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Miscellany: Three-Day Weekend Edition

How about some long reads for the long weekend?

First, Marilynne Robinson, writing in the New York Review of Books, asks us what kind of country we want to live in: “Freedom of thought has valorized criticism, necessarily and appropriately. But surely freedom of thought is meant to encourage diversity of thinking, not a settling into ideological postures characteristic of countries where thought is not free.”

Then there’s Nicholas T. Parson on the state of contemporary art in The Critic: “Since modern culture has insisted on its taboo-breaking role, it has been running out of taboos to break.”

Finally, Ben Taub takes readers 36,000 feet under the sea in the New Yorker, which gets bonus points for adding a degree of interactivity to the piece. Here’s the opening: “Sea level—perpetual flux. There is a micromillimetre on the surface of the ocean that moves between sea and sky and is simultaneously both and neither. Every known life-form exists in relation to this layer. Above it, the world of land, air, sunlight, and lungs. Below it, the world of water, depth, and pressure. The deeper you go, the darker, the more hostile, the less familiar, the less measured, the less known.”

Have a great Memorial Day, everyone.

A Lifeline

If you’ve been spending the pandemic sitting around the house in underwear you haven’t washed in a week, sculpting tiny figurines out of earwax and bellybutton lint, and eating Cheetos and Slim Jims for breakfast, then you probably shouldn’t watch Grey GardensDon’t get me wrong—it’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. It’s just, well…it might hit a little too close to home for you right now.

Instead, why not check out this free 90-minute documentary on the history of chairs from 1800 to today? No, really: It’s stylish and mod and German—just the sort of thing to pick you up out of the doldrums.

Punishment and Crime

I had in mind a couple of things for today’s post—until I read this jaw-dropping account of a stolen de Kooning painting, its improbable recovery, and the man who “needed to show the world he existed; [who] needed to release himself from his prison of impotence.”

Emily Benedek is a masterful storyteller, so please—I implore you—stop what you’re doing right now, turn off all your devices, tell everyone around you to go away for an hour, and get lost in an American tragedy.

Catching Up

So I finally got around to watching Friday the 13th over the weekend. Yeah, I know it’s been out for forty years. Yeah, I understand it’s become something of a pop cultural touchstone. Yeah, I know I’m lame. In fact, the missus could hardly believe it.

“Wait,” she said, confusion furrowing her brow. “When you guys got together in high school and rented movies, what did you watch?”

Mostly Monty Python, it turns out, which I recognize makes me sound even lamer.

The thing is, Friday the 13th just…didn’t interest fourteen-year-old me. The entire horror genre was something I shrugged off, probably because my annoying older sister was so into it. (She had terrible taste in music, so I just assumed that translated to film.) The one exception was An American Werewolf in London—which I saw in the theater and love to this day—but for some reason, I never thought of it as horror.

Anyway.

Friday the 13th is…okay, I guess. The setting isn’t all that creepy and the characters are so one-dimensional I was actually looking forward to each one’s (hopefully) gruesome demise. But I gotta say, I wasn’t expecting the ending. That was a shocker.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting? Bill—the guy pinned to the door of the generator shed near the end of the movie—was played by Harry Crosby, son of Bing. Sure, it’s tenuous, but there’s a Spokane connection to one of the foundational films of the slasher genre.

Go figure.

#SadTrombone

“Troubled by nervous energy and stress since he was young, an intermittent insomniac” who had “difficulty filtering noise and distractions in public spaces” and had “increasingly relied on his phone and computer,” British artist Sam Winston decided to go dark for a while. Among the difficulties he had to overcome? Hallucinations of Donald Trump.

This isn’t just an alarming anecdote. “We know,” writes Adam Garfinkle, “that prolonged and repetitive exposure to digital devices changes the way we think and behave in part because it changes us physically. The brain adapts to its environment.”

Exhibit A: It turns out most people can’t tell the difference between a Shakespeare sonnet and AI-generated gobbledygook. Forget COVID-19. We’re getting too dumb to exist anyway.

So, you know, happy weekend.

On Art, Artists, and “the Ecstatic State”

A year ago, I wrote about Keith Jarrett on the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday. I don’t want to make it an annual thing, but this piece by Chase Kuesel is worth reading this year, as it highlights the tension between capital-A Artists like Jarrett and our current “digital moment”:

The profundity of Keith Jarrett’s recorded output can be traced to exactly those musical values that are so unfit for digital parameterization. Part of the joy of listening to Jarrett is the experience of affixing yourself to the sinuous waves of his improvisations and tracing them as they unfold over time. While he has the ability to immediately transfix a listener—rapid lines, cacophonous sheets of sound, a physical orientation to the instrument that is at once athletic and sensual—it is secondary to the way he makes meaning over the course of a performance. His phrases move in broad, gestural strokes, forsaking the hypnotic verticality so prevalent in digitally-infused music. When you listen to Jarrett improvising, you don’t bob your head up and down or aggressively pulsate with your torso; you gently sway from side to side, following the curves of the performance as they unfold. To follow these curves is to experience a type of tumbling inevitability: his lines wrap in and around one another but with a perpetual sense of forward-motion, unfurling outwards with a dual sense of elaboration and exploration. In this way, there is something deeply satisfying about experiencing Jarrett’s playing in real-time. Devoid of clichés and predictability, the satisfaction of its logic can only be experienced simultaneous with its arrival. 

First, that there’s just straight-up baller writing. Second, Kuesel is right: Even with a recording of Jarrett, you need to commit—and there are so few people willing to do that these days, it seems. More’s the pity.

Anyway, last year I recommended The Köln Concert for Jarrett newbies; this year, why not go all in with his Sun Bear Concerts? After all, if you want “the experience of affixing yourself to the sinuous waves of his improvisations and tracing them as they unfold over time,” there’s not better place to start than six and a half hours’ worth of live improvisation.

Fight! Fight!

“Quantum mechanics isn’t just an approximation of the truth,” writes Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, “it is the truth.”

“Whatevs,”* says Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario. “The conceptual problems and raging disagreements that have bedeviled quantum mechanics since its inception are unsolved and unsolvable, for the simple reason that the theory is wrong.”

If these guys can’t agree on something as relatively simple and straightforward† as quantum theory, we’re pretty much doomed, right? I mean, forget politics, religion, or whether a hot dog is a sandwich. One thing I am certain of, however: Anyone who condescendingly says “I believe in #science” doesn’t know a damn thing either.

*Probably.
†Sarcasm.

Richard Wayne Penniman, RIP

There’s no shortage of obituaries on the late, great Little Richard—who died Saturday at 87—nor should there be for the man who was truly the King of Rock and Roll.

However

May I suggest you skip all of them in favor of David Ramsey’s “Prayers for Richard” from about five years ago? It’s really all you need to read today.

Friday Cheer

So. How about some good news for a change?

First, you’ve no doubt heard that murder hornets have arrived and are this close to enslaving all of us—man and beast alike. Turns out we have an ally in the fight against the coming vespid menace. Godspeed!

Second, ever take comfort in knowing that, no matter how weird things seem to be at any given time, they can definitely get a whole lot weirder? If that’s you, Anna Merlan has the goods.

Finally, the best news of all (if you happen to think that the only thing the Swiss countryside lacks is a techno-beat soundtrack):

 

Miscellany

If you, like me, are digging ESPN’s The Last Dance, you may be interested to know that the network is planning to release three more documentaries.

“Here’s a thought,” writes David Mason. “Literary criticism ought to entertain as well as illuminate.”

A couple of New Yorker pieces of note: Adam Kirsch on Søren Kierkegaard, and, from the same issue, Anthony Gottlieb on Frank Ramsey.

“From above, the Konsen Plateau in eastern Hokkaido offers a remarkable sight: a massive grid that spreads across the rural landscape like a checkerboard.” NASA’s Earth Observatory has the details.

A fascinating—and lengthy—interview with “the incomparable” Jim O’Rourke.

“There once was a man from Nantucket…”

Yes. A thousand times, yes: Matthew Schneier reminds us that Now Is the Perfect Time to Memorize a Poem—because “it’s a good exercise, in the midst of chaos, to give yourself over to a sound and a rhythm that is not your own.”

As Schneier explains, you feel poems differently when you learn them by heart and recite them aloud. They end up following you—whether you want them to or not.

I can attest. Years after taking English Lit in college, I can still recite most (if not all) of at least one Shakespeare sonnet and quatrains from several others.

But while it’s certainly fun to amaze your friends with a line or two from The Waste Land, there’s actually a practical reason to commit verse to memory: It just might save your life. (If you find yourself in the neighborhood, buy me a drink and I’ll explain.)

Poetry Break

FEEL LIKE A BIRD
May Swenson

feel like A Bird
understand
he has no hand

instead A Wing
close-lapped
mysterious thing

in sleeveless coat
he halves The Air
skipping there
like water-licked boat

lands on star-toes
finger-beak in
feather-pocket
finds no Coin

in neat head like
seed in A Quartered
Apple eyes join
sniping at opposites
stereoscope The Scene
Before

close to floor giddy
no arms to fling
A Third Sail
spreads for calm
his tail

hand better
than A Wing?
to gather A Heap
to count
to clasp A Mate?

or leap
lone-free and mount
on muffled shoulders
to span A Fate?

from Another Animal (1954)

An Appeal

It’s obvious that our readers are more intelligent and better looking than the average Joe or Jane; it stands to reason, then, that they’re also quite generous. With that said, I’d like to ask y’all to give some thought—if you haven’t already—to those in need.

The missus and I are both pretty lucky. We still have jobs, and we’re somehow able to work together in the same house without committing manslaughter. But we’ve also managed to convince ourselves that, since getting takeout once a week during this pandemic is around twice our usual frequency, it’s really more of an act of charity toward various Spokane restaurants than it is a treat for us. (Tonight, by the way, is De Leon tacos.)

Today I was reminded that there’s a whole nother group of people who can’t just offer pickup or curbside services. Barbers, hairdressers, tattoo artists…like a lot of folks, they haven’t been able to work for going on six weeks now. The difference, though, is because they’re generally self-employed, there’s not a lot of help available for them from either the state or the federal government. So reach out to one of them. Send dinner. Pay a bill. Contribute to their GoFundMe—or start one.

Things will get back to normal. But it’s going to be a rough go. In the meantime, let’s see if we can help each other out.

Words of Wisdom

Issue #94 of Nick Cave’s indispensable Red Hand Files tackles the thorny issue of plagiarism—and manages to draw an important distinction based not on action but on intent:

Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.

But if your intent is to somehow diminish the idea you’ve appropriated, well, look out for karma. Theft, Cave explains, necessitates that “you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.”

The inability of so many of us to recognize this distinction is in part, I think, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re the creators—when, in fact, nothing we do is original. “What has been is what will be,” writes the Preacher in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, “and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Honest Question

Of all my language-related pet peeves—and there are a lot of them, including the term pet peeve—it’s the verbs-as-nouns shift that really rubs my rhubarb. You know, when someone says something like “Here are my selects from the photo shoot” or “Did you get the invite to the party?” or “That’s a pretty big ask.”

Since there already exist noun forms of these verbs—selection, invitation, and request, respectively—my honest question is…Why? Why create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

The way I see it, there are four possibilities.

A. ignorance
B. laziness
C. a propensity for following the herd
D. an assumption that treating English like your bitch makes you hip

I think most adults know better, which rules out ignorance. Laziness doesn’t track either, since you’re not going to save any effort by deleting a single syllable. I think it’s probably a combination of (D) followed by (C): Someone, somewhere, thinks it’ll be cool to shake things up, and before you know it, everyone’s doing it.

Which raises another—and far more interesting—question: What words in current usage have, over the last three or four hundred years, gone through a similar evolution?

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