13 April 2014

It's Even Worse Than It Appears

It was a warm, summer Sunday and I prepared for my regular weekend long run. By 1987 I had run two Marathons and I thought of myself as a long-distance runner. My goal in running had always been not to finish last, and for the most part I had succeeded: in fact I finished almost always in the middle of the pack. And I always did finish.
            But mostly I ran long distances for reasons too complex to engage with here. In those days, in any given week I ran 40-50 miles including a long run of 10-20 miles on Sunday. Usually I joined the crowd in Central Park, but when I moved uptown to Washington Heights, I ran for a while along the Hudson River and then into Riverside Park.
            This morning I drank my cup of coffee and managed my bathroom duties, strapped my yellow Sony radio on my upper left arm (somewhere I had learned not to interrupt the energy flow on the right arm) and rode the elevator down.  Wishing a good morning to the door man, I plugged the head phones into my ears and pushed the ‘on’ button. It was my custom on these Sunday mornings to listen to Vin Scelsa’s program, Idiot’s Delight. We understood each other, and I desired on my Sundays no other company for the run.
            But this morning, the sound that filled my head was a chanting that went on for sometime. I had seen Hair; I knew about the power of “Om,” though I hadn’t ever indulged myself in this practice. But there it was moving through my head as I headed down the hill to the sidewalk path along which I would run. I looked briefly at the radio dial (ah, remember when there were such things?) to see if I had missed the station, but no, I was tuned to the right frequency. This had to be Vinny! Over the years I had come to expect a bit of strangeness from Idiot’s Delight, and I had confidence that some explanation, however absurd, would be forthcoming. I decided to wait out the chanting to see what was in the wind.
            After some relatively brief time Vin’s regular voice returned, and he offered a few wry comments on the harmonic convergence that was at that moment occurring throughout the world. It had been that event that had been the motive for his chanting!! The Harmonic Convergence was the world's first globally synchronized meditation. The event occurred on August 16–17, 1987. Indeed, when I arrived finally at 72nd Streetthe turn around for this morning’s runthere were dozens of people standing in large circles, holding hands, chanting, and trying to levitate the earth into something like Peace. This morning it had started with Vinny.
            It was also my 40th birthday. And immediately following his chanting and his wry comments on this event, Vin Scelsa queued up “Touch of Grey,” by the Grateful Dead. I believe this was one of the first airplays of the song that opened the Dead’s album In the Dark. It was also my 40th birthday. And they sang, “You can wear a touch of grey/Kinda suits you any way/That is all I’ve got to say/But, it’s alright/We will get by.” And the music floated me down the road for ten full miles and another thirty-seven years thus far.

            This many years gone, today I stood in the gym working out with my weights and machines listening still (this time on my iPod Shuffle) to “Touch of Grey.” And the music still floated me down the road for ten full miles and, I hope, it will do so for another several years.

18 February 2014

Reviewing the situation: a beginning

I am reviewing the situation:

I have for the past several years listened almost exclusively to Internet Radio. Not Pandora (though I have an account and a long list of favorite stations that I sometimes play (like a radio station might do) on shuffle. Nor do I listen to Spotify, which really I don’t understand how to use. Nor have I attempted to learn very much about the new Radio from iTunes.
            No, I have been listening to actual streaming radio. For example, right now at
5:30 am I am tuned to Venice Classical Radio, a station that streams out of Venice. There is no actual hostthe music just playsbut the lovely voice that announces the station’s identity speaks a beautiful Italian.
            But mostly I listen to several stations dedicated to folk music, and I have begun to notice that once I put the station on and begin to listen, I find it very difficult to turn the music off. I am somehow captured by the music, pinned onto it, as it were, and of late I have been wondering what there is, and has been, about folk music that so matters to me.          Downstairs, there are albumsvinylthat I possess but that I cannot remember purchasing. In my adolescence, competing on the radio with rock n roll were the purveyors of the music that came to be known as the music of the folk revival. This music, Jack Kerouac and Mr. Matienzo, my senior English teacher, led me down to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, and my early record collection contained a not inconsiderable sampling of the folk music I heard there. How exactly I came into possession of these albums, as I have said, I cannot recall: Peter, Paul and Mary, the latter with whom I was in love and whose hand I so wanted to hold; Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, Carolyn Hester, Dave Van Ronk. On one of my first dates, I took my beloved Renee to the Hempstead Arena in 1964 to hear Joan Baez.  I owned all of Baez’s early albums as well as those of Judy Collins. I began to haunt Greenwich Village in the early 1960s: it had to be then because I left New York City for college in 1965. Now, seeking a congruence between the stored image and the hidden emotion, I see myself walking the streets of the Village at first during the daytime seeking out the ‘hippies’ and the folk artists—and then soon ascending during the nights and crossing onto Bleecker and Macdougal Streets. If there is a hidden emotion, it exists in the longing to descend once again into the dark basement space that was the Gaslight Café, or the Café Wha? or Café Wha Not? The Fugs played there, I recall, and even an early incarnation of the Mothers of Invention. The drums of Olatunji poured out of the closed doors of one of the haunts: but I was there after the folk music.
            I do not recall what captivated me: perhaps it was what I thought of as its purity; its social conscience, though how that evolved in me I cannot pinpoint. Folk music could be heard in those coffee houses. In the days and years before the appearance of Starbucks et al., that drink was weak and veritably tasteless, but a Coca-Cola could be purchased, I think, or a tall glass of iced tea. Perhaps the Bitter End had a liquor license, but at the time 21 was the legal drinking age, and I was far too young—and young-looking—to enjoy the opportunity of more potent drink. Though the folk musicians were scruffy, I had not yet begun to shave, but I wore black chinos and a black turtleneck for effect. I was a steady visitor to the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Kennedy’s assassination had introduced me I think, to evil, an element in much traditional folk song; and the civil rights movement had offered me something external to which I could belong that was not my culture. Folk song was current. Tom Paxton’s first album was called “All the News that’s fit to Print,” a line borrowed from the masthead of The New York Times. Phil Ochs’ first album was entitled “Ain’t That News.” I remember reading that Eric Anderson (whom I met while I roamed the streets of Greenwich Village) wrote “Thirsty Boots” as a tribute to friends who had participated in Freedom Summer. I own that album as vinyl.  In November of my first year at Roanoke College Judy Collins performed in the gymnasium and for her encore sang “We Shall Overcome.” To me it was already a familiar anthem.
            I adored rock n’ roll: it freed me from the staid, proper, repressed and focused life that white suburban living liberally supplied me. It was its rhythms, its anarchic possibilities, its means of escape that drew me to it. It articulated my personal frustrations, gave voice to my angst, offered me moments of release. Winterson says, “You can be a loner and want to be claimed.” Rock n’ roll claimed me and I felt less alone. But folk music awakened something in my consciousness (or did it perhaps merely ‘find’ that something) that changed me profoundly. Folk music was the object that when found I knew I had lost. Lostness is a function of separation from that which gives meaning. Dylan said, “A folk song may vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.” I was listening. Jeanette Winterson says “We don’t seek happiness: we seek meaning!” I think it was in folk song that I found meaning.  In her memoir Jeanette Winterson writes: “We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem . . .” I did not recover my language in rock n’ roll: there I found my self and my joy. But in my immersion in folk music I learned a new language. I turned to the poem. And I became an English major. And that has made all of the difference.


08 February 2014

Nebraska

Nebraska is where you go to find out that the dreams you think you can realize turn out to be just an advertising ploy to deceive you into buying something else. Nebraska is the place you go where you hope towards the end of your life to achieve some gloryfalse as that glory may bebut on the road to that hope you have to first pass through the past that appears so barren, bored and boring.  Nebraska is where you have to go to discover the family from which you came and along the way experience the family that you made yourself; on the way to Nebraska, they learn to experience great affection for you. Nebraska is the illusory pot at the end of the very bleak road, and after you’ve arrived there all that you get is a shiny used truck purchased for you by your child, and the opportunity to drive it down the bleak main street of the town in which you grew up—a town that wishes you well but contains some different memories of your past in it and images of different lives that you might have lived. Nebraska is where when you go there the secrets of your past get uncovered. Mostly you aren’t surprised by the secrets, embarrassing though some of them might be, but by the revelation of them in the present. Nebraska is where you go to see a life that might have been yours had things occurred differently. Nebraska is where you go to revisit the dead and remember that you are alive.
            I have screened Alexander Payne’s Nebraska twice now, and it has affected me in the manner same each time: I have laughed and I have cried. Until his son accedes to drive him, Woody Grant (Grant Wood painted American Gothic) is walking to Nebraska to retrieve the million dollars the promotion company has promised him if his number matches the winning number. It is the ubiquitous Publisher’s Weekly scam, but Woody, maybe in his weakened mental condition or in his hopeful illusions, takes the promotional flyer as fact. Woody hasn’t lived an exemplary life, he is suffering from an onset of dementia, but he believes that he holds the winning ticket and that the million dollars will allow him to buy a new truck, a vehicle he cannot drive, and a new compressor, a device he will not use. The rest, we learn at one poignant point, he means to leave to his sons, one of whom is struggling to become an anchor on a local TV news show in Billings. Montana, and the other is a struggling salesperson in electronic, big box equipment and who cannot make a commitment to marry his significant other and thus, loses her. Woody is marching to Nebraska to collect his winnings. The Mid-West is metaphor for the emptiness of lives as it presents itself elsewhere, in places we head to other than Nebraska, for many of us. It is Woody’s wife, May, grounded in reality as is no one else in the film who in one hilarious scene at the graveyard she notes all the boys who tried to have sex with her, offers us a Woody against whom she had done nothing but rail throughout the film. She pulls up her dress before the grave of one of a thwarted lover and teases him that this is what he might have had access to had Woody not swept her off her feet. May provides insight into a reality that the town’s stories about Woody obscure. She offers a different Woody than either the one we see or the one that is spoken of by others, sometimes by even herself! As she says twice in the film, “Woody couldn’t say no to anyone,” and that the illusory prize money that everyone wants a piece of was more than returned by Woody’s generosity. As Woody lies in the hospital resting from apparent exhaustion, May’s gentle kiss to his cheek expresses the voiceless sound of her deep affection for the husband about whom she has railed throughout the film.

            There is nothing for Woody in Nebraska, but there are a great many things to see and to learn on the way to and from it. I suppose we all have our Nebraska. They are sad places filled with some joy.

28 January 2014

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Last night at the age of ninety-four, Pete Seeger died. Funny, he was never Peter but always Pete. Yarrow was always Peter, but Seeger was always Pete. And he never wavered from his commitment to democracy, to freedom and to the people. If he was not always right, he was always true. It was from Pete Seeger that I learned that there is no such thing as a wrong note.  I think now that this was some of the greatest wisdom I have ever learned.

            And he taught me about commitment. Where there was a cause there would be Pete demanding “Which Side Are you On.” Or hammering out a song of justice and freedom. Maybe Pete is partly why I ended up where I amand even why I have so long stayed. The threads are so many and mixed, but it warms me to be wrapped in the weave that includes Pete Seeger. I am ennobled by his life and resigned to his death. I sense the loss personally: I have lost a mentor and a friend. 
gone to flowers, everyone.

26 January 2014

Measure

This week there is Giambattista Vico. In his On the Study of Methods of Our Time he writes that because of the emphasis on the physical as the only valid evidence of reality, “our young men are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology or permeate their utterances with passion.” I think that what he is complaining about (in 1708-9) concerns the failure of education to develop what Horace Mann a century later will refer to as moral value. Mann argued that the education in the common school would “protect society against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, woes of want and wickedness of waste.” I will accept the charge here that there might be a bit of hyperbole in Mann’s hopes for the common school, but it is an admirable educational ideal that the liberal education Mann advocated for the schools could realize. But not in this age of accountability and measurement. Because that learning derives in large part from the study of literature, history (not social studies), philosophy, sociology, psychology—what are erroneously called ‘the soft sciences.’ Isaiah Berlin writes that Vico’s ’s claim to immortality rests in the principle that the human being is capable of understanding him/herself because, and in the process of understanding the pastbecause he is able to reconstruct imaginatively (in Aristotle’s phrase) what he did and what he suffered, his hopes wishes, fears, efforts, his acts and his words, both his own and those of his fellow.” These can be found in the literatures and the histories (at least) that comprise the liberal arts, a curriculum in sore decline in today’s schools. 
            Here is an irony: at opening school sessions there is a great deal of talk about civility and how the University environment might support the development of a civil society. Of course, outside the university there is no place a civil society may be found modeled. Not even the churches and synagogues seem free of incivility and immorality. Certainly we find absolutely no civility in government. And while the university officials call for civility on campus they also insist we develop concrete assessment tools that will provide greater levels of exact measurement in our classes for our students, and that we ensure that our curriculum places students in jobs. In his play Helen, Euripides wrote “There is much that falsehood seems to make quite clear.” The technological education that pervades academia provides a clear perspective on a very false world.
            There is a wonderful idea from George Simmel that I found quoted in Adam Phillips’ book Going Sane. Forget the context of how I became engaged in that particular book, and the context of where the quote appears does not affect its relevance here. In his Philosophy of Money Simmel attributes to our money economy the illusion of precision about what people demand in the way of goods or services or from each other. Simmel argues “the money economy enforces the necessity of continuous mathematical operations in our daily transactions . . . evaluating, weighing, calculating, and reducing of qualitative values to quantitative ones.” Money has taught us to measure the value of things down to the exact penny. Simmel oversimplifies, of course: but perhaps now Elizabeth Barret Browning’s question, “How much do I love thee?” is now answerable in the most reduced and clear-cut terms. We might use the exact cost of the gift, or we might construct a rubric and measure the quantity on the Likert Scale from 1-5.
            I do not mean to argue the aim of education here, but instead to decry the absolute quantification of every aspect of my life that includes education: where I go everyday of my life.

16 January 2014

Stuck Inside of Mobile

The flight was delayed almost four hours. There we all were, boarded and belted in, when the pilot announced that a ‘placard’ needed to be replaced. That meant that there would be a slight delay in take–off. “Just a few minutes,” he reported. But shortly thereafter the captain returned to say that a ‘bottle’ had broken while the placard was being mended and that the repair would take a good hour to complete. If anyone so desired then we could de-plane while the mechanics replaced “the bottle,” and then re-board when the work was finished. I became suspicious. I had a connecting flight to make, and when I had originally scheduled the trip I made sure that the layover would leave sufficient time for mishaps and/or delays, but this new development threatened my caution. And having de-planed, I noticed that the airline had brought over a cart filled with the ubiquitous little packages of peanuts, pretzels and sweet cookies that have become the free fare for economy class passengers, and offered us them and drinks as if we were aboard and in flight, I grew convinced that this delay would certainly exceed an hour and that my connections would not be successfully made. I approached the attendants at the gate and asked without real hope if the delay would prevent me from making my connection, and the woman behind the counter immediately booked me on a later connecting flight—a much later connecting flight. A much, much later connecting flight. There would be no joy in Mudville this nightand no dinner either. I called my dear friend and reported the state of the world, and he said graciously (as I expected he would) that whenever I arrived he would be there to pick me up.
            It was subsequently announced that the plane’s broken bottle had been caused by “human error.” I suppose this was for the airline both excuse and exculpation—there was nothing structurally wrong with their airplane: it was other people who created the problem. Of course, this didn’t account for the original problem with the ‘placard,’ whatever that might have been, indeed, what a placard might be, in fact. In any case, the repair continued to increase in complexity and time required, and after about two hours we were informed that the decision had been made to route us to another gate and another plane altogether. And so all of the passengers re-boarded the first plane and retrieved our carry-ons, de-planed again, and moved to the new gate that was at that moment de-planing a newly arrived flight in from somewhere else. The waiting area became very crowded and extremely lively. After approximately another 30 minutes or so we re-boarded, taking exactly the same seats we had occupied on the first flight. There was no mention of placards and bottles. We sat awaiting taxiing and takeoff.
            But the weather had changed dramatically. Snow had begun to vigorously fall and before take-off the plane had to visit the de-icing section of the airport: another 30 minutes or so of delay.  I was reading my Giambattista VicoOn the Study Methods of Our Timewith some sincere interest, but soon the day’s hours had to be accounted for and I drifted off to sleep, only to be too-soon awakened by news that we were now actually headed for the runway and eventual take-off. These are such moments through which I prefer not to sleep, and under my watchful eye we flew into the air with no further complication—though for me the very possibility of flying in the airplaneany airplaneis fraught with complexity. We were served (again) packets of peanuts, pretzels, and sweet cookies, and offered (again) complimentary Coca-Cola beverages and even, for purchase, more elaborate food stuffs and liquors. Now we appeared to be a normal flight, albeit four hours late.
            There was a time in my life when these events would have caused me inordinate worry, consternation and even anger. At such times I would anxiously pace the floors, hoping, even expecting that my pacing would inspire somebody to do something and return everything to schedule and send me on to my destination in due time. I hoped my worry and discontent would effect some solution.
            But this time I felt resigned and rather at peace with the situation. I mean, I knew that there was nothing I could do—I had no bottle they could use to replace the bottle someone had brokenand there was no other means of getting me to my destination in reasonable time except this airline. And so my breathing remained steady, my heart beat regular and slow, and my mind focused comfortably on matters far removed from issues of delay. And I suspect that this patience derives from the age at which I have arrived: I am not in a rush for anything, really. After all, wherever I am ultimately heading, well, I can wait. I do what I can here and now and do not worry about those things over which I have absolutely no control. If I do not arrive sooner, I will certainly arrive later.
            I think of Hillel: And if not now, when?
            I think of Hamlet: Rest, rest, perturbed Spirit.
            I rest, no longer perturbed or even perturbable.