Friday, December 30, 2016

Working-Class Poet Laureate

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 77
Jim Daniels, Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems

Poet Jim Daniels worked at a Detroit auto plant to pay his way through graduate school. Now an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he has a dual-lens perspective on cultural issues and the conflict between classes. In an America where “white working class” has become a powerful, inflammatory demographic group, tapping that perspective has possibilities for freeing the discussion about where we, as a people, move forward.

This perspective also makes for great art. This book collects from eight of Daniels’ previous poetry collections, with eleven poems not available elsewhere. He writes in a plain-English style which many university poets espouse verbally, but which few actually practice. One gets the feeling he hopes to attract an audience of his fellow Detroit workers, without the patronizing academic practice of explaining blue-collar citizens back to themselves:
Bush idles over from his broken press
big pot sticking out tight
under a white t-shirt
gray hair slicked back, perfect.
He bends toward me and stares
at my greasy coveralls. I sweat
behind the washer, tossing
Axle housings onto pallets.

Hey, look at me. Am I dirty?
Am I sweating?
You gotta learn how to survive
around here, kid. If you don’t know
how to break your machine
then you shouldn’t be running it.
He spits on the floor, wanders away.

“Where I’m At: Factory Education”
Jim Daniels
The brief patter, reflecting the kind of language workers can slip in between outbursts from noisy machines, will sound familiar to anybody who has struggled under the weight of industrialized labor. Strictly noun-verb, with no words over two syllables, it has a structural hurry completely at odds with an obese man “idling over” from a stopped machine. It reflects the almost-liturgical language rites of working long shifts in an enclosed, windowless factory.

Speaking from experience, I attest, factory workers have their own group identity (as most employment demographics do). They don’t just do factory work, they are factory workers. They find ways to express this shared identity through the rituals they practice surrounding their equipment, their co-workers, their daily routines. Maybe that’s why they repeat familiar social and political patterns, because their identity requires community integrity:
Machine, I come to you over 800 times a day
like a crazy monkey lover:
in and out, in and out, in and out.

And you, you hardly ever break down,
such clean welds, such sturdy parts.
Oh how I love to oil your tips.

Machine, come home with me tonight.
I’ll scrub off all the stains on your name,
grease and graffiti.

I’m tired of being your part-time lover.
Let me carry you off
into the night on a hi-lo.

That guy on midnights,
I know he drinks,
and beats you.

“Factory Love”
Until you’ve worked an overnight shift operating a single machine, melding your body to its requirements, you must trust the authenticity of Jim Daniels’ depiction.

Daniels’ first several books excerpted here translate blue-collar experience into the language of university poets. Subsequently, as his life moves into education, his focus shifts. Many later poems translate arts and educated culture into the language of working-class citizens. The best examples come from his Blue Jesus poems, inspired by the painter Francis Bacon, whose electric, gestural canvases combine abstract and realistic themes in ways that take some getting used to. Here, Daniels responds to Bacon’s “Yellow Jesus”:
Can you keep a secret? I have seen halos around the heads
of beautiful women. Okay, shoot me
with a well-intentioned folk song—
I’m telling the truth
till it hurts: I love the body.
I love the sonic boom boom
of the heart after skin touches skin.
Rather than merely describe the painting, that lazy fallback of inexperienced MFA students, Daniels describes the experience of witnessing the painting. Anybody could Google a well-known artist’s paintings and say what they look like; Daniels shares how they feel, how a viewer unversed in the ways of “fine art” could learn to appreciate an artist whose most iconic works are often inscrutable. His focus has shifted from his early verse, but he’s still a cultural translator.

Having done factory work, and having taught university English, I can attest the two cultures are often deaf to one another, and need a translator. There are only so many people like Jim Daniels and me; we can’t be everywhere. But a book like this, shared by people across the cultural divide, could help bridge the two groups. If we had shared language, we could speak in poetry, without fearing one another.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Genius Industry

Danielle Krysa (with paintings by Martha Rich), Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk, and Other Truths About Being Creative

I don’t know if Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was really first in the current creativity books boom. I certainly noticed it first. Books, and to a lesser degree video and audio recordings, encouraging aspiring artists to quit being their own worst enemies have become a major hustle for the publishing industry. Most, like this one, are pretty good. Yet I can’t help noticing: books for aspiring artists seem to be growing faster than the general art market.

Danielle Krysa, collage artist, painter, and prolific blogger, has written two previous books on working artists and their creative process. Both focused heavily on interviewing working artists and getting their views on how the creation process works internally. This one includes some interviews and dialog, but has a more personal, you-centered focus. Krysa apparently wants to reprogram your internal monolog away from self-sabotage, a habit common in creative aspirants everywhere.

Between the interviews she’s conducted with professional artists, and the responses her first two books received from readers, Krysa noticed certain prevailing patterns in how people think about creativity. She distills these patterns into ten aphorisms we would-be creative types can apply to our own process. These include, but are not limited to, “Excuses Are the Enemy” (how true), “Failure Leads to Genius” (certainly my experience), and “Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk.”

This sort of internal reprogramming matters for anybody who’d like to create. Not just full-time professionals, either; hobby painters, early morning novelists, and weekend woodworkers, of which I’m all three, need reminders that our fear of failure, our self-destructive criticism, and our facile self-justifications are our biggest weakness. We need to expunge these influences from our thinking if we aspire to create, even for our own mental well-being.

Danielle Krysa
Consider why people don’t create. In my teaching days, students’ most-cited reason for not writing more was that they believed they couldn’t, that they feared trying something and getting proven wrong. This negative self-talk, which Krysa notes children writing doggerel or gluing macaroni to construction paper don’t practice, generally come from well-meaning but misguided teachers, peers, or sadly parents, who mistake fault-finding for constructive criticism. No wonder many artists can’t create something meaningful until their parents are dead.

So far, so good. I wish Krysa’s personal exhortations included more action-oriented exercises; she has some, but not many, and not in every chapter. As scholarly writer Patricia Goodson noted recently, the leading block stopping academic writers (or other creative professionals) from actually creating, is that they don’t think of themselves as writers. And the surest way to overcome that block is to write (paint, sing, build) until you change your own mind.

Fine, that’s a personal opinion. Perhaps some people do better with self-talk before plunging in headlong. I don’t pretend to understand the varieties of psychology enough to dispute Krysa in this regard. And if creative people coordinate their actual creating with the kind of emotionally uplifting self-talk Krysa, and others, espouse, I have no problem believing they’ll increase their output quantity, and with it their output quality. Creating more is key to creating better, but we must first create.

Put another way, notwithstanding my nitpicking, I appreciate Krysa’s sentiments, and will likely incorporate reading several pages of this book into my daily creative regimen. But books similar to this one flood the market relentlessly. My favorite bookstore has more shelf space dedicated to such moral exhortations for creative professionals than to philosophy or world history, and almost as much as science or current events. Books for creators, especially writers, are a boom market.

It’s tempting to say something about the boom market in creativity books while pipelines for creative marketing are drying up. Admittedly, as I write this, both the New York Times and the Washington Post are experiencing subscription booms and expanding their newsrooms for the first time in years. And the explosion of basic cable TV networks have created unprecedented new markets for actors and directors. Perhaps the creative market is undergoing a transition, not a contraction.

But that still feels unsatisfying.

Much as I appreciate Krysa’s book, and feel grateful for having read it, it’ll probably vanish into a crowded pool of similar creativity manifestoes. I’ve received several similar review books that went through one printing and disappeared; only Martha Rich’s interesting, borderless paintings encouraged me to accept this book. Krysa does nothing wrong, but also nothing to stand above the crowd. Krysa’s principles deserve better. But frustrated creative aspirants are already at saturation marketing levels.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Smash the “Smash the Patriarchy!”

Meg Myers before
Meg Myers, a singer-songwriter whose work I admire, recently got a pixie cut. I prefer to call it “a pixie cut,” because it sounds better than “shaved her head, and letting it grow back,” which is what her Twitter and Facebook photos resemble. I don’t like it; her clavicle-length black locks have loomed large in her public image, and the pixie cut doesn’t frame her face the same way. The formerly savage artist looks tamed.

So, okay, it’s not for me. But I’d no sooner thought that than I began second-guessing myself. Am I imposing some male heteronormative colonial blah-blah on a woman I’ve never met, never gotten closer to that performing on a stage sixty feet away? Am I trying to turn a woman, whom I admire partly for her independence and chutzpah, into a vessel for my expectations of feminine modeling and docility? How dare I standardize her?

These thoughts plagued me, off and on, for two days. (Okay, more off than on:I have a job.) Y’know, the standard “male feminist” self-doubt from a heterosexual man who loves women, while also respecting them as humans. Us honky dude progressives regularly engage in self-censorship that makes citizens of communist regimes look easygoing by comparison, constantly policing our every thought. I chased myself around the house several times before I realized: it doesn’t matter.

Literally, my opinions on a celebrity’s haircut don’t matter. My taste in women’s hair only matter to those who seek my input. Meg Myers has a boyfriend, a tour manager, and a press agent through her record label, who all have valid input regarding her image. If they believe shaving her head won’t harm ticket sales, will move albums, and looks good in bed, their opinions matter. Me, I only follow her for her voice.

Some people certainly should do better shutting their yaps. When she posted her first full-face photo with her cropped hair on Facebook, some meathead commmented: “Your hair is fucking horrible”. This blunt, vulgar imposition crosses a line by demanding that she take his opinion as seriously as her professional contacts and family. Plus, cussing out a celebrity in public is bush-league Mark David Chapman behavior. It’s a dick move, venturing perilously into abusive boyfriend territory.

Meg Myers after
Myers handled it beautifully, posting back: “Thank you I really appreciate that. You're a really kind person [heart emoji]”. Her response made me laugh, defanging the harshness of that numbskull’s comment. This solidified in my brain that fans can have taste-based opinions. My view of her hair, like my view of her music, is my own. Not everybody likes her music (she’s never cracked the Hot 100), and not everybody will like her hair. So?

Men should certainly desire to help, advance, and respect women. We’ve enjoyed standing in society for so long, we have the unique ability to raise others up, and should take the opportunity whenever it arises. That should be the ideal of male feminism, that we use the privileges society accords men to boost women. Yet in today’s atmosphere of social media outrage, Jezebel.com screeds, and full-time professional offense-takers, male feminism has become about impotent self-flagellation.

If I second-guess something as fundamental as my taste standards, how can I function as a creative individual? My tastes led me to Myers, long before I recognized her face, and I never questioned that. Yet my desire to be supportive leads me to negate my own opinions. It would be unsupportive to tell a celebrity “Your hair is fucking horrible.” It is not unsupportive to think, quietly to myself, “I don’t care for it.”

Who benefits from such attitudes? Certainly not me, since it started a cascade of self-doubt and second-guessing myself. Men who support women internalize the attitudes of social media outrage, get reduced to quivering jellies of indecision, paralyzed by their self-criticism. Men who don’t support women dismiss that outrage as typical feminist bitchiness, and continue behaving as before. Those men who most need the message, are least likely to hear it. And the cycle continues unabated.

So that’s the lesson Meg Myers taught me: dogmatic “-ism” thinking hamstrings those who really should act. It stops people from talking to those with whom they disagree. And, paradoxically, believing something strongly and giving voice to that opinion, probably entrenches anyone who believes the opposite. As our media has become more “social,” we’ve stopped communicating with diverse groups. Maybe it’s better if, rather than embracing an established  “-ism,” we simply sit down to conversation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Chicago FUBAR Patrol

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 14
John McNaughton (director), Mad Dog and Glory

Crime scene tech Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie (Robert De Niro) is a loser and knows it. Pathologically averse to conflict, he ghosts through life in an almost-empty apartment, scorned by his Chicago PD peers, listlessly photographing crime scenes. But circumstances thrust him into a convenience store robbery, where he accidentally saves mob boss Frank Milo’s (Bill Murray) life. Now Chicago’s biggest criminal owes a debt Mad Dog would rather goes unpaid.

This project was probably doomed to commercial oblivion the moment some wisenheimer said: “Hey! Let’s give Bill Murray the Robert De  Niro Role!” That’s not an exaggeration. Murray plays almost the same repressed, terminally lonely Godfather figure DeNiro played six years later in Analyze This. Yet somehow, it works. Watching Murray’s criminal spiral into seriocomic uselessness, while De Niro’s schlubby cop grows a pair, is a blossoming of the human spirit.

Frank Milo aspires to stand-up comedy, but is about as funny as an ER visit. But he owns—or anyway controls—the club, so nobody can fire him. Mad Dog watches Milo’s set, then does something Milo’s made-men audience never would: offers constructive criticism. This impresses Milo, who, in appreciation of Mad Dog’s naïve ballsiness, loans Mad Dog his favorite bartender, Glory (Uma Thurman), as his “girlfriend” for one week.

This horrifies Mad Dog on multiple levels. As a policeman and decent human being, Milo’s casual disregard for human freedoms shocks him. But a stranger barging into his quiet, carefully ordered life upsets his ability to restrain his feelings. With Milo intruding at work, and Glory intruding at home, Mad Dog becomes unable to control the roiling mess of emotions beneath his timid surface. Worse, Mad Dog realizes: he likes it.

Not just the anger, either, though getting pissed off with Milo quickly becomes addictive. Glory, despite being traded like a baseball card, proves an ambitious, strong-willed woman, only beholden to Milo because she owes him money. Mad Dog falls in love, and begins trying to become the man worthy of Glory’s time. Too bad Glory only wants out. Mad Dog resolves to pay the debts holding her back, despite her objections.

Uma Thurman (left) and Robert De Niro in Mad Dog and Glory

The movie’s two leads come from very different cinematic worlds. De Niro’s biggest prior stab at humor was as the psychopathic, massively unfunny comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (oh, wait, that’s another De Niro lick Murray stole for this film). Murray’s other stab at crime comedy-drama, was the massive bomb The Man Who Knew Too Little. These cinematic worlds seldom overlap, usually in films that go unrecognized for years.

Yet the noble attempt to reach across the divide works here, possibly because the actors play each other. Watching De Niro teach Murray how to be funny, mirrors Murray inadvertently teaching De Niro how to get angry. This entire movie basically constitutes an extended reversal joke, watching each character turn into the other. How, we wonder throughout, will Mad Dog crowningly humiliate Milo, becoming the man he’s always been inside?

Uma Thurman had already gained visibility appearing in artistic successes like Dangerous Liaisons and Henry and June, but was still one year from her star-making role in Pulp Fiction. David Caruso, as Mad Dog’s partner Mike, had over a decade’s experience by this point, without a breakout hit. His performance here later served to model his notorious NYPD Blue role. It’s interesting seeing future stars developing their iconic, though typecasting, performance personas.

Billed celebrity stars and breakout supporting actors alike bring this movie mixed reactions. They plainly give everything to their roles, and love what they’re doing; De Niro in particular hasn’t vanished this completely into any part since Raging Bull. Yet they had to know even the studio expected this movie to crater. The production lacks a score, suggesting terminally tight budgets, and some takes run unbelievably long, evidence the director lacked money for reshoots.

And audiences responded appropriately. This film made back barely half its budget at the box office. Sometimes this means a movie failed artistically; other times, like this, it means the studio withheld marketing funds, distributors flinched from unsupported product, and audiences never realized this film had been released. It found a cult audience on VHS, and later DVD, but remains largely unseen by more diverse audiences.

Mad Dog and Glory lacks jokes as such. Like a Chekhov play, it depicts the collision between characters who talk without listening, who act without thinking. We laugh to realize these characters doom themselves. As a comedy, it demands a thinking audience; but it provides rewards missing from typical big-studio farces. And we’ll remember it long after high-gloss confections vanish from memory.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Dramady of the Sixties, in Two Acts

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Four
The Firesign Theatre, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers

George Leroy Tirebiter hasn’t left his Los Angeles apartment in years. Desperately lonely, and unable to order takeout, he turns on the television, to find some of his classic films from his child star days running the all-night block. As Tirebiter watches his own face, he regresses through the years, and his life at different ages melds together into an unending dream sequence of hopes, joys, and sudden disillusionment.

Calling the Firesign Theatre’s classic third album “comedy” is somewhat misleading. This hour-long impressionistic play doesn’t much resemble the Firesigns’ vinyl-record comedy contemporaries, like George Carlin or Bill Cosby. There’s no storytelling, only the ghost of a narrative through-line, and most importantly, no cues from the laugh track to what’s funny. It’s an immersive experience, like a fever dream following too much chili and Sonoran sticky icky.

Yet it’s nevertheless constantly hilarious. Like their rough contemporaries, Monty Python, the Firesigns draw influence from the British Goon Show, newly syndicated for American radio during the hippie era. The overlap is unmistakable in their dry humor, very long set-ups that often discard conventional punchlines, and cast of thousands played by a very small ensemble. The humor is fast, kinetic, and arrestingly complex. It demands a thinking audience.

Tirebiter watches two movies, apparently at once—the implication is, he’s flipping between channels, a more laborious process in those pre-remote control days. In High School Madness, he plays an Archie Andrews-type giddy teenager, bouncing off walls with school spirit, who finds his entire school building missing on graduation day. In Parallel Hell, he plays a soldier trapped in a war (implicitly Korea, though never stated) that apparently never ends.

A promotional photo of the Firesign Theatre, from their record label.

Interspersed among these movies, we get glimpses of the commercialized, sterile world Tirebiter now inhabits. The TV plugs The Howl of the Wolf Movie, a satire of all-night B-movie blocks, promising “honest stories of working people, as told by rich Hollywood stars.” Tirebiter sees himself, apparently from the future, on a This Is Your Life-type game show. And he watches a post-WWII commercial appeal for nationalized blandness, “Shoes For Industry.”

Together, this jittery, hot-blooded mélànge of images drops us, boiling frog-style, into a world where everybody works but nobody cares about their product; where staying busy matters, but nothing is worth finishing; where wars continue so long that continuing becomes its own goal. Sound familiar? Isolated from his own accomplishments, valued only instrumentally, Tirebiter uses humor to retain his essential humanity in the City of Angels.

George Leroy Tirebiter was the name of a dog, adopted by students at USC as an unofficial campus mascot in 1946. His fondness for chasing cars got him killed in a hit-and-run in 1950, but his legend survives today. The characterization of Tirebiter on this album implies Bobby Driscoll, a child actor best remembered for voicing Disney’s Peter Pan. Driscoll tried, unsuccessfully, to transition into grown-up war films in the 1950s; he dies of a drug overdose in 1968, age 31.

This description, unfortunately, makes the album sound unremittingly bleak. Not so. For fans of Monty Python or Saturday Night Live, this excellent piece of long-form narrative comedy mixes ensemble slapstick with deep feeling and a surprisingly touching conclusion, for a form of audio-only comedy that one seldom hears anymore. Many people have claimed the Firesigns as an influence; far fewer, sadly, have tried to reproduce what they did.

The Firesigns love long titles. This album opens with a callback to their second album, How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?, and this album’s conclusion opens their fourth album, I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus. The albums meld into  a rambling, hippie-era gestalt, salted with Beatles references, jibes at then-current politics (a robotic Richard Nixon—hardly a stretch), and more.

Unsurprisingly, the Firesigns are an inextricable part of their generation. Founded in the wake of the Sunset Strip riots, their basic ethic always involved poking powerful people in the eyes. This album, like their others from the late Sixties and early Seventies, reflect a terrible fear of encroaching institutional blandness. Those fears seemed comedic, almost science fictional, when this album debuted in 1970. They seem downright prophetic now.

As stated, this album requires a thinking audience. Because it touches on Tirebiter’s life at different stages, it’ll also reflect the life progress of its hearers; re-listening as you age is a rewarding experience. Its mix of glum themes with silver-tongued comedy zingers could help you see the world as never before.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Drowned City

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 76
Tom Piazza, City of Refuge

About three-quarters of the way through this book, one line rings familiar to anyone ever forced from home by circumstances we can't understand. Driving around his temporary home city of Houston, displaced New Orleanian Wesley Williams is disoriented by the useless map. Desperate to find his job and assume a grown man's responsibilities, Wesley thinks, "There was a whole world in Houston, obviously, but he didn't know what it was."

This neatly sums up Tom Piazza's take on the lives of people driven out of their city by Hurricane Katrina. They occupy a world of which they aren't a part. The forces in which they placed their trust have abandoned them in deepest need. And no matter which of a long series of painful choices they make, nothing will ever again be the same for any of them.

The bifurcated story follows the lives of a pair of New Orleans families. Craig Donaldson, husband and father, planted himself in the city as a young man and now regards himself as part of the community. But SJ Williams, his sister, and her son have lived their whole lives in the Lower Nine. New Orleans isn't something they picked up along the way; it exists for them in a bone-deep way.

In the days before Katrina, and the months after, the two families exist at opposite poles. White and black, rich and poor, schooled and self-taught: the Donaldsons and the Williamses display a spectrum of what made New Orleans great. Piazza's nonfiction volume Why New Orleans Matters, which covers many themes overlapping with this novel, explains why this mix of cultures and classes made the Big Easy a place of legend. Now he shows how that plays out in ordinary lives faced with one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Tom Piazza
The two families’ different responses reflecting their different backgrounds. The Donaldsons land on their feet pretty well, but the flight puts a strain on their relationship; lies and half-truths accumulate in their lives like water in the flood. The Williamses scatter to relief sites throughout America and can be reunited only with great difficulty, but the effort brings them closer together. Evidently, in the wake of Katrina, the Donaldsons have nothing between them but lies, and the Williamses have nothing but the truth.

Piazza has a remarkable eye for the details which made Katrina so powerful to watch on the evening news. Streets littered with wedding photos, stuffed animals, and overturned cars serve as background for the characters’ intimate struggles. Each cast member has a unique voice, a take on the struggle to cope with catastrophe that belongs to each person alone. These features give the novel a psychological kick missing from much of the speechmaking that followed the disaster.

Some readers won’t appreciate Piazza's plain-spoken political opinions. He calls the Bush administration's disaster response "despicable." He openly condemns the government for its slipshod evacuation plans in the face of looming calamity. Anybody who still, at this late date, believes FEMA really did a "heck of a job" may balk at the author so explicitly taking sides.

Nevertheless, it's hard not to trust these characters as they struggle with whether they can or should return to their city. As Alice and Craig Donaldson battle over whether they can take their kids back to New Orleans with a clean conscience, we know there is no choice that will not exact a high price. We share SJ Williams' grief when the family strain impinges itself on his sister Lucy's health.

Throughout their parallel lives, the Donaldsons' wealth and connections give them an escape hatch the Williamses can never share. In the face of such destruction, it might be easy for an author to get glum and descend into cheap melancholy. But much of this book is touching, complex, and astonishingly funny. Like the city itself, "City of Refuge" has the power to dance in the face of overwhelming sadness.

Katrina exists at the back of this novel, but it isn't about one natural disaster. It's about the traits which unite and divide us. It's about how we respond to large forces beyond our control. And it's about how ordinary Americans from different walks of life cope. It's about us and the future. If we remember one simple moral, maybe it's Craig's realization when he discovers his life can exist in more than one place: "Say thank you, he thought. Say it and keep saying it until you believe it." And we do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Do We Really Hang the Christmas Decorations Too Early?


“They’re putting the Christmas decorations up before Halloween!” I remember my father’s Mall Saturday complaints like they were yesterday. “Remember when they usedta wait until at least Thanksgiving? Now it’s like they can’t wait for the year to be over!” Mom would nod along, sometimes interjecting something like, “They don’t respect the value of Advent anymore.” As a young, impressionable kid, I believed every word they said.

In recent years, I heard the same words dribbling off my lips. “Remember,” I told my then-girlfriend while cruising the local mall, “when they usedta wait until at least Thanksgiving?” Because in my head, I did remember it, even though the memory was implanted by my parents’ retellings, not personal experience. Complaining about early Christmas decorations in commercial settings has become a seasonal tradition as established as the tree.

This struck me recently while reading acclaimed religious historian Mircea Eliade. In a term guaranteed to tweak Doctor Who fans everywhere, Eliade speaks of “The Regeneration of Time,” an important function of early literate religion. Important year-end festivals, generally associated with fall harvest or spring planting, featured ritual reenactment of the Creation of the World. These were generally acted out, the beginning of Theatre.

After early Christians purged Theatre from Europe in an attempt to exorcise pagan influences, the art form re-emerged about a millennium ago, as part of Latin Easter ceremonies, which concluded the liturgical year. The faithful would reenact, not the Creation, but the Redemption of the World, in Gregorian chant. As in Babylon and Egypt, the old year ended with the dead emerging to walk the earth, though for benevolent purposes.

When European Christians moved the commencement of the New Year from April to January, perhaps to offset the influence of pre-Christian Saturnalia rituals, the dramatic emphasis moved onto Christmas. Now not the end, but the beginning of the liturgical year gained prominence. Some churches today practice Easter dramas, but nearly every mainline denomination performs the Birth and Annunciation of Jesus, usually (but not always) in child drama form.

Think about that. For one evening, our children ritually become the Holy Family, the angels and shepherds, the magi. Not perform these roles, ritually become them. These long-dead saints become alive during religious ritual. The New Year, which usually marks a pass-through point between the living and the dead (consider the Celtic Samhain traditions), is embodied when some of Christianity’s holiest saints walt among the congregants for an hour.

In Euro-American tradition, the temporary reemergence of the dead on living soil has largely died out. Besides the Scandinavian ghost story tradition or Krampus parades, little of the New Year’s frequently terrifying supernatural tradition survives. Yet fundamentally, we still have some vestige of this awareness. Whether eggnog toasts for the loved departed, or New Year’s resolutions solemnly written and tossed into the Yule fire, we still bury our dead at midwinter.

How does this relate to mall Christmas decorations? Consider a moment Michel Foucault’s famous question: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” Add malls to that question: huge, block-shaped buildings with few windows and controlled, antiseptic interiors. They all promise salvation, but not outside, not in nature; only by surrendering yourself to the shiny yet dark, crowded yet impersonal space.

Today’s modern world, with its ahistorical architecture, quantity-based work attitudes, and commercialism, goes against human desires. Dr. Stephen Ilardi, of the University of Kansas, asserts that depression is so widespread in America partly because we spend much of our lives indoors, seated, alone.Our bodies and brains aren’t built for such environments. From factories and cube farms, to airless schools, to mausoleum-like malls, we already feel partly dead.


Therefore we welcome Christmas, and reward merchants with our money for decorating their trees and playing carols before the Equinox, because we want to die. We want to pass through the New Year’s tomb and emerge beyond, hoping next year will seem truly real. This flesh, conditioned as it is to a noisy, inhumane, materialistic world, longs for death, because we believe Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever, waits beyond the river.

We usually don’t consider Christmas a morbid holiday. But it inevitably involves burying Last Year’s painful, mortifying baggage, and the liturgical recreation of humanity with the New Year. Yes, malls cynically want to make money selling cheap plastic crap, but they don’t do it alone. We give them power to hasten Christmas because we want Last Year, with its pains, to die. So we can be reborn.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Eulogy for the Art of Diplomacy

Philip Seib, The Future of Diplomacy

You ever read a book and think: this would’ve been enlightening, if it’d been published one year earlier? I got that impression with Philip Seib’s latest. A USC professor who has published widely on public diplomacy and post-print journalism, Seib attempts to contemplate the future of state-based public relations in a fast-paced digital era. Unfortunately, this book debuted just two days after Brexit, and four months before President Trump. It’s been OTBE’d: Overtaken By Events.

Seib divides diplomacy into two compartments: “state-to-state diplomacy,” the stereotypical suited Oxbridge types striking accords in embassy back rooms and conference tables at the United Nations; and “public diplomacy,” a term which arose, Seib admits, because it sounded less autocratic than “propaganda.” This latter dominates Seib’s considerations in this book. How, he wonders, can governments conduct relations with domestic and global publics, when information flows quickly, and often stupidly, creating reactions that demand answers now?

Reading Seib’s admittedly smart, erudite considerations on what future public diplomacy will entail make for interesting reading. The relationship between single-state governments and international publics has produced some fascinating outcomes. Some have been relatively successful: Confucius Institutes, funded by the mainland Chinese government, have broadened global awareness of Chinese languages (mainly Mandarin) and culture, while warming students to Chinese needs and interests. But they’ve also garnered criticism for serving China’s government, while lacking academic freedoms.

Other attempts at public diplomacy have failed, and here Seib cites many American missteps. Voice of America Radio remains stuck in Cold War approaches that seem both dated and deaf to local cultures. Radio Sawa, America’s attempt at Arabic-language broadcasting, has garnered decent audiences for its entertainment programing, but largely ignored listeners’ desire for Arab-friendly news programming. And unlike BBC Worldwide, which is structurally unmoored from its government, American broadcasters are state-controlled, backed by lobbyists.

Philip Seib
America, in Seib’s telling, struggles with a gulf between its words and its actions. While championing free speech at home, its attempts to communicate with international publics are often tightly controlled and scripted, and today’s jaded media audiences disdain such appearances. And whatever democratic bromides America verbally expresses, its frequent recourse to militarism alienates listeners from our words. At least Daesh’s “soft power recruitment of young Muslims,” as Seib calls it, matches its violent actions.

As professors often do, Seib repeatedly traffics more in hypotheses than brass tacks. He frequently describes a broad theory of public diplomacy, past or present, then provides examples that justify the theory. Reality, sadly, isn’t theoretical. Because everything diplomatic is in flux now, as Seib admits, we need analysis that moves from concrete example to broad policy proposal, not vice versa. We need theory rooted in reality, not examples that putatively prove an abstract principle.

This becomes most pointed when considering the “fake news” phenomenon. As I write, the entire fallout of the #Pizzagate scandal hasn’t become wholly visible. Seib notes there are times when public diplomats must answer scurrilous charges quickly, and times a well-thought-out response tomorrow beats a hasty response today. But what about when highly charged lies, backed by self-sealing arguments resistant to counterclaims, gain traction? In today’s world, lies with a good narrative quickly outrun reality.

2016 has seen two catastrophic failures of public diplomacy. The Brexit vote, motivated by “keep our money at home” arguments, largely mirrors the election of Donald Trump, who unambiguously stoked nationalist fears of Hispanics, Muslims, and NATO. In both cases, mainly older, mainly white voters rejected governments they believed unresponsive to their concerns. Both events were wholly unanticipated by diplomats and pollsters. They represent a failure of fact-driven diplomacy unseen since the 1934 Paris riots.

Please understand, Seib isn’t wrong. Indeed, current circumstances make his questions and speculations more relevant than ever. The prospects Seib raises in this book could give meaningful direction to our evolving responses, as fractious public sentiment becomes more difficult to anticipate. Distrust of politicians and journalists only makes this worse. But in a time when concrete responses to real-world challenges have become urgent, Seib traffics primarily in theory. You need to know that going in.

At this writing, America is preparing to inaugurate a President whose hasty tweetstorms have resulted in death threats against private citizens, and whose phone calls have threatened to ignite international incidents. The principles of public diplomacy, of outreach to other states and their citizens, will stand center to America’s broad global reach. Philip Seib, already OTBE’d, offers precious few actionable solutions. But he at least asks the questions that will let global diplomats move forward.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Peace in a Divided World

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 75
Juan Mascaró (translator), The Dhammapada

Like many religious innovators throughout history—Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius—the Buddha left no written record in his own hand. He taught his first followers verbally, and his religion survived for generations in the oral tradition. His most important texts, the Sutras, weren’t transcribed until the language he spoke, Sanskrit, was all but extinct. Yet the few passages we have, purportedly straight from his own tongue, remain influential, and a popular export to curious Western seekers.

Perhaps because it is brief (under sixty pages), or because it doesn’t require grounding in South Asian culture of the Axial Age, the Dhammapada is possibly Buddhism’s most widely read text by non-Buddhists, according to religious historians like Robert Buswell and John Brough. It comprises 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha on issues of right living, right thought, and self-control. And like Jesus’ sayings, these gnomic proverbs reward deeper contemplation than their surface simplicity implies.

Some of these sayings seem straightforward, perhaps because the thoughts behind them move across cultures well, and have been part of settled civilizations for millennia. Especially in post-housing-crisis America, it seems easy to discount seemingly obvious proverbs like 119: “A man may find pleasure in evil as long as his evil has not given fruit; but when the fruit of evil comes then that man finds evil indeed.” Saying 120 mirrors this saying for “good.”

But these sayings seem obvious because we’ve seen them displayed, in our lives and in our culture. To children and people lacking empathy, taking your desires seems a clear highway to happiness… until it isn’t. We must resist the tendency to disparage introductory spiritual axioms as merely “elementary,” just because we internalized them in Sunday School decades ago. Without these basics, we’d have no foundation for more complex, adaptive religious avenues we seek as adults.

And the Dhammapada certainly provides these avenues. Salted throughout the text, we find moments of surprising insight, issues that demand deeper, more lasting thought and a willingness to accept difficult conclusions, or even, in a few places, no conclusions in this life. Many sayings address the importance of seeking solitude, of silence and contemplation, of becoming free from interfering thoughts and desires—like thoughts about these sayings, and desires for eternal deliverance. It’s a paradox.

Consider these valuable sayings, and how they could change you:
“Empty the boat of your life, O man; when empty it will swiftly sail. When empty of passions and harmful desires you are bound for the land of Nirvana. (369)
Again, it seems obvious, if we don’t contemplate it. Ocean-going vessels sail better when not burdened with needless ballast; early European explorers often chucked once-treasured heirlooms overboard to keep their ships moving. Yet how often do we nurse resentments, thinking revisiting them will bring moral vindication? Or chase bodily lusts, thinking this time they’ll make us happy?

Or this:
“He who in early days was unwise but later found wisdom, he sheds a light over the world like that of the moon when free from clouds.” (172)
One inevitably recalls Jesus’ statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than all the righteous people who never stray.

These sayings are phrased as declarations; only infrequently in this text will you find a question mark. Later commentators have positioned these statements as answers to questions asked of the Buddha, much like how Jesus answered questions with parables. The meaning seems literal, yet when you spend even moments contemplating the deeper implications, the statements challenge you. These seemingly simple declarations actually force you to choose: change yourself, or disbelieve the master and his message.

The Dhammapada has been translated into English several times since the first Orientalists of the Nineteenth Century. Because of the cultural reach of the Penguin Classics line, the Juan Mascaró translation is probably the most widely known. Included with his translation is an introductory essay which situates the Dhammapada with other classic mystic texts: the Tao, the Spanish Mystics (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), Keats and the English Romantics, even the Bible.

Even with the introductory essay, this book is brief enough to savvy in one evening. Yet engaged readers will find themselves taking notes, making choices, trying to decide what the sayings mean in their lives. One cannot read this book and remain unchanged, even if the only change is the wilful decision not to change. One should not pick up this book casually, like a novel. One must realize life will never be the same.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Harry Potter and the Ties That Bind

Bonnie Wright (left) as Ginny Weasley and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
It's been nearly three years since JK Rowling tweaked fans, by suggesting she got it wrong, and Harry Potter should’ve married Hermione Granger. Hermione and Ron, she says, have ultimately incompatible relationship needs, and would’ve ended up in the Wizarding World’s equivalent of couples counseling. Fans reacted, as they consistently have to Rowling’s dribblings of post-story revelations, with a mix of joy and horror suitable for US Magazine cover stories.

I disagreed with Rowling’s read when she first revealed it in early 2014. Harry’s feeling-oriented worldview would, I believe, clash horribly with Hermione’s more studied, cerebral approach. Where Hermione meets challenges by hitting the books and striving to learn more, Harry greets setbacks by charging ahead, Thomas Edison-like, and learning from his mistakes. So a Harry/Hermione marriage would’ve imploded anyway. But I still think Harry married the wrong witch.

Harry Potter should’ve married Luna Lovegood.

Bear with me here. Consider how Harry met his future wife, Ginny Weasley. While crashing at the Weasley cottage to avoid the increasingly autocratic Dursleys, Harry glimpses Ginny through a door. They never speak; she largely flits beneath his notice, while his legend looms so large that she’s dumbstruck and unable to say hello. Thus at first, they pass like two ships in the night.

During his later school years, Harry pursues a string of short, remarkably chaste romances with his schoolmates, most simply perfunctory nods to his coming-of-age while the real epic continues in the foreground. His arrival at Ginny, fairly late in his schooling, happens without much prologue; there’s little sense of what drew them together, unless you count mutual attraction (in the films, they’re both very pretty. Their children will be a supernova).

Rupert Grint (left) as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger
Okay, that’s fine. It’s a children’s series, and we don’t expect complete psychological realism. Except experts and fans have pored over these books in ways that make the Bible look underexamined, so perhaps this important subplot deserves more consideration. Because I’m not persuaded, from the evidence at hand, that this relationship will have sufficient staying power to transcend whatever happens after the Wizarding War is over.

Throughout the series, Harry keeps returning to the Weasley cottage in hopes of participating in a family. Harry’s desire for a family has driven much of his life’s narrative; he forges the Harry/Ron/Hermione troika in a train compartment because he’s desperate to belong somewhere. He prefers Gryffindor over Slytherin because he’d rather be unified by a cause with people he loves, than engage in strong politicking for the rest of his educational career.

Ginny, meanwhile, is drawn to Harry as a hero. As a young girl, she’s dumbstruck by his legend; as a young woman, she kisses him while he’s serving as general of Dumbledore’s Army. So Harry wants a family, while Ginny wants a hero. Harry marries the only Weasley daughter, basically to marry into Ron’s family, while Ginny marries the Boy who Lived. Maybe they both get what they want. Maybe it’s a fairy tale ending.

Except how will that last the trials of adulthood? The epilogue to Deathly Hallows reveals that, after a brief career as a professional Quidditch player, Ginny gets a sports journalist job with the Daily Prophet. Which probably sounds exciting to history’s best-paid author and her young, bookish audience. But Harry leaves sports for a career as an Auror. Yep, Harry gets a government job. Which, in post-Thatcher Britain, is probably a completely stultifying paper-pushing job.

So when Harry realizes that Ginny isn’t a carbon copy of her huggy, bombastic Mum, and Ginny realizes she’s saddled with a government goat and not the Duke of Wellington, this cannot end well for either. Meanwhile, they’ve named their only daughter “Lily Luna,” indicating they still consider Luna Lovegood an influence in their lives. Meaning Harry still thinks about the girl who once told him, “You’re as sane as me.”

Evana Lynch as Luna Lovegood
According to Rowling’s continuing updates, Luna has become a “magizoologist,” the Jane Goodall of the Wizarding World. Okay, she’s not the bosomy mothering type either, but while both Harry and Ginny settled down and got jobs, Luna continued venturing forth and seeing the world. This is the girl who, when Ron belittled Hermione in Year Five, followed her into the restrooms and dried her friend’s tears. So she remains both adventurous and maternal.

Throughout the books, the central characters call Luna silly names for her weird proclivities and her fondness for conspiracy theories. But when it comes to being a suitable spouse for a boy whose life has been surrounded by strife, and whose later years yield a career fighting evil, she just seems more interesting than a sportswriter. Maybe that’s because we see less of her in the story. But I really feel Harry would’ve been happier living with her, than the illusiion Ginny represented.