Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Al Green Sends You L.O.V.E Love for 2014

How to send you into the New Year with extremely positive vibes? By sharing again with you this video of the Reverend Al Green performing "L.O.V.E. (Love)" on Soul Train sometime in the 70s. I first posted a link to this in April, but it's too good not to share again. Play it loud and feel it, my sisters and brothers. And pass it on to others.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Do We Mean By Peace?

Sometimes it seems like it's not worth using the word 'peace' when I talk about my work at a peace and dialogue center in Cambridge. The word conjures up notions of naivete and purism that can trigger a bit of skepticism. Yet, we persist in using the word, since it does signify a state of personal and social well being worth striving for. Some distinctions are in order though.

1. The work in pursuit of peace is not built on utopian, fairy tale scenarios but rather on the idea that "what exists is possible." That is to say, we have powerful examples of actual peace building and harmony everywhere we look. In fact, most of life is more expressive of peace and cooperation than it is of the opposite. If it were not the case, we wouldn't be here.

2. Similarly, our work toward peace is not powered by wishful thinking, optimism, or even hopefulness. Rather, it is powered by our faith in the possibility or potential for greater harmony and flourishing. It might not happen, but improvement in this direction is not impossible. And since that is the case, we have an obligation to move things in that direction, each of us, in our own way.

3. Peace doesn't mean homogeneity, the absence of conflict, or even in all cases the complete absence of violence. Picture the United States. We are fundamentally a peaceful society. Most violence falls under the category of crime and crime fighting. Despite the harsh divisions in our country, the divisions are mostly not manifested in violence, but rather in the form of what Andrew Sullivan calls a "cultural cold war." We must do more to heal our divisions, but we are a long way from the violence that characterizes the internal affairs of many countries. Could we envision a world that functions about as well as the U.S. does? I think so. Clearly religious fanaticism coupled with extreme economic inequality creates a volatile stew. But thinking about the issue this way helps us think about peace in non-purist tones.

4. Nonviolent action and dialogue are the surest ways to create improved social conditions that will actually last. But we acknowledge that some situations have gone so far that violence is needed to halt aggression and suffering. What we need to do is to keep expanding civil society and civil institutions to the point where they can preempt some conflicts, and squeeze out some others.

5. Many people don't use the word peace, preferring to speak instead of the actual conditions of human flourishing, such as the presence of justice, health, and economic viability for the vast majority of the world's peoples. I still like the word peace though; it gives us something to aspire to.

Hugh Masekela: "Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)"

The video of the year is not from Macklemore, JT, or Bruno Mars. Not from Lorde, Katy Perry, or Taylor Swift. No, it's footage of Hugh Masekela performing his joyous and beautiful Nelson Mandela tribute, "Bring Him Back Home," many years ago at Paul Simon's "Graceland" concert. Imprisoned when the song was written, Mandela did come home to Soweto. Now he has gone further home, to the source of righteousness and love that undergirds and ennobles our existence.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Time for Proust

During the holiday season many of us carve out some time for literary classics. In my case, I spent last weekend with Marcel Proust's massive In Search of Lost Time, formerly titled in translation, Remembrance of Things Past. Just to clarify: I didn't actually read it. I used it to press down some loose bathroom floor tiles that needed to be re-glued. Worked like a champ!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Truth & Beauty #2: Dying Stars

Slate has a terrific gallery up this week featuring the best astronomy and space photos of 2013. Why are the processes of nature unfailingly beautiful? Do our conceptions of beauty flow not from human-constructed aesthetics but from existence itself?

Slate science writer Phil Plait tells us about the image shown here:
When stars die, they do it in style. This is NGC 5189, a glowing gas cloud seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the center is a white dwarf, the remains of what was once a star probably about twice the mass of the Sun. As it ran out of fuel, it expelled huge quantities of gas into space, exposing its dense core. White hot, spinning rapidly and possessed of a killer magnetic field, the white dwarf spewed out twin jets of energy and matter from its poles, energizing the surrounding material. However, the star is wobbling, so these lighthouse-like beams appear to carve out a gigantic S shape in the star’s former outer layers. At least, we think that’s what’s happening: This object isn’t completely understood, though that’s is the most likely explanation for this dramatic and lovely object.
View my first Truth & Beauty post: "Brainbows."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Bryan Ferry Sings Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love"

Who knew that Bryan Ferry, he of New Wave, Roxy Music fame, was one the greatest interpreters of Bob Dylan songs? I did, and now you do, too. "Make You Feel My Love" is a later Dylan song (1997) that has joined the ranks of his most covered songs ever. Check out Ferry's full album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque.

Never Too Late

Observant readers will notice the new look for Art & Argument: lighter and cleaner. I was never completely happy with the old look, which had an old-fashioned textured look. Why didn't I change it earlier? Maybe because changing it would have drawn attention to the fact that the previous look wasn't working as well as I wanted it to. Maybe because I felt I that I had gone too far down that particular path to change.

Some of the best advice I ever encountered was that we limit our growth when we say it's too late to change or try new things. It sounds like a simple idea, but the "too late" brand of self talk is probably more pervasive than we think. The truth is that, barring certain physical or material limitations, it really is never too late to change or grow.

The changes can be minor or major, but they have the same salutary impact upon our sense of well being and confidence. On the minor side, I just grew a beard and feel energized by the change. I'd wanted to do it for quite a while, but kept saying to myself that it's too late, since the beard trend has been happening for quite a few years now. If I grew a beard now I would look like a follower, I thought. Wrong.

On the more serious side, I didn't get married or go to graduate school until I was in my early 30s. I was one of the older grad students in my masters programs, but not the oldest. I was in fact so far removed from academia that I could barely recall how to structure an essay, but I learned quick enough. And the overall energizing impact of that intense endeavor was strong. It made me young! As for marriage, well, 23 years into it, it matters not at all when it began. It wasn't too late at all.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pablo Neruda: The Separate Rose

These lines are from Pablo Neruda's work The Separate Rose, inspired by the poet's visit to Easter Island in 1971 (translation by William O'Daly). With Pope Francis spurring us to consider anew what Catholicism in particular, and religion in general, is actually for and what it could be, Neruda's reflections resonate.


They taught us to respect the church,
not to cough, not to spit in the atrium,
not to wash our clothes upon the alter,
but it's not so: life tears apart religions,
and on this island the Wind God inhabits
the only church living and true:
our lives come and go, dying, making love:
here on Easter Island where everything is alter,
where everything is a workroom for the unknown,
a woman nurses her newborn
upon the same steps that her gods tread.

Here, they live! But do we?
We transients, followers of the wrong star,
were shipwrecked on this island as in a lagoon,
like in a lake in which all distances end,
on a motionless journey, so difficult for men.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Finales


I was in the definite minority earlier this year when I was not a big fan of the series finale of Breaking Bad, a show I watched with great engagement through its many years. The thing with these serialized shows is that the writers and producers are making it up as they go, making choices on the fly about what direction a character or dramatic thread might take. This is unlike a feature film where the whole thing is mapped out and early scenes can foreshadow the conclusions or meanings the filmmaker is intending from the start.

In the case of Breaking Bad, the creators went down a path I just wasn't into, playing up and even celebrating Walt as The Smartest Guy In the Room. And one of the ways they did this was to have Walt excel at boy fantasies of whiz bang contraptions and stunts. This shark got jumped when they pulled off the daring railroad swap of liquids in the previous season. It was followed by Jesse's magnet stunt and culminated with Walt's rigging of the rapid fire machine gun in the trunk that, miraculously, went off without a hitch and killed all the right people. The fact that most people loved the ending shows that they were heavily invested in Smart Guy Walt.

Me, I wished Walt would have stayed on that bar stool in New Hampshire and waited for the police, realizing that having lost the respect of his son there was no point in continuing down his delusional path. Walt's arrest could have been followed by a fifteen minute denouement back in New Mexico where Walt faces the devastating impact of his deeply misguided actions. Or failing that, when Walt confessed to Skylar that he "did it for himself," she could have responded with a slow hand clap, saying "I hope that made you feel better, but you still ruined everything that mattered, you prick." Or failing that, Walt's machine gun trick could have killed Jesse. I was interested in some consequences.

By comparison, the season finale of Homeland played out in a way that I appreciated. Many did not share my opinion. They wanted to see a cliff hanger ending, which is exactly what I did not want to see. I'd had enough of Carrie's stunts, and as Brody was headed for execution I was afraid that the writers would have Carrie do something amazing (like Walt would have done) to free him or something. To me, Brody's execution was emotionally satisfying because it was the only way that he could change the narrative around himself in a way that might bring his family a measure of relief. And, in fact, they used the denouement structure that I wish BB had used. Of course, along the way we had to suspend our disbelief as Saul is presented as single-handedly bringing peace to the Middle East, a thread that might have been a deal breaker for others. And so it goes.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Try It Without the Spacesuit

NOTE: This blog-style mini-essay was composed a few years ago (2006), but I've always liked it and thought it would make a good addition to Art & Argument.

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says, "We walked on the moon
You be polite"

- Joni Mitchell

I've had Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns on steady rotation in the car for a while now. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" is my favorite cut, a rumination on our unbalanced world, one tragically fixated on the masculine principles or energies at the expense of the feminine, also known in Jungian terms as the anima. The couplet above captures perfectly the petty arrogance and entitlement that accrues from technological mastery and domination, which, when devoid of wisdom, amounts, at best, to mere tinkering, and at worst, devastation.

As will happen when listening closely to verse, I started thinking between the lines, and it occurred to me: We actually didn't walk on the moon, did we? No human skin touched the surface. The space suit was a prophylactic that voided consummation.

Written in the 70s, the song captures the tone of the White House, circa 2006.* We are protecting you. Be polite. We brought democracy to Iraq. Be polite. But wait a second. What kind of democracy requires a massive military occupation to function? Without our troops, Iraqi democracy would thrive as long as a naked man would strolling on the moon. Do it without the spacesuit, and then let's talk.

* Ed. With strong echoes in the White House circa 2013.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Against Tanking

I'm completing my first full calendar year of blogging, and I figured I should at least do one post about sports, especially since I spend a lot of time (too much time my wife might argue) following Boston's pro sports teams. My favorite is the Celtics, and I even enjoying watching them in this rebuilding year following the trading of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.

The Cs are a rapidly improving team, and I've got no use at all for those who think we should tank in order to obtain a highly coveted draft pick. First of all, you can tank and not even get the first one or two picks. And all you've done in the process is teach your guys how to be losers. This bodes ill for the future of the franchise. Plus, when your guys fight hard and improve they have much higher value on the trading market. Finally, our new coach, Brad Stevens, is much too talented to squander his gifts on a tanking team.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Which Unintended Consequences?

I suppose there's no point at this stage of the game than to identify myself as anything other than a liberal. Nevertheless, I truly appreciate the core conservative critique that the nobility of our intentions does not necessarily justify the harmful, concrete consequences that might happen to living, breathing people in pursuit of our lofty goals. In a way, this is the meaning behind "First, do no harm."

So with the implementation of Obamacare/ACA, conservatives have drawn attention to the fact that some people are probably going to end up with worse insurance. One can say that this is a small price to pay for the greater benefit to society, which I basically, if hesitantly, agree with. However, I wouldn't want to be the one to go to someone's door and tell them that their well being will take a hit on society's behalf. When we depersonalize negative consequences we fall into the trap of collecting these results under the value-neutral category of collateral damage.

Conservatives pledge fealty to the market economy because it could be the best system yet for raising living conditions on a wide scale. It's not perfect, but don't mess with it, the thinking goes. We saw how centralized command economies failed under communism. And yet ... yet: Is it not an unintended consequence of the market economy that we might destroy our planet? Is it not an unintended consequence of our current healthcare system that many millions can't receive the medical attention they need? No humane conservative wants these things to happen, but they do.

So, what I'm saying is that I don't have an answer. As with all things, balance and adjustment must be ongoing. But it does appear to me that liberals are not the only ones accepting unintended consequences that harm real people.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Great & Timeless El Greco

Whenever I visit the Boston MFA or other museums with historical masterworks I like most of all to view the paintings of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541 - 1614), known to us as El Greco. Something about the colors he uses and the way he distorts the figures looks incredibly modern to me. I feel like his works could have been painted last week, at least insofar as the visual aesthetic goes. And in fact he was a big influence on important modernists such as Picasso and Franz Marc. His passionate religiosity and piety are not so contemporary. Here are some images.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

So Long "Mozart Effect"

Interesting story in the Boston Globe this week about how Harvard researchers have shown that the celebrated "Mozart effect" isn't provable. Listening to lots of Mozart and other music won't make a kid "smarter" in any objective sense.

Says researcher Samuel Mehr:
We teach [students] great authors because those great authors are important. There's no reason to justify music education on any other basis than its intrinsic merits. We have our Dante, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and they are Bach, Duke Ellington, and Benjamin Britten.
I've always felt it was a strategic mistake to make the case for the arts based on supposed pragmatic benefits. And now that those benefits are seen as chimerical, what will become of the arts funding apportioned because of the "makes you smarter" argument?

The same pitfall holds for two other sociopolitical issues with medical or scientific overtones: homosexuality and marijuana. Arguing for acceptance and equal rights for gay people on the basis of "the gay gene" is just another way of saying that they are screwed up, but just can't help it. The real point is that consenting adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want and shouldn't be denied rights on that basis. And what if the gay gene exists? Would we eliminate it if we could? To be clear: I'm not saying people aren't "born that way." I'm saying it doesn't matter.

Similarly, arguing for the legalization of medical marijuana misses the point that, again, adults should be able to do what they want as long as they don't harm others. The medical angle is a thin rationale that just keeps us from becoming grown ups.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reggae Beyond Bob Marley: A Subjective Guide


I was involved in the reggae scene in Denver in the 80s, and that was a great period for the art form. Reggae blossomed in Jamaica during the 70s, but by the following decade there was a global scene, with a lot of action coming out of England. This guide will touch on a few of the great singers and bands that flourished then, and is intended as an aid and encouragement to those of you who have been lead to believe, erroneously, that reggae begins and ends with Bob Marley's Greatest Hits, a truly great record that, tragically, has morphed into classy elevator music.

Gregory Isaacs
The late master of what is known as lover's rock went easy on the Rastafarian mumbo jumbo and focused instead on a sensuous and elegant sound. He is my favorite reggae singer, a vocal stylist par excellence, sort of a reggae analog to someone like Merle Haggard. He didn't just do love songs, though. He could do some pretty good political stuff addressing the empty materialism of Babylon. I like his collection of early cuts called Looking Back, the classic Night Nurse, and the sleeper More Gregory, featuring the Roots Radics as his band.

Alpha Blondy
Born in the Cote d'Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is a major figure in pan-African and internationalist reggae, creating his own fusion that is clearly reggae but so much more. He's multilingual and sings in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic. He is also a charismatic performer, a serious lyricist, and his bands totally smoke. I like Jerusalem and Elohim, but he's a consistent artist.

This British band also goes light on Rastafarianism and blends pop and R & B elements into their sound. Case in point, their shimmering cover of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" on their very strong record of 1984, Rebel Souls. That record also features a swinging cover of Toots Hibbert's "54-46 Was My Number." The other great bands of the time were the UK's Steel Pulse and Kingston's Black Uhuru.

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Another British artist, Johnson is the master of the form known as dub poetry. This style runs parallel to the development of rap in the US. LKJ talks his poetry over the pumping rhythms of his group, The Dub Band. Not Rastafarian in the least, his lyrics feature leftist politics and vigorous denunciations of the racist and fascist segments that arose in 1980s England. Is this like eating kale? It's not. Be assured this is grooving and upbeat music. One good way to get an overview is 1985's In Concert With the Dub Band. All his early records are classics.

Burning Spear
Is Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, the greatest reggae artist of all? That case can be made. Rastafarian, but not overtly so, he's a "back to Africa" guy whose songs recall the pain of colonialism in songs like Slavery Days and pay tribute to the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The instrumental backing and rhythms are bone deep -- marrow deep -- some of the best examples of the stripped down aesthetic of dub. His singing consists of chants, incantations, and exhortations, creating a trance-like, meditative vibe. When he asks, "Do you remember the days of slavery?" you know it's important that we do. It's appropriate that his 1979 collection was called Harder Than the Best.

Ska & Roots Reggae
The precursor of reggae was ska. More uptempo than reggae, the ska revival of the early 80s coincided with the rise of punk and New Wave in the US and UK, and it's influence was everywhere, especially in groups like the English Beat and Madness and the Police. You can access great ska through general collections like Intensified Ska or the Ska-talites compilation Foundation Ska. Ska is also jazzier than reggae, with horn players stretching out. After ska came roots reggae, best exemplified by Jimmy Cliff's soundtrack to the film The Harder They Come, as well as the soundtrack to the movie Rockers. Desmond Dekker is a great artist of this period, the sweetest period of all.

Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer joined Bob Marley in the original Wailers, and were important artists in their own right. Augustus Pablo and Lee "Scratch" Perry were important dub artists. Sly and Robbie were the go-to rhythm section in the 70s and 80s. I could go on, but at this point I'll point you to the Reggae section at AllMusic.com.

May you always feel irie, mon.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Musicians Who Paint #2: Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, Unspoken Words, 1994, 121.5 x 121.5 cm.

Paul McCartney is a ridiculously talented musician (understatement) and a pretty good painter. He learned from Willem de Kooning when they were friends and neighbors out in the Hamptons.

View the previous installment of Musicians Who Paint: Joni Mitchell

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gee's Bend Quilts

A decade or so ago the quilts of Gee's Bend created a pretty big splash in the worlds of arts and crafts, deservedly so. Here's an intro to the quilts from Wikipedia:
The Quilts of Gee's Bend were created by a group of women who live in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama. "The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making," writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Their style is what I like to see in art. I'll post a couple images here, along with descriptions, drawn from the Auburn University website devoted to this wonderful work. Please visit there to learn more about the artists.

Mary Lee Bendolph, born 1935. "Housetop" variation, 1998;
quilted by her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway, in 2001,
cotton, corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters, 72 x 76 inches.

Lillie Mae Pettway, 1927-1990. "Housetop"-- twelve-block "Half-Log Cabin"
variation, ca. 1965, cotton, wool corduroy, 77 x 65 inches.

About Art & Argument

Walt Whitman, American Poet, 1819 - 1892


Many of you will recognize the phrase "art and argument" as being from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the most influential poem in his life's work and masterpiece Leaves of Grass. The passage containing the phrase goes:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women 

my sisters and lovers;
And that a kelson of the creation is love;

For a long time I thought that "art and argument" would make an ideal blog name but resisted it, because as presented in this passage, not just argument, but art, too, are identified as things which Whitman transcended in a moment of enlightenment, understanding, and connection, not unlike the flash of insight and awakening known in the Zen tradition as satori.

But I finally reconsidered and decided to go forward. That's because the truth is that while we are here we are embodied beings, and even when we are doing wonderful things like creating art, and maybe even in meditation, we always reside at least partially in a state of duality, which means a certain separation must prevail at all times. Recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced a blessed state of non-duality. It was only after being tempted by Satan in the form of a snake did they "fall" into an awareness of the fundamental existential duality of Male and Female.

Heaven, Nirvana, or Paradise can wait, right?

And when I heard Leonard Cohen singing his song "There Is a War," that sealed it for me. A big mistake we make as we seek higher things is to think that spirituality exempts or separates us from life.

There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say there isn't.
Why don't you come on back to the war, that's right, get in it,
why don't you come on back to the war, it's just beginning. 

Though he first published Leaves in 1855, Whitman continued to revise it right up to his death in 1892. And while the original edition employed the phrase "art and argument," some subsequent versions deleted the word art, suggesting that art is the means of achieving enlightenment while we are embodied. I tend to agree, but consider that deletion a failure of nerve. Come on back to the war, Mr. Whitman!

I'm researching now to see how he worded this passage in his final "deathbed" version of Leaves of Grass. If you know, please comment. Regardless, I'm sticking with "art and argument"!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Hospital Meditations

My apologies, dear reader, for the lack of posts as of late, a reality that has undoubtedly left you jonesing. Alas, I have a chronic medical condition that has slowed me a bit and required a couple nights in the hospital. But what a rich source of material! So I'll go all Marcus Aurelius on you here and offer some meditations -- The Hospital Meditations.

1. All discussions of the hospital experience begin and end with the gowns, or "johnnies," one is forced to wear. Why are they so heinous? Well, a few reasons jumped out me. The first is that it's just not right to have your butt hanging out there like that. It's like they got together and asked, What is the least dignified thing possible that a patient could wear? The next is that there is no way to roll over or change position in bed without the thing twisting around you like a boa constrictor or bunching up like an old stretched out pair of "tighty whities." The third point is that everyone looks sickly and ridiculous in them, especially when you're hooked up to an IV and such. Let's put it this way, put Tom Brady in one of these and even he will look like an unhealthy loser. Well, um, maybe.

2. Many doctors have a kind of attractiveness that is distinguished by well balanced features and good skin and ideal body weight. It is the attractiveness of perfection. And you know they can play the hell out of some classical piano, violin, or cello.

3. The hospital is an incredibly large and hierarchical institution. God only knows how many layers exist from the sanitation staff up to the neurosurgeons. The MDs can be forgiven a little cockiness, given their place in the pecking order. What I want to know is whether there are any administrators who command as much respect as the top doctors. Going back to football again, I'd have to say that Bill Belichik is as authoritative as Brady, so maybe a similar dynamic holds in a hospital.

4. Being in hospital is like existing in a mash up of a Robert Altman soundtrack and an electronic ambient recording by Aphex Twin. Murmurs and snatches of half-heard overlapping conversation emerge from everywhere, a la Altman, and a never-ending chorus of electronic blips and beeps echoes down the halls and from room to room, engaging in constantly shifting patterns, a la the Twin. I actually like the beeps; I find them soothing.

5. Do not turn on your TV. It will make you crazy, always searching for something good that isn't there. And you don't want TV voices in your head.

6. As an editor, I know how personally one can take a difference of opinion about something as simple as the placement of a comma or employment of an em dash. Somehow, your competence or judgment as a person gets attached to these disagreements, even when that minor. So can you imagine how differences about diagnosis and treatment play out and are felt among doctors? Members of my medical team actually differed on the best discharge day for me.

7. The size of the medical equipment, supplies, and technology industry must be staggering, given the array of devices I encountered the last couple days. Just the technology around something like an IV includes a lot of parts from the plastic bags and the tubes all the way up to electronic monitoring devices. From the bedpan to the MRI machine, there's a lot of stuff that has to be supplied by somebody. The competition for these contracts must be beyond intense, and one might reasonably wonder how much corruption is involved.

8. Nursing looks like a great profession, one requiring complex technical knowledge and people skills, and one that features endless changes in patients and challenges. I'm glad to see more men doing this. Male nurses don't have to act feminine in the slightest to do their job well, which raises questions of what constitutes 'caring.' Of course, this was played for laughs in the pretty good movie Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller's male nurse character is played off of Robert DeNiro's old school macho father-in-law to humorous effect. The downside has to be burnout, with the nurse being caught in a cross-fire of bureaucratic nonsense and the great demands of dealing with people who are not in a great way at the time.

9. When you are put on a clear diet and get really, really hungry you can learn to love things like jello. As the old adage has it, hunger is the best cook. And you know what, I didn't think the solid food I had was bad at all.

10. Constantly combing your hair can help you feel like you're still in the game.

11. Since I rock it old school, I have chest hair. Which means that removing the EKG sensors that have been stuck to your body conjures up the epic chest waxing scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin. Pull them fast and let the F-bombs fly.

Go here to read my first set of meditations, The Hamburger Meditations.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Crikey! Some Aussie Slang

The funnest way to distinguish the variations of English language usage from country to country is to look at slang. My wife just returned from Australia and gave me a guide to Aussie slang. Here are some examples:

Crikey! = Exclamation of surprise

Dinki-di = The real Australian thing

Fair dinkum = The real or genuine thing

Drongo = An idiot or stupid person

Bludger = A lazy person

Bonza = Great. Excellent. 

Kip = A nap

Sheila = A woman

Sickie = An unnecessary sick day

Stroppy = Someone in a bad mood

Hoo Roo = See you later

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pity the Poor Wigger and Other Random Notes

1. The Dave Matthews band is decent except for Dave Matthews.

2. Joaquin Phoenix is the best purveyor of internalized angst and self loathing since James Dean. I'm thinking of Walk the Line and The Master.

3. Judd Apatow's schtick works better with 20-something bros than it does with older people. I'm thinking of This Is 40.

4. Wiggers are missing out on a lot of really good shit, like Merle Haggard, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and all sorts of really bad ass white guys, to say nothing of a whole world of amazing, diverse music. Pity the poor wigger.

5. I'd be more than fine if I never heard another word about JFK or Whitey Bulger. Well, after the current discussion of JFK's assassination, that is. That truly was a cataclysmic event.

6. Alec Baldwin should just go away.

Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner

Hendrix at Woodstock, August 18, 1969

Watching the new Jimi Hendrix documentary on PBS, I was struck once again how apposite his searing, howling, distortion- and feedback-laced performance of the national anthem was at Woodstock in 1969. What was greeted then as a tasteless and unpatriotic insult to America now appears in retrospect as the only honest way it could have be played at that time of convulsive upheaval in the U.S. and around the world. The 60s were a time of explosive energy, both "positive" and "negative," and Jimi's Star Spangled Banner fused it all together into what can only be understood from this vantage point as a thing of ballsy beauty.

Watch the performance here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950 - 65

Richard Diebenkorn, Still Life with Letter, 1961, approx. 20 x 25 inches

Beginning around 1950 in the San Francisco Bay Area a group of painters started moving away from abstraction -- at the very moment when the New York School of Romantic and heroic Abstract Expressionism was in full flower. Key figures associated with the West Coast movement were people such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, and many others. In the book Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950 - 1965, author Caroline Jones writes.
The new figurative "pictures" created by the Bay Area artists were neither reactionary nor merely illustrational. Although clearly moving away from the subjective isolation and and grandiosity of Abstract Expressionism, the new work was clearly in its debt.
She goes on the quote David Park:
I believe the best painting America has produced is in the current non-objective direction. However, I often miss the sting that I believe a more descriptive reference to some fixed object can make. Quite often, even the very fine non-objective canvases seem to me to be so visually beautiful that I find them insufficiently troublesome, not personal enough.
As we know, the abstractions of Pollack and DeKooning could in fact be pretty troublesome, nor is the Diebenkorn above especially stinging, but the point is well taken. At the time there was the notion that art "progressed" through styles and forms, with abstraction being the pinnacle. Now, we know that everything sits side by side in the Eternal Now of creativity. Here are some images from the Bay Area School. Look how similar the poses of the men in the Bischoff and Wonner are. Probably not a coincidence.

David Park, Nudes by a River, 1954, 59 x 47 in.

Elmer Bischoff, Man and Lavender Sky, 1958, 41 x 59 in.

Joan Brown, Noel on a Pony with Cloud, 1963, 72 x 96 in.

Paul Wonner, Living Room at I's, 1964, 12 x 18 in.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is Obamacare Un-American?

For the most part, I don't want this blog to be about politics, but some issues begin to occupy the mind in a way that calls for explication. Following the contentious "Obamacare" struggle, one core question keeps occurring to me, namely, what do Tea Party Republicans, and Republicans in general, mean when they say that the ACA is un-American? As far as I can tell it could mean four things.

First is that only purely market-driven solutions qualify as "American" ones. But that doesn't make sense for a couple reasons. First, there never has been and never will be a purely market-driven economy. Second, intensely American institutions like the military have no relationship to the market whatsoever.

The next is that the American way is for people to work for what they get and not to accept government handouts or subsidies. But that misses the fact that many tens of millions of people work full time (and often more) and do not receive or cannot afford any insurance at all.

Third, is the mandate aspect. This idea was actually developed by the Heritage Foundation and other conservatives to address the free-loading problem, so as recently as the 90s and early 00s, the mandate wasn't seen by conservatives as un-American. Further, everyone is required to have auto insurance. The "freedom" being compromised by ACA most significantly is the freedom to have one's life ruined by medical expenses and a lack of care.

Fourth, is the part about this being national in scope, as opposed to a decision made by each individual state, with an orientation toward state autonomy being the foundation of American success. This is probably the strongest argument, though I think the reasoning behind the ACA is that the nature and problems of health care delivery demand a national solution.

All of this is not to say that Obamacare is a good idea. The challenges of even attempting it, at this scale and without bipartisan support (indeed with partisan attempts at sabotage), are immense. But it does seem to me that most of the opposing arguments based on the notions of what is properly American simply don't hold water.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Today's Assignment: The Virgin Birth

Today, class, I would like you to consider the question: What is the meaning of the virgin birth? The only answers off limits are either that it's a load of superstitious BS or the entering of God into the world in the form of Jesus. Rather what does it mean as a myth, as a story that has proven immensely powerful for humankind? What does it tell us about existence and consciousness? I've got my ideas, but I'll skip those for now and offer this text strictly as an example of what we in the education field call generative content. Actually, now that I think of it, the whole darn Bible is the biggest source of generative content the world has ever known, that is, as long as it isn't being treated as a source of dogma or doctrine.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Lou Reed Post

Lou Reed, 1942 - 2013

Lou Reed is gone, and he deserved every drop of the considerable ink he has received over the last few days. Most of the stories, though, relied on a couple of leads to explain him, both of which were a bit limited: one was that he was surly with journalists and the other was that the person writing the story was hugely influenced by the Velvet Underground during his or her's formative years. The first mostly seems relevant for other writers, who can be touchy, understandably, when their brethren are dissed. I would be more curious about how he treated the people in his life, but that's not something we know much about, which is fine with me.

The second is fairly interesting, since the VU was indeed influential. As many stories noted, Eno or someone like him said that the VU only had 30,000 fans, but all of them started bands. In a way, Reed was like Dylan in this regard. How many heard Dylan and said, "I can do that!" Learn some folk and blues chords and then spray some poetic images all around them, and voila. In Reed's case, people saw they could come up with a chugging, minimalist rock groove seasoned with distortion, talk-sing some lyrics about life as it is, especially for denizens of our moral and social fringes, and deliver with attitude and supreme assurance: a nice recipe for a lot of the new wave and punk that followed.

My favorite instance of Reed's stripped down genius is his song about copping drugs, "I'm Waiting for the Man," with its pitch perfect snatch of dialogue, "Hey white boy, what you doin' uptown," and the incisive couplet, exploding with verisimilitude, "He's never early, he's always late / First thing you learn is you always have to wait." Indeed. How many people heard that and decided to try their hand at writing, too? I mean, how hard is that? Hard enough.

What's really cool about both Dylan and Reed is that even with so many legions of followers, no one else ever sounded quite like them. That's because both are geniuses. They express themselves in ways that are at once universal and sui generis.

As for me, well, I wasn't one of those hip seventeen year olds obsessing over the VU with friends. No, all the way through college my friends and I listened mostly to stuff like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and so forth, along with some country-rock, prog-rock, and jazz-fusion. We were the template for that movie Dazed and Confused (and, yes, we did inhale). To the extent that we listened to Lou Reed, we got it through Rock and Roll Animal. Curiously, one of my roommates was into the New York Dolls, so there was that.

As fortune would have it, my true entry into Reed's work commenced at the time of his great mid-career purple patch that began in 1982 with The Blue Mask and extended through New Sensations and the album New York. This was the time for Reed's identity as a musician as opposed to a transgressive, cross-dressing figure to come to the fore. So that's how I really got to know Reed. At this point his band included the guitar virtuoso Robert Quine and the bassist Fernando Saunders, who would perform with Reed for the rest of Reed's career. Saunders' tone is so musical and melodic, not like anything you would associate with punk. He sounds a bit like a mix of Jaco Pastorius and Paul McCartney, actually.

So if you are interested in Lou Reed, understand that long after the transgressive Lou vanished from the scene, the musical Lou remained, which is who he was before the scene as well, I think.

UPDATE: 11-5
Reed's musicality, of course, includes his excellent guitar playing, distinguished by the sculpting of feedback. He also worked as a professional Tin Pan Alley type of songwriter for a while, too, in the early 60s, which means that his transgressiveness was often grounded in sweet melodies and doo wop chords: a nice combo.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Noise Please, I'm Meditating

Spotted on the way home from the Whole Foods this morning: a guy meditating in full lotus position on a traffic island in the middle of Union Square, the busiest intersection in Somerville. And of course, this is right. What does it mean to meditate in a controlled environment like a monastery? Not much. Our practice, our serenity, our enlightenment, means so much more when it means something in the noise, both figurative and literal, of daily life, life as it is lived when we are going about the business of life.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Success Cube

Have you heard of the success cube? It's a way of gauging in a more holistic sense the value of one's endeavors and achievements.
  • The height is the amount of successes
  • The width is the variety of successes
  • The depth is how much we we enjoy them
You could easily imagine a person with many successes in their field, be it business, sports, or even art. But if they have lives that are otherwise empty and they are miserable to boot, you have a cube that is more like a vertical stick. Someone who excels in just the first two has a wall that could be blown down in the wind.

Reflecting on the success cube enables us to see in ways often not acknowledged by the wider, less imaginative culture what we have actually accomplished in our lives. This model puts friendship and family and other hard-to-quantify modes of being on equal footing with more the predictable money-oriented modes celebrated in our popular media.

Try the cube today! You'll feel better about yourself but also be more motivated to create a nicely proportioned cube, one that's rock solid and looks good from every angle.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Quick Heads Up

When you are browsing at the magazine stand you should know that Out Magazine is not the same as Outside Magazine.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Beauty of Merle Oberon

Merle Oberon, 1911 to 1979

I was watching the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights the other day, the one with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and thought, man, she has to be one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of cinema. It's interesting to compare ideals of beauty from 75 years ago with today's ideals. I think I prefer the older version. This might make me either an anachronism or a person of exceptional taste, or both.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Leadership Boondoggle

Perusing the stacks of new books at the local library I noticed that the glut of business leadership and management books continues unstanched. The reason this field still thrives is because these books don't work. If it were simply a matter of implementing a few key actions and principles, an insane amount of people would be successful by now, obviating the need for the advise of the gurus.

Am I saying that their advise is no good? Not at all. Their advise is solid, and all successful entrepreneurs and organizational leaders probably do these things. So, while all good leaders do X, Y, and Z, doing X, Y, and Z doesn't ensure success. Success always contains major elements of good timing and luck. Plenty of people enact the vision of the business books but still fail due to a whole raft of random factors -- a situation that will keep the gurus flush for a good long time.

A related issue is America's mythologizing of the entrepreneur. Most people aren't going to succeed that way. Those that do often have a financial cushion, often inherited, that allows them to fail once or twice before hitting on a winner.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Berkshires in Autumn

Stream on the Alander Mountain trail, southwest Massachusetts, 10-12-2013

Friday, October 18, 2013

All of Them. I Read All of Them.

Whenever I'm asked what I'm reading I go blank, in the manner of Sarah Palin's infamous Katie Couric train wreck of an interview of 2008. So I thought I best proactively seize the opportunity now to lay it out there for you. You're welcome.


For the arts I read The Rumpus, Slant, PopMatters, AllMusic, Robert Christgau, Metacritic, and some others.

For news, politics, and commentary I read Andrew Sullivan, Slate, The Daily Beast, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Daily Kos, The New York Review of Books, Daniel Larison, and some others.

For sports I read ESPN (everyday!)

Print Media:

Boston Globe, New York Times, The New Yorker, JazzTimes, and Downbeat.


Jennifer Egan, TC Boyle, Michael Connelley, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, and lots of "hard boiled" genre crime fiction, especially when flying.

In the last year I also tackled Henry Miller's massive Sexus, Junot Diaz's celebrated The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Don Lee's novel of Asian-American cultural paradoxes The Collective, among a few others.


Much of the non-fiction I read is in the context of my work. For example, over the summer, to prepare for an interview I read Nel Noddings' superb Peace Education: How We Come to Love and Hate War. I also read arts-related books such as The Poets of Tin Pan Alley, by Phillip Furia.

Every now and then I dip into the poetry of Afaa Michael Weaver, Leonard Cohen, Denise Levertov, and many others.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Amy Sillman at the Boston ICA

Boston Institute for Contemporary Art, 10-6-2013

The lead for stories about the new Amy Sillman show at the Boston ICA is that she's part of a renaissance in painting, which is very good news, though for me and my friends it's never gone away. At any rate, the show is superb . . . and huge. It features dozens of works from the middle-aged, Brooklyn-based Sillman, and none of them are weak. They range from small ink and water color portraits of friends to witty, cartoonish pieces to massive paintings that effortlessly incorporate every major strand in abstraction along with Guston-like figuration. I'm not sure if I know what's new about what she does, but her masterful integration of all that has come before is really something. The show is just plain fun to view, and there's too much to take in, so a return is called for.

The New York Times has a nice review and slideshow.

BTW, that's me in the picture, which isn't out of focus. That's what I look like.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Jung on Limitation and the Creation of Consciousness

C. G. Jung, from the conclusion of the chapter "On Life After Death," in his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vintage Books, 1989; first published 1961):

The feeling for the infinite, however, can be attained only if we are bounded to the utmost. The greatest limitation for man is the "self"; it is manifested in the experience: "I am only that!" Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves as limited and eternal, as both one and the other. In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination -- that is, ultimately limited -- we possess the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite. But only then!
In an era which has concentrated exclusively upon extension of living space and increase of rational knowledge at all costs, it is a supreme challenge to ask man to become conscious of his uniqueness and his limitation. Uniqueness and limitation are synonymous. Without them, no perception of the unlimited is possible -- and, consequently, no coming to consciousness either -- merely a delusory identity with it which takes the form of intoxication with large numbers and an avidity for political power.

Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daemonization of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from that fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen a victim to unconsciousness. But man's task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Relative Popularity

Just the other day I decided to YouTube Macklemore, the young rapper we've been hearing about. I clicked on his hit "Thrift Shop," only to discover I was viewer number 430 million or so. Million. At least that was better than when I decided to get hip to the "Gangnam Style" sensation, where I clocked in as viewer 853,562,031. That's almost a billion viewers who got out front on that one before me. Compare that with the Fountains of Wayne video of  "Fire Island" I linked to a few days ago. That one had about 7,400 views. I'm am resigned to never again being current with music, and that's OK with me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Understanding Mingus

Charles Mingus (1922 - 1979)

He was a piece of work whose body of work is second only to Ellington and Miles in the 100 year history of the jazz art form. He was mercurial, aggressively opinionated, prone to anger and self-mythologizing. He was also a virtuoso bass player and a genius of the first order. He merged the past and future of jazz into his work as no one else had. He blended composition and raucous improvisation into his compositions. He invited great beauty and violence to sit down side by side.

At The Nation website, Adam Shatz has a long-form essay up on Mingus that is among the best I have read on this elusive subject. He understands Mingus as a person and a musician, and weaves his insights into both sides of the man compellingly. Check it out.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Let's Not Live Forever

The most annoying subset of "cutting edge" thinkers is the one composed of people who want to eradicate all disease (and aging) so that our life spans might double or triple, or indeed so that we might live forever. The first question that occurs to me when I hear them going on is, What the hell would we do with all that time? I picture a guy, 174 years old, greeting people at Walmart. Or worse, a woman 230 years old sitting at the same desk job she's been working for 191 years. On the plus side, there would be 400,000 reruns of Law & Order to watch, so that's something. Other questions: Would people lose their sex drive, and if so, when? Age 150 or so? What would constitute a May-December relationship?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Poet You Should Know: Afaa Michael Weaver

When we think of approachable poets, i.e., those who write poetry for those who don't like poetry (which is almost everyone, and maybe rightfully so), we think of people like Billy Collins. I nominate Afaa Michael Weaver as a better choice for that role. His work is more complex than Collins', but it's never obscure. Plus he lives a few blocks from us, so part of my purpose here is some Somerville boosterism.

Here's Afaa's website.

Here's his page at the Poets.org.

Here's a recent poem:

"Blues in Five/​Four, the Violence in Chicago"

In movies about the end of our civilization
toys fill the broken spaces of cities, flipping over
in streets where children are all hoodlums, big kids
painting themselves in neon colors, while the women
laugh, following the men into a love of madness.

Still shots show emptiness tearing the eyes of the last
of us who grew to be old, the ones the hoodlums
prop up in shadows, throwing garbage at us,
taping open our eyes, forcing us to study the dead
in photos torn from books in burned down libraries.

Chicago used to be Sundays at Gladys' Luncheonette
where church folk came and ate collard greens and chicken
after the sermons that rolled out in black churches, sparkling
tapestries of words from preachers' mouths, prayer books,
tongues from Tell Me, Alabama, and Walk On, Mississippi.

Now light has left us, the sun blocked out by shreds
of what history becomes when apathy shreds it,
becoming a name the bad children give themselves
as they laugh and threaten each other while we starve
for the laughter we were used to before the end came.

Afaa M. Weaver 蔚雅風
Pushcart prize 2013
first published in Ibbetson Street Press
Editors: Doug Holder, Dianne Robitaille, Richard Wilhelm
Advisory Editor: Harris Gardner

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What Is "the News"?

In T.C. Boyle's novel When the Killing's Done, he describes the new life of one of his protaganists, Rita, who has gone to cook for a farm on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California near Santa Barbara.
She had Bax and Anise, half a dozen ranch hands and upward of four thousand sheep to keep her company, and she was absorbed so in the workings of the ranch--in the details, everything inhering in the details--that all the rest of the world seemed to dwindle down to nothing, as if she'd dreamed it, as if the whole town of Oxnard had been thrown up like a movie set or hardened in place out of a shower of fairy dust. And the news--what was the news anyway but a long trumped-up shriek of impending doom and current disaster that just made everybody sour and distrustful and hateful of their fellow man? She didn't need it. Didn't miss it. The news for her, the news that mattered, was written on the wind and it dripped out of the fog and bleated from the throats of the sixteen hundred ewes about to drop their lambs in the rain-fed grass of the lower meadow that she could hear and smell and taste even as she got up to feed more wood into the stove.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Fountains of Wayne: Fire Island

 Fountains of Wayne

Here's a great song for understanding the genius of Fountains of Wayne, the supreme indie power pop band from NYC. "Fire Island" is a song from their album "Welcome Interstate Managers" about upper middle class teens throwing a rager while the parents are out vacationing at Fire Island. Lyrically, you get their trademark specificity and humor. Fire Island is a signifier of hip bourgeois taste, as is the later reference to Steamboat Springs. These parents know how to live the good life. As for the kids' activities, my favorite is "feeding chocolate to the dog," a perfect encapsulation of adolescent heedlessness.

What really elevates the song, though, is the transcendent melody. The verse, or 'A' section, is built on ascending, then descending, lines that don't repeat, sort of like an arching Brian Wilson melody. The bridge, or 'B' section, builds to a perfect peak, followed by four bars that lead right back into a restatement of the melody of the first verse. The key to everything is that the song's tone is one of aching, melancholy resignation, thus making the line "We don't need no father or mother" poignant rather than defiant. Films always play the summer teen party as a thing of transgressive, outrageous independence. Here, it's just a bit sad, suggesting that the parents, for all their taste and discernment, are maybe a little too into themselves.

I love this live version of the song.

Here's the studio version.

Here are the lyrics.

Driving on the lawn
Sleeping on the roof
Drinking all the alcohol
All the kids from school
Will be naked in the pool
While our parents are on Fire Island

Cranking up the tunes
'Til the windows break
Feeding chocolate to the dog
Jumping on the couch
'Til all the feathers come out
While our parents are on Fire Island

We're old enough by now
To take care of each other
We don't need no babysitter
We don't need no father or mother
We're old enough by now
Don't worry 'bout a thing
Don't you remember
Last December
When you went to Steamboat Springs

Driving on the lawn
Sleeping on the roof
Drinking all the alcohol
All the kids from school
Will be naked in the pool
While our parents are on Fire Island

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Hamburger Meditations

1. The key to a great hamburger is the bun. It must be completely fresh and not be so heavy that it competes with the meat.

2. No hamburger should cost more than 15 dollars. I don't care what celebrity chef made it.

3. Burger eateries are proliferating wildly at the same time food consciousness is on the rise. Are we at war with ourselves, between our better and worse angels?

4. You can be happy with veggie burgers as long as you never, ever taste a beef hamburger.

5. McDonald's hamburgers don't actually taste like hamburgers. They taste like "McDonald's hamburgers," which are delicious, but not identifiable as part of any food group.

6. There's no need for a hamburger to weigh more than 6 ounces, 8 at the very outside.

7. Cows just aren't good for the environment, so I should eat far fewer burgers.

8. Condiments and toppings: More is not better. Especially when the more includes a tasteless tomato, which can really drag the whole enterprise down.

9. Chuck Berry reminded us that the USA is "where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day." Yep.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Townes Van Zandt: If I Needed You

Townes Van Zandt, Songwriter, 1944 - 1997
One of the most beloved songs of the legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt is "If I Needed You." It's bone simple, but each line resonates with beautiful rightness. I think this is because the song came to Townes fully formed in a dream. He actually changed one line, he said, because it had something to do with a cow, oddly. This is one of the songs that seems like it must be traditional and anonymous. It's been covered a zillion times, but there's nothing like hearing Townes sing it, what with his distinctive style of hitting notes slightly off key and then gliding into tune. The song becomes a little less pretty that way, a problem that creeps in when Emmylou Harris covers his songs. (Don't get me wrong: I love Emmylou!)

Here's a high quality video from 1975.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Walter White's Modes of Mendacity

Is it too late to weigh in on "Breaking Bad"? No? Well, here goes. For me the most amazing thing about Bryan Cranston's performance and the character of Walter White is the breathtaking facility with lying. Walt spends easily half his time deceiving people, in wondrous, virtuosic ways. Some examples:

1. In the most recent episode, Walt lies to Jesse's ex-girlfriend by working in the mode of fatherly concern and bewilderment, with a pinch of powerlessness tossed in.

2. In his blackmail video, Walt sends victimhood to new depths, even breaking into a flood of tears at the end, pondering how his evil brother-in-law could abuse his family that way.

3. Early in the season, in a conversation with Jesse, he performed one of his best variations, namely the incredulous, how-could-you-even-think-that-of-me soliloquy. It goes something like this. "Jesse. Jesse! Jesse, look at me. Look at me. I. did. not. kill. Mike. That's crazy! How could you even imagine such a thing? You know Mike. He can take care of himself."

There are a number of Supercuts out there featuring themes from the show: Jesse going 'yo' or 'bitch.' Walt dressing Jesse down. What I want to see is a Supercut of all Walt's modes of mendacity.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Comparing Public Support

Some of the articles analyzing the potential military strike against Syria feature a polling chart showing that support for invading Iraq in 2003 stood at around 59 percent while support for a strike against Syria is maybe in the high 30s, or something like that. This is surely good news. The public has been properly chastened after the disastrous war in Iraq. These numbers are not evidence of us becoming unreasonably timid or isolationist, but rather that we're a bit wiser now.

What isn't mentioned in these pieces is that the support for the Iraq War was based on four falsehoods that the Bush administration actively promoted: 1) that Hussein had ties to 9-11 (preposterous, but accepted by millions); 2) that Hussein had WMDs that he was prepared to unleash on the US at any moment (Condi Rice's infamous "mushroom cloud"); 3) that the war would last only a few weeks or maybe a few months (as Rumsfeld put it); and 4) that the war would be paid for by oil money and would cost maybe 50 billion dollars. (Eric Shineski was fired for suggesting a cost of 200 billion. As we know now, it has easily topped one trillion.) If these things were better understood, support for the war would have been much, much lower, though some support would have remained out of a desire to get revenge on somebody.

The Bush people sold us the war like you sell a defective used car. Shame on us for not kicking the tires and looking under the hood. I'm glad Obama has put this to Congress and that the American people are more skeptical now about what could be achieved by bombing.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Neither Better Nor Worse

Often, when it's difficult to reach a decision or make a judgment it's because there isn't a right solution to be gleaned. The classic case is whether the toilet paper roll should unfurl over the top or from the bottom. Over the top can make the sheets easier to reach but from the bottom the sheets might hang more consistently. Further up the ladder we can weigh whether it's best to live in the city or the country. At the highest, most serious level we can debate whether or not to intervene in Syria. Decisiveness means that one chooses among nearly equal options and stands by it. This was George W. Bush's attitude toward invading Iraq. It made sense when he called himself "the decider." Nevertheless, there are times when our options actually represent right and wrong, and waging preventive war is always wrong.

Friday, September 6, 2013

P-Town Playlist

Provincetown Sunset, 09.05.13

Essential listening while while tracking the ever-morphing Cape Cod Bay in P-town: Buddy Holly; Marvin Gaye; Sly Stone; Gram Parsons; Jackson Browne; Hugh Masekela; Keith Jarrett; Emmylou Harris; and, of course, the best of Otis Redding, including "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." I know, I know, it's an old person's playlist. But it works for me. And it might for you, too. Even those of you under, say, fifty.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Monday, September 2, 2013

All Blues Are the Facts

Muddy Waters, w/ Robbie Robertson, Bob Margolin & Paul Butterfield

Willie Dixon lays down the essence of the blues in this 1988 interview published in Paul Zollo's indispensable Songwriters on Songwriting. When you see the blues done right, with an audience fully and properly attuned to the aesthetic, you know that Mr. Dixon is spot on: the blues alchemizes all experience, even the putatively "bad," into celebration; a celebration that flows out of shared recognition.

ZOLLO: As you said, most people think the blues are down. But so many of your songs are happy blues, such as "I Love the Life I Live."

DIXON: In fact, all blues are happy. All blues are the facts. The facts, whether they are good or bad, are the truth. Most people can't understand that. Of course, they've been brainwashed into believing that it's got to be down, or it wouldn't be the blues.

See, they ain't gonna be singing about the nutty squirrel or three little pigs and all that stuff. They're gonna say the facts: "I just wanna make love to you." How many times did you feel like that and not say it? Evil, ignorance and stupidity are a fact. All these are true facts of life.

The reason I put them into the type of songs I put them in, is so people can remember these facts. And when you remember a fact, whether it's good or bad, it gives you encouragement to live a decent life, one way or the other, one way or the other. To judge.