Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Infamous Stringdusters

These guy are bringing forward the progressive bluegrass spirit and aesthetic of the New Grass Revival and the Telluride Blugrass festival in a big way. We caught them a year ago at a free concert in Boise and were blown away. These guys have mega-chops and they get down. I was reminded of them when I saw that Robert Plant was coming through town with his new band, The Sensational Spaceshifters. I bet he nabbed the conceit from the Stringdusters, since he's really aware of and part of the creative Americana scene now, having recorded and performed with Alison Kraus, and is now in a relationship with Austin's Patty Griffin.

At any rate, the guys are burning it up, coast to coast. Here they are performing "Black Rock" in 2009. I think there have been a couple personnel changes since then, which you can learn about at their website.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Margin of Error is Key

After the Trayvon Martin tragedy there has been a lot of commentary on the plight, or lack thereof as some would have it, of African-Americans in the United States. The President remarked on the feeling of suspicion and misperception coming from parts of the larger community that creates a pervasive, baseline sense of oppression for Black America, including even professionals and presidents-to-be. And with Ray Kelly being considered for Homeland Security, there is a lot of discussion around racial profiling and "stop and frisk" practices.

All those things are debatable, clearly, but I just want to add one idea that doesn't receive enough attention: namely that the margin of error for most African Americans, and also for many poor whites, is much lower than that which exists for middle class whites and above.

So if young men from these differing groups engage in the same kind of screwing up that is common to their gender and age, e.g. selling or possessing pot or other drugs, or maybe destruction of property, the families of the "comfortable" whites have much more wherewithal to "make the problem go away" -- often through offers of financial restitution and the ability to hire really good lawyers; and also because the perpetrator is considered to be "a good kid." In this case, the young man is a bit chastened, and returns to civilian life a little older and wiser, but untainted. If, however, one ends up serving time, and thus obtaining a criminal record, the ill-effects are cascading, especially when seeking employment.

This is not to excuse anyone's behavior. But young men with just about the same amount of "character" or self control can suffer widely varying consequences when things go wrong. And it seems that racial profiling, however well intended, just exacerbates this problematic disparity.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why the Heck Not?

I think it's great that the Royal Couple named their boy after George Costanza. I just didn't know that the Brits liked Seinfeld so much. Cheers!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Museum of Bad Art

I need to be careful of how I dispose of my failed "art" around here in Somerville. That's because our fair city is home to the Museum of Bad Art, better known as MOBA. Should an enterprising and discerning dumpster diver come across one of my rejects, they just might see fit to donate it. Though I doubt I could ever join MOBA's collection of "Masterworks."

You must visit the MOBA site now. My favorite piece in the collection is "Sunday on the Pot with George," a pointillist depiction of a portly man on a toilet.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Johnny Hodges Plays "All of Me"

Johnny Hodges, Paris, 1958 (photo by Herman Leonard)

How chill was Ellington's alto man, Johnny Hodges?

Watch him perform "All of Me" and find out. Oh, and while you are at it, dig Jimmy Wood walking on bass in the background.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not Going to Happen

Once you get to a certain age, you can see that certain things just won't be happening for you in your lifetime. This is called the wisdom of acceptance. Here's a few things I won't be doing:

1. Calling anyone "nigga"
2. Jumping out of an airplane
3. Learning to appreciate Bob Dylan's late-career singing voice
4. Reading a James Patterson "novel"
5. Becoming a foodie
6. Caring deeply about entertainment awards

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Future Is Worth Expecting

Duck Pass, John Muir Wilderness. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Claire Messud's new best-selling novel, The Woman Upstairs, the protagonist is a frustrated elementary school teacher whose dreams of being a successful artist never came to fruition. This is a common theme in novels, though usually the protagonist is a college literature professor whose dream of being a great novelist didn't pan out.

This is not a position I relate to much. My dreams have never been to be a successful artist or writer. Rather, my goal is simply to write better, a quest for which there is no conceivable end point. For that matter, getting a gig as a college professor looks like a pretty good version of success to me! Maybe the humbleness or lack of specificity of my dreams has held me back from greater achievement. I don't know.

I do know that the lack of specificity is a good tonic against bitterness, and I still maintain the faith that the future will hold greater success for me, even if I can't say exactly how; though I know that this success must relate in some way to becoming a more complete and compassionate person. In other words, while I do, in fact, care about career and money (and have experienced failure in regards to the former), my self worth and deepest ambitions are tied to those things which are within my control, as opposed to the whims of others. And that is why I see life as full of glorious possibilities.

At the end of his Foreword to the book Creating Waldens: An East-West Conversation on the American Renaissance, scholar Ronald A. Bosco cites a journal entry of Henry David Thoreau, written on March 21, 1853, a day when spring was breaking.
It is a genial and reassuring day; the mere warmth of the west wind amounts almost to balminess. The softness of the air mollifies our own dry and congealed substance. I sit down by a wall to see if I can muse again. . . . We are affected like the earth, and yield to the elemental tenderness; winter breaks up within us; the frost is coming out of me, . . . and thoughts like a freshet pour down unwonted channels. . . . Our experience does not wear upon us. It is seen to be fabulous or symbolical, and the future is worth expecting. Encouraged, I set out once more to climb the mountain of the earth, for my steps are symbolical steps, and in all my walking I have not reached the top of the earth yet.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Great Basquiat

I must have first heard about Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 - 1988) when the backlash was in full force. He was over-hyped and over-priced, they said. Maybe a fraud whose best talent was hanging with celebs like Madonna. Nonsense. He was truly great, maybe even a genius; an inspired artist whose work was dense, direct, allusive, expressionistic, playful, confusing, ironic, and sincere. Okay, he probably was over-hyped, but that doesn't mean his art wasn't strong.

A high school drop out, he lived on the streets of New York and, working with his friend Al Diaz, did street art under the name SAMO. Their work wasn't graffiti art in any traditional sense. Their art was word focused -- witty and cryptic. Basquiat's own later body of work as a painter incorporated lots of words, often crossed out. This, he said, made you pay more attention to them.

He loved music, and his work was kind of a visual analog to free jazz, or like the intensely associative improvisations of Sonny Rollins. At the same time, he invoked the punk spirit of the 80s, all the while building quite consciously on painting masters such as DeKooning and Rauschenberg, and the Primitivist Dubuffet. His work deserved to be popular. Basquiat couldn't handle the fame, though. I've been meaning to create this post since seeing the superb documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a few weeks ago.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Trumpet, 1984.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fallen Angel, 1981

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1984

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sweetheart of the Rodeo: Alt-Country Rosetta Stone

I had completed a post with my top ten all-time "alt-country" selections (with a full complement of runners up, too!). Then I somehow hit a mystery delete mechanism, and poof. Until I can re-post, let's just start with The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), possibly the first, and maybe still the greatest, alt-country/country-rock record. This is when Gram Parsons joined The Byrds and helped steer them away from folk-rock into some truly deep and affecting country sounds, mixing originals such as "Hickory Wind" with songs from Dylan, the Louvin Brothers. Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie and more. Could they really have meant this in 1968, the height of hippie? Was the record at times a tad ironic? Yes, and maybe. But, ultimately, Sweetheart is a thing of marvelous beauty.

Read about Sweetheart at

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Against Solutionism

Throughout the spring one of the big funders of the PBS Newshour -- ExxonMobil I think -- was running spots to promote their math and science initiative for public schools. The spots featured slick production and inspiring narration from a voice oozing sincerity and positivity. All well and good -- to a point. After explaining how the US is (purportedly) lagging behind in science education, the sincere voice urges us: Let's solve this! At which point my patience runs out and I bark: Let's not!

The notion of just "solving this" implies that there is something that we aren't doing now that would make the problem go away if we would only start doing it. Like flipping a switch. Believe me, everything has already been tried. Every pedagogy, be it bottom-up constructivism or top-down lecturing has been implemented. We've thrown money at the problem and withheld money from it. We've put laptops into the hands of every kid in school. And still, some kids do well, and some don't. Some learn to love math and science and some don't.

The "let's solve this" crowd, which includes a substantial cross-section of liberals and conservatives, has pretty much settled on a "solution" of high-stakes standardized testing coupled with monetary incentives for schools who raise their test scores. The simplistic notion of solving fits well with this quantified approach to education. X amount of students were below a certain line and now X amount are above it. Problem solved. How tragic that our one truly bipartisan initiative is deeply wrong.

Education isn't just something that happens in schools alone or which can be meaningfully measured on tests. To "solve" the "problem" actually calls for us to be a different society with different values. It calls for changes of attitudes and behaviors in individuals, families, and communities. All of which is possible and in fact is happening all the time in countless ways, for good and for ill. The solution of test-based achievement actually can mislead us into thinking we can handle any educational problem within the isolated structures of classrooms and test-taking, obscuring the truth that improving education requires endless personal, cultural, and social metamorphosis, as well as the truth that education itself is fuzzy around the edges and diverse in its expression and application.

As it turns out, the syndrome -- the religion -- of "let's solve this" has been given the name of "solutionism" by critics of society and technology such as Evgeny Morozov, whose new book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, is reviewed in the April/May 2013 issue of Bookforum. The reviewer, Siva Vaidhyanathan, cites Morozov's definition of solutionism as the practice of "recasting all complex social situations . . . as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions."

It'll conclude by quoting Vaidhyanathan at length, since his analysis is so apt and eloquent:
A more measured approach to the issues too often addressed by solutionism would recognize that frictions and inefficiencies can have value as well. We should not "solve the problem" of education, for instance, by narrowly identifying the chief difficulty as non-standardized curricula, designed by a range of teachers for the individual needs of their students. But this is exactly what solutionism would do: impose an analysis that declares diversity a problem, squeezes out values that can't be quantified, and standardizes procedures and measurement instruments -- which is, of course, precisely the approach we've taken to school reform.
The companion piece to this post is my April 7, 2013 post, That Paltry Deity, Efficiency.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Incisive Foreign Policy Analysis

I don't know who is fighting who and where and why they are doing it. I don't know why millions are protesting in capitals on several continents or why and which powers-that-be want to shut them down. I don't know which side is promoting a coup and which side represents stability following corruptions and catastrophes that were perpetrated by one or two sides in what was called a civil war or maybe an independence movement. I don't know which states are fighting where by proxy or which states have intervened wisely or tragically or not at all when they should have.

Veterans and the Moral Injury of War

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55

NOTE: I first posted this brief essay on the topic of moral injury last February. I am reposting here, since WBUR public radio in Boston explored this topic in depth last week.

I was recently pointed to the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, who lives and works, as I do, in the Boston area. Upon investigation, I learned that Dr. Shay is not only an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but is also at the forefront of helping us understand the "moral injury" that afflicts those who have experienced war as soldiers. In the introduction to an illuminating NPR "Talk of the Nation" episode on this topic, which featured Dr. Shay, we are told: "'Moral injury' is a term used in the mental health community to describe the psychological damage service members face when their actions in battle contradict their moral beliefs." Moral injury is a category distinct from PTSD.

Looking further into the topic I came across a well-researched article by Nan Levinson, also of the Boston area, called "Moral Injury and American War." I'll quote her intro at length to give you a sense of what's at stake:

The veterans at the heart of this story—victims, heroes, it doesn’t matter—struggle to reconcile what they did in those countries with the "service" we keep thanking them for. We can see them as sick, with all the stigma, neediness, and expense that entails, or we can recognize them as human beings, confronting the morality of what they've done in our name and what they’ve seen and come to know—even as they try to move on.

Levinson and others want us to understand that the victim-hero dichotomy and its corresponding sympathy-gratitude response pattern tempts us to avoid a "full reckoning" of the true costs of war, the complicity we all share in the pain veterans endure, and our shared responsibility in the healing that must occur.

Also appearing on the "Talk of the Nation" show was Tyler Boudreau, a veteran and author of Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine (Feral House, 2008). His take is that

it's very easy for the American public to say, hey, yeah, let's take care of those veterans. Let's get them to doctors. Now, with moral injury ... it's not necessarily a medical issue anymore. Now it's a social issue. Now when a veteran says, hey, I have something that's challenging my moral code, that means it's challenging society's moral code.

Our modes of warfare, like the very definitions of war itself, increase in ambiguity with each passing year. This increasing ambiguity calls for us to increase our compassion for veterans in equal or greater proportion, and, further, to redouble our efforts to minimize war-making and it's inevitable, tragic consequences. By better understanding moral injury we better understand a crucial dimension of Buddhist thinker Daisaku Ikeda's contention that nothing is as cruel and barbarous as war.

Also participating in the "Talk of the Nation" discussion was Rita Nakashima Brock, who explores these themes in her book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War (Beacon Press, 2012), co-authored with Gabriella Lettini.