kate saw herself in a mirror and admired the beautiful mask she still wore.  It was perfect.  She raised her hands to take it off, but when she put her hands on it to remove it, she touched her own face.  In a moment of clarity, she realized the mask had fallen off hours before.  Her face had become that of the star trader and she could never again return to the comfortable life she lived before that night.

A Little Bit of Oscar Wilde

Sometimes, instead of uplifting, life-affirming quotes and stories, instead of depth of thought and greatness of character, there’s nothing quite like a shallow, brilliant mind to make you smile.  At least it’s that way for me…

Well, here’s a bit of Oscar Wilde.  He had lots of brilliant thoughts, and I’ve done my best not to reproduce any of those thoughts here.  I pulled these from Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast, a thin, little, awesome book.

 

“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious.  Both are disappointed.”

“Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.”

“Life is much too important a thing to ever talk seriously about”

“The secret of life is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming.”

“Murder is always a mistake.  One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.”

 

The Fable of the Mage’s Spell

It’s been years since I posted anything and it’s time to get back to writing.  I challenged my brother for each of us to write a fable.  Here’s mine and I hope you enjoy it.

In a distant land, one you’ve never heard of, an ancient and powerful mage decided his life had come to an end.  He wanted to give something to his children, and their children, and so on, all the way down the generations.  He had tremendous magic at his disposal and he decided to give his descendants a gift.  He saw that amidst their happiness and joy, they were always struggling to survive, always laboring to keep the wolf of hunger from their door.  And so he settled on the gift of sustenance.  He thought, “If only they didn’t have to struggle for their most basic needs, they would be free to enjoy their lives, free to love and create and experience to their hearts’ content.”  They would never starve, or lack for shelter, or freeze to death, or die of heat stroke, or go hungry.

Unfortunately, as the mage neared death, his mind had become somewhat addled and his thinking was not clear.  The mage thought, “I must be careful, I don’t want to be worshipped as a god after I am gone, or have my descendants waste their precious time trying to learn my secrets rather than living their own lives, so I must find a way to hide the source of this gift.  While everyone will have this gift, I must ensure they don’t know it for what it is.  They will have all of the benefits, but they won’t think about it and they won’t be grateful for it.  This way I can rest in peace and be gently forgotten after I leave this life.”  And in that very thought he made his greatest mistake.

As the mage passed from this life, he wove his most powerful spell and bestowed this incredible gift upon his descendants, instilling it into their lives and the lives of all who would come after.  At the very heart of the spell, he ensured his descendants would never know the gift he bestowed, that they would never even know his name.

Even one generation after he died, his grandchildren had already forgotten what it was to struggle in life, to feel the bite of starvation or the fear of the elements.  And because of the nature of the mage’s spell, his offspring were unaware of the gift bestowed upon them.  His children and grandchildren never felt gratitude for their easy lives, and they never understood that their needs were taken care of.  Their descendants spent all of their days striving to fulfill needs that were already fulfilled.  They were never again content, though all of their needs were satisfied.  They found themselves always working to answer new needs and always desiring more than they had, no matter how large their bounty.  They were never again grateful for their blessings or achievements, and that has been the way of things ever since.

On the Failure of Great Art Reproductions

I walked into a vast basement warehouse in Phuket, Thailand in 2002 and was confronted with literally hundreds of oil paintings.  I didn’t really know what to expect when the man on the street invited me inside to see the hand painted reproductions.  At the time, I had no idea that reproductions were painted by hand, having assumed that all reproductions were prints and that the only hand painted reproductions would have been forgeries intended to deceive.  Yet these were paintings to hang in your home, and the prices were reasonable.  I assume the Thai artists were paid virtually nothing at all for their time.

Beyond my initial fascination with the few dozen artists all painting reproductions at the same time, I was confronted with a dilemma.  I was told that they could hand paint anything, from any book of art you could bring them (even a photograph), or from the many museum art books lying around the pace.

If you could own any piece of artwork (hand painted, but not original) from any time in history, what would you want to have hanging on your wall?

I immediately thought of some of the greatest or most enjoyable works.  The Mona Lisa, the Wall of the Sistine Chapel (I enjoy it more than the ceiling), Starry Night, etc.  Then I thought about it some more and decided that, though I loved to see these pieces, I didn’t want to look at the Mona Lisa everyday.  Sure, if it was THE Mona Lisa, I’d love to have it.  But I guess the reproduction, no matter how accurate to the original, would always be known to me as a reproduction.  Those weren’t Da Vinci’s paint strokes, that Michelangelo painting took 3 days to reproduce, not years, etc.  I would know, and I would always feel I owned a lesser work compared to any original.  As I started poring through the catalogs, I found incredible historic paintings, one after another, that I would never wish to own if they weren’t originals.

Should it matter?  I mean, is the appreciation of art dependent so strongly on who actually painted it instead of what was painted?  Seems pretty superficial to me.

But it did matter.  I wasn’t drawn to any particular piece except one of Warhol’s soup cans, and that was partly because Warhol made tongue-in-cheek art out of the ordinary.

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It turned out that I couldn’t settle on anything at all for myself.  This led to a lot of soul searching on my part.  Sure, the reproductions were not 100% of the originals, but what if they were?  I decided I still didn’t want the Mona Lisa or Pieta, as I would rather support and own the real deal, no matter how unaffordable or impossible to acquire.

 

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The Raft of the Medusa –  awesome!

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Tuna Fishing – Dali never fails to enthrall

 

But I have changed.  Now, over a decade later, I came across a piece in a book that I enjoyed so much, I decided I must have a copy.  It has been 15 years since I bought my last print, but this is not an everyday painting. Titled: Stranczyk during a ball at the court of Queen Bona in the face of the loss of Smolensk.

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The quality of this small digital image is awful.  If you can, please take the time to see a better image.

Painted by Jan Matejko in the 19th century, it is a painting of the court jester Stanczyk in 1514.  In the background is the party as a very depressed Stanczyk considers the terrible Russian capture of Smolensk.  I read in wikipedia that Stanczyk was known to be an intelligent, philosophical, man who used his wit and powers of satire to comment on Poland’s past, present, and future.

The image of the depressed fool, contemplating and concerned by world events while sitting apart from the party, is fantastic.  One could speak of the interplay of colors, the bright chandelier in the background of the party, the portentous comet in the window, intertwined fingers and intense look of the jester, etc.  For whatever reason, this painting spoke to me before I noticed the finer details.  The closer I inspect it, the more those details add to my experience.   I would gladly own a copy and have it framed in it’s full glory on my wall.

 

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Michelangelo

 

Thoughts on the Nature of Food Photography

The Act

I have witnessed the growth of the food pic trend over the past few years.  How could I not?  Every time I go out to eat, there are people taking phone pics of their meals.  And like everyone else, I’m annoyed by it. I find the act of taking the pictures in the middle of a meal rude.  The pictures themselves are usually uninspired and they fall flat in their effort to convey the essence of the food.  My most frequent reaction to such a pic in social media is to skip it.  If my eyes accidentally stop on one, I am overcome by the thought, “Who cares?.”

But I am not holier than thou.  I am a sinner as well.  Perhaps the gravest sort, the hypocritical judge.  Have I become the Elliot Spitzer who sees prostitutes on the side while prosecuting and damning them before the courts. The urge to take the pictures is so irresistible at times, I fall from my high horse and muck about in the mud with my phone out and the camera shooting away.  Yes, I confess, I am weak and cannot help myself.  Though I do my best to rise above, some rare courses call out to me and require my hamhanded, amateur, photographic talents.  I convince myself that these are different from the many pics taken around me, that these are special.  In the words of Thorin, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “I have never been so wrong.”

 

Nom Nom Nom

We eat to survive.  Eating uses all of our senses and I assume, from an evolutionary standpoint, this is to determine if our food is going to kill us.  Taste and smell are obvious senses with eating.  Without these two, it doesn’t much matter what you pick on a menu. 

With our sight we can tell if we have received what we ordered, or if our nut allergy is going to react to the ice cream sundae we definitely ordered without nuts.  It also helps to see if our lettuce is wilted or if mold has appeared on our delicious loaf of cheese bread.

Consistency (touch) is extremely important.  We don’t want to discover something hard inside our mashed potatoes or for our steak to have the consistency of mush.  Some food should be hot in our mouths and some cold.  If you aren’t sure of the role of touch, just think of a bowl of Cheerios.  There isn’t much difference for taste between one that is just right and another that has sat for too long as we answered the door, but a mushy bowl of Cheerios borders on inedible.  And good luck enjoying your room temperature coffee.

Lastly, hearing.  We probably use this least when we eat, and hearing food eaten is considered bad manners in the West.  Yet foods that are supposed to crunch, like Vlasic pickles or potato chips, advertise it.  Pick a food that shouldn’t crunch, like a hot dog, and if hear a crunch, you know something has gone terribly wrong and your meal is finished.

When a photograph is taken of a beautiful Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich, it can look good and make me salivate.  But it only includes sight and that misses most of the point.  The pic has no people in it, and unless I’ve eaten such a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, or requested the pic of their food to satisfy my curiosity, I receive very little of the joy of the soon-to-be-stuffed photographer.

When a moment is captured with people enjoying their vacation, I can vicariously experience their joy and see the happiness on their faces.  But there is nobody in the picture of food except the food itself.  Pictures of food can look good, but are unlikely to take your breath away or force beauty into your day if you have never eaten that particular meal before.  I prefer a painting of the Last Supper over a still life of fruit.  Of course, there is one exception, but it took Salvatore Dali to make it happen.  Add some action or people to the pic and it becomes much more interesting.

 

Food as Art

Most people go through their days without noticing the beauty and wonder surrounding them.  They wake up, blah, blah blah, blah blah, boring, boring tedious boring, and they go to bed.  Maybe they love their jobs, or their significant others, their kids, whatever floats their boats, but they do it without art.  They live each day without really looking around themselves.  They don’t notice the varying color of the sky, the expertise and talent of the builders and architects of their house or the buildings around them.  They don’t look too closely at the lines for traffic that have been drawn a bit wavy on the road or the shoddy service they receive at the drive-through window.

But they all notice their food.  They really look at it, at least when it arrives.  They sit in judgement over it.  They see it, they smell it, they experience it.  This is true even if they are getting a coffee and a donut at the Waffle House instead of La Bernardin.  My father sometimes watched the look on people’s faces when their food arrived, the look of expectation, or disappointment, or even uncertainty as the dishes were brought to the table.  This is one of the rare moments of attention, true attention, in most people’s days.  The food has been made for them.  If they’re not careful, it might taste terrible (watch out for that hot pepper), have an obvious defect (such as an errant staple or bug), or even kill them (if they have a shellfish allergy).

It is a personal, commissioned work of art.  You picked it out of a menu and decided it was your personal choice.  Effort will be put in the manner in which your choice is presented to you.  It has been plated in a certain way, it has been arranged for both ease of eating (not often will you find a steak carefully balanced on end), for looks based on tradition or originality, for a mixture of flavors and colors.  It has been served separately from other dishes based on whether it is to entice the appetite to start a meal or top it off at the end. Some food it plated so beautifully, it seems a shame to take the first bite and mar it’s initial beauty.  Perhaps it’s time to take a picture of this ephemeral experience before its inevitable consumption?

Some things on the dish aren’t to be eaten, but exist only to add to the artistic merit.  A sprig of parsley or an extra small dish for cole slaw was a choice made by the chef or owner.  The big red container of McDonalds french fries, the fries standing tall above the edge of the open container is an intentional choice to make them more accessible and appetizing.  While the McDonalds owner does not know you personally, this container of fries was made for your enjoyment.  You will smell them and taste them.  You will judge if they are too salty, or slightly stale, or hot out of the frier.  You are truly paying attention, at least to that first fry you put in your mouth.  A few grabs later and the art has dissipated.  Even a hour later and your beautiful Mexican food, with its melted cheese and refried beans, has lost its appeal.  It is so easy, so natural to take out your phone, to try to preserve this very personal piece of art forever.  This art that continues to excite your senses even as you make your poor, deficient, two-dimensional rendering of its essence.

Your drink arrives as you sit at the bar.  It comes in a specific glass depending on whether it is a scotch on the rocks, a martini, a bit of brandy, or a Belgian beer.  The beer has a head, the martini has an olive or two, perhaps a twist of lemon peel.  Depending on the wine you ordered you may get a tiny desert wine glass or a mammoth one for a hearty red.  When the drink arrives, it is beautiful.  It has been made just for you, it is what you ordered.  The bubbles float to the top of the champagne flute and you are ready to celebrate an achievement.  Time for a picture?

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This absurd drink has obvious artistic merit, I mean, it sits in grass!

Hat tip to The Aviary in Chicago

 

Curiosity in the Bizarre or Disgusting

Who doesn’t enjoy a freak show?  Who doesn’t steal a glance at the unusual, the bizarre, the obscene, even the disgusting, if only to wrinkle their nose and look quickly away?  Few people watching a horror movie can resist peering through their fingers covering their eyes before closing their fingers again.

When we eat at new restaurants, or in places of different cultures, we are confronted by highly unusual dishes.  TV shows have been made purely on the basis of people being forced to eat food that disgusts them or even eating dishes of their own free will that the viewer finds repulsive.

This is also the basis for an entire genre of food photography that is much more desirable to the viewer of the picture than a picture of a burger.  These are pictures that appeal to the curiosity of the viewer, pictures that are designed to fascinate without the viewer risking the food ever approaching his mouth.  They are pictures that entice, at least in part, because they only require the sense of sight, and never have to sully the other senses.  Some people enjoy eating cheese with maggots or eggs that have been buried in a yard for some time, but I prefer to see these pictures rather than enjoy the meal myself.

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From some excellent place on Avenue B? in Alphabet City, NYC, 2014

Tasty, Disgusting, Satisfying, Interesting.  And absolutely artistic in the presentation.  Far superior for being bizarre and unusual.  It is firefly squid sushi that I ate because I gave my word to JP that would eat anything the chef served me.  But it’s a lot more interesting to me than to anyone who wasn’t present.

 

The Camera (Phone) Comes Out

If any thought at all is given to fellow diners, I assume it travels along these lines:

This’ll only take a moment and I’m sure the other people at the table can appreciate my need to capture this for posterity.  How can it be rude to take a picture with my phone in front of me instead of continuing conversation and discussing our newly arrived dishes?  If I’m rude, it’s only for a moment and I want my friends to see what I’m about to eat.  Anyway, everyone in this place seems to be using their phones and that includes people at my table.  I suck terribly as a person and should be ashamed of myself.

 

But if the desire for a pic stems from the desire to share life experiences with loved ones, is it really that shameful to whip out your phone? We have easier access to cameras than ever before, with the instant knowledge of the quality of each picture coupled with the ability to share it at no cost.

In my family, it was traditional to offer anything on your plate to anyone else at the table.  Often a spoonful of soup, in contradiction to all good manners, was passed over the middle of the table.  In our close family, it was entirely acceptable to request a taste of anyone else’s dish.  Poor manners?  Well, for us it was love.  We loved to eat and we loved to enjoy.  We loved each other and nothing could be better than sharing the joy of a well made or interesting dish.  We wouldn’t stab it off someone’s plate, but a request to try a taste of an unoffered dish was entirely within the realm of acceptable conduct.  At our table, this wasn’t rude.  We were in our own little Rome and we did as we liked.  And no, we didn’t share ice cream cones, that would have been gross(er).

Yet sometimes it is an opportunity to show off one’s sophistication or wealth.  Taking a picture at Masa of a $100 appetizer plate of raw sliced kobe beef with shaved truffles on it says more than just “look at my food.”  It also says, “look what I can afford, look at this luxury, look at the places I go to eat a $1000 meal.”  That may not be the photographer’s intention, but it certainly has that effect.  It is boastful, conceited behavior best left out of the public sphere.  It is gauche to show off your million dollar toilet, even if it is truly the best seat you’ve ever owned.

 

Food As Disappointment

At least a small percentage of the pictures are of the low quality of the presentation.  The pictures of food that don’t match the ads.  The Subway footlong that’s 11 inches, or the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder that is distinctly wilted, with a greasy fingerprint on the top bun from a careless chef.  This is similar to the bizarre food shots in that they do not present food to be experienced, but a show of careless quality in its many forms.  Who wants to experience disappointing food?  But we still look.  I find it easier to commiserate  with the disappointed gourmet than with yet another picture of a standard bologna sandwich.

I never review my pictures of food.  With art, people, landscapes, etc. it is another matter.  I am drawn to pictures of smiling people, fat and happy around a table or dirty plates and demolished goodies.  I love candid shots of serious discussions over drinks, or a smiling couple cutting a wedding cake.  I don’t really need that extra pic of the cake, no matter how delicious or artistic, sitting without human accompaniment.  But taking food pictures can be a joy by itself, even if I rarely look back at the photos.  I must remember that nobody who has seen them, unless they contain some unique curiosity, will ever give them a second glance.

 

I have had many musings on this subject and it was my wish to put them together in one place.  As I failed utterly to examine any literature on the matter, or to consult with more than a handful of close friends and family, I am certain to have omitted many obvious and important points.  Many other points are not original to me, but are the result of my theft of the thoughts I found insightful after long discussions with others.  Please be forgiving for the lack of completeness on this subject, but understand I am only bringing up an array of thoughts rather than a doctoral dissertation.  And, dear reader, take no offense in considering your own food pics or my judgement of them.  All the pictures of food sent by my friends, family, and readers are, without exception, inspirational works of art that excite my senses and bring out the best in me.