Tuesday, April 30, 2013

At Long Last, Spring

Harvard Street, Cambridge, Mass, 4-30-13

Don't Underestimate What It Takes

Harvey Milk, 1930 - 1978

We've arrived at the point where news of an active NBA player coming out as gay -- as Jason Collins did the other day -- is greeted with comments such as "This just is not a big deal" or "I don't understand why this is even a story." These remarks come from two directions, I think. One angle is meant to be dismissive, that is, the speaker is tired of hearing about gay people all the time, with all the seemingly special treatment they receive in the media. The second is meant to be supportive, as in, being gay doesn't make you a freak or sinner; you're human just like I am.

There's some merit to both perspectives, but I maintain that it actually is still a big deal, even with the great distance we've come. Don't underestimate the nerve -- and character -- it takes to come out of the closet even today. Perhaps a little imaginative empathy is in order. We know that in many environments, and for many precipitating reasons, there still is condemnation and contempt aimed at gay people. Even in supportive environments I believe the challenge remains, especially if you are a bit a older and have internalized the negative judgments as your own and practice a form of debilitating "self-talk." It's not just the possible loss of people in your life that looms, but also sometimes the loss of the sense of who you thought you were or wanted to be.

Harvey Milk and Andrew Sullivan insist that coming out is the key both to personal happiness social advancement around this issue. The more that people realize that gay people are among their trusted friends and family, the closer we get to legal and moral equality. Yes, this issue has moved so far, so fast, that a little "coming out fatigue" is not unreasonable. But for me, I will continue to see those who come out as exemplars of courage. It's a bit soon to take this all for granted.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Time for Art: Arthur Dove

Arthur Dove, "Sunrise" (1924), Oil on Wood

Arthur Dove (1880 - 1946) was one of the earliest American abstractionists. He is often paired with the better known Georgia O'Keefe, not only because he was part of the same circle surrounding Alfred Stieglitz, but more so I think because they often share similar tonal palettes and degrees of abstraction. In fact, when my wife and I visited the O'Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, they had an exhibition of Dove showing. You can read more about this painting at the website of Milwaukee Museum of Art.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Pedogogical Faith

For two decades I have worked in education, mostly in the realm of what might be called peace and tolerance education. I know that Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where the bombers went, is committed to this pedagogy, and almost certainly they were exposed to curricula along the lines of Facing History and Ourselves, which helps students confront man's inhumanity to man (not their wording), as well as the positive things people can do to create communities that respect the inviolable dignity of all persons.

So, do the heinous acts of these morally blind individuals mean that kind of education doesn't work? I think not. It will always be impossible to reach every person. However, I believe educational cultures that stress tolerance, peace, and creativity can make persons such as those bombers extreme outliers. If we keep the faith, they will be increasingly isolated and will find it ever more difficult to convince others to join them in their hateful, empty causes. Through education we create the scenario -- the communities -- in which they must act as "lone wolves" rather than participants in a movement.

ADDED: 4-22

The brothers were also engaged in and excelled at sports. Sometimes the older one trained at the Somerville Boxing Club, which is devoted to getting troubled kids on track. Yet the brothers still went horribly astray, leaving behind all the positive influences they were exposed to. Sports will continue to play a role in developing strong character, we can be sure of that.

Another angle on this is that the younger brother was a pothead. Potheads, of course, are considered to be pretty nonviolent people, clearly less prone to violent outbursts than certain alcoholics and speed freaks. Maybe that bomber is the exception that proves the rule.

Waffles and Everyday Miracles

Deluxe Town Diner, Watertown, Massachusetts

My wife and I went to a diner in Cambridge for breakfast yesterday, the first day after the capture of the second bomber. It seemed to me that all of us there were existing in state of grace -- the good will and sense of mutuality so normal as to be banal or imperceptible, yet, upon reflection, so miraculously cooperative that I wondered whether if any of us stopped believing in the wonder of our peaceful coexistence that the spell might be broken. The waitress's smile was beatific, and the waffles were pretty damn good.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cowardice, Courage, and the Importance of Nonviolence

In the aftermath of the bombings and the search for the killers, I keep returning to the idea that if your concern is justice, you must maintain a steadfast commitment to nonviolence. If violence is on the table, even good intentions can become a driver of great evil. And the use of violence will instantly delegitimize your cause. Now, the older brother seemed like a bad person, someone who used jihadist ideology to excuse himself for being such a jerk and "loser," as his uncle put out. But I wouldn't be surprised if he used arguments of justice, at least in part, to convert the younger brother, who all described as a good-hearted person. This is tragic. Nevertheless, the younger one must take full responsibility for his cold-blooded, heinous actions.

True courage means being public about your concerns and peaceful in your actions. I often think of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, who challenged unjust laws openly and were jailed because of it. In so doing they put all the hard questions right on the table, and moral sentiment moved in their direction.

The brothers were cowards, and failed miserably to achieve anything but senseless destruction and the bolstered resolve of those they sought to intimidate.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Keith Jarrett: Letting the Music In

Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett, and Jack DeJohnette

"A master jazz musician goes out onto the stage hoping to have a rendezvous with music. He/she knows the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness. It must be let in, recognized, and revealed to the listener, the first of which is the musician him/herself. This recognition is the most misunderstood part of the process (even by musicians). It is a discrimination against mechanical pattern, for content, against habit, for surprise, against easy virtuosity, for saying more with less, against facile emotion, for a certain quality of energy, against stasis, for flow, against military precision, for tactile pulse. It is like an attempt, over and over again, to reveal the heart of things."

- Keith Jarrett, liner notes to "At the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings," 1994

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Truth & Beauty: Brainbows

A Brainbow

The Center for Brain Science (CBS) at Harvard came up with this graphic way of tracking the activities of neurons in the brains of mice. I am existentially awestruck that the hidden processes of nature translate directly into what we instinctively identify as aesthetic beauty. It means something, but I'm still groping to understand what. Revealing their whimsical side, the researchers call their images "brainbows." Visit the CBS site to learn more and see more.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

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 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, April 12, 2013

One Thumb Up

I'm kind of surprised at all the adulation for Roger Ebert upon his passing. Well, not surprised by the adulation generally speaking, but more by praise for him as a brilliant critic. It seems to me he was very good at what he did, certainly prolific, and something of a pioneer in TV film criticism. Apparently he also utilized social media well. Part of the outpouring is because he was by all accounts a nice guy, a good guy. And he dealt nobly with cancer.

Personally, I thought his reviews were decent and fairly interesting, though a little heavy on recounting plot points. I asked my film critic friend Jeff what he thought. He said that he had mixed feelings about him. "I don't think he was a great writer at all," Jeff said, "but he did draw attention to a lot of films that needed support. He kind of raised things up and dumbed things down at the same time." Which is a lot more than most popular media figures can claim. Without a doubt, Roger Ebert will be missed and, regardless of my mild ambivalence, I'm glad his voice was part of our culture.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hockney Photo Collage

David Hockney, Pearblossom Highway, 11th - 18th April 1986

The Brit David Hockney is perhaps best known for his masterful, colorful oil paintings of modern California milieus, as well as for his portraits of friends, but his photo collages are also a delight. None of us can afford a Hockney, but his site is really beautiful to browse. If this blog gets big enough that the Hockney people tell me to take this down, well, that would be a nice problem to have. For now, I trust all five of you will keep our secret.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Defense of Going Wobbly

The Margaret Thatcher zinger most beloved by American neoconservatives was her admonition to George H. W. Bush in 1990 to not "go wobbly" and refrain from using military force to get Iraq out of Kuwait. She was saying, don't be afraid to use lethal force, don't doubt. She, of course, was the Iron Lady, the leader who never doubted or compromised.

U.S. war hawks soon adopted the refrain as part of their arsenal of "moral clarity," a childish concept that ultimately only creates more trouble and is completely unworkable in any meaningful sense in the real world.* So when it was time to invade Iraq in 2003, we were again advised to not go wobbly, with the implication being that any opposition to the invasion was fundamentally cowardly, immoral, and weak-willed. In this worldview, caution is equated with timidity and faintheartedness. In those days after 9/11, many liberals bought into this perspective, as well.

It's too late to undo that debacle, but in the future, maybe more of us will speak up in defense of "going wobbly."

* In this formulation moral clarity means the ability to distinguish "good" from "evil" in all cases, with us, of course, always on the side of good. Thus the catastrophic framing "The Axis of Evil." Once this "moral clarity" is invoked, all actions on behalf of the "good" are deemed appropriate, including, for example, torture. Moral clarity ironically leads in practice to pure moral relativism.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

That Paltry Deity, Efficiency

Book of Hours, Valencia, c. 1460

The old school Judeo-Christian God of millenia-gone-by had a few faults. He could be ruthless and order the extermination of a people (see: Canaanites). He could could be cruelly capricious and torment the faithful (see: Job). And by the time of Augustine, He even signed off on the dreadful doctrine of Original Sin. But it can't be said that He was obsessed with achievement and industry and all the cold, neurotic obsessions of our time.

And so it was that the monks of the Middle Ages (or as they are less kindly known, the "Dark Ages") were free to spend their days and years lovingly creating illuminated manuscripts, those amazing creations in which sacred literature was adorned with detailed patterns and designs, often botanical in nature and rendered with gold or silver gilding that made them literally shine. The monks only had to take time out to pray or to brew and imbibe their monastery's own special ale.

Today, however, we are controlled by that unimaginative and narrow-minded deity Efficiency -- a  close cousin to William James's "bitch-goddess success," the "exclusive worship" of which, he said, constitutes "our national disease."

So what does Efficiency make of those manuscripts? Are they not beautiful? "I suppose they are," She replies. "But could they have been created faster if they were less beautiful?" That's what She wants to know. Her apostle was Frederick Winslow Taylor and Her minions are known as Data. The teacher-as-artist is replaced in this faith by the teacher-as-number-cruncher. The joy!

The Buddhist and poet Gary Snyder tells an instructive story. As a young man he went to Japan to study the language and to be apprenticed in a Zen monastery. One day, as the monks went about their chores, the young man from the Pacific Northwest said to them, "You know, it would be faster if you did it this way." The monks answered, "We don't want to do it faster." Try using that line around here these days.

Of course, this blog is time-consuming and produces no quantifiable benefits. And for that reason I will persist.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Henry Miller: Who Put the Demons There?

"A billion men seeking peace cannot be enslaved. We have enslaved ourselves, by our own petty, circumscribed view of life. It is glorious to offer one's life for a cause, but dead men accomplish nothing. Life demands that we offer something more -- spirit, soul, intelligence, good will. . . . War is only a vast manifestation in dramatic style of the sham, hollow, mock conflicts which take place daily everywhere even in so-called times of peace. Every man contributes his bit to keep the carnage going, even those who seem to be staying aloof. . . . Nothing can bring about a new and better world but our desire for it. Man kills through fear -- and fear is hydra-headed. Once we start slaying there is no end to it. An eternity would not suffice to vanquish the demons who torture us. Who put the demons there? That is for each one to ask himself. Let each man search his own heart. Neither God nor the Devil is responsible, and certainly not such puny monsters as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin et alia. Certainly not such bugaboos as Catholicism, Capitalism, Communism. Who put the demons in our heart to torture us?"

- Henry Miller, "Epidaurus and Mycenae," in The Henry Miller Reader (New Directions, 1959)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Al Green Sings "L-O-V-E (Love)" on Soul Train

I decided to post some live Al Green, so I went on YouTube in the hopes that I could find something that was at least decent, not lip-synched. But holy shit, I didn't think I would find anything this great. The band is absolutely killing it, especially the drummer. And Al's vocal, well, you could enter this as your first piece of evidence if you want to make the case that he was the best soul singer of them all. Oh, and the dancers are killing it, too, in a very groovy way -- naturals and all. Watching this makes me feel better every time. I'm having trouble loading this so it reads on devices, so here's the link to the YouTube page.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Good Things to Do #4: Visit Street Art Utopia

Skurktur, Norway,  Martine Bjørnstad photographer

What could be more fun, provocative, and inspiring than the Street Art Utopia website? Nothing, that's what.