Friday, July 31, 2009


The beautiful, beautiful waltz "Sofa" ('78 band, Ike Willis on lead vocals).

God, I miss Frank.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bits on improvisation

Quick hit: from a response to a colleague's query about the difference of fact or terminology between "improvisation," "aleatoric music," and "chance" music. Here's what occurred to me:

I would not equate the them. With the exception of just one or two genres, I would submit that most improvisation happens within the constraints of a stylistic vocabulary or set of expectations: jazz, blues, Indian, Near Eastern, etc all have their own expectations. The exceptions that occur to me are (a) free jazz (though that wound up having its own, relatively narrow set of expectations) and (b) so-called "free improvisation"--I'm thinking here of the English people like Derek Bailey, etc.

Improvisation in most genres I know is more about the spontaneous selection and combination of a musical vocabulary, and usually involves some combination of pre-existing and spontaneously-composed materials. Hence, it's not "by chance".

When I'm describing "chance music" (the term I prefer) to undergrads, I usually will describe what I have seen as two parallel tendencies in Euro-American art music: music where the "chance" element occurs in the stage of composition (Cage using dice, I Ching coins, or the imperfections on a set of manuscript paper), versus those where the "chance" element occurs in the act of performance, typically by performers who are permitted such choice by composers. I don't even think that the latter is "by chance", because most performers' biggest problem, regardless of the strictures of a given composition, is that they tend to fall into familiar patterns. The biggest challenge in playing "free" (-jazz, for example) is how to AVOID falling into such patterns.

Derek Baily wrote a really great book on this: Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music.

Improvisation, typically, is intentional and, in most situations, idiomatic. There's very little left to "chance" about it--except the mistakes. Cue the old joke-definition of jazz: e.g., "two wrong notes in a row".

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lazy travel photo-blogging

Monument to great, great, great, grand-sire...the Roundhead Calvinist cavalryman, damn him:

Long Island Sound:

Sunday, July 26, 2009

True dat

John Prine writes songs that sound ageless. And he always did, even as a young man.

This is one.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

They just don't get it

Sen. Jim DeMint (I[becile]-SC) displays as much insight, rhetoric, and knowledge of history and politics as wingnut congress-critters usually do:

Sen. Jim DeMint,...told the GOP that defeating health care reform would “break” Obama.
I love when those fuckers try to talk tough. A fucking MBA from Clemson, insistent upon school prayer and outlawing abortion, requiring all illegal immigrants currently in the United States to return to their home countries, English as USA official language, tried to strip all federal funding from Berkeley CA because of political protests there, opposes any funding for bicycle trails or alternate energy, favors banning gays from teaching in public schools, wants to forbid single female educators from cohabiting with live-in lovers, member of the C-Street cult.

All these fuckers, who have been the recipient of the nauseatingly comprehensive privilege available to white, male, heterosexual members of the DC establishment, who somehow think that talking tough is going to make them tough. It's like Sarah Palin trying to diss Obama. It's like Karl Rove threatening Patrick Fitzgerald. It tells you just how isolated is the bubble in which they live--they can't tell the difference between talking tough and being tough. In the world they live in, there is no difference.

But that is not the world in which real people live. And when you talk smack to somebody who did grow up tough, they're likely to laugh in your face. Chris Rock said "I'm from fuckin' Brooklyn. I ain't scared of no Al Qaeda--I'm scared of Al-Cracker."

And when, as a white, male, heterosexual recipient of nauseatingly comprehensive privilege, you try to talk smack to a tough community organizer from Chicago, you're likely to get bitch-slapped. Obama said:
"I'm from Chicago. I don't break."
Those fuckers don't even realize how much they are outgunned.

But they will. They most definitely will.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fuzzy people 57

This guy might have the coolest job in the world: rehabilitating orphaned wolves and teaching them how to howl:

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Further to the art of memory: Sources

Further to yesterday's post: here are some sources I cobbled together for an old friend who was asking about them after this presentation:

Quintillian (the Institutio Oratoria) and Cicero both talk about the art of memory (see also Yates, Frances A. (1974), The Art of Memory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226950018; for a modern interpretation of the latter); St Augustine does too; the Yates has a good interpretation of the use of spatial and architectural mnemonics. A nice modern interpretation of the same is Jonathan Spence's The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, which documents the experience of a Jesuit who was a missionary in China and taught these techniques there to great effect.

Natalie Goldberg, in her Writing Down the Bones,"talks about how poetry's scansion, punctuation, etc should/can recreate, when read aloud, the breathing of the poet at the moment of composition. I extended that, in our conversation, to suggest that the reason for singing mantras aloud in the original language is because, if properly pronounced/sung/phrased, the mantra itself aligns the practitioner's breathing as the original composers intended. Hence, mantra/chant practice MUST use the original language and pronunciation for it to have the claimed tangible positive effects.

Ciaran Carson, in his Last Night's Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music, talks a lot about memory, mnemonics, and tunes. The trad musician who told me about attaching specific phrases of tunes to specific roads or landscapes is Paddy O'Brien.

There's a great scene in the Robert Duvall film The Apostle that focuses around little kids singing the books of the Old Testament to a specific mnemonic tune.

In memorizing texts in languages I don't speak, I've often succeeded best by attaching 1 specific gesture, apposite to the text, to each line; see Altramar's Crossroads of the Celts (the track "The Lay of the Forge") and From Galway to Galicia (the track "The Last Voyage of St Brendan").

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Art of the Memory

Over the years I have really learned to appreciate the kinds of performances that become possible when the repertoire is memorized. This is only partly because I'm only as good a sight-reader as a guitarist can be--which means not very good--and even more because most of the musics that I play have almost no use for notation except, occasionally, as an aide-memoire. Most of those musics are played by ear, by improvisation, and from the memory.

Some of the first heavy-duty memorization I did was poetry: pieces like Alfred Noyse's The Highwayman (since turned into a poem by Andy Irvine), Walter de la Mare's wonderfully spooky and evocative The Listeners, and Noyse's The Admiral's Ghost; the occasional piece of lyric poetry; and the fantastic versions of iconic Shakespearean speeches excerpted on LP from Olivier's films. Those latter are how I learned to recite the "Crispin's Day" speech from Henry V and both the "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind" and, most wonderful of all, Gravedigger's "Alas, poor Yorick" speeches from Hamlet. Though I know they are now considered dated and stagy--which seems like a cheap-assed attack, considering they were made as patriotic entertainment on a shoestring during WWII (and Henry V actually improves with this treatment--they are still my touchstone for how Shakespeare should sound.

Later, there were the magnificent verbal epics of Robin Williamson and Ben Bagby, and the stark dunghill haiku of late Yeats, and the beautiful verbal loop-the-loops of Seamus Ennis and Joyce and Ciaran Carson, and there were lots of others, but the above were the ones I first imprinted upon, and really remember, and can still recite to this day.

What I am reminded of, particularly, in looking at the above list, is the degree to which all of the above were, ultimately, based in oral poetry and in the model of live performance. Even Noyes and de la Mare were part of a generation of English writers who were quite consciously going back to the archetypes of Irish, Scottish, and English folk balladry--and you can hear it, when you take them off the printed page and back into the chanted voice.

Try it for yourself: find a printing of a poem--or, even better, a recording of a poet reading his/her own work--and learn it by heart. It'll come alive in your own voice.

Branagh's version of "Crispin's Day":

Olivier's version of "Alas, poor Yorick":

Now try de la Mare's The Listeners aloud, for yourself:

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
'Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Poetry lived in the voice, and the memory, first.

And it still does.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

We have lost Ali-Ji. He was the great modern virtuoso stylist of the sarod, the short-necked, wire-strung lute that came into North India from the Muslim world (Arabic: sir-ud: "the great oud")

If you practice for ten years, you may begin to please yourself, after 20 years you may become a performer and please the audience, after 30 years you may please even your guru, but you must practice for many more years before you finally become a true artist—then you may please even God.
I only visited his school in Berkeley once, but the aura of clarity, devotion, and positivity was palpable.

His was a life well-lived. The disciples of his garana populate the world and continue to make music according to his highest principles.

We were immensely blessed by his presence and we are bereft at his departure.

And can I just say, I hope and pray for a death with one iota this much dignity and beauty?
Alam Khan (son of Ali Akbar Khan)

"I will leave you with this:

"Last evening 6/17/09 while surrounded by his students and family here at our home, Baba said to us, "bring the harmonium."

"We all were surprised, to say the least, and concerned that he should rest. He kept requesting us so I went into the next room to bring the harmonium. One of his youngest disciples whom he has been teaching since childhood began to play Sa upon his request. Soon after, Baba began to sing to us all in Rag Durga. He proceeded to teach us for the next 30 minutes and all in the room were singing and weeping. It was truly a moment in my life I will never forget and was so moving I felt as though I was living in a story one might hear of the great legends of olden times. Even while "on his deathbed" (or chair, in his case) and not being able to lift his head, our father and guru wanted to still teach us and share with us this beautiful music. God bless him... God bless him."
I am very, very sorry he is gone.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How we do in West Texas and, Fuzzy People 56

Just back from the regular Thursday night jam at the auto-body shop. This is a serious west Texas institution which may require a bit of translation to those from other planets.

In west Texas, in the summer, it is too goddamned brutally hot to be outside any time that the sun shines directly upon you. But, along about 8pm, as the sun slants down toward the horizon, it doesn't get cooler, exactly--it's just not quite so hot. And, because it's flat as a griddle and we're at the absolute hell-west-of-nowhere-end of the time-zone, the twilight is very, very long: maybe 3 1/2 hours between when the sun's below the horizon and when it gets to be full dark.

And those 3 1/2 hours of twilight have led to the fantastic west Texas institution of the beer garden. It probably begins with the Czech, Bohemian, and German immigrants to the Hill Country (e.g., "Biergarten") but it continues in west Texas: if you're done with work, and there's only one more day--Friday--in the work week, and you're starting to slant in toward the weekend, then Thursday night is a very good night to go out, hang out, and listen to live music.

Outside of Ireland, I have never encountered a vernacular culture where musicians are so much respected, and where such a substantial part of the population makes going-to-hear-live-music their main leisure activity (to be fair, I've never spent time in West Africa, but even there, I think the caste/class things are stronger and more prohibitive). I have never been treated better, as a musician, by the person in the street as I have been in west Texas (well, with the exception of the west of Ireland, and playing for Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester, Massachusetts in my youth).

Usually, I have a regular Thursday night gig which prevents me getting out to do much else on that evening. But I'm taking the summer off from that gig, and so, when old buddy Coop emailed me with an invite to the Thursday-night jam at the auto-body place, I had the chance to attend.

It's old-school west Texas: this is the kind of party that the great Willie Morris described in North toward Home, and my deario Molly Ivins skewered and feted: beer in a cooler, sitting in folding lawn chairs on the concrete apron out front of the shop, most everybody smoking like chimneys.

But there is absolutely no self-consciousness to these people: the racists are un-selfconscious about their racism, the judgmental fundamentalists are un-selfconscious about judging you, the potheads are un-selfconscious about their attraction to weed, and so on.

But they're remarkably open people: they have all kinds of presumptions and judgments, but they're almost all aimed at people they haven't yet met. If they've met you--and even more, if you're a friend of a friend of the house, as was my case with old buddy Coop--then you're a person, and they're all about people.

The music had its ups and downs (lots of Eagles and Billy Joel covers), but it was a remarkably open and friendly experience: didn't matter just how badly guitarist A sucked worse than guitarist B, they were still going to give A his turn as the song-choice circulated around the table, and they can fall in and busk-along on the chords for almost anything. And, to an extent almost unimaginable in any other part of the country except maybe the Lutheran northern Midwest, or possibly Congregationalist northern New England, these Baptists and Church of Christers can harmonize like angels, and without even having to think about it. And would, generously making no-matter-how-rudimentary a guitarist or shaky lead singer sound pretty damned good.

And--another one my Yankee and Left-Coast friends might never anticipate--at the end of the night, the fiddler who's boss of the session pulls you aside, and thanks you for coming, "'specially 'cause I know you're a music scholar and everything," and starts telling you his recollections of a visit by the Dalai Lama to Lubbock way back in the 1980s. And they thank you for attending, and you find yourself telling the following story about Padmasambhava's 8th century prophecy:

“When the iron eagle flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered over the earth, and the Dharma will go to the land of the red man.”
And the old fiddle player with the white hair in a ponytail and the false teeth smiles and says,

"We know."

And, of course, they do.

Below the jump: Mama sea lion teaches her cub how to swim:

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Good peasant food: Dr Coyote's stir-fry tips

Dr Coyote's stir-fry tips:

It's not supposed to be complicated--it's supposed to be simple. My German grandmother called the "whatever's left when the ice melted" soup/stew/casserole Oyupodweeda (German? Yiddish? no idea), and stir-fry is the East Asian equivalent. I'll save for another post the version that uses a sauce and freshly-cooked rice; this one is for stir-fry and added, pre-cooked "fried" rice. Good way to use up leftovers.


A decent and properly-seasoned wok is hugely useful: if you buy one, you'll never need a frying pan again, for anything from parboiling, to toasting, to stir-fry, to deep-fry. It's worth the investment. Failing that, a decent and well-seasoned frying pan. Either way, you want a tight lid: helps contain the spattering oil (easing clean-up) and also helps warm things through when the cooking portion is done.

Some combination of high-temperature oil (canola is the best combination of efficacy and low-calorie; failing that, peanut oil is good but fatty; olive oil scorches at too low a temperature) and flavoring oil: I like toasted sesame oil.

Wooden spoon: I'm old-school; would rather use a non-metallic or petroleum-based cooking utensil and I don't really give a shit about the germs.

A good-quality, properly sharpened cook's knife. You want something between 8 and 10 inches, with an offset blade to protect your knuckles. If you don't know how to properly sharpen and maintain a knife, get somebody to show you--it's probably the single most important skill in competent cooking.


You're going to cook things in reverse order of cooking time; e.g., the less time an item is going to take to cook, the later you introduce it to the pan. You want everything to be cooked through--but not overcooked--at the same time, which is right when you take it off the flame for serving. The only way to get all these ingredients' different cooking times coordinated is to introduce them in this reverse order.


Chop all your ingredients in roughly the same bite-sized pieces, no more than 1" on a side (smaller, as long as all are consistent, is OK). If you're cooking any kind of protein (tofu, seitan, any kind of meat), you're going to cook that first--basically searing it in the oil to hold in the juices--and then remove from the wok, while reserving the oil that's been flavored by that cooking. Hard (root) vegetables--potato, squash, onion, broccoli, carrot--and medium-hard vegetables--especially peppers, bok choi, cabbage--should be chopped to the same size but will be introduced in the reverse order.


Heat the oil in the wok. Use mostly vegetable (canola)--2 to 3 tablespoons if you're serving 4 people--with a splash of the flavoring--1/2 to 1 tablespoon. Get it hot, so that water flicked from the fingers will sizzle, but not so hot it's smoking: if it's smoking, it's starting to burn, and that scorch will come through in the flavor.

Sear and lightly cook whatever is the protein. No need to cook it through: you're flavoring, adding a nicely chewy texture, and locking in the moisture. Should take no more than 3 or 4 minutes. Toss regularly while cooking: this prevents sticking and allows all pieces to cook evenly. Remove from the wok and drain on a folded paper towel: this dries and de-greases the protein.

Now start cooking the veggies in the hot, protein-flavored oil. Start with the hardest (onions and broccoli), move to the next hardest (say, squash or potato), and finally to the least hard (peppers, bok choi, cabbage, etc). Continue tossing and stirring so all pieces cook evenly. Onions/broccoli will take 5-6 minutes, squash/potato 3-5, peppers/etc 1-3. Time the reverse order accordingly.


Note: you want to season once the veggies are starting to cook, as they will be softened and made more porous, thereby absorbing more of the seasoning. I like some combination of garlic, ginger, chili (or red pepper). Err on the side of more garlic than you think necessary. You'll want a splash of soy or tamari, but be aware of two things: (1) the soy is mostly water, so introducing too early will cause it to sizzle and spatter--better to wait until the veggies are closer to cooked, and therefore more absorbent; (2) soy is a very pervasive flavor, and (especially when cooked down), very salty. So when you add the soy, think in terms of a "splash"--not a larger amount.

Return the seared protein to the wok and lightly toss so that it re-warms. Note: do this only when you're 90% done cooking the veggies: adding the lukewarm protein will bring down the overall temperature and slow the cooking of the veggies--so make sure they're mostly done first.

If you're using, as suggested, pre-cooked rice (brown rice works beautifully here), add the rice here. If it's at all sticky, break up the clumps with your fingers: you want the flavored oil to be able to get at each separate grain. Stir lightly so that veggies, oil, protein, and rice are relatively evenly distributed. I like to add the splash of soy now, as that way it can get to all the components evenly.


The make-or-break in a pleasant stir-fry is not ingredients, or even seasoning, but texture: stir-fry is about actually tasting the ingredients themselves, not the seasonings or the char of the fry. Therefore, undercook, as this will preserve both the contrasting flavors and the contrasting textures of the hard/medium/soft veggies and chewy protein. As an added fillip of texture, I like something crunchy for a garnish: lots of Thai, Vietnamese, and South China Sea cooking uses grated peanuts, but I prefer grated (or food-processed) roasted/toasted almonds.


Serve in bowls (it is after all a one-pot meal). A really crisp white wine or a good Asian beer go very well.


The yin/yang balance of this meal is such that you'll probably develop a sweet tooth after finishing. Hence, it's nice to have on hand either (a) some chilled melon--maybe in a sweet sauce? or (b) some good-quality plain yogurt with a little bit of sweetened syrup. This will redress the yin/yang balance very well.

Good peasant food.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Fuzzy people 55: why I like crows

When I was a small child, my mother adopted an American Crow who'd been injured--maybe fallen out of the nest--and had a crippled leg as a result. He was smart as hell, however, and quickly learned to recognize both the mauve plastic cup and the sound of it being tapped which meant there were chicken livers to be had. We called him Charlie.

It was one of the first close communicative bonds I'd ever had with an undomesticated animal, and there are still some old Polaroid snapshots, yellowed and curling at the edges, of my brother, myself, and Charlie. Eventually we had to have him (safely) relocated by the Fish & Wildlife folks, because he started pecking at my toddler brother's flaxen hair when he was outside in the playpen. But there's a Nisg'a raven tattooed on my left shoulder, to join the other totem animals with which I've marked my body. And my First Peoples DNA is only half the reason for that. The other half is Charlie.

I thought of him when I saw this: New Caledonian crow who figures out not only how to use a tool (a bent piece of wire that lets her reach food at the bottom of a narrow cylindrical tube) but--Jesus!--how to make it. This crow analyzes the situation, realizes she can't reach the food, realizes there's a bail on the little food canister, picks up the wire, realizes the straight wire won't help her, wedges the end so she can bend a hook into the wire (which is precisely the same technique that plumbers use to get clean bends in pipe), and successfully extracts the food.

The kicker? She repeated the task successfully, nine more times.

The Universe is a remarkable, magical place, filled with remarkable sentient beings.

That's why we shouldn't kill them.

Oneowe, Charlie.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Here come the lowlifes"

Years ago, when Dharmonia and I both worked at the much-missed Guitar Workshop, an incredible environment of remarkable, idiosyncratic talents which I only experienced similarly and again at, first, Indiana University around 1990, and, again, at my current institution just in the past few years, when the guitar studio let out at 10pm we and colleagues would often be too wound-up, or too much on a nocturnal circadian rhythm, to be prepared to just go home and to sleep. One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a member of any creative community, over and above its creative productions, is the simple joy of the companionship of artists. Most performing artists, egomaniacs though they may be, are usually a lot of fun to be around--the performance doesn't start at the downbeat or end at the encore. They like to have a good time and they like the people around them to have a good time.

So those 1980s nights hanging out at the Boylston Street bars with the Guitar Workshop crew were pretty darned fun. The wait-staff always liked to see us (one of the few places that musicians in North America get treated well is in restaurants) because they knew that we would always be polite, that we'd order grown-up drinks, and that we'd always tip well. It's a bullshit fallacy that musicians tend to be obstreperous in public places: one of the last things anybody who spends most of their working nights in bars and restaurants wants is more noise on their night off. So the staff at the steak-joint down the street from the studio were usually happy to see us and we always got good service.

But one night it didn't stop some bunch of ostentatiously-suited Gordan Gekko wannabes from thinking that they might be able to get a little bit of "comic" relief and look good to their teased-haired breast-implanted power-suited dates. So as we walked to our table, one fat old Boston-pol type (red face, whiskey nose, white hair brushed straight back, rep tie unloosened, probably about three whiskeys over his limit) leaned over to his table-mates and said, in a hardy-har-har voice insufficiently hushed "Here come the low-lifes". At which his dumbbass table-mates all chortled with self-congratulatory glee because, for once, one of their own had managed to say something that somebody, somewhere, might find kind of funny. What this drunken old business-bum hadn't sussed out, though, is that if you spend all your time harassing secretaries and abusing underlings (think Steve Carrell in "The Office", only older, more alcoholic, and much less painfully-empathetic), you are NOT getting any of the equipment that you're gonna need to lock horns with people who spend their lives improvising.

It's like the hecklers at comedy clubs, who think they're going to somehow score points by going mano-a-mano verbally with some guy whose profession is to improvise comedy. What, do they think "oh, that's easy..he's just talkin' up there"?!? Typically mainstream culture--they think, because they don't know anything it, that it must be "easy". Well, it ain't, bucko. And if you're stupid enough to walk into our particular bull-ring, you'll be lucky if you only get tossed, rather than gored.

In the event, none of us really cracked an expression. But as we were walking by, the great Jim Carrington, the rock guitar teacher, who made 1970s Steven Tyler/Joe Perry look like models of probity, leaned over to the loud drunk and said,

"That's OK. We buy and sell assholes like you all day."
and we walked on to our table.

Of course, that was bravado: at the time, the guitar studio was scraping by, and we were all glad to be earning the 12 or 14 bucks an hour for 15 or 20 hours per week--and thought we were living high on the hog because we each had a sort-of "steady teaching job" to supplement the one-off gigs that paid little or nothing.

But it did capture something true about our lives: that we had already made choices that separated us from the jackasses with the suits and the hardy-har-har whiskey voices. We were already walking a different road, one much less populated, but with traveling companions we'd chosen ourselves. We'd definitely sold those fuckers down the river--the worst part of the jobs those assholes held wasn't the nature of the work, although that was quite slimy enough, but the absolutely soulless interpersonal value-system they had to buy into.

Now, 20 years later, I sit in the International terminal getting ready to get on a flight so I can go give a paper about music I love--the same music I was playing way back then, when the hardy-har-har businessmen were calling us the "lowlifes"--on someone else's dime. And I can hear Carrington's voice echoing down through the years.

Yes, asshole: we did buy and sell punks like you all day.

And it was a helluva bargain.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Random bullets o' travel crap

Fighting my way back home to Dharmonia. Now 1:30am where I left, the alarm having rung at 6am. Passing the time:

  • Almost everywhere in the so-called First World (Europe and the Pacific Rim) does travel accommodations, security, bureaucracy, design and so forth better than Americans;
  • Americans are loud and obnoxious travelers; the stereotype has a grain of truth;
  • If you spend most of your Stateside life in air-conditioned environments (say, anywhere in the American Southwest), engaging with indoor/outdoor climate the way most of the rest of the world does--e.g., unmediated except by window screens and fans--can be quite a shock. We are goddamned effete people.
  • Most of the world walks or rides bicycles more than most Americans. They are facilitated in this by cities whose layout predates the internal combustion engine.
  • Airlines are evil, and the only people who like them are the majority stockholders. EVERYONE one else who deals with them--passengers, on-the-ground staff, in-the-air personnel--are being abused, ripped-off, or exploited.
  • Airlines know that they're as essential to the nation's 21st century function as the railroad barons knew they were in the 1890s, and we'd need another trust-buster as ferocious as Teddy Roosevelt to bring 'em to heel.
  • If Ronald Reagan hadn't killed Amtrak and the Bush family hadn't sold out to Saudi Oil, we'd have a train system that would let a large percentage of the population tell the airlines to "fuck off."
  • I don't mind paying a fee for a checked, because lots of folks traveling regionally don't check anything, and they shouldn't be penalized. On the other hand, anybody who shows up at check-in with a bag that's 20 kilos overweight, thereby forcing them to hold up the queue while they try futilely to redistribute, should be subject to public ridicule. Maybe that'll learn 'em.
  • On the other other hand, Ryan Air's plan to cram more people on board their flights by having people stand, or sit on stools, is the product of, hmm, how shall I put this?...FECKIN' EEDJITS!
  • Too many Americans act as if, should they refrain from pushing to the front of the boarding queue regardless of their group number, they're going to somehow get left behind--like, the airline staff are going to give their seat to someone else?!?
  • Airports are one of the greatest places in the world to people watch; as our old friend David says "you get to see a lot of people being happy."

Splort: Fuzzy People 53

Head-explodingly cute: guinea pigs grunting while they chow down on watermelon.

h/t to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Quick hit

Travel day tomorrow. Conference went well: nice folks, interesting papers, good response to my own.

84 Charing Cross Road is now a Pizza Hut. That's just about exactly what we now deserve.

Stateside tomorrow.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Traveling day

LBB-Dallas-Heathrow-the Strand. Paper at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thanks, I'll stick with the analog, dead-trees version

Here's why I won't be converting to an e-book reader any time soon:

Kindle patents suggest that part of the enjoyment of a good eBook might one day include “advertisements throughout the e-books, from the beginning to the end, between chapters or following every 10 pages, as well as in the margins.”
You gotta be fucking kidding me. Thanks but no thanks.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

This is MY America

This is MY America: the Fenway Faithful help out a young special-needs man when he gets flustered while singing the national anthem:

So here's my parallel Universe, and the real Independence Day celebration, and the real American heroes, in that universe:

Where the marching band is Jim Reese Europe's 369th Hellfighters Band, sashaying down the streets of Harlem, playing charts by Charles Ives, with Charley's beloved-but-died-too-young father George, the youngest bandleader in the Civil War, trades off the baton with Lt. Europe, with James Brown as the drum-major, with banners heralding Peace and Freedom and Justice flying at the head; and marching in the van are all the boys who didn't have to die in America's contemptible elective imperial wars;

with a picnic on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where Buddy Bolden, healed from the "madness" that was the only possible to the insanity of Jim Crow, trades trumpet licks with Clifford Brown, who walked away from the car wreck miraculously unscathed, and Janis, with a man who loves her and a church family that supports her, kisses Jimi and congratulates him on a fair record deal, and Bessie Smith, the Queen of the Blues, donates her royalties to a charity hospital for poor people;

and Blind Willie Johnson asks the blessing, and Gary Davis sight-reads the hymns, and Duane Allman and Charlie Christian trade choruses on the offertory while their grand-babies pass the paper plates, and Bird and Trane and Dolphy and Ayler man the horn section, and Fela and Miles swap licks and each agrees that the other is the greatest player;

and Zappa gives the patriotic address, and Bo and Mr Jelly Roll and Mongo and Lemon and Robert Johnson compare their versions of the hambone and argue good-naturedly (while the beer never runs out) about whose is better;

and there's corn and slaw and pickles and peach pie and mashed spuds and sweet tea and pulled pork and barbecue and Hebrew National hotdogs and fried chicken, but no animals ever had to die to provide them, and Tom Binkley approves the hummus and dandles his grandkids on his knee,

and my father is there, sober and happy, sketching the scene,

and saying "just lemonade, thanks."

I will work until I die to help make this nation more what it could be.

Here's the original.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Adolescent essentialism: Ayn Rand

[Sometimes there just needs to be a takedown. Apologies in advance to anyone for whom the following is challenging--but I've thought about this stuff for decades and it's time to say it.]

At the age of 12 or 13, if you're bright, literate, and starting to question the world around you--and particularly if you've been raised by parents who encourage you in such questioning--there are a lot of different directions in which you can begin to move as you look for some kind of maturing world view. I was lucky, as I've blogged before: at right around that age, I encountered the community of creative artists, specifically musicians, and it was immediately apparent to me, though raised in a non-musician household, that a life spent making art in collaboration with other people could be deeply satisfying, on both creative and psycho/spiritual levels. That world-view made sense to me and, despite the price I paid (no kids, little money, and the likelihood that I'll never be able to afford to retire), I'm comfortable that it has served me well. For other people it's team-sports, or marching band, or Boy/Girl Scouts, and so on.

It's the same age at which others encountered Star Trek or Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia or Watchmen or Goth or punk-rock, perhaps, and the appeal of all of these latter is roughly the same: what Kevin Murphy, in his great A Year at the Movies describes as the "leather-hat" syndrome. Murphy talks about attending the premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's (really quite remarkable) translation of Tolkien's unwieldy storytelling to a different medium, and about overhearing two "fan-boys" (long coats, Elf-ears, slogan T-shirts, and the aforementioned big leather hats) arguing about the minutiae of Tom Bombadil and Aragorn's sword.

He links this--quite persuasively--to an essentially early-adolescent desire to enter a world which is more predictable, clear-cut, reliable, and egocentrically gratifying than an adolescent begins to sense the real world might be. It's essentially the same world-view that ANY fundamentalist, of whatever ilk or stripe, holds: that the world *isn't* really as complicated, unpredictable, scary, or simply indifferent as they fear it might be: that if only the "bad people" or the "sinners" or the "infidels" or the "Gays" or the "looters" (pick your scapegoating Fear Factor) could be put down once and for all, God/Allah/the Universe/Objectivism will PROVE that WE'RE the "good people" and that it's not *our* fault that our lives are frustrating, unsatisfying, or full of failure.

Any Rand's bullshit screenplay-as-philosophy "Objectivism" is just one more manifestation of this same, ultimately childish, egocentric obsession seeking Simple Answers to a complicated world. It's no surprise that the Rush Limbaugh's of the world are Any Rand promoters: her cult of selfishness (masquerading as "Objectivism") fits perfectly with Limbaugh's own cynical exploitation of his dead-end Ditto-heads' own desire to place blame for failure elsewhere than on their own heads. Alan Greenspan, the imbecilic "the market will adjust itself" Adam Smith-wannabe who got us into this collapsing stock-and-bank market, became a Rand disciple as a member of her Collective in the 1940s.

Rand was at least as accomplished as that other massive charlatan L. Ron Hubbard at generating sounds-cool terminology for essentially vacuous philosophical tropes, and had at least as big an ego: remember, this is a woman who, without having actually read any of the Greek philosophers in their entirety, had the gall to say that "in the history of philosophy she could only recommend "three A's"—Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand." Born in Russia just before the Revolution, she came to the west and set herself up in early Hollywood as a screenwriter and script-editor. So she was always skilful at creating gratifying fictions, simple story arcs, and reliable audience-satisfaction. She married an actor, and in the '40s, in the wake of the Bomb and post-War American triumphalism, managed to construct several puerile adolescent sci-fi fantasies which found an audience (they were in fact based, by her own admission, in her discovery as a child of a French serial called The Mysterious Valley and neither she nor her audience never really outgrew that essentially childish focus). Just as the hyper-masculine pulp-novel heroes of her novels are all permutations of "Cyrus" from that children's book, so all her heroines are permutations of--idealized extrapolations from--the image of herself she sought to promulgate.

All authors do this, of course: Steinbeck even developed a rueful theory recognizing it in himself. But adolescent authors--like the authors of fan fiction who write themselves into the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings cycle--do it apparently oblivious to the transparency of the wish-fulfillment such characters embody.

Anybody with an ounce of understanding of American political history will know all they need to know of Rand's actual "intellect" when they discover that Rand campaigned hard, in the 1940 elections, on behalf of Wendell Wilkie against FDR (certainly Roosevelt's 1930s programs must have stuck in her craw--there's nothing an ideologue hates more than having opponents' theories work out better, in practice, than her own).

There was a trend throughout the first half the 20th century for would-be utopians to try to find "solutions" in human messiahs: if it wasn't Hitler or Mussolini or Franco, it was Madame Blavatsky or Aimee Semple McPherson or that colossal charlatan Maud Gonne, or Robert Graves's demon-"muse" Laura Riding [not linked, because her executors are still distorting the online-record]--most of whom were capable of convincing themselves, in order to convince their disciples, that they themselves were the Utopian messiah.

As Nathaniel Branden, the young in-over-his-head writer who Rand seduced at age 25, put it "Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter of any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral or appropriate to man’s life on earth." That's what Ouspensky and Maud Gonne and Laura Riding all did, what adolescents do: they scream and stamp their feet and and cannot see outside the bubble of their own self-interest. More fully-realized humans conclude that each of us is very small, our time here in consciousness a mere blip in historical time, and that what *matters* is connection with others. Adolescents are precisely the stars of their own self-engrossed movie--it's when they let go of that movie that they begin to grow to (emotional) adulthood.

Rand's world, her stories, her characters, her reinvented fictional autobiography, her "philosophy", was nothing but fantasy. It was always a glittering, gratifying, badly-written, adolescent fantasy. That she managed (and still manages) to hypnotize adolescents into believing there is any "There" there is more of a statement on adolescence than on Ayn Rand.

I'll close with a quote from the superbly-snarky Kung Fu Monkey, which grants Rand just about as much credibility as she earned or deserves:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world.

The other, of course, involves orcs.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

"The glory-beaming banjo!"

When you want genuine music - music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whiskey, go right through you like Brandreth's pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pinfeather pimples on a picked goose - when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! -Mark Twain

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Good Grey Lady recognizes roots music

Wish it wasn't the "Travel" reporter who'd written the story--pretty trite--but the audio slideshow is nicely done.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Funky white boys: Little Feat

Bunch of funky-ass white boys: Little Feat, with the great Richie Hayward (drums) and the incomparable Lowell George (RIP): bandleader, lead singer, songwriter, slide guitarist. These guys shoulda been a lot more famous than they were.

"Fat Man in a Bathtub"

"Dixie Chicken," with Bonnie Raitt

Wednesday, July 01, 2009