Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Open Apology to Thom Yorke

Dear Mr. Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame,

I’d like to apologize. It is my hope that, by some fortunate spasm of fate, your eyes will discover these words.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I ran into you just outside the covered market in Oxford. And when I say “ran into,” I mean it quite literally: we walked into each other like atoms colliding in a particle accelerator. Yes, it’s me, I’m that baffled American, and I’m here to make amends.

You’ll have to forgive me Thom, even though I live in the sunny womb between LA and Palm Springs, I still get a bit anxious in the presence of celebrities. Let me start by saying I’m sorry. Sorry about the blunder. Sorry about the creepy behavior. Sorry about the stalking.

I can remember it so vividly, as if I were still in the ancient wonderland of Oxford. I was walking home from a tutorial, digesting the subtle nuances of Post-Modernism and gazing at the Dreaming Spires, one of the many things that make Oxford so compelling. It was a relatively busy day; the kebab vans had just fired up their grills, filling the streets with a faintly exotic aroma, and crowds of pedestrians shuffled by, snapping pictures down the High and swapping observations about Auden and Lewis Carroll.

As is my habit, I was walking rather quickly. In fact, you could even describe my pace as something more akin to a slow, robotic run. Judged by speed alone, I was moving at a modest sprint, gliding past robed students like blood pulsing through plaque filled veins. Had my hands not been anchored in my pockets, giving me a casual air, I could easily have been mistaken for an inappropriately dressed runner.

Before I continue, just let me say that I’m not the only one to blame for what happened next. I’ll admit, I was walking unusually fast and not paying particular attention to where I was going, but apparently you share this same unfortunate hobby. That’s right Thom: you too are a ridiculous walker. You too turn your back on the societal conventions of pedestrian movement. You too are a klutz.

So, if you remember correctly, we crashed into one another like two sumo wrestlers at the beginning of a match. I stumbled back, shaken, my cheek tattooed with the imprint of your forehead. A strand of drool unspooled itself from my mouth, only to be smeared across my chin by the impatient swipe of my palm. And it was then, after the spinning in my head had slowed, that I could finally fix my gaze upon the person with whom I had collided: Thom Yorke.

I opened my mouth to spit out an apology, but found I could only manage a strained groan like a fat man rising from a child’s play chair. You were no better. I remember you looked at me as if I had materialized from the cobble stone. One elfish eye stared back at me while your lazy eye rolled around the bottom of your socket, looking vaguely in the direction of my crotch. I remember wondering, Oh my God - did I just break Thom Yorke’s face?

You started to say something but I panicked and cut you off, not wanting to arrive at the apology in second place. Our conversation, which seemed so meaningful at the time, went something like this:

You: ahh...

Me: sobbergurer...

You: ehh....

Me: Ha! wa...

You: (Some sort of nasal exhalation with pseudo-linguistic properties)

Me: wooo...

And then it was over. Just as the fates brought us together to walk into each other at exactly the same time, the fates made us stop “talking” with similar precision. And thus we entered the next phase of our dynamic relationship: the awkward pause.

People in the street swarmed around us, giving the rock star and student no notice. We were these immobile statutes in the midst of a swarming gyre of humanity, our eyes locked. As if entering a state of hyper-meditation, my mind went so blank a trained Buddhist monk would have been bitterly jealous. My entire command of the English language vanished, leaving me without words, without anything. Frankly, I was just thankful that I still had control of my bowels. How long were we stuck like this, having given up on apologies and communication?

Suddenly, like an invalid waking from a coma, the spell was broken. As if remembering the purpose of legs, you walked off and tangled yourself within the crowd.

A normal person would have left this unusual encounter as it was. However, I am not a normal person, for as soon as you disappeared around the corner, the enormity of my folly became apparent: I had run into Thom Yorke, one of my favorite modern musicians, and I didn’t say a single intelligible thing. My heart sank and my cheeks burned with a blush. No, I thought, I can’t let it end like this. I must say something. I must profess my fondness of your work. I must, at the very least, formally apologize for smacking into you like a famed Oxford dodo.

And that, Mr. Yorke, is why I decided to follow you.

No, my stalking was not the casualty of madness, rather, it was a pilgrimage of artistic adoration. And thus, “stalking” is an inaccurate, feeble word. I followed you like a disciple would follow Jesus, like a downy duckling chick would follow its mother – not like a raving lunatic creeping after a victim. There’s a very fine line you see Thom, and really, you should be flattered.

So I started after you like a bloodhound. If my pace was ridiculous before, it was even more so now. I shot past a group of young school children, and I wouldn’t have hesitated to push one of the little brats down had it improved my speed in any capacity. Brushing past an overweight grad student in a black gown, I heard an icy voice declare, “I say!” towards my receding form. All the while, my mind chewed on one crucial piece of thought-cud: once I caught up to you, which I invariably would, what on earth would I say?

Perhaps, “I admire your influence on modern music.” Or, “Sorry I walked into you. I hope your face doesn’t swell.” But no matter what verbal options I had at my limited disposal, nothing felt right. You have fans accost you all the time, right? So what could I possibly say that hadn’t already been said, and how could I say it without frightening you away?

It was only when I saw you reappear at the end of the block that I had a horribly delicious idea: I would loudly recite passages of your lyrics as I approached, notifying you of my advance and making it clear my intentions were purely appreciative. Like a cautious hiker stumbling upon a bear in the wilderness, I didn’t want to spook you – and what better way to put you at ease than to quote from your own arsenal of verse? Wouldn’t Dylan Thomas have loved to be approached by a fan spouting out his finest stanzas?

I came even closer, until we were half a block apart. I could clearly see the acid-wash coloration of your jeans-jacket, and the disheveled semi-pompadour style of your hair. I opened my mouth to start the recitation but then stopped, suddenly realizing I didn’t know which lyric to quote.

Maybe I could start by yelling:

Karma police, arrest this girl

Her Hitler hairdo is

Making me feel ill

And we have crashed her party…

Then move onto:

Ambition makes you look pretty ugly

Kicking and squealing gucci little piggy…

And concluding with the perfectly non-confrontational:

The panic, the vomit

The panic, the vomit

God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!

Yes, I thought, that would be perfect.

Armed with the proper words to say, sentences began to rise in my throat. I was right behind you then, but you were moving away so quickly (hadn’t you learned anything about the dangers of speed-walking?) Excited, I cut right to my conclusion and began in a clear, operatic voice, “The panic…”

Arriving minutes too late, an epiphany finally came – I was being more than slightly inappropriate. You gave a startled glance over your shoulder and hurried off. Never have I seen anyone look more like a “Paranoid Android.” I skidded to a halt, mortified, shamed, and I passively watched your retreat. I took a step backwards, then two more. I will never forget my last image of you, scurrying away and casting nervous looks in my direction. Alas, our magical encounter was over.

So now, after multiple years, I would like to take the opportunity to issue an official apology. I recognize that I behaved like a fool and understand that my behavior was, to put it mildly, a tad unorthodox. I’m sorry. I really am. And if you can find the room in your heart, I’d love to have your forgiveness.

Take care Mr. Yorke – and safe walking.


Connor Wallmark

Book Review: The Rest is Noise

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007)

Twentieth Century music, for the uninitiated, can be an iron maiden on the ears. Or better yet, one of those torture boxes they use in Dune to test whether an individual is human or not. To many people without academic training in the methods of the Twentieth Century, it is precisely this that is lacking in last century's pantheon of composers: humanity.

Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker (and author of a great blog, see "Good Reads" list), has attempted to bring thorny modern music to the neophyte and a deeper understanding to the cognoscenti in his debut book, The Rest is Noise. Grant it, this is not at all the first book that has tried to make this recondite repertory accessible. Authors often assume, good musicologists that they are, that understanding music only goes as deep as one's understanding of structure. Therefore, for the masses to "get" twelve-tone music, they simple need to learn the methods. Many introductory appreciation texts for this type of music focus purely on rows, retrogrades, inverse retrogrades, transpositions, and a lot of other stuff more fitting for a math than a music book. Ross, luckily, abandons this failing course.

First, a brief summary of the book. The lens through which the reader views the century in music is Richard Strauss, the great master of late Romanticism and early atonality. We begin the journey in turn-of-the-century Vienna, when society was on the verge of collapse and music was undergoing rapid mutation (connection?). Strauss is a fascinating bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries: his early years (1880s and 90s) were filled with orchestral grandeur and Wagnerian pomp, but the man lived all the way until the end of WWII, when tonality had disintegrated along with his native Germany. The story of The Rest is Noise, then, is the tale, seen through an individual's eyes, of violent change. In swift and dramatic colors, it is the portrait of the birth and death of states, styles, and sentiments. Ross takes us through all the classics of 20th century music, from The Rite of Spring to Shostakovich's coded symphonies, the solitude of Jean Sibelius to John Adams's Doctor Atomic of 2006. A full retelling of this fascinating tale is far beyond the scope of this post, and I don't want to labor the details. Suffice it to say, it pretty much hits it all (including obscure works like "I Am Sitting in a Room," the subject of one of Ruxton's posts on this blog).

The history itself isn't so revelatory, as Ross is a journalist and not a scholar. It is Ross's telling of it that is so exciting. First off, the reader will notice virtually none of the technical language that accompanies many books on the subject. Instead of buying into the idea that one must understand structure in order to appreciate music, Ross transmutes the sounds of the pieces he talks about (not the scores) into the language of poetry. Instead of row permutations, he gives us colors; instead of dodecaphony, he gives us precise and witty metaphor. It is clear that Ross wants his reader's to grasp this music with their hearts, not just their minds.

This leads us to another fresh aspect of the book, and indeed of Alex Ross in general: there is no respect for the high/low art distinction. Music is music, and unfortunately all the arcana typically associated with 20th century music doesn't need to be there at all - in fact, it impedes society's access to great music by turning it into an Ivory Tower. Ross has published articles that compare Monteverdi to Sade; he has likened Gyorgy Ligeti to Sonic Youth. And his attack on the traditional dichotomy of high/low (classical/pop, etc.) also finds its way into his presentation of the composers' lives. This is no Big Man history, with powerful individuals driving Progress; it is a humble story of both human accomplishment and frailty. In one of the more telling anecdotes of the book, he tells of the famously curmudgeonly Arnold Schoenberg pompously decrying: "if it is art, it is not for the people; if it is for the people, it is not art." Yet, the happiest his son ever saw him was when the Schoenberg family was driving through Big Sur and they stopped at a fruit stand and heard Vertlarkte Nacht (one of his early pieces) playing on the radio. Normal Joes listening to his music on the radio made the father of twelve-tone music giddy.

Another common approach to the telling of history is to focus on innovations and progress, a tale that is often linked all too closely with the Big Men. In this regard, Ross's book is an epiphany. Rather than explaining the twentieth century as a series of aesthetic and historical ruptures, he charts the years and the music through connections and similarities. Many authors are content with explaining the technical novelty of Anton von Webern's serial language and his influence on that compositional school; Ross tells us how Webern inspired La Monte Young (the father of minimalism) to look towards the atoms of music and build up from there; Young, in turn, inspired the Velvet Underground in their heady psychedelic rock, often based on Young-like drones; the Velvet Underground influenced virtually every rock act out there today. In another fascinating story of influence and musical connection: Stravinsky drew on Russian folk songs for The Rite of Spring, transmuting the material through his cutting, modernist tongue; both the folksy elements and the modern spikes made their way into the playing of Charlie Parker, who worshipped Stravinsky. Music is a circle, not a bunch of lines.

I've read a lot of cultural histories of music, but I must say that this is my favorite. For the academy-trained musician and the neophyte alike, Ross reveals the fundamental humanity of some challenging work. In his masterly hands, very noisy music becomes poetry.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

So Long, John Edwards

(updated below)

Well, unfortunately my choice on Super Tuesday just got a lot easier. I was originally faced with the decision between voting for my candidate of choice (Edwards) or trying to influence the Obama/Clinton match-up. Now, 1 to 2% of the nation's voters have made that decision for me. Arguably, the media made that decision for those 1 to 2%. (I note that it could have been worse, since my other favorite candidate, Chris Dodd, never had a chance to begin with.)

I figure I'll take a moment and list some of the qualities I liked about Edwards:
  • John Edwards was the most progressive voice of the top three contenders. Despite voices such as Kuchinich and Gravel in the debates, I think Edwards did the most to shift the overall discussion leftward.
  • He called the War on Terror a bumpersticker. It recognizes and defuses the unstated tenet that we have lived under since 9/11, the idea that somehow all of the complexities of terrorism can be explained in black and white terms of us versus them, and that perpetual global war by "us" is an effective means of combating the "them". Also, in this political climate, it takes a pair for a presidential candidate to come out and say it.
  • He was the only "mainstream" candidate in either party to not advocate an increase in military spending. We spend more on the military then the rest of the world combined. Our defense budget is 41% of our total budget. By contrast science, energy, and environment spending, factors that could substantially increase our security, is only 3%. Yet we are still losing two wars. If the reason we are losing those two wars is that we simply have not put enough money into the military, then that fact alone should be cause for re-evaluating our entire strategy in both countries, and our foreign policy generally. I suspect, however, that more money is not necessarily the solution, but rather a better distribution of money and realization that guerrilla warfare against an insurgency in an occupied country is a losing proposition. John Edwards seemed to recognize this reality, rather than pander to a public that thinks more troops and more wars will make us safer.
  • He was unabashedly populist, and called out the corporate interests wreaking havoc on our country. This point is the biggest difference between him and Obama. Obama believes we can work with the insurance industry and the drug companies to achieve universal health care. Edwards understood that universal health care will have to come at their expense, and that they will fight tooth and nail to not let that happen. The same could ultimately be said about true progressive environmental policies at the energy sector's expense.
  • He took public financing. Some might cynically point out that had he the fund-raising clout of Obama or Clinton, he probably would have rejected it. This is probably true. However, it helped to take him seriously when he said he would work to expel the moneyed interests from Washington.
  • He believed that people were willing to make sacrifices in order to help the country and help their fellow citizens solve the big problems. Not only do I feel like his instincts were right, but a President who believes that people will be able to stomach some sacrifice in order to solve problems is absolutely necessary to combat global warming and our dependence on foreign oil. After 9/11, America was ready to make some sacrifices. The President told us to go shopping. The rest is history.
  • He was angry. This was seen as a negative, but let me ask: don't you think anger is an appropriate emotion at this point in history? After what we've seen happen over the last seven years, shouldn't we hope that our next President will be a little bit upset over the mess he or she has been left? I would be.
The choice now between Clinton and Obama is subject of another post. Since I don't make that decision until Tuesday, I'll take this time to look back, rather than forward.


Thanks to Zach for pointing out Krugman's column in the comments. It is worth moving the link into the post proper.

Another interesting perspective comes from Sean-Paul Kelley at The Agonist, discussing why he is throwing his vote to Obama.


What a stupid word for the phenomenon that is my life right now. That's not to say I'm intolerant of other cultures; if it were an English word I'd hate it just the same. No, no. See, I used to weigh 170 lbs. Admittedly, for my height & build, that's a little low. But it was sustained, and effortlessly. I quit smoking, stayed 170. Didn't get to the gym as often, stayed 170. It was only when David started to peek his little tadpole head around my wife's cervix that the weight gain happened. And boy did it happen. I'm talking 15 lbs nearly overnight. And where I was 170 lbs at the beginning of the pregnancy I was 235 at the end. Finally, after 2 years of David's life I got down to about 210 - 205 (no crash or fad diets), and for my height that's pretty normal. Now we're at it again. You may think I'm just packing it in and this is my fault. Oh no. Let me remind you I'm vegan, I don't eat processed foods, and now that I don't eat soy my diet consists of a lot of steamed vegetables, salads, steamed rice, oatmeal, etc. Even if I gorged myself on food constantly I couldn't hit 2000 calories in a day. I haven't even weighed myself yet to see what the damage is. It's so early in the pregnancy I don't want to know. But at very least, to add insult to injury, my wife's losing weight.

Feel free to read up on it. This is why you should never have kids, fatty.

A Story Involving my Neighbors

Framing up the walkway stands a tree on the right and to the left is the lamppost painted green. It's a slender little tree; like a poplar or a cottonwood. The tree has that bend-don't-break attitude but hunches over nonetheless, nearly to the point of performing both tasks, despite his intent. See, trees aren't used to insomnia. They get their daylight at day and their rest at night. This chap, however, stays out late with his one and only friend, the lamppost painted green. I've heard that plants will grow away from darkness rather than toward light, but perhaps this tree has found something better, something worth growing for. Most trees get over their fear of the dark; they're strong and are adjusted to life at night and day alike. This tree, however, can barely stand on its own. Someday, despite all the happiness they share, the lamppost painted green is going to kill his friend the tree, although not his intent. But for now, while the days are young and the park bench stands nearby to catch them lest they fall, the two friends keep company, the tree trying ever so hard to lean closer and closer to his friend the lamppost painted green and the warm evening light he gives.

And at the wisend age of twenty-seven the tree is still afraid of the dark.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Empty Vote

This afternoon, I left my desk and took a short walk to my local elementary school. Performing our patriotic duty in a sweaty gym is the norm across the country, but this one actually had swarms of our nation's future running around right next to the polling booths. It was a challenge reading through the legalese of a property tax amendment with "No fair! Gimme the ball!" ringing out ten feet away. Mid-vote, I was hit with an errant basketball. Distractions aside, I dutifully cast my vote and walked home without so much as an intimidating look from a Republican thug (which in Florida means something).

Perhaps it would have been more heartening to get at least some harassment, however, as the complete lack of any catch to the voting process spoke to the democratic primary's sad and humble reality: it is an empty vote. If I had lived two blocks further away from the school, I wouldn't have gone and could have spent my time reading the news or watching "The Wire." In a predominantly Democratic area like mine, the polling place was eerily quiet; I was glad that the kids provided the soundtrack to my vote, because otherwise my mind would have been flooded with that democracy-squelching silence.

That is, in effect, what has happened to us Florida Democrats today. We were silenced. One might think that disenfranchising this particular population would draw ominous historical comparisons to 2000; apparently this connection was lost on Howard Dean and the Democratic party. So as a result of their recalcitrance on the early primary issue, we demoralized Democrats of the state trickled in to the elementary school gyms across the state knowing full well that our decisions in the booth wouldn't count for anything.

It is troubling when the voters are penalized for a decision made by their state political parties. No, the decision to move up the state primary was not put to a vote by FL Democrats; it was unilaterally declared by the state party. The national party's reaction to this power play was bullying and short-sighted: "If you vote early we're going to take away all of your delegates!" (just like the childish taunts in the gym this afternoon) Ultimately, this decision didn't penalize the state party; it penalized the state voters and denied Floridians' their voice in choosing the next president.

After all the childishness of this early primary battle in the state, the noisy school gym, surrounded by children, was all too fitting a place to cast my vote.

Update III: One Nation Under God

There was a fascinating discussion on Fresh Air yesterday afternoon with Randall Balmer, author of "God and the White House." In my first post on this theme, I mentioned Roe vs. Wade as the de facto inauguration of the religious right. Balmer, however, contends that Roe vs. Wade has only been adopted by Evangelicals as a political cause in the last 20 years or so. Surprisingly, the Southern Baptist convention in 1973 actually passed a resolution calling for the unconditional legalization of abortion, a measure that was reaffirmed in '74 and '76. The author claims that what really galvanized Evangelicals was the IRS's decision to strike the tax except status from Bob Jones University on the grounds of racial discrimination (the school didn't admit blacks until 1991). According to the author, it was this issue that really angered rank-and-file Evangelicals and pulled them under the charismatic sway of Jerry Falwell and others to support Ronald Reagan. It certainly wasn't abortion - as Balmer points out, Reagan introduced the most liberal abortion legislation in the country during his time as California governor; in his autobiography, furthermore, there isn't a single mention of the word "abortion"). No, Evangelicals didn't rally behind the first modern conservative president because of his stance on abortion; a marginalized group, they left the shadows and entered the political game because they were incensed at the Bob Jones dispute and were convinced by charismatic figures that politics was the way toward power and Godliness.

The Evangelicals of the 19th century had moral force and credibility because they worked from the margins for the marginalized; they eschewed the dirty, worldly game of politics for grassroots social advocacy. This long tradition came to an abrupt end in the 1980s in the figure of Ronald Reagan.

Materialism Will Not Save You from the Concrete Jungle

I was bored out of my mind in a three hour education class last night so I decided to slip out for a few minutes and grab a drink. On my way to the store I ran into Alyson Kennedy, the 2008 Vice Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party, and had a twenty minute conversation with her at the student union center at Florida International University. Oddly enough, Rudy Giuliani was on campus at the same time, but I figured if I was able to ask him any real substantial questions, such as why he helped represent a Spanish company regarding the Trans-American Highway, I might end up like that other guy . . . (“Don’t tase me bro!”)

So I was walking past the Socialist table and one of the large, short-haired ladies sees me eyeing the table and she pounces. She asked me if I would like to meet the Vice Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party. She seemed so eager and earnest. Maybe it was my dark, unkempt beard. After all, my Cuban grandmother-in-law did once ask, “Is he growing a beard like Fidel?”

Alyson Kennedy was well-spoken and articulate, even seemingly reasonable at first. I proceeded to tell her that socialism in America would never succeed due to the stigma attached to the name and that if their group ever wanted to get any kind of popular support in the States they would have to change their name and image like Britney changes wigs. I also told her that ultimately governments that end up taking too much power become oppressors rather than liberators. At this she smiled at me sweetly and told me that this isn’t true, that we have a perfectly good example of the beauties of a socialist system at work today.

Cuba she tells me. Cuba is a utopian paradise.

So all those students of mine who have relatives who have been tortured and imprisoned for speaking out against the government, what about them I ask her? Did they just make these phantom relatives up because the U.S. government told them to make Castro look bad?

No, they are enemies of the revolution and were rightly imprisoned she tells me.

Right . . .

At this point she realizes I’m not the second coming of Che Guevara and abruptly ends our conversation to attempt to proselytize someone a little more open to her message.

When I was talking to Kennedy, I thought about how she reminded me of so many other intelligent, earnest people I’ve met in my life who are searching for a reason for being. Many of them believe that all our answers lie in political systems. Well, this week in my English class we’ve been listening to the song Concrete Jungle by Bob Marley and I’ve been helping my students to analyze the lyrics.

I think Marley and his fellow Rastas had it right. When you buy into any material paradigm as your means for liberation, whether it’s capitalism or communism, you will ultimately become its slave. I sympathize with the dreads when they say to reject Babylon, but I just can’t bring myself to give up beer.

All the great teachers from Socrates to the Gauatama tell us to look for the answers inside ourselves. I know all these things on an intellectual level yet I still search other places. I don’t know that I will ever be anything other than a Babylonian at heart though.

No chains around my feet,
But I’m not free!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pool Table Observations

Shooting pool is one of my favorite past times, especially considering it's way past time I go out and do it. But that's what happens when you have a family: something's got to give. Anyway, it's a marvelous game. It requires a lot of skill, strategy, imagination, forethought, yet still even a child can enjoy themselves. The hyper-masculine can take their aggression out by hitting everything as hard as they can while receiving their feeder-bar rewards with the loud banging noises. The intellectual can calculate table geometry, exploit an opponent's skill with strategy, and all the while conquer the laws of physics to just get that damned ball in the hole.

One thing I noticed is how particular game scenarios can metaphorically apply themselves to everyday human life. I mentioned in an earlier post the Butterfly Effect, or more technically speaking
"sensitive dependence on initial conditions." For our scenario we'll take a shot that spans the table, the object ball close to a corner pocket (in my mind about 8 - 12 inches) and the cue ball approximately the same distance from the opposite corner. With a perfect alignment behind the ball you shoot the cue ball at the object ball. The tiniest miscalculation at one end of the table can result in a solid miss at the other end, no matter how well the observer perceived the necessary chain of events to require the ball to make it, uninterruptedly, to the pocket. Given time the tiniest miscalculation can have unintended consequential results. On the other hand, it is possible to miscalculate and still have the ball enter the pocket, either through the space of the pocket being larger than the ball or resulting from the ball interacting with the bumpers surrounding the corner pocket. In that sense even mistakes can lead you to the same ends. Then there's the idea of re-creating a shot. Players call it fundamentals, skill, chops, any number of designations related to a mastery of ones profession, and the mastery I speak of is the ability to hit any shot anywhere on the table. I recreate the experiment and manage to sink the ball again. It is virtually impossible that every single condition can be exactly duplicated as in experiment A, but I can hit the shot, exemplifying consistent skill, and reproduce the same results. It just shows that, while there is a great degree of respect we are required to give to even the smallest events in our universe, it seems that our physical space is not without a buffer zone, and that would most resemble the world we observe. One other thing to consider is that a lot of pool players don't understand that the act of striking the cue ball itself is the result of a series of events. Proper stance, ball & shot alignment, stability of the stroke & follow through of the cue stick, steadfastness in the pivot hand, fluidity in the stroking arm, and eventually it all gets traced back to the psychological state of the player before the shot. And this is before any motion even occurs on the table (y'know, aside from the constant transference of energy between all objects, gravity, speed of Earth's rotation, etc). So with an inexhaustible number of complications it all comes down to how much you've been drinking.

Anyway, this is how I mentally visualize cause & effect.
The tiniest detail can have the most profound consequences, yet the most consequential actions can still result in intended means. The entirety of existence as we know it now, at one point, occupied a time-space no larger than the point of a needle. At one point two celestial bodies were in the right place at the right time to which the laws of physics gently delivered them, astroid and Earth, into a collision course that resulted in that pretty moon we have in the sky.

I figure that making little posts like this, from time to time, might help deliver a better understanding of the way I look at things. In re-reading a lot of my comments and assertions it's obvious that I need to proof myself with greater scrutiny and better articulate my intentions. Most of the time it seems that I exercise a great deal of naivety. While sometimes true it's not always the case, but admittedly I'm not the most orthodox thinker.

Hanging with the locals

It's always a surreal experience penetrating out of the urban mess of Miami into the Everglades, one of the largest subtropical wilderness areas in the world. First you drive through Little Havana, with its spicy colors and Caribbean spirit; then you plunge through an expansive ring of suburban hell, with every chain store in existence accounted for; then you cross over one major road and you're suddenly in the swamp. All development stops dead and the earthy smell of the bogs fills the air. Five minutes later, and if you drive down a gravel road into the wilds and get out of the car, you won't hear anything but the sweeping of the wind through the grass.

Winter is the season when all the alligator eggs hatch. I stumbled upon this brood of little guys on my hike this weekend. Their mother was close by, submerged in the water and camouflaged under a thicket of weeds, so I didn't get too close.

re: Science Songs

As much as I'm a fan of carbohydrates (being a vegan with soy sensitivity hampers your direct protein consumption), I thought I'd share this with everyone. This is an excerpt from a video of a Karlheinz Stockhausen lecture on electronic music. It's an absolutely beautiful lecture and I feel has concepts that any musicians can learn from. Or any thinking mind, for that matter. Watching this makes me lust over being his student.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday, snowy Sunday

There's a postcard of a cactus under an Arizona rainbow on my desk this morning, and snow falling steadily past the window. The black dog who lives with us barks madly through the front window at anyone passing outside. Even though I've been reading a Paul Theroux essay in bed about the mental dangers of anthropomorphizing animals, I can't help but give her a little canine psychoanalysis and conclude that she must be uncertain where her yard ends today. The grass, the flowerbeds, sidewalk, driveway, street and neighbors' yards have all been robbed of their separate colors and textures and are now just one lumpy, uniform blankness.

Snow falls rarely in this valley. Waking to it is like finding a forgotten $20 bill in a desk drawer: the day suddenly contains an excuse for minor extravagance. When I walk to campus in the afternoon, snowmen dot the yards and a collection of children are busy building a huge snow slide in the middle of the elementary school's baseball diamond. Two elderly women in knit caps who are clearing their respective walks on either side of a quiet street set down their shovels as I pass and throw snowballs at me. They miss, and all three of us laugh.

"We've been taking potshots at all the pedestrians," one grey-haired commando informs me cheerfully.

Hours later, after the wind has shaken most of the snow out of the tree branches and the roads have turned to a geometric cipher of dirty slush and wet pavement, the sun goes down behind the snow-trimmed fir trees and the sky turns a brief pale rose. I hear my housemate and her boyfriend talking in the kitchen while they make BLTs. The whole house is thick with the comfortable scent of bacon and the sound of his laugh as he tells her about the day he spent skiing in the mountains.

"There was so much fresh powder that we took on much steeper stuff than we would normally," he says. "If you didn't like what was going on you could just sit down."

Some days, the world feels blessed by an unusual simplicity. Tomorrow, a Monday morning when the world resumes its normal speed, the snow that remains will be seen as a nuisance or an excuse. Elementary school kids hoping for the day off school won't agree with me here, but I feel there's something approaching perfection to be found in a snow-bound Sunday in a place where snow is rare and celebrated when it arrives.

Today a skier got a little braver. Today two women acted like children and made a stranger laugh. The city was full of a greater appreciation of the things we take for granted, like driving at normal speeds without sliding suddenly to the side of the road. Today little kids went sledding in the park while college kids had fights made out of weather and got wet and went back inside with smiles on their cold faces. Today our dog was the supreme territorial mistress of as much of the world as she could see. And today I woke early and lay in bed, watching snow falling through the cold air and feeling quietly amazed by how much one snowstorm can change, and how we never seem to remember any of it until the world blesses us again in this strange and beautiful way.

A good day.

Lowering the Bar

When I turned on the TV to watch the results of the South Carolina primary last night on MSNBC, I saw a commercial for what at first I took to be a rock concert, boxing match, or monster truck rally. With graphics of lightening and flames flashing across the screen and a pounding heavy metal soundtrack, the scene was set for everyone's favorite gruff-voiced announcer to say his bit about "one time only!," and "only one will leave the ring!" (Incidentally, that guy gets a lot of work.) Sure enough, the hyper-masculine voice proceeded with the voice-over: "Powerplay in Florida! Will Rudy Giuliani pull it off...?"

What? Was I hearing this right? Yes, sadly, this was an ad for MSNBC's coverage of the Florida primaries. Moving on in the same ad, they mentioned Feb.5, when almost half of the states cast their votes, by labeling it "Monster Tuesday" and putting the words in a chunky green font quite in fitting with typographical representations of the Incredible Hulk. All the while, the screaming guitars wailed in the background.

In bemused disgust I switched over to CNN, where a similar advertisement played out: their big slogan for the election cycle is "Ballot Bowl '08." Indeed, watch any of the cable news networks' political coverage and prepare to be dazzled by incendiary graphics, loud rocking music, tough-sounding voice-overs, and quick and disjointed camera shots. The guys making these political ads are probably the same people advertising for the next pay-per-view rumble in Vegas.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out in his great blog and Chops has brought up in conversation, the media love to use sports analogies when discussing politics. The most common analogies are pugilistic: "will candidate X score a knock-out in the debate tonight?"; "is candidate Y down on the mats for good after the bruising loss?" Another sport that political pundits draw from is football, as indicated by CNN's "Ballot Bowl" line. "Will candidate Z score a touchdown in Florida?" We can only hope that our candidates aren't pumping steroids before the debates to get juiced before the brawl.

Not only is this sort of coverage silly and trivial, it is deeply insulting to the intelligence of the American people. How can we expect our democracy to function healthily when this is the sort of political reporting we're fed? Perhaps it is just because I am more sensitive to it now, but it appears that the dialog this time around is lower than ever in an election year that matters more than ever. "Who is going to get the knockout punch?" just doesn't cut it.

Market fundamentalists will tell you that the media are simply providing what the masses want: if people didn't love this sort of sensationalized coverage, they wouldn't watch and the cable new programs would go out of business. This is the "lowest common denominator" argument - there are a lot of people who love this sort of thing, so the networks provide it at the expense of the "highest denominator." Indeed, the invisible hand is supposed to respond to desires in the marketplace, right? This line of reasoning holds a lot of truth in a lot of situations, but not this one.

It's a lot like the reality show craze of a few years back. It wasn't that audiences all of a sudden had the passionate desire to see which husband would be the first to cheat on his wife in "Temptation Island;" networks created the desire through advertising dollars - not to mention the fact that there was nothing else to watch - then ameliorated that desire. Networks realized that reality TV was much cheaper to produce than scripted programming, and came up with a winning strategy for selling the new product.

Of course, political discourse, the lifeblood of our democracy, is a different beast than primetime TV. The problem is that it is not treated as such; indeed, the news is just another revenue stream for these media behemoths, and they've discovered that the lowest common denominator sells enough to make this model profitable.

The only problem with this rosy theory (besides what it does for the quality of our democracy, of course) is that it isn't supported by the facts. A recent survey found the following:

- 2/3 of all respondents do not trust the media
- 88% think "the mainstream media focuses too much on trivial issues."
- 77% want more serious, substantive discussions of the issues at stake in the election, not just the horse race.

There is clearly a strong desire for better political coverage out there, which makes me wonder why the infallible market isn't rushing it to fill the void. There are all sorts of explanations for this that I will certainly explore in further "Mirth and Matter" entries; suffice it to say for now that not only does this comprise a failure of the market, it amounts to a failure of imagination. The majors have their tried-and-true strategy and any unconventional thinking is looked down upon. The mainstream system of political coverage is broken, regardless of all the YouTube debates and other young, with-it formats they roll out. The bar is low enough to crawl over.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"I Am Sitting In A Room"

The online project "Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music" classifies minimalism as "music that rewards the listener for paying attention." And rightfully so. I think the definition is a little bland, but that's another discussion. Whether or not this piece is minimalism is also something up for debate. The process is simple enough and definitely requires paying attention, but the results are very complex. Anyway, I'm not going to wax philosophical for once. I'm going to describe it and link to it. Alvin Lucier sits in a room and recites the text "I am sitting in a room... (you can find the complete transcript on the wikipedia entry)." This recitation is recorded by a microphone placed in the room. Lucier then broadcasts his recording back into the room with the same microphone turned on and recording that signal. After successive repetitions you are less able to hear the text and more able to hear the room's natural standing frequencies resonating.

Listening to this piece today reminded me largely of the article I read yesterday by Metronomikon. In a sense this piece is very modular with clearly distinguished segments, but rather than containing modules of dramatic action this piece is a constantly developing complexity. The end result in the listener, or at least me, is not a traditional emotional response, but absolute wonderment. Enjoy.

Saturday Night in South Beach

Out for a stroll this evening and snapped this shot in the art deco district of South Beach.

I encourage all contributors to occasionally post photos that in some way embody the places where you live. There is a lot of geographical diversity amongst us, and it might be fun to share what our environments look like.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Oedipus Bush

It is a familiar historical argument: Hitler's bitter rage over his missing testicle metastasized into WWII; Napoleon's short stature drove him to compensate by conquering Europe; Washington couldn't have kids, so he gave birth to the nation. Personal crises, shortcomings, and psychological hurtles drive important people to do what they do, and their lack of power in one critical arena drives them to a surfeit of power in another.

These cases are often roundly criticized in the academy, and in popular consciousness they are often used to justify inscrutable historical events through a sort of crude reductionism. Misleading as they may be, however, projecting historical turns onto individual psychologies can shed some light on a situation. After all, what is history but mass psychology writ large? The arguments presented above just take out the masses part to focus on the individuals driving change.

A revealing, updated version of the "power envy" hypothesis is presented in the recent book by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy. The argument is not a new one exactly. Weisberg contends that Bush's actions while in office are a result of his complicated relationship with his father, George H.W. Throughout his life, Bush has conducted himself as a sort of sad parody of his father: dad was a star scholar at Yale, son was a C student at the same institute; dad was a war hero, son was a reservist who dodged active combat; dad was a highly successful oil man, son was a floundering incompetent in the same field. The fact that the son met failure where his father experienced success wreaked havoc on the younger man's attitudes towards himself. This was in good part why he was driven to alcohol and drugs. He simply couldn't live in his father's shadow any longer. A break was bound to happen.

This moment came when George W. was elected president. Rather than following feebly in his father's footsteps, the newly elected Bush sought off on a different course - in essence, he turned his father's political methods on their head. Where H.W. was moderate, W. is conservative; where H.W. was secular, W. is religious; where H.W. surrounded himself with conflicting views, W. chooses a side and sticks to it, and so on. Weisberg reveals that H.W's chief advisor Brent Scrowcroft would send the son memos and suggestions. George W's break with his father's ways was complete: "I'm sick and tired of getting papers from Brent Scrowcroft telling me what to do, and I never want to see another one again." (Or I'll hold my breath!)

It is very easy to forget this sometimes, caught up as we are in the supreme complexity of world affairs, but decision making on a global scale still comes down to fallible individuals making decisions. Of course, an Iraq War-sized decision had strong geopolitical forces and big money behind it, so reducing it to straight-up childish angst isn't fair or accurate. Nonetheless, personal psychology played a huge role in the formation of the Bush Doctrine. Saying that he was "fighting Daddy's war" may be too glib; but in effect it's true. Unlike every other failure, Bush wanted to do something his father couldn't do.

Students of government and political history are trained in the methodology of political science, law, and history. But some things, as much as these disciplines help, cannot be explained by pure, cold, collective forces alone, nor the disciplines that examine them. Critical insights into the Bush years can be learned from taking Psychology 101. Indeed, the insecurities of one powerful man have, at least in part, unleashed great insecurity upon the world.

Update: One Nation Under God II

Weisberg gave an interesting interview on Fresh Air yesterday afternoon where he explicitly addressed Bush's faith. Again, in direct contrast to his father, Bush adopted a fundamentalist form of Christianity in the 80s just as his life was spiraling out of control. But how deep does Bush's faith go? Weisberg said: "Bush's theology is free of content but is sophisticated and artful at applying religion to politics." According to the author, even from his earlier days as an Evangelist, Bush eschewed real understanding of the faith for a sort of broad, non-specific, highly-politicized version of Christianity. He has been both sincere and calculated in his faith since the moment of conversion.

Good/Bad Movie Review

Since the tenor of this blog is so far decidedly high-brow, I’ve opted to lower the bar a bit by posting the first in what may be a series of good/bad movie reviews. First, a definition. There are good movies, like if you said to me, “Chops, did you see P.T. Anderson’s new movie There Will Be Blood? That was a good movie.” There are also bad movies, such as “I almost walked out of Batman Forever. That was a bad movie.” Good movies make you think, contain good plots, good character development, and generally aid in understanding the human experience. Bad movies have no redeeming characteristics. While you don’t expect the qualities of a good movie in a bad movie, the bad movie also commits the cardinal sin of not being very fun to watch. In between a good movie and a bad movie is the good/bad movie. Good bad movies may not be original, or though-provoking. They generally have slim character development, preferring to rely on caricatures rather than fleshed-out human beings. What separates them from bad movies, though, is that they are fun. Also, they tend to push very slightly at the edges of the overused genre in which they are invariably trapped. There are lots of good/bad movies out there. Hollywood prefers to live in the huge expanse that exists between good movies and bad movies, that area commonly referred to as the lowest common denominator. So without further ado . . .

Live Free or Die Hard

Bruce WIllis is back in the fourth installment of the ever more improbably named Die Hard series. WARNING - Spoilers Ahead. Someone is blowing up computer geeks and the Feds want to know why. They enlisted local law enforcement, in the form of John McClane (Bruce Willis) to pick up computer hacker extraordinaire Matt Farrell (the typecast Justin Long, aka that guy from the Mac commercials). But first, we see McClane pull a guy from a car. Nefarious bad guy? No, just a dude making out with McClane’s college-aged daughter. The ensuing father/daughter spat demonstrates that being a great ass-kicker and a great parent do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. This is the first and last instance of McClane’s character development until about 2/3 of the way through the movie, but you hardly notice do to the rapid-fire deployment of stunts and special effects. But I get ahead of myself.

McClane goes to Matthew’s apartment, and the two exchange a few quips about how Matt plays with dolls (“action figures!”), setting the stage for the odd-couple buddy plot that will be the format for the rest of the movie. Then the shooting starts, with the bad guys trying to take out Mac-guy before the Feds get to him. McClane and Mac-guy kill most of the first bad guys, escape, and drive to D.C., where we find out that the head bad guys are trying to shut down America. McClane tries to pass the problem off to the Feds, but the bad guys are back, this time with a helicopter. In a maneuver that defies all laws of physics, McClane manages to launch a police car out of a tunnel, up a toll booth (yeah, I know, you have to see it to even picture it) and into the helicopter. In one instance of meta-reference, Mac-guy channels the audience by exclaiming that yes, indeed McClane just blew up a helicopter with a police car. McClane and Mac-guy make one more attempt to pass the problem off to overworked local law enforcement, but come to the conclusion that they are the only ones who can stop them. In the second instance of character development, we find out that McClane is so tough not because he can sustain repeated injuries any one of which would kill or cripple a lesser man (although he can) but because he does what he does because no one else will do it. That, my friends, is the moral of the movie. That's all we got.

I won’t detail the rest of the movie so as to leave some surprises, but a couple more highlights. We have a show-down between McClane and the head bad-guy’s equally invincible girlfriend. Her death provides McClane fodder for several one-liners against the head bad-guy. In fact, McClane really comes alive in the latter parts of the movie, shedding his bored, burnt-out cop persona from the beginning of the movie. McClane relishes killing the bad-guys, often accompanying a death blow with a one-liner or simply a sadistic laugh/grunt. McClane likes his job, so long as his job involves killing lots and lots of anonymous bad guys. In addition, Mac-guy grows a pair over the course of the movie, changing from whiny nerd to somewhat bad-ass nerd. He adopts McClane’s attitude, if not necessarily his physical prowess. Other highlights include a cameo by Kevin Smith as another uber-nerd, and a fighter jet blowing up a highway overpass.

So what should we take away from this movie? If you are asking that, you clearly didn’t pay attention when I explained the idea of a good/bad movie. What you take away is that you spent a couple of hours watching things blow up, and had a good time doing it.

Science Songs

My wife, Lindsey, bringing science to the kidz . . .

On the Carbohydrate song:
Music by yours truly.
Vox recorded by Darron Burke at Makeshift Studio.

Quick question

Dolphins are likely the next intelligent species (possibly the first) on the planet, and likely we haven't begun to understand just how smart they are. What happens if and when we break the communication barrier between humans and dolphins....

1. Do we gain intelligent insight from them that we're either lacking or ignoring?

2. Do we, with a different point of view, develop the concept of an "objective observer," and thus fortify the art of science and better learn about the universe we occupy?

3. Do we empathize with intelligent creatures enough to finally stop trapping them in tuna nets?

4. Do we, after sharing a few pints, become incredibly disappointed with the status of intelligent creatures and collectively decide to give up?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Musical Constructs and Dated Practices

I don't quite remember the circumstances surrounding the epiphany, but one day I realized that music had spun a full 180 on its axis in regards to one particular trait: the solo. The solo of yesteryear, in context of the orchestra or small ensemble, was to isolate not just an instrument but an instrumentalist. In context of 60 musicians this is quite effective in inspiring feelings of isolation, insinuating individualism, or simply getting the passage as quiet as it needs to be. This day and age the solo is seemingly of pure egotism. The long-haired guitarist strikes the rock pose: wide stance, 30 degree bend at the knees, neck bent in the opposite direction, hair dangling in the strings, and then the machine-gun spray of 400 rounds of notes in just under 10 seconds. In that situation the soloist is meant to inspire climax, display powerful imagery, and create a spectacle of bombast that you would expect of a fireworks show.

It's easy to see the evolutionary process of the solo. Guitarists often cite Chuck Berry as a tremendous influence, cross genre and we examine Jazz and its emphasis on the individual in the context of Bebop to present, or trace back a little further to the big band era where Jazz ensembles functioned a little more like Western European symphony orchestras. Then there was the concerto pinning an instrumental soloist against a backing instrument (or orchestra), there was Opera placing emphasis on theatrical representation against orchestrated function, or we can follow the entire lineage of pious chant music and virtuosity being a necessity for melismatic passages. Solos have been with our music tradition since the onset, and I'm sure I'm leaving many practices out. If a tradition such as the solo has remained for so long it only makes sense that it contains an aesthetic that we appreciate. I personally am loathe to solo, but I come from the later generations where soloing is more a display of ego than of skillful orchestral representation. Such is the spectrum of the solo paradigm: Function vs. Ego. Now, as demonstrated above, the guitar solo in all its 180db glory has a function, and as such falls left of ego on the spectrum, but as Chops pointed out earlier, the bipartisan moderate needs to shut up and cut its damn hair. So immediately I'm biased. I prefer community to self, but not everyone does, and as such my opinion won't eliminate shredding in the near future, nor should it. It sounds good to someone, and if it didn't people wouldn't do it. But it makes me wonder about use and overuse.

Another example: loop music. Repetition is a fact of life and inherent in human nature. The cyclical nature of our universe extends from planetary motion to periodic waveforms and all means of energy transference in between. But there's a point when it's lost on the observer. Being an electronic musician I cannot stress enough the importance for loops, and for multiple reasons. Looping short passages gives you a repeating, or periodic, phrase that can be quite useful in other compositional constructs. The art of looping can also give you one less thing to worry about in the context of layering musical gestures, especially since the world of electronic musicians tends to favor "going it solo" instead of communal participation. It has also proven an especially useful tool in dance music where the most important attribute is to keep the asses bumpin' for three minutes before changing over the disc. This period of repetition also serves the DJ well in allowing for many ways with which to incorporate the next cut and avoid lag on the floor. But just as people will often stress emphasis on the personal trifecta of mind-body-spirit, so too can we consider music. To me dance music concerns itself primarily with body and leaves the others to lag behind, just like Bob Dylan doesn't make me dance but hits my heart like a freight train. And there's nothing more intellectually engaging than Rite of Spring, which also happens to demonstrate an extremely effective use of solo with its ethereal bassoon intro. The immediate example of loop-based dance music that comes to mind is Earth, Wind, and Fire's hit "Let's Groove." If there's a dance song that hits harder I haven't heard it. Yet somewhere into the third minute you feel like passing out from a concussion after hitting your head against the same brick wall time and time again. There are minute divisions in that the song has verse, chorus, and refrain, but all occupy the same repeating riff. It's only towards the end of the tune that they come in with a very distinctive bridge, and when it hits it hits HARD, no doubt due to the lengthy repetitions preceding it, but almost to the point of sounding out of place.

So I ask, "When is enough enough?" For a time, and probably still, my philosophy was to state my ideas and then move on or quit. And it work(ed)(s) for me. I live in a punk generation where my peers, and probably myself, have attention issues and seem to be on the more hyperactive side. I think that's why American Punk is so effective, its constructed similarly to traditional songs, but the ideas are simplified and the material passes quickly, making it engaging and entertaining through its duration. But it lacks as well. I find it more the pickled ginger to cleanse the mind, to cycle the ideas quickly and in a sense refreshingly. But where is the balance? Like most, I turn to Beethoven, and as predictable as it is, the 5th Symphony. This is one of the most stunning uses of repetition in Western music literature. The opening motive sustains the material for the entirety of the piece, yet all of it is presented in a way that sounds unique and fresh each time. The song DEVELOPS. IT GOES SOMEWHERE. And when it's done it goes back to the beginning and does it all again, exposing different layers of repetition. And when it's all said and done it presents the material again in a new context, with full orchestra filing out the chords of the motive. That, to me, is effective repetition. Humans have an obvious appreciation of repetition and it is historically present in our approach to mathematics, science, art, dance, music, and really any discipline you can imagine (except chaos theory). Yet there comes a point where we need change. To me, if Beethoven had a groove and good lyrics we'd be out of a job. Oh wait, the Beatles did it. Seriously, perhaps it is a pipe dream to have a music that gives you everything, but as we see that repetition is a pleasing element in human perception we also find an appreciation for balance. Would it not be a feasible goal to strive for the musical tri-chi?

To explain the title of the post, I purposefully did not state "Outdated," but merely dated. These practices of mention do have particular dates of their flourishing and certain aspects of musical creation that propagate them to their fullest. And that's not to say these practices are bad, but what is present in today's American musical climate is an overabundance of these qualities. As your nutritionist says: "Too much of anything is a bad thing." So not only are we all fat but we all listen to bad music as well. It doesn't help that we've had commodified hit-factories ranging from tin-pan alley to Hollywood, and that practice seems to work for the simple fact that it generates a concentration of wealth for the right recipient. But I think, at some point in time, the creation of art was not all about money. Some may disagree, but I remember a day where my crayons were simply a tool of expression and not the wanderlust of fame expressed through wax-strokes. Let's not forget the many positive uses of looping and soloing. Loops can provide drone-like instances, and in intelligent hip hop create a great continuity that draws your focus to the words, and skillful lyricists can intersect these two concepts at engaging points, adding dramatic content to the music. Solos have the ability of stating simply and thus stating powerfully. Perhaps this is the threshold of mastery in our field, the ability to discern taste. In which case I urge you to not be done in by the ruse of commercial culture. These people are no more skillful than a terrorist is a sculptor (of course Karlheinz Stockhausen's point of view, and I cannot disagree, is that mortal sacrifice is the universe's greatest means of performance art).

Bienvenido a Miami

After working for a few hours this morning I took my customary walk to alleviate editing fatigue and thought I'd bring my camera along, seeing as nobody has posted a picture yet and I wanted to give it a try. It's 80 degrees today and the water is lighting up like a glowbug. This view was shot a few blocks from home looking out across Biscayne Bay at downtown Miami. Estoy creo que es muy linda.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Negative Epiphany

I've been reading around five or six newspapers for the past few years now, half of them being international papers since we all know that many of the U.S. papers neglect quite a few bits of news. For the last couple years I've been reading an article at the beginning of my English class that I take from the newspapers. Recently one of my students approached me and set off my negative epiphany. She told me that, "I don't know how you are aware of all of these things and aren't completely insane."

It was at that moment that I realized how paranoid and anxious many of the news articles I've read over the years have made me. From solar storms to the bird flu (which is essentially what the Spanish Flu of 1918 was) the news articles have given me a nearly fatalistic outlook to the future of our planet. It made me wonder why I should continue reading the news when there was little or nothing I could do to influence future events. So I came to the conclusion that I should just stop reading the news.

This only lasted about a week. I just can't stop myself from reading the paper. Reading the newspaper is the 21st century's equivalent of watching a giant three hundred thousand car pile up on a daily basis. At the very least though, my negative epiphany caused me to again begin writing poetry regularly after a four year hiatus.

Here is a great word that I incorporated into the poem: pixelated. It has a great double meaning.

First definition: pertaining to a printed image which has been digitized

Second definition: bewildered, confused; slightly insane

I don't know that I will be posting my poems in the future, but here is the one that I wrote after the NE experience:

January 15, 08

Pages of newsprint
pixelated past my eyes
to see through
the half-truths
and their lines.

A flicker of the screen,
behind me Tolstoy's ghost,

Petite Book Reviews:

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol. Who said 18th century Russians can’t be funny? Dead Souls follows the exploits of a strangely charming anti-hero as he travels over Russia buying the “dead souls” of peasants from an assortment of eccentric landowners. Gogol is able to hold his own among the Russian literary elite. Everything is here: social commentary, a careful dissection of human emotion, musings on ethical improbables, but Gogol goes one step further by adding an element of black humor. While not as consistently funny (or bizarre!) as his short stories, Dead Souls does have its moments of genius and hilarity. However, the overall experience was weakened by the fact that this novel, Gogol’s first and last, was never completed. Towards the end, brief Editor’s Notes bridge the gaps between large segments of missing text. Because of this, the end comes abruptly and no satisfying resolution is achieved. It’s unfortunate as this broken conclusion mars an otherwise wonderful book.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami. This marvelous collection of short stories is a perfect illustration of Murakami’s mastery of tone. While all 24 stories deal with widely divergent topics, such as a man made of ice, a kidney shaped stone, and vanishing persons, each story is unparalleled in its ability to evoke a sense of mystery, fate and the all encompassing magic of the human condition. I have never encountered another writer who could create such a hypnotic atmosphere with such few words and with such simple events. Murakami’s style is almost zen; less is more, great depth is found in minutia, all the most profound secrets are hidden within the negative space. His writing is calm, poetic and patently brilliant. You could easily lose yourself in Murakami then emerge hours later, never to be the same again.

Sayonara, James Michener. Published in 1953, this book charts the romance between an American Air Force pilot and a Japanese actress, which was socially, racially and politically unacceptable at the time. In this sense, there’s a strong whiff of the Romeo & Juliet “love vs. the system” vibe, though it’s infinitely more profound here as it’s culture vs. culture, not family vs. family, and of course, these systems in Sayonara were institutionalized and, amazingly, completely real. Romeo & Juliet had it easy. Pansies.

This work is short for Michener (no, he doesn’t describe the pre-historic geology of the Japanese islands), but what little is said, is said amazing well. This book doesn’t reek of Western domination and Eastern sexualization like many similarly themed books do, and is able to avoid stereotypes or use them ironically. Michener also, incidentally, married a Japanese woman and it is clear he has a profound respect for the culture and handles his subjects with honesty and care. This is not your typical love story but it is achingly beautiful.

As She Climbed Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem. I’ve often wondered what would happen if my wife fell in love with lab-created black hole named Lack which defined itself by the things it devoured, like homeless cats, and the things it rejected, like ice-pickaxes. Well no, that’s not entirely true, I’ve never pondered this before – but it was an interesting ride. This book provided some fascinating glimpses into the arcane world quantum physics, such as the issue of the subjective observer, but little in the way of anything else. This is a conceptual book. It’s about one peculiar idea and fails to extend this to the human sphere. While there was human drama, it was performed by two-dimensional cardboard facsimiles. Strangely enough, the most artificial thing about this book was the characters, not the miniature black-hole which possessed signs of consciousness. Nope, good science doesn’t make good literature. But it was fun. So I suppose that’s a testament to Lethem, he turned quantum physics into something light, airy and playful.

Atonement, Ian McEwan. The influence of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf is welcome and wonderful in this expansive novel which begins in England on the cusp of WWII. Simply put, Atonement traces the effect of a childhood mistake over the course of 60 years. The (meta)narrative covers domestic English priggishness, the horrors of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, the insight of old age and the raw emotional power of literature. Atonement is one of those strange novels that left me lukewarm until the final 20 pages slugged me in the stomach. Viewed through the lens of the final section, the whole novel upends itself and becomes an entirely new, deeper creature. I’ve read my share of pre-war ruminations on English socialites (thanks to Huxley), but McEwan delivers something entirely fresh. I hear there’s a movie out based on this book but I’m skeptical. At its very pith, Atonement is about the power of literature and language. Film is neither of these things and lacks their subtle devices. I think the very soul of the novel would be lost in translation. But then again, it got nominated for an Oscar and Keira Knightley is hot.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith. Smith is a master chronicler of human motivation and interaction. This book, one of my recent favorites, follows the unraveling drama of two multi-national, multi-ethnic academic families. While the fathers of each are embroiled in an academic rivalry, the remaining members of both families are linked together by a series of unusual circumstances. And to sweeten this polarized stew, religion, politics, art and current social controversies play an integral role in the characters’ actions and psychological states. It is in this combination of extremes that On Beauty blossoms. Everything is finely observed and skewered. Smith gives a spot-on depiction of the inner workings of academic bureaucracy, and at times I found myself laughing in agreement. And of course, love plays a large role in the book. But it never becomes saccharine; each manifestation of love is unorthodox and imperfect, though at its very core, hopeful.