Thursday, April 28, 2016

Word Karma

I have a book on my shelves called the Karma of Words. The idea is that one of the last and most seductive traps keeping one from transcending or at least getting wise to worldly appearance and illusion (known in Sanskrit as maya) is a belief in the power of words to help one achieve this enlightenment. It was Eliot who said in "East Coker" that the result of such striving is that "one has only learnt to get the best of words," and that, though he himself devoted his life to language, words amount to mere "shabby equipment always deteriorating / in the general mess of imprecision of feeling."

This photo is from my desk at work. This little laughing gent is adequate counterweight to all those words -- all those words -- that we employ to "reason why." My guess he's as happy as he is because he doesn't spend any time at all with the Chicago Manual of Style. His message is simple, I think: If you want to be enlightened stop trying so hard. Point taken. I'll work on that.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Running Is Love, Part 2

Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, says that "running is love." She also says that love is the basis of any meaningful human endeavor. I can't confirm that that applies all the way across the board, but I do believe it is also true of art-making, something I'm intensely concerned with. You can get rich from the one of the arts, and your art can be political or propagandist, but unless the core motivation for the art form is love, the art will not succeed, nor will the artist be able to endure for the long haul. Running has about as much commercial potential as poetry does. Thus freed from the money imperative, the spirit reigns.

In running, as in the arts, we witness forms of competition that aim not to tear down but to enhance life. The primary competition is with one's self, always seeking to go further -- in the case of running not just metaphorically -- and to do better, simply because we are built that way. The question is always one of how to channel human drive and ambition in the direction of more widespread well-being in the world. Even football, which is pretty violent, represents an evolutionary advancement, because the human instinct for tribalism and aggression is directed into an activity that is, in the larger sense, nonviolent and pro-social. Yes, the attitudes can tip over in militaristic jingoism, but that isn't the heart of it.

Marathons aren't jingoistic at all, which is refreshing. One cool thing is that runners connect their drive for personal improvement to social and medical causes. This dimension of road racing provides a nice model of how we might find that crucial balance between personal liberty and the common good. Runners are a strong community of strong individuals.

There's no better day than Marathon Day in Boston. It has a lot to do with the unique type of love Bobbi Gibb speaks of, I think.

UPDATED: 4-26-16

In the wake of the Marathon three years ago the event has become an unparalleled opportunity for the display and celebration of human resilience. How you deal with adversity is a key indicator of character. And the stories of the injured survivors and their paths to recovery are mind boggling in the degree of courage and resolve exhibited.

And the way runners around the world have made it a point to run is really cool. This is why the whiff of jingoism around the phrase Boston Strong is a little off-putting. I never felt like the bombing was just an assault on Boston. It was an assault on the idea of humans gathering together in peaceful community. The response of the global running community is a huge part of the strength so evident the past few years. Still, I won't disparage too much the need for a rallying cry and a touch of tribalism in hard times. When the balance is right, the result is patriotism not jingoism.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bonnard: Almond Tree in Blossom

Pierre Bonnard, "The Almond Tree in Blossom," 1946-47, oil on canvas, 22" x 15"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Bobbi Gibb: Running Is Love

"Running is love," says Bobbi Gibb, the Grand Marshall of this year's Boston Marathon. Fifty years ago she became the first woman to run the Marathon. But to do it she had to sneak in, since women had never been allowed to run! And she had to run in nurse's shoes, since athletic gear didn't exist for women. This is truly mind boggling. Yes, we have moved forward haven't we? She recalls how this extraordinary event came to be, starting with the training she did as she traveled across the country in 1965:
I was getting very strong. I could run 40 miles at a stretch. I’d see the top of a distant mountain, small and pale blue in the distance, and I’d spend all day running there, just to stand on the top. Then I’d turn around and run back. I made camp and slept outside every night, feeling infinitely close to nature. I was on a spiritual journey discovering something basic about existence.

Then in February of 1966, from California, where I had moved, I wrote for my application to the Boston Athletic Association (BAA). The Boston Marathon was the only marathon I had ever heard of. Will Cloney, the race director, wrote back a letter that said that women were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles and furthermore, under the rules that governed international sports, they were not allowed to run.

I was stunned.

"All the more reason to run," I thought.

At that moment, I knew that I was running for much more than my own personal challenge. I was running to change the way people think. There existed a false belief that was keeping half the world’s population from experiencing all of life. And I believed that if everyone, man and woman, could find the peace and wholeness I found in running, the world would be a better, happier, healthier place.

It was a catch 22; how can you prove you can do something if you’re not allowed to do it? If women could do this that was thought impossible, what else could women do? What else can people do that is thought impossible?
Gibb is an incredible person, so I urge you to learn more about her online. The remarks I am quoting here are from her essay, A Run of One's Own. She concludes the essay like this:
I have always had a vision of a world where men and women can share all of life together in mutual respect, love and admiration; a world where we find health through exercise and through the appreciation of the spirit and beauty of the world and of each other; a world based on love and individual integrity, where we all have a chance to do what we most passionately love, to help others, and to become all we can become.

We talk a lot about peace. But what is peace? It is not just a passive state of acquiescence. Peace is a dynamic state of human interrelationship, based on fairness and consideration, which requires the hard work of becoming fully who we are and encouraging others to do the same. This is still my vision -- a world free of oppression, full of beauty and based on love. And, this is what I work for in every way I can. I wish everyone well and hope that you are all healthy, happy and doing what you love!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

About Art & Argument

Walt Whitman, American Poet, 1819 - 1892

Note: I occasionally re-post this piece about the meaning of "art and argument" in the context of this blog. It was first posted on February 2, 2013. - MB

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 still 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"!

The Emotional Physicality of "Long Day's Journey Into Night"

We had the great pleasure of seeing the new production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in New York last weekend. It starred the accomplished actors Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange as James and Mary Tyrone, the parents of the tortured family of four whose fraught relationships are tracked across four acts that take them from morning to midnight. The older son, Jamie, is played with lacerating intensity by Michael Shannon. The other son, Edmund, who leans toward poetry and romantic despair, is played by John Gallagher, Jr. The director is Jonathan Kent.

We don't go to see much theater, so it ended up being quite an eye-opening evening for me. I almost said life changing, but I don't think I'll run away to join a theater troupe anytime soon, so I'll not get carried away here. What is true is that I learned some things about theater's unique power that night -- things that theater lovers already know, but which really jumped out at me.

The first had to do with the raw physicality of the play, the sense of power and emotion communicated by the positioning of bodies and how the actors used their bodies as instruments. I have never gotten the same sense from a movie or television show -- even the really good ones. Not even close. Our seats were in the balcony of the small theater, so we looked down on the stage, which depicted the "great room" of the family's coastal home. In the center of the room stood a table and two chairs, and on the table rested a bottle of whiskey that occupied the space like a tragic totem. Always the whiskey. Few scenes took place without some contact with it. It was their sacrament and their poison.

By looking down we could see the choreography of the actor's movements. They came together and apart in a constant dance, as if propelled by a force field that alternately attracted them to and repelled them from one another. The sensitive son, Edmund, spent most of the play pinned to the far wall beneath the stairs, clinging to a book and with his body turned sideways. Whenever James was in the room he occupied the chair to the left of the table and others would take turns joining him for more arguments or exercises in denial, interrupted by very fleeting moments of affection and empathy. When he was gone, the others took turns in the chairs, performing a variety of duets. Mary spent most of her time either floating up and down the stairs or around the room or sitting on a stool as far from the table as possible. In the final act, Jamie comes home smashed from a night of boozing and whoring, and his presence here was explosive and dangerous like a wrecking ball. Of all the actors, Michal Shannon defined his character through his body. And I don't mean through a series of tics, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. I mean through the menacing energy that came of him in waves. It would be fascinating to watch these movements without words, as if it were pure dance. Again, I don't know a lot about theater, but I guess that a lot of time is spent in rehearsal on getting the choreography right. I think that a great deal of the movement was up to the director's discretion. The scenes at the table are probably scripted; in other words those scenes have to take place at the table.

The actors also have a huge amount of latitude with line delivery. Theater is like classical music in that all the lines are composed. But a theater actor I think has a lot more latitude than orchestra musicians do. An actor might deliver the same line either loudly or softly. Classical musicians can't go that far with a piece. One line stood out for me as an example. In the movie version of the play, Ralph Richardson delivers the line that James Tyrone says before each meal -- "I'm hungry as a hunter!" -- with much aplomb like he's still a stage actor, and with an enthusiasm that belies the pain swirling around the family. Gabriel Byrne delivers the line like he wants to be enthusiastic about saying it, but it ends up hurried and flat as it comes out of his mouth. Many other lines in the play, especially lines that had the characters unwittingly revealing their blindness to their own weaknesses, were delivered so that the audience laughed. The same lines could have been delivered so that the audience would squirm in silence. It must be fun for the actors and director to decide on the tone and timbre of each line. The play runs 3 hours and 45 minutes, so that's a lot of lines to make decisions about! What a feat!

The play revolves around Mary's morphine addiction and Edmund's life-threatening disease of "consumption." The fog that rolls in and out of the bay serves as metaphor both for Mary's addiction and the fog of denial that the family members mostly walk around in. Throughout the play the characters would swing back and forth between affection and hatred for one another. This seemed to me like the waves that wash up on the shore and then recede in a never-ending pattern. My friend said the emotions were like the swans that continually enter and exit the stage in Swan Lake. Did the characters repeat themselves? Yes, they did. But so do we, don't we? And each time the characters would bring up the old allegations and resentments and justifications the scenes would have new dimensions to them, just like the repetition of motifs in musical composition.

Creating such a powerful and seamless rendition of a play such as "Long Day's Journey," so intricate and long and wrenching, must take a huge amount of effort and commitment. Byrne and Lange likely don't need the money, so it must be that theater means a lot to them as actors. In fact, I would guess it means everything to them.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Bear With Me

I know blogging is frightfully passé; about as "with it" as the village blacksmith. Yet I know that if I hang in there long enough, I'll someday be cutting edge, thanks to those hipsters who have already revived PBR, vinyl records, and crafting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Buddhas & Bodhisattvas In Repose -- at The Met

UPDATE: 4-13-16
We were in NYC last weekend to see Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne in Long Day's Journey Into Night (an eye-opening experience I'll write about this weekend.) While there we ducked into The Met to take a quick look at the treasures therein. These Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were stunningly elegant. In Christianity the core image is Christ on the cross, an expression of pure suffering. In Buddhism, the deities are shown after the suffering has ended, when the figure in question has awakened to the transience of existence, and, no longer clinging to phenomena and life, experiences enlightenment and seeks to help others through his example. In Christianity, Christ helps others by sacrificing himself, or allowing himself to be sacrificed. Christianity does have many images of the beneficent Christ, for example as the Shepherd. But the cross is always the heart of it. Years ago on a trip to Mexico I noticed that the suffering Christ was more front and center than we typically see in the US. After all, the people there have suffered a lot, so it's a matter of identification. But then again, so to is the affection for the Buddha in repose.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Master Musician Merle Haggard Is Gone

Merle Haggard's death means more to me than David Bowie's did. He's been on my regular playlist for three decades or more. You're going to hear a lot about his time in San Quentin, his songwriting achievements such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried," and of course the nuke he dropped into the 60s culture wars, "Okie From Muskogee." It was never clear how much Haggard identified personally with that song, but there's no denying it's a pitch perfect presentation of a certain reality in America. My favorite line is, "And White Lightning's still the biggest kick in town."

I'll stick with my usual approach and single out his musicianship. There's no better singer than Merle Haggard, and I relish listening to his phrasing just as I do, say, with Sinatra. He actually was the first country musician to appear on the cover of the jazz bible Downbeat. Let's let his performance of Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War" do the talking. But first, a few notes. Sitting along with Merle are Willie Nelson and the Hag's sidekick Freddie Powers. And the song is a first-rate example of how a single metaphor can be carried through an entire song. I think we can all agree that in a relationship a Cold War is the worst kind. And finally, look how Haggard is rocking that baseball cap, cocked high on his head just like the hip hoppers would do in the decades that followed this 1980s performance.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Trump Can Achieve the Impossible

How do we know? Well, he's somehow convinced everyone that Ted Cruz is a reasonable and worthy choice for president. With those kinds of powers I'm sure Trump will be able to bend China to his will just by talking tough.

Of course the latest "unpresidential" thing Trump said is that women who get abortions should be punished. Republicans were shocked. Shocked! Then they went back to saying that abortion is murder and that doctors performing abortions are killers and should punished accordingly. I never understood why women were left out of that chain of logic. If anything, the doctor is only the accomplice. At any rate, Trump's comment was a classic gaffe, meaning he inadvertently told the impolitic truth.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Should Be Thrilled

New biopics of jazz trumpet legends Miles Davis and Chet Baker! Actually let's remove the exclamation point. I played trumpet and studied jazz well into my adulthood and have listened to Miles and Baker for at least four decades, so I should be thrilled, right? But, no. I watched the 90 second trailer for the Miles pic and during that brief time Miles punched four or five guys in the face. If you think the main thing to know about Miles is that he was badass gangsta, well, this should get you stoked. I know that this was a labor of love for Don Cheadle, but my heart sinks a bit thinking about it. The main thing to know about any artist is their art. Yes, Miles was quite a character and was indeed a badass.* But this is all secondary. As for Baker, I think he was actually pretty uninteresting personally. When he wasn't playing (often brilliantly) he was usually shooting smack.

The best way to get someone fired up about an artist is through a well done documentary. I eagerly watch every American Masters show on PBS. In good documentaries you get a real sense of why the art is/was interesting and noteworthy. And through various interviews and narration you can get a true sense of the person and how their experiences relate to their art. Case in point: the stellar Sinatra documentary on HBO directed by Alex Gibney, Sinatra: All or Nothing At All. I came away from that 4 hour show with an ever deeper love for his music and a gobsmacked appreciation for the epic sweep of his life. I felt the same way about the PBS American Experience documentary on Walt Disney, also released last year.

Fred Kaplan writing at Slate, has a great article on this topic. He knows his jazz, and like many or most jazz lovers he feels that Round Midnight is the best depiction of jazz on film. It starred the charismatic tenor giant Dexter Gordon, and featured all sorts of top jazz people playing versions of themselves. True, Gordon was past his prime as a player here, but you get a sense for how it is above all a love for the music that drives the artists. I liked the Johnny Cash biopic, but it didn't increase my appreciation for his music as much as various documentaries have.

Far and away the best depiction of music and musicians on screen, IMHO, was achieved in the HBO show Treme. For the most part the musicians played themselves, and all the music scenes were organic to the story and showed the love that is the foundation of successful art. Show creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer let the music speak for itself, and there was a respect in that choice that is rare.

* I do recommend the Miles autobiography. You get a true sense for the infamous Miles attitude, but you also get his often-generous assessments of the musicians who inspired him. I've read it twice.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Creeley Improvisations

The poet Robert Creeley is such an excellent minimalist that I almost get upset when he writes poems with somewhat conventional line lengths. Halfway through Just In Time: Poems 1984-1994 Creeley unleashes (maybe not the proper word for poems so spare and wry and minute, but whatever) a several-page-long sequence of what he calls "improvisations," which hit the Creeley sweet spot. Here are a few.

Birds like


Heaven's up
there still.


There's a big


Slats in
a shadow.


Flat out
parking lot.


You all


This here
hand's out.


It's all 
the floor.


It's got to be

Friday, April 1, 2016

South Beach Close-Ups

Breakfast still life, Traymore Hotel

Glass tabletop by pool

Garden at the Mantell Plaza