Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Silent Reading Is Sort of a New Thing

At least it was novel enough for Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) to remark upon it in his autobiographical Confessions. He's what he said of St. Ambrose:
Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room--for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him--we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence--for who would dare interrupt one so intent?--we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men's business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Standing Up for Principle

After Orlando I figured, well, why even follow the news coverage because nothing will ever change in this country when it comes to guns. Yes, I'm pessimistic and cynical. But then I realized, I'm not totally powerless here. I can write an Onion-style headline!

After Orlando Massacre Republicans Hold Fast to the Principle That Every Homicidal Maniac Should Have Unfettered Access to Assault Weapons

And the subtitle:

NRA Decries Tepid GOP Defense of the 2nd Amendment

There. I feel a bit better now.

Process Note: I wrote this after watching Paul Ryan so gravely intoning his deep concern about the grievous affront to democracy represented by the Democratic congressional sit-in. Meanwhile his phone was dinging with an incoming text from that great patriot Wayne LaPierre.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Two Great Sports Stories

The best stories are redemption stories. The sports world had two great ones over the weekend. LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the NBA title, the first title in Cleveland in any sport for more than 50 years. That alone makes the story satisfying. But there are other angles. LeBron took a lot of heat, pardon the pun, for "taking his talents to South Beach." I know that the way he announced it was narcissistic, but I never understood why he wouldn't make that decision. Every player wants a ring or three. But the people of Cleveland were, shall we say, pretty darn sore about it. But like the prodigal son, James returned last year to his native northeast Ohio. It was clear that winning a title in Cleveland would be the piece that would cement his reputation as one the very elite players of all time. Now, that reputation is cemented, especially because of the way James willed his team to victory. Too often during his current stint in Cleveland "willing" actually meant "forcing." In this year's play-offs King James found the sweet spot where he could take control without ramming himself and his team into walls. The play of Kyrie Irving helped a lot. LeBron is a rich man, but you can bet this means more than money to him.

Over at the PGA, Dustin Johnson won the US Open, the tournament he gave away last year after three-putting on the final green. This year's Open was at Oakmont outside of Pittsburgh. The greens there are notoriously fast and tricky. Personally, I find it enjoyable to watch the world's greatest players four putting like a common weekend hacker. With the potential of a double bogey hanging out there on every hole for every player, it takes a lot of concentration and steadiness and confidence to hold on to a lead the way Johnson did. His play down the stretch was very impressive. Often called the best player to never win a major, DJ has to be walking lighter this week, and his future looks really good. The best stories are redemption stories.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mose Got Attitude

It's not the typical jazz or blues strategy to build a career based on lyrical sarcasm and pessimism paired with a steadfast refusal to employ a backbeat. But Mose Allison has. Talk about going your own way. Mose has been at it since the 50s, and enjoyed some success in the 60s when rockers like Pete Townsend sang his praises. In fact it makes sense that Mose might hold more appeal for rockers than jazzers, even though Mose is a piano virtuoso. Of all the genres, punk embraced qualities such as sarcasm. Combine that with Allison's refusal to coddle the listener musically, and I think we can make the case for Mose as the first Jazz Punk.

This is a 1997 remake of one of his earlier compositions. It features a monster sax solo from Mark Shim, a classically-informed piano solo by Mose, and some intuitive drumming from the late jazz legend Paul Motian, who played on Bill Evans' classic trio performances of the late 50s, early 60s. The peak moment comes at 2:50 when, right after the solos, Mose enters with this message for the concern-troll the song is aimed at: "Don't think I don't appreciate your sage advice." The way he hits that "don't" is the classic Mose Allison vocal inflection. Thanks, Mose, for bringin' the attitude all these years. Long may you bitch and moan.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Closet and Religiousity

It's pretty bizarre that after the the Orlando atrocity commenters have focused more on the shooter's vague relationship with Islam rather than his clearly conflicted sexual identity. The latter is surely as much as a factor here as the former. I was trying to think this through, and it occurred to me that maybe Islam didn't make him homophobic but instead he didn't have the courage to come out so he sought out a structure that removed agency from him. And if God commanded him to reject his homosexuality, then all those who don't are defying God.

Then I read a great essay by Jay Michaelson at the Daily Beast in which he explained how this dynamic was at the heart of his own experience as a closeted gay man:
"For 10 years, I lived my life as a closeted, Orthodox Jew. I wasn’t closeted because I was Orthodox; I was Orthodox because I was closeted. Here was a world of spiritual (i.e., sublimated sexual) enthusiasm, of rich community, and of deferred expectations for sexuality. Along with many other misfits, I found a home among the newly religious.
"Of course, that life was also one of self-hatred and self-denial. I don’t think I could ever have shot up a gay bar, but I certainly harbored deeply homophobic feelings about “those” gays with their drag queens and pride parades. They were deviant, slutty, degraded. I was above all that."
The essay is a must read. Check it out.

UPDATE: 6-17-16

Based on this newly posted article at the Daily Beast I'll wager that Islam was a distant third in motivations for the shooter's actions. Apparently he had been an extremely violent and difficult person since childhood. He also abused his first wife. It didn't take ISIS to encourage this guy to do something horrible. Think about that, Republicans.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

False Equivalency Watch #1

Watching media coverage of Trump and Clinton in the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando suggests that we are in for a long season of false equivalency. For example, the Boston Globe ran a story titled something like "Clinton and Trump Offer Differing Responses to Orlando Shootings." Well, yes their responses did "differ." One offered a cautious well-considered response that didn't thrill 2nd Amendment partisans but showed that in the wake of such violence it's wise to not jump to conclusions or overreact. The other candidate offered a steaming pile of garbage consisting of chunks and scraps of fawning self-regard, wretched, contemptible conspiracy innuendos aimed at the president, blatant lies about what one has said in the past and what is at stake, casual nods in the direction of crimes against humanity, and an incredible urge to oversimplify worthy of an eleven-year-old. Actually that's unfair to children. Nice "pivot" to a presidential temperament, Donald. It used to be that part of the time Trump was sort of funny. Not anymore.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Arturo di Stefano's Quiet Mystery

A few weeks ago I highlighted the quiet abstracts of Agnes Martin, whose contemplative minimalist paintings provide a beautiful antidote to a world in which wall-to-wall click bait tempts us with the ever-escalating promises of something shocking, where women are told they must lean in to get ahead, and where a blustering self-impressed blowhard is the Republican nominee for the presidency. Last week I stumbled on the work of the British painter Arturo di Stefano, whose works are representational, not abstract, but which also invite us into quiet contemplation.

A person who shouts, metaphorically and literally, places everything on the outside. (Is there an inside to Trump? Or is there no there there?) A contemplative urges us to see and feel from the inside out. Di Stefano's works are clear depictions of everyday life, of people and buildings, sometimes even based on photographs, but they are not photographic; they are tactile and infused with meaning. Might there be a kinship with painters such as Morandi and York?

I am an introvert and rejoice when quietness gets its due, receiving, let's say, three somewhat-modest cheers. Here's a really nice passage from an article on di Stefano by Andrew Lambirth published in the Spectator in 2014:
Di Stefano quotes Kitaj quoting Emily Dickinson: ‘Tell it slant’, as a way of revealing a subject to us. He wants people to look again at something they might otherwise take for granted. His paintings are interpretations of what he sees, not some quasi-photographic record of reality, and encapsulate the emotions he feels. So many intangibles then come into play: thoughts, the artist’s personality and personal history, but these are not openly displayed. In some ways, Di Stefano is more English than the English — valuing reserve, tact, discretion. ‘I’m all for decorum, I don’t like clamour. Paintings that shout quickly lose their potency. I remember Ken Kiff when he was my tutor at the Royal College saying, “I just want to whisper something and then go.” It’s the whisper that you’ve got to listen for. People like him are so modest that they are easily drowned out.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Joni Mitchell: "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow"

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says "Your notches, liberation doll"
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

Anima rising
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden
Wash and balance me
Anima rising
Uprising in me tonight
She's a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight

Truth goes up in vapors
The steeples lean
Winds of change patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams
God goes up the chimney
Like childhood Santa Claus
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause

I'm leaving on the 1:15
You're darn right
Since I was seventeen
I've had no one over me
He says "Anima rising
So what
Petrified wood process
Tall timber down to rock"

Don't interrupt the sorrow
Darn right
He says "We walked on the moon
You be polite"
Don't let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth
He says "Bring that bottle kindly
And I'll pad your purse
I've got a head full of quandary
And a mighty mighty thirst"

Seventeen glasses
Rhine wine
Milk of the Madonna
He don't let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary's these days
When your man gets weak

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Inside the Castle

Whenever they do the storming-the-castle scenes on shows like Game of Thrones or The Vikings I instinctively root for the people on the inside. I'm drawn to the notion of being impregnable, of being totally able to keep the threats of the outside world at bay. My single family home is indeed my castle, but not because I call the shots. It's because I don't have to listen to a neighbor's radio (or worse) through the ceiling. I've been hospitalized on a couple occasions when I was given Demerol or morphine. What the opioids do is make you feel untouchable. Kind of like what my white noise machine does each night. Or what those ear buds do for those millions walking around or riding the subway in their own private Idaho.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

William Nicholson Still Life

Painting a still life is like singing Stardust; there's no innovation involved, but the challenge is just right (capturing shadow and light,, shaping a phrase just so) and it offers a pleasantly foot-worn path to beauty. No reason for that to ever go out of fashion.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My Graduation Speech

I've found that we don't really learn much just by being told stuff. But I have found that when we find ourselves in a situation where we need to learn something the hard way -- that is by actually living it -- advice heard long ago can reinforce the conclusions we are arriving at through experience. That said, I thought it would be fun to compose a graduation speech made up entirely of bullet points and without any pressure to be original, since truisms are true for a reason. Here are some things I have found to be true and valuable, though I often fail to practice them. These aren't really in order, though if they were, I might keep the top three how they are now.

1. Never give up.
2. Practice gratitude.
3. Believe in yourself and what you have to offer.
4. Err on the side of trusting others.
5. Nurture and share your enthusiasms.
6. Cut others and yourself a break.
7. Pick your battles and let the other ones go.
8. Value your family and friends.
9. Speak up.
10. Emphasize responsibility not obligation.
11. Laugh a lot.
12. Offer help and learn to receive it too.
13. Be slow to judge other people's failures.
14. Stick up for those who have it hardest.
15. Learn to live with ambiguity.

As a special bonus I share this ancient dictum: Treat your body like you're going live forever and your soul like you will die tomorrow. I do much better with the latter, I must confess, since I have a hard time envisioning life without cinnamon rolls.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

What Knausgaard Does

You might have heard about the international literary sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard's multi-volume, several thousand page memory-based novel My Struggle. I'm into volume 2. The struggle is located in the stuff of everyday life, as opposed to any high drama. Knausgaard's classic maneuver is to depict an episode, say his wife and him taking their new baby to the mall, and break it down over the course of 20 or 30 pages into all the minute shifts of mood that happen, all the frustrations and little fears and annoyances and yes little victories that transpire as we engage in the mundane activities of life. He tries to envision real scenes with fidelity, but fills in the details with his imagination. My Struggle is called a novel, but I think memoirs operate the same way. Call it a nonfiction novel.

Here's what he has to say in a Paris Review interview called "Completely Without Dignity." This section recalls Kerouac's famous dictum, "Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better."
Writing is recalling. In this matter I am a classic Proustian. You’re playing football for the first time in twenty years, for example, doing all those movements again, and it makes the body remember not only the strangely familiar movements, but also everything connected to playing football, and for some seconds, a whole world is brought back to you. Where did it come from? I think that all our ages, all our experiences are kept in us, all we need is a reminder of something, and then something else is released.
When I started the novel, I imagined our house, myself walking towards it, it was snowing, it was dark, inside was my father and my mother, and I remembered the feeling of snow, and the smell of it, and the feelings I had toward my father at that time, and toward my mother, and there was the cat crossing the road, and on the other side of the river, the lights from a car. The silence in the woods. My friend, Jan Vidar, he was there somewhere, and the girl I was mad about, and the way I thought of him and her, and the light from the window kind of glowed, and I remembered an episode from the ski slope, and opened the door, and there, on the floor, the shoes from that time, the smell, the atmosphere.
My memory is basically visual, that’s what I remember, rooms and landscapes. What I do not remember are what the people in these room were telling me. I never see letters or sentences when I write or read, but only the images they produce. The interesting thing is that the process of writing fiction is exactly the same for me, the only difference is that these landscapes are imaginary. These images are related to the way you think of a place you never have been, where you imagine everything, the houses, the mountains, the marketplaces. Then, the second you are there and see how the place really is, the weight of its reality crushes your imagined version. But where did that version come from in the first place?