Thursday, July 30, 2015

Read Larison to Understand the Iran Agreement and Its Critiques

The great majority of critiques of the Iran nuclear agreement are flatly dishonest and intentionally misleading. They'd be laughable if the stakes weren't so high. Others are well-intentioned, but tend to be either misguided, uninformed, or over-inflated. Or they skirt the issue of what a realistic alternative looks like. If you want to understand this issue, read Daniel Larison at the American Conservative. Go there and keep scrolling. He will swat down every criticism that you've heard.

UPDATE: 7-31

Here's an excellent article by Kingston Reif at the War On the Rocks website.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Kind of Confrontation?

Judith Trepp, untitled, 2014, oil & oil stick on paper, approx. 9 x 14 in.

I wrote last week about my ambivalent feelings about political protest, indicating my preference toward deep or slow moving "activism," the kind indicated in Kerouac's verse (which I might be paraphrasing): "Don't use the phone / Write a poem / People are never ready." The issue appears to be one of confrontation, its various forms, and their respective consequences. The best art confronts by raising questions, and even making people uncomfortable. A minimalist painting can leave the viewer wondering, uneasily, where the heck the rest of it is. But it doesn't have a particular goal in mind (save for helping the viewer being more open to the unusual, to a different beauty). The confrontation of political protest has a different objective: it seeks particular political and social changes; it seeks justice. So when we consider something like the Black Lives Matter campaign, we need to ask if it will get us closer to justice as opposed to shutting people down. I'm concerned it leans toward the latter. Occupy worked (to the extent it did) partly because the slogan "99 percent" was inclusive.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Provincetown Harbor

We just returned from seven days in Provincetown, a small, sometimes weird heaven of beauty, creativity, open-mindedness, and dog worship. During that time I went cold-turkey off the news, and am finding it hard now to deal with the anger and annoyance that is the cost of being an engaged citizen. Instead of engaging with the media, we chilled with friends old and new, looked at a lot of art, and gazed upon the ever-shifting aspect of Provincetown Harbor, encircled and framed by the curling tip of the Cape, steadied by the eternal unmoving horizon.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

It Don't Mean a Thing . . .

If it ain't got that: swing, groove, soul, spirit, spark, or verve; if it ain't got that thing you can't nail down or hold in your hand, can't write in a book or explicate from a lectern.

When a band is really grooving, everyone in the room knows it, but no one can say why. Yes, we know swing is based on syncopation, but if it were just a matter of that, everyone who could write or play a dotted eighth note would be a master. The best jazz players say that when the music is really happening they feel like they are channeling the music from some subconscious or super-conscious source. They are also channeling the energy in the room that the listeners are generating. In the gospel music that serves as the precursor to and template for modern rock, pop, and soul, the mystery factor is not a mystery at all. It's the Holy Spirit. I wonder, then, if, when "secular" music comes alive, it is animated by the same spirit that they feel in the church. I think so.* I mean, listen to Sam Cooke sing "Havin' a Party" live.** And after all, the King James version of the Book of John tells us:
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

* When I was at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, way back in the day before it became a hip, glorified version of a rock fest, I heard some hard groovin' sounds coming from one of the music tents, so decided to check it out. It was the gospel tent.

** From "Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963." You should own or Spotify this record.

Cord, Shadow

M. Bogen, at home, June 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My Problem with Protest

I read that Patti Smith concluded a recent concert with a powerful protest song. And immediately I said to myself that the song won't achieve anything. And I began counting down why I hate protest: it over-simplifies and dichotomizes; it feeds feelings of self-righteousness; it stokes instead of sublimating anger. But then I recalled that Occupy Wall Street, which I had no desire whatsoever to join, actually changed the conversation in America around income inequality, with even Republicans paying some lip service now, and with fast food and retail workers nationwide striking and demanding living wages. And then, in a flash, I saw that my problem was with myself and the feeling I have that, even though protest isn't my thing, I still have an obligation be out there. I mean I do believe that injustice exists and that all of us should do something about it. Short version: I've been guilt-tripping myself. So today I say, let others do the confronting, because confronting is part of the solution, just not my part. Me, I'll continue to write and try to trigger some slow subterranean movement, some shifting of tectonic plates. And maybe some gentle awakening that will happen in ways and times that none of us can predict. It takes every kind of confrontation, right?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Details, Details: Freedman & Motherwell

Caught one of the best shows we've seen at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum on Saturday. Actually it was several shows that worked together to show what a wide range of painting looked like in P-Town in the mid- to late-20th century, with separate room devoted to work from painters Paul Resika, Maurice Freedman, and Robert Motherwell. Another room displayed dozens of elegant portraits of historical P-Town "luminaries" by Ilona Royce Smithkin.

The biggest revelation for us was the high quality of the work by Freedman, someone we didn't know much about, but whose painterly works, especially the interiors, reminded us a bit of Matisse and Bonnard. The play of geometrics, color, figuration, draftsmanship, and vivid sense of place was engaging. Above is a studio scene, and just below here is a detail that shows his active brushwork and harmonization of strong color. Below that is a Motherwell detail. A fun part of his show was the inclusion of typewritten letters he (Motherwell) sent to curators. The crossed out words and handwritten additions elevate the letters to visual art in my view.* Have we actually lost something with the advent of our super-clean digital communications? Of course. But if we were still using typewriters I probably wouldn't write at all, so no Luddite kvetching here today.

* Basquiat's work included lots of crossed out words, which he said made people pay more attention to them.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Terry Callier Sings Caravan of Love

How can it be that so many millions or billions of people who would like each other if they knew each other fall so easily for the lies of the propagandists and politicians and assorted hardliners who so cavalierly label the "other" as evil? When such ugliness brings me to the ledge of despair, which it has of late, I lure myself back by listening to some good old "peace and love" songs from the late Terry Callier, a true bodhisattva if there ever was one. Here, he sings an old Isley Brothers song. Terry if you are up there blissfully and weightlessly floating in the cosmic soup, please consider a return engagement soon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Percy Fortini-Wright Cityscape

"Best Of" polls are silly, arbitrary, and preposterous. Especially when dealing with the arts. Yet I do love them so, and read every damn one that crosses my screen. The 2015 winner of "Best Boston Artist" in the local culture and entertainment weekly The Improper Bostonian is the awesomely-named Percy Fortini-Wright. I assume they selected him with implicit apologies to the hundreds of other Boston-area artists who are also great. I actually do like the piece they displayed very much, which I've nicked and posted here. Here's what they said:
Forget Banksy—we’ve got street-art talent aplenty right here in Boston. Case in point: 34-year-old graffiti artist and Art Institute of Boston instructor Percy Fortini-Wright, whose dreamlike cityscapes and otherworldly characters have popped up everywhere during the past year, from Liquid Art House and the Copley Society of Art to Art Basel Miami Beach. His unique style, which combines street art’s edge with calligraphy’s elegance, even scored him a spring collaboration with Adidas, which commissioned a series of paintings inspired by the Boston Marathon that were auctioned off to benefit the One Fund.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Silence Is the Loudest Noise

Maybe it's apocryphal, but Thelonious Monk is said to have said that "silence is the loudest noise in the world." That's a koan, so it's impossible to agree or disagree. However, I can tell you that my most powerful memory from seeing the Grateful Dead, way back in the early 80s, was when, during one of their legendary extended jams, all the instruments, drums included, "landed" on a rest at the same time. For a brief moment there was only silence. And I felt like I fell through a hole in the space-time continuum.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Photographer Harold Feinstein & the Way of Trust

Harold Feinstein, Blanket Toss, silver gelatin, 1955

The great American photographer Harold Feinstein departed this world last month. He got his start capturing the life force, the energy, of Coney Island in the '40s and 50s. At his website, his wife, Judith Thompson, shared a brief and beautiful tribute to her husband. Judith, who is a colleague of mine in the peace and dialogue field, and a fine person, tells us that Harold was in the habit of writing little poems on post-it notes, which she would find and keep. Here is one he created on June 16, four days before his death.
There is a 
note that
all others;
It is the note
you were not
listening for.
Trust it.
It will
leap from the
of ecstasy.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

How Can Education Enhance the Quality of Life?

Concerns and debates about standards and standardized testing are like a foghorn that drowns out every other educational conversation. What are we missing? David T. Hansen of Teachers College, Columbia University, explains in the book Ethical Visions of Education that the great American educator and philosopher John Dewey was primarily concerned with the quality of life and how education might enhance it. Specifically, Hansen says Dewey believed that:
  • The quality of life mirrors its aesthetic depth, understood as the extent to which it embodies grace, artfulness, and appreciation, whether in maintaining a home, a classroom, a business, or a government.
  • The quality of life also reflects its emotional maturity and attentiveness, which Dewey contrasts with sentimentality or superficiality.
  • Moreover, the quality of life displays its moral depth, which encompasses considerations of freedom, justice, compassion, humility, and personal as well as social responsibility.
  • Finally, the quality of life mirrors its intellectual scope and discipline, the extent to which intelligence rather than caprice, routine, or blind habit guides its trajectory.
Dr. Hansen concludes that for Dewey, "a fulfilled life features a deepening of quality, however subtle, through each experience. Education constitutes the pathway of such a life."

Read my previous pieces on education: What Are We Educating For? and A Field Guide to Ed Reform.

Here's an earlier piece on Dewey.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Nick Flynn & the Art of the Memoir

I just completed Nick Flynn's second memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb. It followed his breakthrough book, the fabulously titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (innocuously renamed Being Flynn for the so-so movie version starring Robert De Niro). ABNSC was so vivid, vibrant, playfully sardonic, and poetic, -- so audacious -- you had to wonder if Flynn had simply caught lightening in a bottle, never to happen again. (I wrote about ABNSC here last year.)

Well, Ticking is nearly as good. This is because Flynn has a method that really works for him: He dispenses with the need to tell his story in chronological sequence, opting to create short chapters that form constituent parts or modules that can be arranged in any number of ways, depending on the resonances among themes that he wants to create. This also dispenses with the need or compulsion to tell about everything that happened — a fool's errand if there ever was one. This is how Dylan approached his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, in which he looked at three discrete periods in his life, none of which deal with the period of his greatest fame. Critically, by working with small units, Flynn can use inventive prose without overwhelming the reader. Some of his short pieces are really prose poems. By varying the types of writing and length of chapters, Flynn creates a musical or symphonic feel.

Ticking centers on the years just after the invasion of Iraq when the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib became public. As the reports of these crimes against humanity mount, Flynn straightens out his complicated love life, gets married, and has his first child, a girl. One of my favorite passages in the book shows how these seemingly irreconcilable themes can reside together.
Bewilderment as a way of entering the day. My terror with being a father, with having a child, if I can name it, is not the threat of some abstract maniac snatching her — it is that I will look at her and not feel a thing. That she will appear and that nothing will change. That I won't be able to take her in, I won't be able to enter the day, not fully. That I might simply get in my car one day and drive, away from her, away from myself, that I won't remember. My fear has always been with myself, it has always been the fear of my own shadow.
When I first heard about the premise of the book I thought that it sounded like a stretch. You mean he's going to write about torture and becoming a father?* Why not choose one and treat it well? But life really is such that strong, seemingly (but not truly) opposite concerns can coexist within us. In fact they always coexist within us. My concerns ping pong all over the place everyday, just as they do in Ticking, where references can extend from The Wizard of Oz all the way to the Story of O, from his mother's suicide to the My Lai massacre, and it doesn't feel forced. And why should it? It isn't just Whitman who contains multitudes.

As scenes and memories accrue, themes of trauma, of bodies, of fear, of reconciliation, of honesty and self-deception, of birth and death emerge. Come to think of it, Flynn's book pays homage to that other landmark poetic work, the one told in songs of innocence and experience.

* The connections are concrete for Flynn since he received a grant to go to Istanbul with other artists to interview victims of torture. So Flynn's writing on this topic is more than conjecture.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Distance

This conversation I want to have
But can’t rather I mean maybe
But no, it needs the time and
The silence, it needs the distance
You see or in the end you will see
What was so important unspoken

M. Bogen, June 2015