Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Chairman Detaches

Dana Stevens at Slate (my favorite movie critic these days) notes in a guilty-pleasure kind of review of I Am Love that the soundtrack is made up wholly of John Adams works. So I looked up the trailer on YouTube, and besides looking like a ridiculously overripe movie, man oh man, does it seem like the music is completely wrong for everything:

This might be a result of how the trailer's put together. It might also be because I know where all that music comes from, so (for example) the Desert Chorus from The Death of Klinghoffer can't denote "plushy erotic encounter" for me because it's already permanently etched into my "musically lovely but textually uninterpretable parable of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" column. But it just comes across to me as though these sweeping Adams excerpts are aloofly doing their own thing while Tilda Swinton gets sweaty with an Italian youth and whatnot. I'd be interested in the impression it makes on someone who's not overly familiar with Adams, or even on Pete, who knows this music but at least hates it.

While I'm bitching about 20th-century classical music in movie trailers I may as well bring up the recent one for Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky too (not safe for work, by the way, if your workplace doesn't abide arty, hot 'n' thrusty Euro lover action) because it contains no actual Igor Stravinsky music but rather an artificial yet remarkably Stravinsky-like substance that occupies a conceptual space about two-thirds of the way from The Rite of Spring to a latter-day Philip Glass film score. Has musical persnicketiness ruined my ability to enjoy things, or more specifically to enjoy advertisements for juicy-looking romance movies from across the sea? As with the Adams question, I'll let someone who isn't me be the judge.

On a non-crotchety note, that third part of Fantasia's Rite of Spring sequence that I linked to above, and shall embed below (for as long as it takes for it to get nixed by a copyright complaint, anyway), has long been -- at about the 1:20 mark -- what pops into my head when I'm walking a long distance while it's really hot outside.

Classical music reshapes your brain!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Another Preface That Mentions Sexy Usage!

We of mild bloggers here perhaps garner a reputation as being rather unbiasedly pro-Dawkins in the who-is-your-favorite-contemporary-evolutionary-theorist sweepstakes, but, as has been mentioned on the blog before, Dawkins, at least back in the 80s was what the kids today would call a "douche" when it comes to gendered pronouns in English (though, in just re-reading the quote in question whilst seeking out the below-mentioned-there-linked, he's more apologetic than I generally give him credit for in casual remembering (but he's still a "douche")). Which is, like, totally not cool. The post there-linked will remind you of a few other instances of prefatory matter on the subject, which raged in the 70s and 80s.

Well, I just stumbled across another prefatory note about gendered pronouns in Paul Teller's Formal Logic Primer (that's right, I've finally gotten to that point in my life where I feel like it's necessary to read a primer in formal logic--I suppose many folks out there, upon approaching their 28th personal new year, have experienced a similar thing). And it's always refreshing to me when people are on the correct side of the argument:
Throughout I have worked to avoid sexist usage. This proves difficult with anaphoric reference to quantified variables, where English grammar calls for constructions such as 'If someone is from Chicago he likes big cities.' and ' Anyone who loves Eve loves himself.' My solution is to embrace grammatical reform and use a plural pronoun: 'If someone is from Chicago they like big cities.' and 'Anyone who loves Eve loves themself.' I know. It grates. But the offense to grammar is less than the offense to social attitudes. As this reform takes hold it will sound right to all of us.

So way to go Paul Teller, for totally not being one.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Here's an unexpected restaurant correspondence I just discovered. Back in March, when Nate was visiting for Shostakovich's The Nose at the Met Opera, we'd killed some time at a snazzy Belgian beer bar on the Upper East Side, which we'd wandered into at random right after (I think) seeing the Whitney Biennial, classy art-lovin' folks we are. Nice place, a little pricey; I want to say '40s vocal jazz playing on the speakers? We split some delicious frites with the good kind of mayonnaise. Nate talked a lot about some book he'd read about the early development of the Atari home video game system.

Anyway, apparently that place is owned by the same guy who owns the beloved dive bar Rudy's up here in New Haven. None of you have been to it, but essentially it's not the first place you'd suspect to be a sister endeavor with a high-end Belgian beer bar on the Upper East Side. Although apparently Rudy's is known for its frites, which would have been a tip. And a good thing to know! I've missed out on delicious frites.

The news that indirectly revealed this minor discovery is that Rudy's is relocating to the bourge-ier environs of Chapel Street in a couple of months. (Yes, I've lived here four years now, and I'm still only picking up know-how on bar-food basics by reading the local independent press.) The owner says he's expanding a restaurant area but is keeping the general feeling of the longstanding original Rudy's. I'll go ahead and reveal my colors: I'd rather see him just turn it into a high-end Belgian beer bar. Gentrify it! You know you want to!

Whatever the case, frites will definitely be on the docket come fall. With the good kind of mayonnaise.

Adams Reads Adorno

There are a lot of things that I like about Frankfurt School Marxism (yes, most of you, feel free, stop reading now...), not least of which is the overall model of reading that I pull out of their school in general--which to me relates directly to Walter Benjamin's sense of "poeticization"--bearing, of course, rather direct implications on my own life insofar as I tend to subscribe to a notion of poetry-as-experience/experience-as-poetry (with the important distinction to make between reportage (e.g. Frank O'Hara, the confessionalists, the New Sincerity, et al.)--"bad"--and witness (e.g. Celan, Oppen, Plath, Creeley, etc.))--"good"--which hinges, in many ways, on one's entire network of representations being simultaneously poeticizations (though one might wind up babbling in a tower or negating ones buoyancy as a result)--poeticizing being the process of making-the-thing-into-its-own-lyricisation (the visual metaphor I've been using with my friends, recently, for this, is expressing the world-of-things-and-actions as a horizontal plane, and imagining the lyric moment as a vertical interruption of that plane, a vanishing moment where the horizontal plane is perforated, emptying into a caesura. The (lyric) poem itself, while created and existing horizontally, acts as a kind of negative hologram that encodes the void, which is enacted, if only for that vanishing instant, in the reading (you might note here that "meaning" becomes little more than a scaffold for experience)): in taking the most useful (sticking by use-value, here) aspects of Freud and Marx (reading them both as explicators of Hegel), beyond just making this excellent synthesis, they also provide a model for synthesizing, which, counter to so many other strains of 20th/21st century schools of thought, is comfortable rejecting claims of influences, and has no particular use for acolytes, sycophants, or hero-worship.

Which is all there to lead me to saying: as much as his music isn't my cup of tea, John Adams's blog is kind of interesting. Not super great, but you know, for a composer who writes the music that he writes, he seems to be reading some interesting stuff. Specifically what caught my eye was his discussion of Flaubert reading chapters-in-progress out loud to his friends to see how their (the sentences) composition was coming. Adams puts this in the context of recommending practices to the "young composer," but it shouldn't be surprising that reading out loud was a core practice for a writer. I personally (and if Flaubert and I do it, then it must go as a total generalization) read out loud, if not to others, than to myself, pretty much everything that I write (poems and papers), often multiple times. Some poets that I love--Gerard Manley Hopkins being the most case-in-pointy here--I can barely understand if I don't read them outloud (to myself, or others). (In fact, the thing (one of the thing's) that's wrong with my blogposts (or at least paragraphs like these ones) is that I don't read them out loud to myself.)

This all has to do with composing music at the computer (Adams, as I recall from an anecdote of Jack's, is a copy-paster if there ever was one); if you have the instant gratification of listening your music-in-progress in instant playback, you're lowering the odds of ever actually developing the ability to hear internally what you are doing. Which is analogous in some ways to writing poems at a computer (an activity which I try to avoid); typing up words, copy-pasting, deleting, its all too easy at a word processor. Much in the same way that devices have made it to easy to hear music, they've made it too easy to produce it as well. Which, again, isn't to just be an unsubtle anti-technologist, but rather to point out that these technologies need to be considered (consider your light-switches (turn your lights off more often)!) as they're engaged (I'm reminded here of the usually-untouchable David Byrne's PowerPoint art, which is popularly considered to be less-awesome then everything else he's done (this is just my report of the zeitgeist; I've only seen a few stills from the works)). The core process (poeticization, or lyricization) of composing or writing isn't really changing, it's just their mediation that's shifting, and the maker can maintain control of that. Just as devices are a facilitator for virtual instantaneity, pen-ink-paper are devices whose physicality, in slowing down the creative process, allowing the process to flourish.

Adams's post then shifts, with his talking about pop-art, more towards advice about the role that the composer might play in "American" "culture." It's odd to me to read Adams--whose music I generally slam as being ideologically-driven, overly-simple, populist, and other pejoratives--bemoaning the ascendancy of pop-art (seems like maybe Adams reads Adorno, but should pay closer attention to it). Which again, is interesting. Because poetry is in the same boat; I can talk all I want about (ass-o-)horizontology and verticality, but who cares? (Except that my community cares, and that's, in many ways, the only thing that can possibly matter.) Or, is there still a role for the lyricist to play in device culture (with my friend Dan's own recent foray into lyricization being recognized by one writer for the NY Times as "haunting," we get some glimmer of hope)? Since this void-making craft is a human enterprise, and we tend to also figure it to ourselves as something for other humans--humans outside our immediate community--here, perhaps, we do have to creep out, and see if there's a way to rig these devices to encode the scaffold from which we might drop.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Siphon Bearers

A few weeks ago I re-read Stephen Jay Gould's The Flamingo's Smile, essays collected from the mid-1980s, and I was immediately intoxicated by his illumination in one piece on the siphonophores, colonial cnidarians most famously represented by the Portuguese man-o-war. Siphonophores are fascinating in being complex, highly organized colonies that basically function like individuals. Each colony begins as one zooid, with all later zooids budding off asexually and taking specialized forms: floats, swimming bells, feeding siphons (hence "siphonophores," siphon bearers), stinging tentacles, reproductive members. Like other cnidarians, the siphonophore's zooids take the form of either a medusa (like a jellyfish) or a polyp (like a coral individual). These are the two body plans modified to make up the parts of a siphonophore. (Cnidarians in general often have life cycles that involve both medusae and polyps, and both sexual and asexual reproduction. So you can get some sense of the "tool kit" they had that allowed them to evolve this way.)

There's an intriguing question here of whether you call a siphonophore an individual or a group of individuals, and the answer is that it's just ambiguous. Gould develops the specific case in his essay, as always, into a general point: if you perceive a natural paradox, you need to think in terms of a spectrum instead of a set of categories. He lines up by way of example, in order of increasingly ambiguous individuality: ants, aphids, bamboo stands, and then the siphonophores.

Brown University researcher Casey Dunn maintains what appears to be the go-to online introduction to the siphonophores; all of the pages from that left-hand menu are good reading. He states well another fascinating angle to the siphonophores, that they "have become extremely complicated organisms, just as we have, but in an entirely different way. Whereas we are made up of specialized cells that are arranged into tissues and organs, siphonophores are made up of specialized zooids precisely organized at the level of the colony."

Here's a two-minute video from Dunn's lab on the topic, here:

And, from the same source, bioluminescent siphonophore footage with voiceover:

A couple of spookier deep-sea siphonophores can be viewed via YouTube, here and here. And the picture above can be found here. Gould devotes some deserving appreciation to the early-twentieth-century siphonophore illustrations of Ernst Haeckel, some of which can be found at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry.

* * * * *
Elsewhere in The Flamingo's Smile, Gould writes very eloquently about the prospect of humankind wiping itself out and what kind of a loss that means, even when retaining a modest sense of our being only one aspect of life on Earth. I like this passage a lot, so I'll just quote it at length. . . . If we destroy ourselves
. . . then we have canceled forever the most peculiar and different, unplanned experiment ever generated among the billions of branches [of the tree of life's history] -- the origin, via consciousness, of a twig that could discover its own history and appreciate its continuity.

Some people, who have never extricated themselves from the chain of being, and who view life's history as a tale of linear progress leading predictably to the evolution of consciousness, might be less troubled (in some abstract sense) by our potential self-removal. After all, evolution moves toward complexity and consciousness. If not us, then some other surviving branch will enter the stream and eventually give intelligence a second chance. And if not here, then elsewhere in a populated universe, for nature's laws do not vary from place to place.

As a student of life's history, and as a man who has tried hard to separate cultural prejudice and psychological hope from the story that fossils are trying to tell us, I have reached quite a different conclusion, shared, I think, by most professional colleagues: consciousness is a quirky evolutionary accident, a product of one peculiar lineage that developed most components of intelligence for other evolutionary purposes. If we lose its twig by human extinction, consciousness may not evolve again in any other lineage during the 5 billion years or so left to our earth before the sun explodes. Through no fault of our own, and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life's continuity on earth.
Gould's speaking of nuclear winter here, but you can sense the general application. I've always taken a stance along the lines of "Well, we couldn't eradicate all life even if we tried to, so it wouldn't be the end of the world," but it's true, the stakes are higher than that, like it or not. And I'm always glad to come across well-formed pieces of a non-nihilistic, atheist value system rooted in the appreciation of consciousness and the natural world.

Happy Warm Solstice!

Halfway through Warm Year already! The time does fly. I did my celebrating of the heat yesterday, by biking over to East Haven and its quiet little public beach. It's about a half-hour ride, so it gives you some exercise before the sand-laziness. High sun, hazy clarity, scalding sand. Good times. I waded in the sound a little bit, but it's a bit murky and seaweedy, and it doesn't really shout "Hey go in me" at you. Mostly I hung out on my towel continuing to read Metaphors We Live By. Which you shouldn't really read at the beach. (That's a special case of a more general recommendation, if you follow me.) It's nice to enjoy the heat directly, without forlornly imagining it from the wrong side of your workweek office window.

Also, I think I'm in the early running for Whitest Beach Bod 2K10.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I'm On A Bike

Obviously I'm not on a bike right now,* but shortly before Memorial Day I finally got around to buying a bicycle, becoming I think the last human resident of Portland to have one of those, and as of this week I'm a bicycle commuter. This is a positive step towards me being the kind of person I want to be, in that I set myself the goal, "I should be the kind of person who rides a bike to work," and then, just 2.3 years later, achieved that goal. Please reread the title of this post, vesting it with the disproportionate braggadocio and glee of Andy Samberg's "I'm On A Boat" SNL short (feat. T-Pain). I too feel good about my change in transportation modality!

I did have this vague idea that buying a bike and commuting with it would instantly make me look like one of the hip, fit, admirably sustainability-minded bicyclists who effortlessly zip around the city, so there is some disappointment (of a hope I didn't even consciously realize before it was disappointed!) that I in fact feel tentative, wobbly, and like I'm breathing too hard through my open mouth on gentle uphills to attain any degree of hipness. (I bought a not-too-upright but still commuter-minded comfort/hybrid bike, so at least there weren't any illusions of joining the ranks of the serious-looking, tight-pantsed, monster-calfed road bike users.) This is a lesson I thought I'd completely finished learning in my early twenties but I guess it was worth a refresher course: There are many things worth my doing, but none of them will ever make me look cool.

* On further reflection it's not obvious, given the device-ridden future dystopia in which we live, so I will state my reasons for not blogging on a bike: lack of smart phone, lack of sufficient balance, lack of suicidal disregard for personal safety.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Arting While Intoxicated

Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, was arrested this weekend for drunk driving. It's good clean fun to mock Kinkade for his various moral failings but they're already well documented; likewise, I already made fun of his aesthetics at some length a year and a half ago in discussing his film, Kinkade's Kristmas Kottage (okay, not actually the title's initials, but so close). But let's chocolate-and-peanut-butter those ideas together and talk about how this DUI arrest may actually speak to us about his Art.

I seem to remember Mom once telling us about an art class she took whose teacher claimed that the composition of Rembrandt's "Night Watchmen" (and/or other similarly laid-out works of Rembrandt) had a possible biological basis: Rembrandt may have had a stigmatism which caused him to see sharply defined, brightly lit lines flanked by darker areas in real life, and reproduced this effect in his work. Style explained! I may not have some key aspects of that anecdote correct (uh, here is where I beg my mother to put a follow-up comment on my blog) but here is an Internet-based example of a moderately less risible take on this idea, which notes that Rembrandt's lack of color intensity and detail work could be a result of failing eyesight, but continues that the yellow cast of a late self portrait is also "consistent with deteriorating vision". I could see that last part as a deliberate expressive choice (as a musical analog, Bedrich Smetana allegedly included some simulated tinnitus in the last movement of his second string quartet) and perhaps I'm missing a key idea about vision here, but: If the world appeared overly yellow to Rembrandt, wouldn't paintings that looked normal to him appear overly purple to viewers with healthy vision? If a chef suffered a mild stroke that left her with a continuous, illusory taste of onions in her mouth, that wouldn't encourage her to add more onions to her food than she used to. Unless she was bitter about it and taking it out on her patrons.

But to return to the kooky Kinkade cavalcade: If we entertain the hypothesis that an artist's disordered vision leads to the reproduction of those visual symptoms in his work, we can achieve a new understanding of Kinkade's output. Rather than being lazily melodramatic gestures, empty nostalgia signifiers, or crass commercial ploys, the defining elements of his style -- the gauzy absence of detail, the cluttered scenery, the ubiquitous sources of attractive yet almost overwhelmingly bright light -- are in fact an authentic, unintended reproduction of the world as physically seen by a moderately aggressive drunk, whose slight pensiveness about his own imbalanced state is more than compensated by his alcohol-induced euphoria and boozy self regard.

As a thought experiment: If, hypothetically, you were a painter who had ordered eight or nine Jack and Cokes during a long, late-afternoon working lunch with your agent, and you walked out into the fading light of a winter afternoon buzzing with caffeine and liquor and an aggressive plan to franchise several dozen new retail outlets by the third quarter of the following fiscal year, and you contemplated driving home just as the vague feeling that you had forgotten to pick up the kids from basketball practice or something first began to take form in your gut, how would your visual system register the world at that moment?

Would it look like this?

Workshop of Thomas Kinkade, "There's a Lot of People out here, I'll Drive Careful Cause it's Real Slippery Too, Whoa is that Car Headed Right at Me", oil on canvas

Or this?

Workshop of Thomas Kinkade, "Whhuzzz, Who's House is that, Think I Better Pull in the Driveway and Rest my Eyes for Five Minutes", oil on canvas

Or, if the situation went badly off the rails by nightfall, even like this?

Thomas Kinkade, "Codpiece! CODPIECE!!", magic marker on reverse of crumpled-up Siegfried and Roy performance program

It's hard to see because of the image compression but if you look closely at that last one you can make out an unconscious male figure (Kinkade?) snuggled up against the outside of the church doors, having lost his coat and dropped his cell phone in the snow.

This is as much detail as I have time to provide now, but look for my scholarly monograph on this subject this holiday season at a mall kiosk near you! It should be the only serious academic work available featuring a plushy faux-leather cover and printed in a too-large, mawkishly sentimental, old style serif typeface.

St. Pedro's Day

I'll let Nate take care of observing Bloom, since I never read Ulysses and am not on track to do so. But we should also observe the arrival of Pedro Alvarez to the Pittsburgh Pirates, signaling the next big thing for the ballclub. God help us all, may it be better than the last few next big things.

Pedro didn't get a hit but he walked and scored a run, representing half of the Pirates' nightly allowance of two runs. He also committed an error in the ninth inning that led to a meaningless insurance run being scored, which I think officially makes him a member of the team.

That's ten losses in a row now.

Our Day is Bloom, Dynamite

It's belated, since I'm posting from the rump end of the West Coast day, but I hope you all experienced the very jolliest of Bloomsdays. In honor of this year's I was planning to restore my Molly Worth cartoon to the Internet, since that link rotted a couple years ago when I left my VA Comcast account... But then I didn't. Pretty much the story of my goals so far this year!

As its own form of acknowledgment of the day, the NY Times this week ran a barely-news item about a Ulysses-based web comic that was barred from the App Store, presumably because Apple's gatekeepers deemed that its adaptation of the Oxen of the Sun chapter didn't achieve an aesthetically fulfilling comics analog to Joyce's playful mapping of the trajectory of English literature and language. So enjoy that, and go drink some Guinness or something while there's still time.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mitochondria are a Technology that Re-structure Eukaryotes

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, of mild hero Steven Pinker has chimed in a bit on the ol' device culture debate (touching, as well, if only tangentially on the anti-Powerpoint sentiment that Nate was talking about in person a couple weekends ago (Nate will provide linkage to whatever thingy he read)).

Pinker's trying to be pithy in his little op-ed here, but I think his optimism is shallow. He explains away the PowerPoint issue without actually touching on the issue-as-such; it's fine for scientists to lecture with PowerPoint, that's what it was invented for, but when decision-makers vet their information via bullet points, or when information is exchanged in such ways, there are obvious chances and cases of information loss. Sure, to some extent, Pinker is right to point out that all of these softwares are the actual media that hold this information in the first place, but the simple presence of the information isn't sufficient to make it readable or intelligible.

There also seems to be a kind of what I would consider to be dangerous relativism in Pinker's attitude towards technology, as its represented here. That, technologies develop more-or-less spontaneously, that anything that isn't explicitly disallowed is inevitable, and that we train ourselves to use what we have, and to pick up skills on things that arrive after we've already trained ourselves in some other way. So anti-Pod-ites like myself have no problem with light switches (well, I have some problem) or record players, but hate the Pods, only because we're cranky and xenophobic. Which is stupid of us, apparently. Stupid of me. Because all technologies are essentially the same, in so far as they interact with our plastic brain in apparently predictable ways.

As a writing teacher, I tend to see writing itself as a technology which changes--or pre-conditions--the way we think (read some Walter Ong; that's essentially where I'm coming from). To come into language in a culture which utilizes writing is to already be writing, even when you're thinking, even before you've learned how to read or write. Literacy, then, is just a matter of mediation. Whether its stylus/clay tablet, pen/paper, typewriter, word processor, blog, twitter, whatevs. (If I were to let myself get snooty, and puke out some quasi-Heideggerian blah blah blah about writing as techne, and media as technics...) Mediation places the writer at various distances from the method and the content of his/her utterances. And maybe its just a value-judgment, but I find it rather terrifying how close devices bring us to the (apparent) content of our messages, while holding us alienatingly distant from the method of their delivery.

And the further you get from your methods, the more prone you are to catastrophic failure. Without its enabling technologies--satellites, cell towers, electricity, broadband communication lines, etc--device culture fails utterly. It disappears. Writing itself is a much tougher kill. It's pretty easy to re-invent paper and pencil. A lot fucking tougher to reinvent the iPod. Which isn't to say that I think that writing is safer than devicing, just that it's a more robust technology.

To return to Pinker's optimism that humans are actually capable of turning their devices off (I've seen little evidence for this (when I warned my students that I don't check my emails on weekends, they asked me what religion I am)), it seems like that presupposes that we actually know what we are doing as we use these devices. In order to stop doing something, it usually helps to know that you're doing it in the first place. Writing with a pen or even typing, since it involves a letter-by-letter construction of the words, is pretty easy to understand. Information being captured by a little camera, encoded, compressed, chopped into packets, sent to a cell tower and relayed and then unpacked on some other end, all happening in nearly real-time is much harder to understand or even notice. But its happening, and someone figured out how to make it happen. Pinker seems to propose instead that folks just concentrate on what they do--their particular niche in information's apparently entropy-defying exponential march forward--and then hurl that little bit of stuff into the web, and be happy that they're plugged in. So there's a lot of trust and hope in there, which I can't help but be utterly cynical about.

I was starting to write "but then what do devicers do when the power turns off?" but then I realized that if my mitochondria stopped working I wouldn't know what the fuck to do. So the post-human won't even have a notion of technology, since there won't even be that sense of interior/exterior that cuspers like myself keep harping on.

Which is to say, I agree with Pinker that language is a process hosted across communities, and always changing, always underway, but it doesn't seem to me that the current direction of communication technologies are really taking us toward some democratic wonderland of science-and-information-hooray! (but instead towards, let's say... subsistence idiocy and corporate feudalism).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Two Lists

I've still got devices on the mind. Somehow, despite being not-nearly-as-device-oriented-as-I-might-be, I've still been thinking about it quite a bit. With healthy doses of egotism too, as I thought to myself that my iTunes playback software on my laptop would be shuffle-proof since my taste in music, as documented there, would defy any kind of satisfaction-generating playlist, since it'd be just too diverse (though perhaps brilliant in its general demonstration of taste across eclectic genres). So I hit the shuffle button after first starting a song that I actually wanted to hear (that's right, I get Jefferson Airplane songs playing in my head sometimes; I'm not ashamed) while doing some work on a poetry document, and here's what played:

Jefferson Airplane: Today
Jefferson Airplane: House at Pooneil Corners
Kool Keith: Supergalactic Lover
Elliot Sharp: Diurnal
The Fucking Champs: Fozzy Goes to Africa
Discharge: In Defense of Our Future
Les Savy Fav: The Slip
Sonu Nigam: Aaj Ki Raat
Ultramagnetic MCs: Give the Drummer Some
Wolfgang Rihm: Hoelderlin-Fragmente, mvmt. 6
Johannes Brahms: Tragic Overture
Jeff Mangum: Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Ultramagnetic MCs: Ced-Gee (Delta Force One)
Gyorgy Ligeti: Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, mvmt. 3
Mono Puff: Nixon’s the One
Pascal Dusapin: Quatour III, mvmt. 1
Orchid: Death of a Modernist
Brian Ferneyhough: Shadowtime, Scene VI: 7 Tableaux Vivants Representing The Angel Of History As Melencholia (2nd Barrier): Laurel's Eyes
Sufjan Stevens: In This Temple, as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth
The Nation of Ulysses: A Kid Who Tells on Another Kid is a Dead Kid
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 09-15-00

Pretty crappy, I know. Hipster-of-the-late-nineties-early-oughts with mostly-modernist classical music sprinkled in. I took the onset of the GY!BE song (twenty-odd minutes long) as a perfect place to stop this nonsense.

But, I was thinking of lists, because back on Memorial Day weekend, Jack had mentioned that he wouldn't mind getting a poetry "required reading" list from me--and another friend of mine also recently asked me more or less the same question--which has also recently been further informed by my recent cutting of my collection of books in half (meaning I got rid of quite a few of the poetry books that I owned) so I've been mulling that over a bit, and here is the list (in no particular order) of books that mean the most (without which I wouldn't be writing the way I am) to me these days, so far as poetry goes:

George Oppen: Collected Poems (esp. the volumes This in Which & Of Being Numerous)
Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems (the poems of 1962 - 1963)
Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems (you might go for one of the Selecteds, but I've just been keeping this book out recently, grabbing it and reading a few poems, pretty much every evening)
Robert Hass: Time & Materials
Robert Creeley: Life & Death
Jacques Roubaud: The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis (before which you should read his Some Thing Black)
Tomas Tranströmer: The Great Enigma: Collected Poems

So there you go; now you can read along with Pete!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Queues You Can Use

Someone at work left some free Netflix trial cards pinned to the department bulletin board, so I've taken the plunge into the early twenty-first century and signed up. Now, when people tell me about movies, I can start adding them to my queue, instead of saying "I should add that to my Netflix queue, although I guess I'll have to sign up for Netflix first, I should totally do that."

The inaugural items on my queue are:
--A 1995 episode of NOVA about ants hosted by E. O. Wilson
--Good Bye Lenin (which popped into my head first as a movie I wanted to see but inexplicably never did, and which I located by Googling "movie about old east german woman")
--The NFL Films disc of Super Bowl XIV
--The 1970 documentary about the original cast recording of Sondheim's Company
--The Incredibles, About Schmidt, Wedding Crashers, and Fight Club, in approximate order of how much I want to catch up on these
--Season one of M*A*S*H
As you can tell, I'll have made myself culturally current again in no time.

And they have "30 Rock" streaming, so I have new teevee to watch for when I bike home for lunch.

Seriously, now that I have a queue, I want to hear if you have any prompts (stage directions, if you will) regarding things I should queue onto it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I Got Crapped On by Another Bird Today

Which makes six hundred and twenty-four days between crappings-on. See how much personal insight you can gain when you keep a blog? I think I can beat that record next time around.

It was my fault, really, for sitting underneath a tree. But it was a nice evening, and I thought I'd go to the park with a travel coffee-mug of beer to read George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. Watch out! It sounds like a great idea, but there are a couple of dangers, like that you might get crapped on by a bird, or that Lakoff and Johnson don't have a very convincing account of why we "live by" metaphors, as opposed to the underlying concepts that permit metaphors.* (You know why GOOD IS UP, by the way, is that when you're up, nothing can crap on you there.) But mostly I'm happy the bird just nailed my jacket sleeve and not the mouth of my travel coffee-mug of beer.

OK, that's quite enough of this.

*I'm only on chapter 5, so I retain some open-mindedness, but: Why say that the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR implies that we fundamentally understand argument as a metaphor for war? Isn't it more fundamental that we understand ARGUMENT IS A ZERO-SUM CONTEST FOR SCARCE RESOURCES and WAR IS A ZERO-SUM CONTEST FOR SCARCE RESOURCES? (Scarce resources being beliefs or group decisions in the first case, spoils in the second.) I think this reveals the metaphor as much more of a linguistic phenomenon (as opposed to a conceptual one) than Lakoff and Johnson want to describe it. Looking at it this way, the metaphor is almost straight-up exaggeration, for rhetorical effect -- making the more subtle case (argument) into the more extreme one (war). L&J quickly identify that there are underlying concepts that make these metaphors work, and that they're important. But it's frustrating that they don't do a very rigorous job of investigating what's causing what among their linguistic and conceptual observations.

I'm, uh, kind of assuming either Nate or Pete has read this book, and can reply with a similar level of incoherence-or-not. Otherwise this is going to be a somewhat lonely read.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Friend of the Blog Makes it Big

Also, a great big of mild shout-out and congratulations to my friend, and occasional blog-comment leaver, Daniel Bassin, for making it into the New York Times. Pretty awesome!

More Thoughts on the Anti-Device Front

The bulk of my evening hours yesterday were dedicated to the grading of a larger-than-it-probably-should-have-been backlog of students' papers (having accumulated during my Memorial Day traveling (and assisted by the additional time-sink of commenting on their short stories (in case it hasn't been stated on the blog (or there are any blog readers that don't know me-or-what-I'm-generally-up-to-these-days), I'm currently 71% of the way through teaching a summer section of Intro to Creative Writing at the university where I recently completed my MFA))). While grading these papers, I decided to listen to music, and decided, further, to listen to music from records played on the turntable handed-down to me from my folks back when I got my own bedroom in high school.

Of, course, commenting on students' reading responses requires a certain amount of non-focus (in the same way that writing this blog post right now is required by the work I'm doing at work), so I found myself considering the turntable. While home the other weekend, we spent a fair amount of time in the family talking about device culture and cultural information-loss (that's how I'd summarize it, anyway). Unsurprisingly, I'm as antiPad as I am antiPod. But, listening to records (John Hartford, Sibelius, Jimi Hendrix, in this case), I couldn't help but recognize that the lp-turntable combo is itself a device, if perhaps a device that is less convenient than the iPod.

The night before, I had been out at an art opening, then went to a show of a few rock n' roll/punk bands. Part-way through the third band's set, around midnight, I decided that I'd heard enough rock n' roll for one night and headed on home. At this time of night, the buses run only once an hour (give or take), so I opted to walk, figuring that walking 77-ish blocks in the middle of the night was preferable to waiting around for 30-40 minutes at a bus stop in the middle of the night (I was passed by the bus-I-didn't-wait-for-at-54th-Street at around 100th, so it wasn't too terrible, and then I stopped for pizza at the local late-night-pizza-dispensary, making the total commute home about 90 minutes in length (only, I'd guess, 30 minutes longer than the bus ride would've been (the bus ride would've included a long 40 minutes of standing around and two fewer slices of pizza)).). I made this walk without either becoming bored or having music to listen to on any device.

My thinking (we're back during the grading again now) was then further intrigued by the fact that I have the recording I was listening to (a young Maazel conducting Vienna doing Sibelius's 2nd Symphony) on record on CD as well. But I prefer the vinyl version. It sounds better. Looking for better adjectives, I get to "warmer," maybe? as the comparative. Which is to say, I'd like to at least claim that I chose the lp because of an aspect of its sound, rather than just some ideological I'm-a-grouch-who-listens-to-records-for-spite kind of thing. (Though, seriously, sometimes (and I don't claim to even do it all that often these days) listening to records is just more fun than listening to CDs or mp3s.)

And I wonder what I'm really getting at. Because all recordings, if I really try to make an argument in the anti-Pod vein, are device-enabled and therefore somehow pernicious. And perhaps the inevitable outcome of device culture is the ubiquity of said devices (see also, that Star Trek: TNG episode with the game that nearly takes over the Enterprise). And what you have, then, is a community which is increasingly incapable of focusing on anything. And, like, focus is a good thing (it would have helped me grade those papers faster, that's for sure).

Or, focus is a good thing for those of us that actually want to be able to focus (most humans being comfortable just being told what to do and never doing much). So, therefore, my resentment of the i- Pods & Pads has more to do with their ability to keep me from focusing. So, after listening to the A&B sides of disc one of Electric Ladyland, I instead and grabbed my (acoustic) guitar (which is currently missing both of its E strings and has its middle four strings C-tuned like a ukulele) and played around on it for a while, since musical instruments are precisely (precisely) the kind of technology that iPods are not. As the aphorism goes (which I learned, once upon a time, from a They Might Be Giants t-shirt), "Music self-played is happiness self-made."

Then I was tired, so I went to bed, still not even close to catching up on my grading. Oops!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

This Is What Abraham Lincoln's Memorial Said

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker, wrote a book last year (for the local book-makery) that I devoured on Tuesday, in between the end of the long weekend in Pittsburgh. (It was time for some much-enjoyed quiet time, first at Pamela's Diner in Oakland over coffee, then in a characterless reading room of the Carnegie Library, and finally in a couple of airports and planes.) I found it to be a great read, particularly since I love the arts but know next to nothing about architecture. Goldberger gives a fine introduction, not in a didactic way but by suggesting a bunch of avenues of approach when you think about architecture. And crucially for any writer about anything in the world, he constantly expresses both the excitement of appreciating his topic at hand, and he makes you immediately want to experience the tangible discussion pieces firsthand. (Good food writers do this and good music writers do this, in particular.)

He makes a particularly generous example of the Lincoln Memorial. Here's this completely familiar structure, which doesn't immediately suggest architectural daring, particularly for the early 1920s, when it was built. Goldberger:
The Lincoln Memorial ... is obviously a Greek temple in one sense, and in another it is not a Greek temple at all. The architect Henry Bacon created a masterwork that in many ways is as inventive and original as the modernist buildings created in Europe at the same time. ...

Bacon started with the Parthenon, yet he all but turned it inside out. The Lincoln Memorial is not a structure supported by columns, like a Greek temple, but more of a marble box surrounded by a colonnade. The walls are set inside, behind the columns, and they shoot straight up beyond them. The effect ... is of a classical coating applied to a brooding, almost primal geometric form. There is no attempt, then, to mimic the appearance of a real Greek temple; it is hard not to think that Bacon's real interest was to communicate the power of abstract form and the strength of silence. ...

To better balance the Capitol at the other end of the Mall, Bacon rotated his temple so that the long side served as the main facade and entrance, not the short end as at the Parthenon. He also eliminated the gabled attic present in real Greek temples ("attic" means Greek top), replacing it with a flat roof, rendering the building all the more abstract. ... The vocabulary of historical style can be used much more creatively than pure replication. In this case Bacon combined urbanistic concerns with scenographic ones to yield a building of startling grandeur and self-assurance.

The picture of the Lincoln Memorial immediately "pops" for me after this -- the austere central box, the structurally separate columns solemnly clothing it. The perspective changes the gravity of the building and its experience in general. I'll have to see it again now, possibly (as Goldberger notes a couple of times) at night, when its contrasts are played up even more.

Goldberger also has very positive things to say about Yale's famed neo-gothic architecture, which I'd really written off in my mind by now as ridiculously pretentious (except for buildings containing particularly good carillons.) So I will need to look around with a more open mind again. Grudgingly, I may even try the same for Paul Rudolph's concrete eyesore of a School of Architecture building. The Ingalls Rink I've got plenty of existing enthusiasm for already.

Small Ball via Radio, plus Galaraggian Musings

So, in an unfortunate scheduling coincidence, the Altoona Curve are playing their annual 3-game series up in New Britain this week, not a good time for me to go see them. Or rather, to have time to twist anyone's arm to go see them with me. (I'd have given it a last-minute shot today, but there's been a severe thunderstorm warning for the Hartford area since this afternoon. I doubt anyone I know would still consider a double-A baseball game under that threat.) It's actually turned out to be a beautiful evening, and I was really tempted to grab a Zipcar and drive up there after work. But despite the draw of a Tim Alderson start and a recent Hector-Gimenez-led surge of offense, I didn't think I want to see myself as a guy who hangs out alone at minor-league baseball games.

So instead I've made a summer-appropriate snack (strawberries, crackers with blue cheese, toasted pecans, asparagus, Smuttynose IPA) and have settled in the living room to listen to the game on internet radio. Did you know you can listen to Altoona Curve games on the radio online? I did not know that till this evening. That's the most useful thing I'm going to tell you tonight. I'm not exaggerating. They run radio ads for Yuengling and Isaly's chipped ham.

But all of this is small potatoes. Obviously, all eyes on the baseball world have been on the Armando Galarraga incident yesterday. My thinking on the topic goes like this:
1. First of all, I feel really bad for Jim Joyce, who clearly feels terrible about everything. This must be one of those situations where the umpire is watching for the feet and listening for the throw to hit the glove -- like they always do -- but where the throw is too soft for that to work well. Galarraga doesn't make that catch too cleanly, either, and the play is a lot closer than most people are making it out to be. Clearly enough it's a missed call, but it seems less egregious to me than everyone's saying. In a way, Joyce deserves credit for making that call honestly and not intentionally giving the play to Galarraga so as not to spike the perfect game.

2. It sounds like everyone's handling the situation really well, especially Joyce and Galarraga. The lack of bitterness is refreshing, especially by professional sports standards.

3. Isn't this one of the least probable things ever to happen in a baseball game? Like, a perfect game plus an unambiguous blown call by an umpire, with two outs in the ninth? Aren't people talking past how unbelievably weird this is? If you ask me, this makes the game more historic, not less historic. Anyway, apparently we have normal perfect games all the time now.

4. On another level, what's the difference between an actual perfect game and a game that literally everyone agrees is exactly like an actual perfect game except for a blown call irrelevant to the outcome? It's not like what's at stake is the actual nature of Galarraga's game. He hasn't had anything really tangible stolen from him, except posterity. And even if he's not written up in the history books, I doubt that connoisseurs of baseball history are going to forget about him (see issue #3).

In short, I'd say that for the sake of uniqueness, good will, and lack of metaphysical pertinence, we should play the ball where it lies and appreciate the game for its own character. No one would ever have predicted it, and maybe it's even metaphoric for something.

Although it's a damn good thing Galarraga got that 28th out without any fuss: that guy rips a double into the gap and you've got some less pleasant food for thought.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Some Original Observations on Replica Jerseys

While I was waiting for a flight out of Pittsburgh yesterday morning I noticed that the replica Steelers jersey that the guy next to me was wearing was for #11, Stefan Logan, the diminutive and somewhat effective kick returner last season who will probably have to fight for a roster spot this year. This started me thinking about people's less-than-obvious replica jersey choices. Steelers fans as a population seem to cover a broad range of current players; among the sea of Polamalus and Wards and (now conspicuously underrepresented) Roethlisbergers you spot more than a few shirts for Ryan Clark or James Farrior or other above-average but second-tier performers. And here the Post-Gazette's Blog-n-Gold documents a sighting of a throwback jersey for Dan Sepulveda, the punter. Is this just a Steelers thing, or does it happen for other talented and successful pro teams? It's tempting to chalk it up to the collective erudition of the fan base ("see, we appreciate the contributions of a solid veteran cornerback like Ike Taylor, even if he's not the brightest light in the secondary!") but I wager it's a side effect of people trying to differentiate themselves within the mass of more popular choices.

This thought tied in with the replica jerseys (or simple, cheaper t-shirts) on display at PNC Park at the Pirates/Cubs game on Memorial Day. (Good times, Garrett Jones dinger, Pirates won, thorough drenching just minutes after the last out when the sky finally opened up into an earnest downpour.) Pirates fans exhibit an interesting array of jersey choices, too, though for the very different reason that the team has very few successful players, or beloved veteran players, or even recognizable players. (As Jack pointed out to me as a sign of the times, fans approaching the stadium from the Roberto Clemente Bridge are greeted by a large, prominent banner with a full-body portrait of backup catcher Jason Jaramillo, of all people.) Add in some Fukudomes and Ryne Sandbergs and whatnot from the typically large number of Cubs fans in attendance and it was a remarkable mix. Not "remarkable" in the sense of being shocking but in the sense of bearing being remarked upon. Thus some remarks on the jerseys I saw:

Andrew McCutchen (#22): The home team's only undisputed star in the making. Many of these on display; if Cutch is ever traded most of them will be stuffed into bottles of gasoline, lit on fire, and thrown at the stadium.

Garrett Jones (#46): Solid representation for Jones, whose breakout in the second half of last season as an older rookie is a great story, and a good deal more heartwarming than the starting lineup's more typical "elite prospect a couple years ago who sort of washed out of some other team's system" bio. Hopefully a good investment.

Jason Bay (#38), Freddy Sanchez (#12), Jack Wilson (#2): All fairly recent examples of the successful and/or beloved veteran players no longer with the Pirates. Bay seemed the most prevalent.

Paul Maholm (#28): A solid choice for a replica jersey, given that he's been with the team a few seasons and seems to be fulfilling a respectable, Bryan Bullington-esque destiny as a number-three-type starter. Probably purchased during or soon after his breakout season a couple years ago. I can't remember if I saw a Zach Duke shirt or not; if so, same story.

Andy LaRoche (#15): I guess this was a hopeful replica jersey pick, as in "I hope Andy LaRoche rounds into the elite player he was once projected to be / Contributes solidly at his position / Is still in the starting lineup a year after I buy this shirt". Alternatively, it could have been marked down 40% at the Pirates store two months after the Jason Bay trade.

"DR LOVE" (#69): As I saw here, one alternative to the Bucs' lack of star power is to spend like $80 on a sex joke. Jack and I both spotted this one together on our way into the stadium, and one of the advantages of hanging out with him in person is that we can riff on this sort of thing in real time. In this case, imagining how disappointed the thirtysomething-looking gentleman wearing this jersey would be if he found out that it actually belonged to an obscure middle reliever of eastern European extraction. "Now pitching for the Pirates, number sixty-nine, Mikołaj DZHER-luff!" That sort of thing.

To me the puzzling aspect of this sartorial choice, aside from a rather mother-hennish feeling of "what in the world do you expect people to think of you when you wear that in public", was that it was a gray, road-jersey replica. Why the away uniform? Is the man an out-of-towner? Is he specifically trying to advertise to the local ladies that he's available for a limited-time-only, no-strings-attached, most-likely-at-a-Hilton-Garden-Inn-by-the-airport dalliance? Or is he just accepting, if he's the slobbier sort of bachelor -- and I'd like to go ahead and make that assumption -- that all of his laundry is destined to wind up that same shade of gray anyway?

Andy Van Slyke (#18): Natch. A beloved Pirate on the last of their winning teams and their most recent center fielder of any enduring quality prior to McCutchen. Right about two decades ago.

Roberto Clemente (#21): Even farther back but, of course, he's the Great One. In fact, one of the #21 t-shirts just had "The Great One" in place of the name; although it looks pretty corny I appreciate the sentiment.

I want to take some time to talk about the also-corny, pre-game animated sequence they show on the PNC Park scoreboard. In keeping with a pirate theme it represents the Pirates as a pirate ship and the opposing team as a warship of some kind. In past years the animation has shown the pirate ship sinking the other ship. This time, however, it showed some variation in which -- and I may have this wrong, since I was spot-checking the scoreboard with one eye and making sure my sandwich wasn't dripping pulled pork into my beer with the other -- the opposing ship fired a cannonball over the stadium, at which point the big Roberto Clemente statue outside the gate picked it up and, as though rifling a baseball to third base from deep in right field, threw it on a rope back into the other ship, sinking or at least substantially damaging it. And while I may be reading too much into it here I'd like to make the point to the club that Roberto Clemente isn't going to win any Pirates games any more. To sink other teams the front office will have to induce less heroic but still living players to play for the Pirates, perhaps even by offering to pay them lots of money.

Sid Bream (#5): A lanky guy sitting near us was wearing this ratty old jersey, presumably bought when the Pirates were good in '88 or '89 and possibly just because the guy kind of looked like Bream. I can understand not replacing the shirt until the team looks good again. But seriously, Sid Bream? There's some bad history with that one.

Ronny Cedeno Cubs uniform (#5): One of the Chicago fans wore a replica jersey from the current Pirates shortstop's time with the Cubbies, I guess as an acknowledgment of... what? I don't know what would inspire someone to buy a Ronny Cedeno jersey in the first place, since he was never really that good. Maybe the Stefan Logan guy in the airport knows.

Matching Sean Casey and Adam LaRoche t-shirts (both #25): These were kind of adorable, in that as we were leaving the stadium I saw them worn by what looked like a young couple. Or maybe they're just friends who kissed awkwardly at a party and regretted it later. You know, because first base just didn't work out for them.