“Nature Boy” Festival #1

March 19, 2010 at 11:19 am (By Amba)

I started singing “Nature Boy” to J last night and the upshot was that we decided to listen to as many versions of the song as we could find, and pick our favorites.

I love watching J as the different singers “audition” for him.  His taste is so good and so exacting.  His face is a Geiger counter of soul.

The winner so far:


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Them vs. Us

March 17, 2010 at 6:24 pm (By Realpc) ()

I shouldn’t criticize Granny D. right after she died (she was a Democratic congresswoman, in case you never heard of her), but I happened to see one of her speeches on the Michael Moore website, and it seems like an ideal example of non-centrism and Us vs Them thinking. She was probably a nice and well-meaning person, and I don’t completely disagree with her whole speech. But I want to show some quotes from her speech that I think are examples of someone who seemed to be irrationally and one-sidedly caught up in an ideology.

GD: “Let us consider the self-repression of the political right … Where authority and power flow down from above, from heaven to the White House to husbands and ayatollahs, the free and joyful living of people can be quite the enemy. If you will remember the free spirit of those flower children who grew up in the 1960s, for example, you will also remember the harsh attitude that attended to their joys from the more traditional, often more rural, elements of our society”

So the flower children of the 1960s represent her ideal type of free and joyful person. She must not have noticed that most of the 1960s flower children finished college and got jobs and are now wearing ties and driving SUVs. Flower childhood was not a responsible way to live, so people grew out of it. Maybe those traditional rural people had reasons for not wanting their kids to become free and joyful hippies.

GD: “those in the clan of authority are not given the privilege–the natural right–of living their own lives. They do as they are told, say and think what they are told. Smothered is their curiosity and their healthy skepticism, and also their imagination, joy, freedom, and lust for life itself. When they see others actually living lives, they react with anger, as if someone had cut to the front of a line that, for them, never moves.”

GD:: “the authority clan parades itself as pro-life while it is truly more like a cult of death. Having died themselves, strangled by authority and fear, they cannot wish happy lives for others–they cling only to that magic symbol of what might have been. They relate to the unborn baby selfishly; it is themselves: unborn, unlived, still hoping for a life.”

So being against abortion is actually a symptom of what sounds like a serious mental derangement. Granny D. can’t imagine anyone having any sane reasons for not liking abortion, or being ambivalent about abortion, or being against late abortion.

GD:: “How horrible to be enslaved to the wrong way of thinking at such a time of national crisis! We owe it to our friends and neighbors to free them if we can, so they might stand with us.”

GD: “Imagine that your friend is very much pro-life and pro-war and doesn’t see the illness of her mental conflict … I think you might notice that this friend of yours lives a slipcover-protected life and has not even allowed herself the freedoms of a good fantasy life. Let’s repair that … Let me suggest that we take her to a good arts district, rent her a studio apartment full of art supplies above a good sidewalk café, find her a lover and come back in ninety days to see if her politics have changed. As she lives a real life, as she explores her own potential, she will learn to let others live and enjoy their lives, too.”

So, there aren’t any women who are artists and have lovers, and yet are against abortion? So all you have to do, to make someone think abortion is perfectly ok, is give them art supplies and a lover. Simple.

GD: “She will want to help the young woman artist next door who gets herself into trouble. She will even begin to be amused and impressed instead of angered and depressed by the Clintons and other lively, joyful, free-living people of this beautiful earth.”

So Clinton wasn’t a compulsive tom cat after all. He was just so lively and joyful and free-living he couldn’t keep his fly zipped. And Hillary didn’t mind, no not at all. She just loved the joyful freedom of being betrayed by her husband in front of the whole world.

Is anyone except me thinking “huh?” right now?

GD: “We must help people see the mental traps that they are victim to, and we must do this by telling it like we see it, by asking them to see that the pro-life, pro-war movement is really a cult of death, that fundamental Christianity represents the opposite of Christ’s teachings, that authoritarian control and elite profiteering are the strings of the far right’s puppet show …. Let us indeed believe that all people are equal, but let us not assume that all political opinions are equal, for some are toxic and sociopathic and require our loving intervention.”

Yes the Democrats are the party of lively joyful love and light, while the Republicans are followers of Darth Vader.

Well anyway, I think Granny D.’s world view is quite common these days. If you loved the 1960s and the flower children, and you still love them, then you might agree with her. If you hated the 1960s then, and you still hate the 1960s, then you might be a Republican. And if you sort of liked some things about the 1960s, but didn’t like other things, then you might be an ambivalent centrist today.

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March 14, 2010 at 11:50 am (By Amba)

Last night we rented This Is It, the documentary assembled from rehearsal tapes of Michael Jackson’s comeback-concert-series-never-to-be.  The title has many meanings — among others, the earnest notion that this is our last chance to save the planet — some of them sadly ironic.

I’m hovering right on the brink of really trying to express what I felt, watching it.  I’m taciturn and low-energy lately (among other things, there’s stuff going on, or not going on, occupationally that I’m not free to talk about yet), and writing the tribute that Michael’s last performance deserves feels like both work and exposure of a degree I shrink from just now.  It asks for more from me than I’ve got.

The documentary restores Michael because it shows an artist doing what he’s here to do — working, hard and brilliantly — rather than paying the human price for that in his off hours.  There may be some law of compensation at work:  the life ransacked for the superhuman energy to make the art may be as ugly as the work is beautiful.  The lotus grows out of the mud, and all that.  You can’t excuse geniuses’ exploitation of others, but neither can you expect them to be nice, normal people.  Whatever he did or didn’t do in bed with children, out of a toxic combination of need, narcissism, and entitlement, Michael paid heavily for it, probably ultimately with his life.

But watch him work.  First of all, to move from the outside in, watch him collaborate.  This concert series was set to be an incredible extravaganza, but unlike so many special-effects-heavy lollapaloozas, substance and Shazam! were married hand in glove.  The effects are wowzers, but they enhance rather than crush the emotional impact of the songs.  The new take on “Thriller” will make you laugh out loud with incredulous delight, even as the flying “dead kings and queens” designed to swoop through the auditorium are grim omens in retrospect.

The team, headed by Michael, director Kenny Ortega (who obviously had a warm friendship with Michael), and choreographer Travis Payne, auditioned and chose the best dancers, musicians, and aerialists from all over the world.  (These scenes are A Chorus Line to the nth power.)  The amount of talent, professionalism, and enthusiasm on display around Michael is stunning.  And Michael is so gentle and generous with them all.  Of course, if he ever did have a temper tantrum or prima-donna fainting spell, it landed on the cutting-room floor; this is a tribute, not an exposé.  But moments of the opposite kind were clearly easy to find.  Even when he pushes his musicians and dancers hard for an effect he wants and isn’t getting yet, he does it softly.  When he asks for less volume in his earpiece or indulgence for his need to protect his throat, he is respectful and grateful.  One of the most touching moments in the film is when Michael is egging on the blonde girl guitarist with the Greek name, possibly the chick with the hottest licks on the planet, in her solo.  Michael’s headset picks  him up saying to her (so softly that subtitles are needed), “This is your moment to shine. . . . This is your moment to shine.  We’ll all be right there with you.”

As for Michael’s own performance, well . . . as if he knew it would be his last, it is a performance, not a rehearsal.  Even though he knows he should save it for the concerts, he’s mostly unable to hold back.  At 50, and as frail as we know he was, his dancing is as electric as ever; the stamina seems to pour from someplace beyond physical, part will, part thrill.  Songs from the Jackson Five and Thriller eras are filled with fun and mischief and nostalgia.  And as far as I can tell, little if any of the rehearsals were lip-synched; Michael is singing into a headset, and for all the amps, curiously, you can often understand every word.  He so obviously loves the songs, and the emotion encoded in the ballads is still fresh-cut for him.  As someone who enjoyed but never studied his music, I was surprised by the artistry with which he shapes his voice, especially in the bluesy melismatic codas at the end of songs, which go beyond pop.  I couldn’t help wondering whether he would have done more of that — simplified, stripped down, unplugged — as he got older.

Probably the most breathtaking moment in the film is less than halfway through:  his exquisitely poignant and defiant performance of “Human Nature.”  If ever Michael had a signature song, an apologia, a credo, this is it:

If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
If they say –
Why, why, tell ’em that is human nature
Why, why, does he do me that way
I like livin’ this way
I like lovin’ this way

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Pollster Cassandras Warn Dems of Tragic Flaw

March 13, 2010 at 1:54 pm (By Amba)

Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, “pollsters to the past two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively,” issue a devastating warning to hubris-blinded Dems.  Their WaPo op-ed sums up the facts on the ground more succinctly and stingingly than anything else I have read.

Bluntly put, this is the political reality:

First, the battle for public opinion has been lost. Comprehensive health care has been lost. […]

Nothing has been more disconcerting than to watch Democratic politicians and their media supporters deceive themselves into believing that the public favors the Democrats’ current health-care plan. Yes, most Americans believe, as we do, that real health-care reform is needed. And yes, certain proposals in the plan are supported by the public.

However, a solid majority of Americans opposes the massive health-reform plan [… and] believe the legislation will worsen their health care, cost them more personally and add significantly to the national deficit. Never in our experience as pollsters can we recall such self-deluding misconstruction of survey data. […]

The notion that once enactment is forced, the public will suddenly embrace health-care reform could not be further from the truth […]

Second, the country is moving away from big government, with distrust growing more generally toward the role of government in our lives. Scott Rasmussen asked last month whose decisions people feared more in health care: that of the federal government or of insurance companies. By 51 percent to 39 percent, respondents feared the decisions of federal government more. This is astounding given the generally negative perception of insurance companies.

CNN found last month that 56 percent of Americans believe that the government has become so powerful it constitutes an immediate threat to the freedom and rights of citizens. When only 21 percent of Americans say that Washington operates with the consent of the governed, as was also reported last month, we face an alarming crisis. […]

[T]he issue, in voters’ minds, has become less about health care than about the government and a political majority that will neither hear nor heed the will of the people.

This would be Greek tragedy if it weren’t such a farce.  You know what happens to those who don’t believe Cassandra.

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Dave Eggers Stole My Metaphor!

March 8, 2010 at 1:40 am (By Amba)

Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes . . . you can’t ever get back down.

I really have used the exact same analogy.  What I elided in this passage was “by an email.”  Because, yes, but it’s “by anything.”  I keep saying that I don’t want to write, really write, in this (caregiving) situation because I will constantly be interrupted, yanked to the surface, as if by a fretful fisherman who keeps checking his bait.  The Person from Porlock on a Groundhog Day loop.  (Follow that link, you’ll be glad you did.)

Eggers also says,

“I procrastinate worse than anybody.  I need eight hours to get maybe 20 minutes of work done. I had one of those yesterday: seven hours of self-loathing.”

For some of us, at least, plowing through a nauseating zone of dysphoria (thicker at some times than at others) is necessary pretty much every time to get to the sort of plasma state where real writing happens.  It feels like death because you get attached to the comfortable, cooled shell of your normal everyday consciousness, and it has to go.  You have to shed yourself the way atoms are stripped of their electrons.  That takes heat and pressure, and, for a living thing with attachments and habits, pain and suffering.

This is why I would assert that most blogging isn’t “real writing.”  You keep your personality on and dabble in the shallows, for the most part.  To an obligate writer (in the sense that scientists speak of, say, an “obligate carnivore”), blogging is cheating.  Althouse, who posted this, remarked:

Oddly, Eggers is motivated by his sense of how short life is. All that time getting going and thinking about how short life is? Oh, the pain. Blogging, by contrast, is the continual relief from that pain.

Partly, and partly avoidance of it.  If you crave much more than relief, it’s on the other side of the pain.

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Lucky Stupid.

March 7, 2010 at 2:09 am (By Amba)

I earned that title tonight.

My theory:  near misses and nonfatal mistakes are among the greatest blessings.  When you do something harmfully dumb, yet no harm comes of it, it’s a priceless wake-up call.  You have a much better kind of guardian angel than one that never lets you fuck up.  For one thing, you won’t make that particular mistake again for at least five years, so strike one dumb thing from the list of menaces you pose to yourself and others.  More generally, and even more valuably, you will not trust yourself to be in a trance again for some time to come (much less than five years, though, I’m afraid).

Here’s what I did.

Got J dressed, up, into the van, and drove to the dojo.  Early class today, it’s Saturday.  It was still light.  We were just a little late.  Our friend the karate teacher was expecting us and sent two green belts out to help us get out of the van.

The van is wonderful, I bought it on eBay for about two thousand dollars (compared to five figures for any newer second-hand one) — it’s a 1989 Dodge Ram with a built in Braun elevator lift, and the engine seems indestructible as it approaches 100,000 miles.  It has only one major shortcoming for us:  the frame of the lift is too low for J’s height in the wheelchair, so I have to tip him back, lean him against me and maneuver him under this “low bridge” every time to get off and onto the lift platform.

The newly renovated Durham streets are contoured to slope downward to the curb.  When we park in front of the dojo and I swing down the lift platform, it slopes downward toward the street, as it doesn’t anyplace else.  Sometimes I can tip the wheelchair back anyway, sometimes not.  It helps if someone grabs the frame near the footrests and lifts, helping it tilt back to lean on me.

Often Sensei Nathan helps us but sometimes he sends strong senior students out to do so.  These were two who hadn’t done it before.  I unfastened the four-point restraints from the wheelchair, got out of the van and lowered the lift platform, got back in and turned the chair to face through the frame.  I asked the green belts to tip the wheelchair back, leaned it against my body, and exhorted J not to stop us by grabbing the frame.  I wheeled the chair forward on its back wheels — and screamed as it dropped two, two and a half feet to the street.

As if sleepwalking, I had lowered the lift platform down to the ground before trying to wheel J onto it. The two green belts stood there watching, either dumbstruck by my higher rank or puzzled but convinced I must know what I was doing.  It was like pushing him off a cliff.  Fortunately, the way the street’s contour tilts the van made the distance shorter than the three feet it would normally be.

The wheelchair made a perfect four-point landing.  I couldn’t tell you whether the green belts leapt forward to catch it, or not.  J was jarred and furious, but he seemed intact.  Because I was gripping the handlebars, the chair’s fall yanked me forward and whacked my throat against the lift frame.  Hours later, J still seems to be all right.  I have a colorful foot and a sore larynx, which I have been treating with vanilla ice cream and bourbon on the rocks, thank you very much.  It only hurts when I laugh.

How on earth did I do that — fail to perform a logical series of steps or, as a backup, at least to see what was in front of my eyes??  I very nearly did the same thing once before, maybe two winters ago, but caught myself.  There’s evidently something about the way the platform slopes down by a Durham curb that scrambles my autopilot.  I’ve certainly been preoccupied with occupational issues and adjustments to J’s medication.  (We drove J’s friend to the airport Thursday and then went straight to the gym.  When we got back, we found a delivery inside the door and two of the cats gone.  How did that happen??  I had to retrieve Dito from Animal Services; Buzzy was still in the neighborhood.  But that’s another story.)  Still!  What a shocker.

What a blessing.  I sure as hell won’t do that again, probably ever.  (Just once, I drove off without strapping down the wheelchair.  J’s guardian angel, if not mine, intervened, and ever since, I am extremely conscious of tying down the chair.)

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The “Uncanny Valley”

March 6, 2010 at 11:30 am (By Amba)

I love that term.  It’s used in robotics and animation for the uncrossable gap between a synthetic and a real human being, especially a human face. When you see a simulation that’s too real, but not quite real, it badly creeps you out.  You’ve fallen into the uncanny valley, a place where a child will cry with terror.

When I read about the concept, I immediately flashed on two ads, one for the brand of eye drops called Restasis and another for some brand of smart phone.  In each ad, a beautiful young woman (in the Restasis ad, a red-haired, green-eyed doctor; in the phone ad, a smooth-haired, milky-skinned blonde late-teenager) is serenly commending the product.  She is radiant and soothing and perfect — too perfect.  Possibly “replica-based,” perfected copies of real people, these are the closest simulations of a human face that I’ve ever seen — tryouts for the much-touted coming Hollywood movies with fully animated actors (“synthespians”) — but they don’t make it out of the uncanny valley, and how very close they come paradoxically fills you with dread.  (A message-board member on the Restasis doctor:  “I just saw the commercial again. Man! I bet that lady has a pair of 3 foot cockroach wings underneath her labcoat. Something is definitely not human with her, but it’s hard to put your finger on. Plus, her eyes are weird as shit. She’s a freak.  If she went on a mercy mission to Haiti they’d think she was a voodoo witch doctor.”)  You feel you narrowly escaped being fooled, and that being fooled would somehow be chillingly dangerous.

The article at the first link above tries out physical, evolutionary, and existential explanations for that dread; all are enlightening, none is quite sufficient.  I had a kind of nightmare fantasy as a child of my mother being replaced by someone (or something) that looked and sounded exactly like her, but wasn’t.  This is the same fear that drives the legend of the doppelgänger, the endless reincarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the neuropsychological disorder called Capgras syndrome (which people with J’s illness can have).  Why is this notion so horrifying?

My sense is that it has something to do with the life-and-death importance of trust and the leap of faith we must make with every assumption of authenticity; something, even, to do with a subliminal awareness that our perceptions are not as direct as they seem, but are the constructions of a nervous system that is itself not entirely trustworthy.  “Reality” is in fact a fragile thing.

(Hat tip:  Carl Zimmer)

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Jacques et Jim

March 4, 2010 at 10:22 pm (By Amba)

The old bar partners from the 1960s don’t look their age as they watch Tuesday night’s karate promotion (action pix at the link):

A small part of what they were watching:  me not acting my age.

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Too Swift.

March 4, 2010 at 12:12 am (By Amba)

Anybody remember a year or two ago when there was great but (as it turned out) unfounded worry because blogger “Jon Swift” had seemingly disappeared?

Well, now he really has.  How sad!

I went back through my handful of e-mails from him and was most struck by his generosity.

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And Speaking of “Lost Sounds”:

March 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm (By Amba)

The rare tones of an elected official telling the truth.

Another must read.  (Hat tip:  reader_iam)

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