Tales from outer turnip head...

Tales from outer turnip head...

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Try Something New: Five Albums from 2015...

Here are five albums that I have been listening to from 2015. This is not a best of list, but more an excuse to expose my readers to new music that has been running in the background while I plug along...

Frank TurnerPositive Songs for Negative People
Mumford & SonsWilder Mind
Cage the ElephantTell Me I'm Pretty
Elle KingLove Stuff
Alabama ShakesSound & Color

Frank Turner: Positive Songs for Negative People

Frank Turner is a 30-something former British punk turned Folk Singer who has released his 6th album in 2015. Both this and his last have been extremely popular in the UK which paved the road to an American audience. The deluxe version of his recent album has acoustic versions of most of the songs and they are haunting echoes of the originals. I can't decide if I like them better, or merely because they remind me of the more "plugged-in" versions, but nonetheless I find myself listening to the second half of the album more than the first.

Mumford & Sons: Wilder Mind

Indie/folk/alternative band Mumford & Sons has been hot since Little Lion Man exploded onto the charts in 2009. The band seemed to be better received commercially in the US than in their country of origin, the UK, but managed to gain immense popularity in both countries as well as beyond to Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Belgium, etc.  Although Wilder Mind lacks the pop of their earlier efforts, Mumford & Sons have written another excellent album. If new to the band, try their albums in order, Sigh No More (2009), Babel (2012), and then Wilder Mind (2015). If you love the sound of their first efforts, you are sure to like the follow-up, and then, obviously, all three should be in your collection.

Cage the Elephant: Tell Me I'm Pretty

Dan Auerbach (who has an amazing solo album, Keep It Hid) of the Black Keys produced this brand new album by Cage the Elephant. Mess Around has been on the radio since October, but the full album hit stores and the internet two days ago (Dec. 18). What I am hearing is pretty good. As is so often true for albums that follow up commercial success, this album seems to lack the instant punch of killer singles, but promises a more subtle and perhaps mature sound. I can hear Auerbach's influence which is a great thing for the traditionally acidy sound of Cage the Elephant. Sweetie Little Jean, Cry BabyCold Cold Cold, and Too Late to Say Goodbye are all grabbing my interest already. The video single for Mess Around is comprised of clips from Georges Melies silent films that were the backdrop of the story Hugo by Martin Scorsese, cool!

Elle King: Love Stuff

Like so many people I was brought to Elle King by her song Ex's & Oh's, a catchy southern rock/alternative single with an upbeat tempo that has shades of a bluesy sound similar to the Black Keys. The rest of the album is more straight southern rock and does not have the same instant appeal to me as her lead single. That said, there are still quite a few excellent songs, Where the Devil Don't Go, Song of Sorrow. The content of her work is naughty, nasty, hard, and sometimes just rough. Elle King has attitude to spare  and shows little or no restraint in offering her opinions and energy in her music. Take it with a grain of salt, it's just rock and roll, baby.

Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

The south rises again with this gem of a band from Athens, Alabama. Having cut their teeth in the southeast and self produced their first album in the mecca of southern music, Nashville, Alabama Shakes has put in the hard work and is now starting to reap the benefits they so rightfully deserve. Supposedly the band got its first major break when a popular music blogger  for SirusXM posted one of their songs on the internet. Offers, deals, national recognition all began to pour in. There is a soulful feel to their sound that has shades of R&B and a clear 70s influence with the clean recording technology of the 21st century. On top of well developed rhythms, catchy riffs, and a heavy use of backing vocals rests the cream of Alabama Shakes' sound, the unique vocals of Brittany Howard.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple." --Psalm 119:130

"Keep on moving to the first rays of dawn": I've been thinking about light a lot lately. Darkness so often becomes the descriptor of negative loneliness and despair, while light holds promise of warmth and illumination. When I see friends posting online about their pain, I find I offer words about light: "Even if you feel you are in complete darkness, you are not alone. Call out and the lights of your life will answer."
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
--John, 1:5
It is so essential that we surround those who perceive themselves to be in darkness; and to be ready to steady their falls; and to reach out to them when the stumble; and if they call out we must be prepared to answer with loving kindness, peace, and compassion...

"Keeping it on 'til the day stays strong": I call my father sometimes when I perceive myself surrounded by darkness. My father reminds me that the sun is shining. He tells me that it will come up again tomorrow. He explains to me that that the sun is important for us, both physically and metaphorically. He suggests that even when it is cloudy or rainy—and when I cannot see the sun—that it is still there, shining on something. The sun can blind if we look into it directly, but nourishes us when we allow it to shine upon us. The sun is life. The sun helps growth. The sun is constant. Thank you, sun. Thank you, dad...

I like the sun in its transitioning moments, morning and evening. Long shadows provoke me and provide me with opportunities to learn.
The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
--William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

The morning sun—often cool and yet still warm on our face in the dampness chill of dawn—offers hope, a quiet reflective time to prepare for the day. The evening sun often brings a warm melancholy with it—another quiet reflective time accompanied by gratitude or perhaps some regret. It is good to hold on to the gratitude and leave the regrets with the passing of the day...

"Runnin 'til the night time blazes on": We are one week from the darkest time of the year; people have begun lighting their homes with twinkling lights like stars, and towns have begun lighting their streets and central places with "holiday" lighting. I love the little lights all about!

We light candles in windows to indicate that someone's home... waiting; we light lamps in high places to guide people home. In the home a warm fire casts a glow on the hearth and perhaps on the hearts those who gather around it in their togetherness. There by the soft mesmerizing light there might be conversation, laughter, or quiet reflection. The light in the window beacons to the stranger on the road, or to the one who is late to the gathering. It is a time of year to come together and hold those we care for close to us. It is a time when we must protect our most precious relationships from the darkness...

Lighting the night is an ancient practice. From the Germanic druids lighting their forrest trees at the solstice, to Maccabeans experiencing miracles of lamp light to light sacred spaces. "For Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, a lamp offering carries the wish to attain buddhahood and the aspiration to recognize the clear light at the time of death, thereby experiencing liberation in that moment. In this way lamp offerings are associated with transitions in one's life." (https://www.kagyu.org/ktd/monastery/butterlamps_preview.php)
If you wish for sublime realization, offer hundreds of lights.
--Root Tantra of Chakrasamvara
I wish for sublime realization. I yearn for acceptance of the truth, even when that which I seek is not pleasant. Desire for illumination drives me; my attachments and desires bind me. Such a catch-22.   

Back in 1992 I lived in a Burmese Buddhist monastery/guest house located about 1 km from the enlightenment spot of Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha—while I earned a semester's credit worth of comparative Buddhist studies, cultural anthropology, and Hindi. Four months in India and Nepal changed my life. I found a language for my perceptions of the world. I found a practice that made sense to my intellect. I found a way to put my intellect in its place.

One evening I had the opportunity to spend an evening with hundreds of friends and strangers, each lighting hundreds of lamps with the hopes of collectively lighting a million lights. What a night! There was a celebratory energy amidst the quiet reflective act of using wax-wick-sticks to light butter lamp after butter lamp in the courtyards surrounding the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. The light cast upon our faces as the sun went down, and the warmth from the lamps on our skin as the pleasant cool of the Indian night arrived, was calming, peaceful, wonderful. The darkness never arrived that night. Not even a little bit. The lights of thousands of lamps lit the crowd who shared a similar purpose, each individual lost in a collective effort...

"All along I keep singing my song": Each year I try to find a theme of light for our Christmas-time holiday card. I have offered an Celtic proverb each year: "May the blessing of light be on you—light without and light within." And I have included a blessing each year as well: "May love and laughter light your days, and warm your heart and home. May good and faithful friends be yours, wherever you may roam. May peace and plenty bless your world with joy that long endures. May all life's passing seasons bring the best to you and yours!"

This year I switched it up a little, removing the blessing and including the following instead:
There is always light to show the way; especially on the darkest nights, stars in heaven shine their brightest. May the sun shine warmly for you this coming year, and on those cold crisp nights, when the moon is new, may the stars about you light your way.
I hope light in all its forms finds its way to you, the reader. Blessings, peace & compassion...

Keep on moving to the first rays of dawn
Keeping it on 'til the day stays strong
Runnin 'til the night time blazes on
All along I keep singing my song
--Matisyahu, Sunshine

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"To live is enough..."

Beautiful things: Recently I offered my recommendation for the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I've been thinking about a short exchange that takes place between Walter and the famed adventurer, Sean O'Connell. Sean Penn plays this elusive, grizzled, zen-like photographer, quietly delivering his lines as a sage might mutter in the vague direction of an attentive apprentice:

"Beautiful things don't ask for attention."

Beauty attracts attention, demands it by its very essence, but in humility does not seek that attention. We, who observe that beauty are compelled to it and to admire it. It is something that happens in the moment without intention or reflection. It just is...

Right there. Right Here: While sitting in a crag high in a central Asian mountain range, peering though a telephoto lens at the elusive snow leopard, Walter asks Sean "When are you going to take it?"...
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
The moment is important. Our thoughts can be so easily overwhelmed by focusing on regrets of the past, or anxiety about the future.

"If you have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future, you are ready to piss all over today."

This positioning, spending too much attention on what was, and what might yet be, makes experiencing life so difficult. The need to capture beauty through a lens gets in the way of "staying with it." Just be right there. Right here.

All moments in the now: Even terrible moments progress better when the now is attended to, rather than being absent "Right there. Right here." But the best moments are those that we want to stay in, and in the moment, time stretches out into forever and therein lies a kind of happiness that is quite amazing. The moment becomes a thing of beauty that does not ask for attention, and in fact, is ruined by too much cognition...
Our true home is not in the past. Our true home is not in the future. Our true home is in the here and the now. Life is available only in the here and the now, and it is our true home. -- Thich Nhat Hanh
When I am in my true home I am living, and that is distraction-free bliss...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday's post...

question everything...
the doubter will have the strongest faith

instigate change...
the revolutionary is the artist of society

practice acceptance...
the reed bends only to whip back into place

place yourself last...
the humble walk in a powerful position

learn compassion...
the greatest teachers advocate this

absorb and study the texts... 
for an individual must search
but let faith be an individual experience free from stagnation...
unhindered by others' intolerance

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day."

Wisdom from Pooh... again: Rains come, naturally, and can make days gloomy. Eeyore—lovable despite his gloom—finds a reason to whine but manages to endure. Owl might find solace by sitting inside with a book and a fire. I like the book and the fire option as it makes the gloomy cold days sorts of wonderful, but still the world outside is raw and can be unpleasant. But there is another side to those rainy days; rains fill rivers, and rivers flow, and "rivers know this; there is no hurry. We shall get there some day." -- A.A. Milne

"Rainy Days and [Tuesdays]"... Last Tuesday I was in a funk. (This story today starts on that day, and it ends nicely despite all this gloomy preface.) So, nonetheless, Tuesday's have been difficult for me lately for a number of known and some unknown reasons... Reasons aside, I was really in a funk... spinning.

There's got to be plenty of nature in the 100 Aker Wood: I get stuck in my head... and I talk a lot. I think the two are linked. But this post isn't about that introvert stuck at performing an extrovert's role in the world—the Pooh caught up in thinking like a Piglet and behaving like a Tigger—this post is about one of those times when we find the things we need most at the times we least expect to find them...

It's hard to find a moment of quiet while doing 60 down the highway: So I was driving away from a difficult day at school; driving toward an appointment I did not want to keep. I was driving away from a day in which I had done real good for a few others, but had done little to remedy my own funk. I found myself abusing a bit of my free time spinning up my brain into a tizzy of ineffective anxiety over things I have no control over, yet have a deep desire to affect nonetheless. Driving seems to afford me the time where I can do that.... And so I turned on the radio to find some peace in music. I found none in the buggle-gum pop of 92.3, the new-metal of 103.5, or the unpredictable progressive of 102.7. Did I dare a mid-day try at 90.3 (NPR) to be assaulted by medical-call in shows, or worse, the seemingly near-constant fund-raising of Alan Chartock? I dared... and pleasantly tuned in to hear a man talking about clouds; how stopping to look at nature was centering and peaceful. He was interesting to listen to. He seemed a quirky kook who might in fact be a sage. He suggested that if we all stopped to look up for a moment and lose ourselves in that moment of nature we might find some peace in our day. There seem to be so many sages who offer similar advice—simplify, observe, breathe—and this one was speaking to me as I drove myself down the road, slowing the spinning, quieting the anxiety, thinking about clouds...

2000 temples and shrines intended for sitting still: And immediately after the cloud-man's story, was the story of a writer/journalist who had found happiness in his busy-ness, as he traveled the world satiating his curiosity... and yet found there was never enough time to do it all. So he gave up much of his life, moved to Kyoto, Japan and began sitting in stillness. He said "it's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones." I did that once, by accident; went to a spiritual place and sat in stillness when I was 20. I found a peace that allowed me to become a person I liked better than the one who went off on an adventure to see part of the world. My wife liked the me-who-came-back better, too (although she was not yet then my wife). There's something to the stillnesses of life...

It's both about the destination and the journey. Where we get to is contingent on how we get there: I arrived at my meeting after a fruitful but fraught-filled day immediately after the last notes of the NPR transition music was over. I arrived with a quieter, stiller mind, happily thinking that it felt a bit like providence that I had driven at the time of such a good 1/2 hour of NPR. The meeting surely went differently than if I had arrived with a head full of worries. We were productive and more focused. We seemed to talk with each other, not at the other. It was like Piglet and Tigger had been left back on the highway and Pooh was able to just have a proper Tuesday like any other good day in the 100 Aker Wood...

The following are excerpts from the talk show that I found so interesting along with a link at the bottom to a page where the TED talks are hosted if you feel interested to delve deeper:

NPR TED Talks on Nov. 13, 2015
Finding stillness in unexpected places.

Susan Cain wrote a book about how introversion is undervalued, Quiet.
CAIN: One answer lies deep in our cultural history. Western societies, and in particular the U.S., have always favored the man of action over the man of contemplation. But in America's early days, we lived in what historians call a culture of character where we still at that point valued people for their inner selves and their moral rectitude. And if you look at the self-help books from this era, they all had titles with things like "CHARACTER: The Grandest Thing In The World." And they featured role models like Abraham Lincoln who was praised for being modest and unassuming. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a man who does not offend by superiority.

But then we hit the 20th century, and we entered a new culture that historians call the culture of personality. You know, what happened is we had evolved from an agricultural economy to a world of big business. And so suddenly, people are moving from small towns to the cities. And instead of working alongside people they've known all their life, now they are having to prove themselves in a crowd of strangers. So quite understandably qualities like magnetism and charisma suddenly come to seem really important. And sure enough the self-help books changed to meet these needs. And they start to have had names like "How To Win Friends And Influence People." And they feature, as their role models, really great salesmen. So that's the world we're living in today. That's our cultural inheritance.
Megan Washington is an Australian musician who finds peace through singing.
WASHINGTON: I have a problem. It's not the worst thing in the world - I'm fine. I'm not on fire. I know that other people in the world have far worse things to deal with, but for me, language and music are inextricably linked through this one thing and the thing is that I have a stutter. It might seem curious, given that I spend a lot of my life on the stage. One would assume that I'm comfortable in the public sphere and comfortable here speaking to you guys, but the truth is that I've spent my life up into this point and including this point, living in mortal dread of public speaking.

Public singing - whole different thing.
John Francis started not talking for a day, it lasted 17 years.
RAZ: When you were out there on your own, was your mind clear? Was it full? Was it quiet? Was it loud? Like, what do you remember?

FRANCIS: Yeah, there were - there's a couple of things that when I'm walking - and I might be thinking of the road and where I'm going. But at some point, I realized that as I'm walking, I'm not thinking about the road and where I'm going. In fact, I catch myself not thinking. And then I'm thinking again, of course. But so there are long periods of times that I was just being on the planet and breathing. And I think maybe breathing has a lot to do with that.

RAZ: After 17 years of silence, John Francis got so good at listening to other people that he'd almost become a different person. And the voice he once had - kind of angry, a little combative, unsure - it was gone.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney thinks we should all learn by keeping our heads in the clouds:
PRETOR-PINNEY: Well, you know, there are a lot of distractions (laughter). And in fact, there are probably more distractions these days than there've ever been. You know, you never stick on anything for long. And so I talk about cloud spotting being something that legitimizes doing nothing. And I had this the other day before a talk. I was kind of nervous. And I stepped outside and walked along, and then I saw a hummingbird come along and take some nectar from the blossom of a tree in front of me. And I just sort of locked on that and looked at it for a moment, and that was kind of enough to sort of center me. It's the same thing with - with clouds. I find that sometimes by paying attention to something outside of yourself is just enough for you to kind of find yourself centered again.
Pico Iyer gave up journalism and started sitting in stillness 27 years ago and it has changed his life in profound ways.
IYER: I think you clear the anxiety by sitting still and addressing it and seeing it come and go in some ways. But you're absolutely right. When I go and sit still at my desk as a writer for five hours every day, often those hours are agonizing. They're torture, and I think a monk would tell you that a large part of the time he spends alone in his cell is spent with doubt and darkness. But running around is never going to address those feelings very well. It's only going to evade them. And I think actually one of the things that you find if you sit still is those feelings of anxiety and all the sufferings and pains that every one of us know fall into a kind proportion.

Link to the NPR site with the TED videos.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life."

On March 18, 1939 James Thurber's short story masterpiece, The Secret Life of Wallter Mitty, was published in The New Yorker. Words like Mittyesque and Mittyish have become oft used adjectives for people who seem to resemble the ineffectual fantastical day-dreamer, Walter.
Although the two film adaptions of this story differ greatly from the original story, the central roll of a  character, Walter Mitty—who fantasizes heroic and triumphant moments sometimes at the expense of very real moments in his own life—is common to all three. I recently watched the most recent film adaption a second time, liking it even more than my first viewing—in which I felt "I really liked that movie a lot. What a great, fun, movie. Why didn't we see this when it was in theaters?"
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a 2013 romantic comedy-drama adventure cult film directed by, produced by, and starring Ben StillerGore Verbinski served as executive producer.[7][8] This is the second film adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name. The 1947 version was produced by Samuel Goldwynand directed by Norman Z. McLeod, with Danny Kaye playing the role of Walter Mitty.[9] The film premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 5, 2013.[10] The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was theatrically released on December 25, 2013 in North America, to generally mixed reception, and was a moderate box office success, however the film has gathered a cult following since its release.[11] (Wikipedia)
I want to avoid plot items and spoilers, but need to figure out how to convince people to go back a few years and see this movie that so many seemed to have missed. It's a film where the underdog has moments of success that we can share. It is not overly sickeningly sweet, but offers elements of optimism in the midst of seemingly overwhelming insurmountable odds. None of it feels real, and yet all of it feels completely real. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, eh? Ultimately, Mitty is supposed to be an ineffectual dreamer, but Ben Stiller (lead actor and director) manages to present us with an extremely likable Mitty who manages to DO something in his life beyond just dream. He comes off as heroically likable while somehow still playing the teased schoolboy who often gets picked last or who is overlooked completely.

The cinematographic shots are excellent. There is a quirkiness that works well with Mitty's day-dreaming. Locations from Greenland to Afghanistan make me want to travel and trek. It seems fitting for a plot that centers around the last print cover for Time-Life Magazine:  

Watch a trailer and then go rent the movie:

Sunday, November 8, 2015

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart”

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” --Helen Keller: 
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea... --H.K.
Feelings: Abstract processes of our perception of the world around us: Wikipedia partly defines feelings as follows: 
The word was first used in the English language to describe the physical sensation of touch through either experience or perception. The word is also used to describe experiences other than the physical sensation of touch, such as 'a feeling of warmth' and of sentience in general... Perception of the physical world does not necessarily result in a universal reaction among receivers, but varies depending on one's tendency to handle the situation, how the situation relates to the receiver's past experiences, and any number of other factors. Feelings are also known as a state of consciousness, such as that resulting from emotions, sentiments or desires. (wikipedia)

Dr. Gloria Wilcox's Feelings Wheel, 2001
Serene-->Loving-->Peaceful: Feelings wheels have been around for a while. A quick search yields numerous variations, and it is not clear which is "borrowing" from which. Dr. Gloria Wilcox has been credited with a popularly used wheel developed in the early 2000s with her book Feelings: Converting Negatives to Positives. At the center of the feelings wheel are core feelings like scared and peaceful, joyful and sad, etc.

I'm at a loss for words: Feelings wheels and charts can be useful to help people find the right word to describe the abstract feelings they have in words that are understandable. Although these words do not always suffice, it is a start in identifying how we process some of the emotional cause and effect that makes us feel what we are in any given moment.

Forgiveness is the key: While Wilcox's wheel seems to help in identification, other wheels seem to intend a process. The one to the left helping us to move from negative feelings to positive ones by progressing from shame through forgiveness to love. The similarities to Wilcox's wheel are evident, but there is a directional purpose offered here. There seems to be more judgement in this second wheel, with the hope for progress to a positive emotion. Although Wilcox hoped to help people move from negatives to positives, her wheel was for identification in that process, while this second wheel builds in it's purpose to help draw the observer "south" to love emotions away from shame emotions. While Wilcox implies that Isolated equals Lonely equals Sad, this second wheel seems to imply some causation: Lonely is an indication of being Abandoned which causes Shame.

Emotions are so complex; its about our perceptions of the world around us: Interestingly, as I searched for authorship of these wheels, or even the impetus behind their various constructions (finding little, by the way), I kept discovering variations on the theme. This next wheel seems to combine the two wheels above for a much larger and complex set of offerings:

Good literature helps us explore our own feelings about the world around us: The most recent wheel to splash the inter-webs is one attributed to an english teacher, Kaitlin Robbs, who wished her students to employ better vocabulary in their writing. Her idea is to start at the center of the wheel, identify the general feeling you wish to explore, and then move outward until you find the right specific word for the occasion. It's an interesting creative writing answer to the ideas popularized by Wilcox et al.

Peacefully Artful Displays of Rocks: Good writing is about people, I think; People who feel real. And it is in our complexities and abstractnesses that we establish ourselves in this world uniquely as what we are. Our complexities and abstractnesses make us so much more interesting than say, a pile of artfully displayed rocks (although rocks can be delightfully interesting to look at and described, there is little room for development or transformation there). So below I offer Kaitlin Robbs' feelings wheel for your perusal, amusement, and illumination. Use it as you wish...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive..."

Necessities, not luxuries: The title of today's entry is a quote from the Dalai Lama. Read it again while breathing slowly and deeply. Take the words in and let them sit for a moment...

"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." --Dalai Lama 

Basics: When we speak of what should be coverable by a "minimum wage" we often list food, clothing and shelter. I think there should be more. I continuously ask my students if we should be adding adequate health care and education to the post secondary level to that list, hoping to provoke a questioning response. Although the intangibles of love and compassion cannot be quantified nor guaranteed, nor do they add to a "cost" applicable to a minimum wage, I have long believed (and know now deeply in my heart), that these are also essential for our survival as something more than beasts...

We must love one another or die:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Tuesdays are my toughest days these days: I came to know W. H. Auden's Poem, September 1, 1939 when I read Mitch Album's Tuesdays with Morie. Morie loved Auden's poetry; as he approached death, Morie began teaching his living wisdom to those around him, and especially to his former student Mitch. Morie lived a difficult and blessed life. He saw the world clearly and was unafraid to speak his heart and mind to his students and loved ones. The verse that Morie offered (according to Album's rendering of the tale) is reproduced above. It is somewhat controversial; Auden seemed to dislike this stanza and especially the last line of it. He grew to hate his poem, trying to keep it from publication stating it was flattering to himself and his readers, calling it trash, and proclaiming shame in having written it. He allowed it to be included in one anthology years later, changing the last line of the stanza from "We must love one another or die" to "We must love one another and die" (my emphasis). The meaning behind each of these lines is substantially different. The first, a forceful mandate on how we need to progress through the hell of the chaos around us. We are presented with a choice. Love and endure, or else we die. It is sentimental, and in my opinion, excellent. The second writing (after being deleted all together for a while) offers a softer, fatalistic progression. There is no choice offered, love and die, not love or die. Either way, Auden demands that we love in order to progress out of the darkness in the world. The poem became widely popular despite Auden's attempts to keep it out of print. I offer below his original version for your enjoyment. We must love one another or die...

September 1, 1939
W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Orange Chairs, Chrome Seats, Purple Irons...

The topic today is language, words and their use, or mis-use perhaps. I open this week with a poem I wrote in philosophy class back in 1992. I was young, excited about the world, in love, and ready to charge off into life with no specific plans. It was a time when I was perhaps a little clever, but had too little wisdom (some wisdom has come in dribs and drabs since then, but there is so much more to learn)... But, boy, was I starting to have fun:

Self Condemning Language Games

On the floor rests what
by our words is called
by the name “orange chair.”

The antagonist understands but chants…
“Chrome seat, chrome seat.”…

But on a twin earth with twin things, rests a twin chair
which is called
by the name “purple iron.”

The antagonist understands and chants…
“Language game, language game.”…

In another plane on another place rests another twin
which has not been called
by any name at all.

The skeptic says, “It can’t be perceived, it hasn’t been named.”

The antagonist states questioningly… 
“Oh?!  It can’t be seen?  It can’t be seen?
The boy who knew not its name
bumps into it rather than avoids it
knowing not its name, its name!”

The skeptic says… “It can’t be understood, it hasn’t been defined.”

The antagonist says… “I’ll whack you over the head with it.
I’ll smack you on the head with it.”

The man from twin earth says to the antagonist…
“You whacked him on the head with the iron!”

The antagonist says… “Maybe so, maybe so, if you call it by that name,
but at least the skeptic is dead, is dead.

At least the skeptic is dead.”

The failure of words: I have been realizing lately how much language fails me when I need it most. I have thoughts and feelings that I wish to express about deep and pervasive issues of import to me, and despite all the possible ways to construct meaningful sentences, stumble upon my own diction. Whether it is in expressing my complex views of social politics, or trying to manage my personal relationships, I keep crashing into places where I feel like language fails me. I have been thinking about this more in recent months and realize it is not the fault in language nor in me, so much as it lies in the complexities of our varying perceptions of the world around us and our difficulties in weighting our conflicting values/feelings/thoughts/etc. The most complex things are not easily defined, and the perceptions we bring to our understanding change so much how we try to communicate about them.

Concrete and elusive: The more abstract a thing is, the more we look to metaphors and examples, allusions and illustrations, circumscribed definitions. These attempts to triangulate on meaning sometimes fail or worse backfire. Talking about concrete things is obviously more simple. For instance, talking about the weather is easy. We all experience the same external elements. How we experience them may differ; what value we attribute to those elements can lead to a discussion of feeling and preference. But we are still talking about something relatively un-complex.

Wonder and joy: But when we share a moment of wonder and awe with someone else and wish to communicate how we feel with that other person, it is often in a squeeze of a hand, a look in the eye, and relies on all the previously experienced moments with that someone else. These familiar moments that rely so little on language are like a shared code, how amazing and cool! And words that might have failed anyway are not needed for these shared moments. There is no need to explore the differences of the feeling, the positiveness of it strengthens the relationship.

The difficult things... solitary perception of shared experience: But what happens when the things being experienced are entirely new to both, resist language, are being perceived differently, and that there are no previous moments to rely on for explanation? What happens when the experience is negative and forces those experiencing it further into a solitary perception of the complexity? It's like two encrypted codes traveling back and forth with only partial decryption keys on either end, therefore only partial understanding and perhaps mis-understanding. What becomes shared is only the solitariness of it, and the focus rests on the mis-understandings. How terrible and sad!

The Way: It is here—in these moments where all the explaining, double tracking, and stumbling fails—that pure and positive emotion may be the only meaningful moment. Language fails, and the pureness of heart prevails. Perhaps the words themselves don't serve their proper purpose, only the intent behind them. It is in the renewed moment of a tentative squeeze, or that certain look in the eye, that does not communicate the thing, but is able to capture the heart...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Love You": This is how we live...

"I'll stop the world and melt with you. You've seen the difference and it's getting better all the time. And there's nothing you and I won't do. The future is opened wide.": I am realizing how powerful and essential hope is for living. The opposite of hope is despair, that feeling we have when we lose sight of hope. So much of what I see on social media seems to deal with people's need to find hope, or expressing feelings of despair (and certainly looking for the crowd to offer some sort of reassurance).

Where does despair come from?: Despair is that feeling when one perceives that there is no light, no one, no hope near by. While in despair, fear grips the heart, the mind, the soul.

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”― Yoda:  Suffering is merely the result of all the fear and anger. These negative emotions shroud us from living. We become encapsulated in feedback loops of darkness layering on top of darkness. It is the hatred that is "the dark side". Hate is the opposite of love. Love is so powerful!

Love is "other". Hatred is "self".

Love is compassion, hatred is hurting

So it feels like emotional math. Remove the fear, avoid the development of hatred and suffering.

So President Snow in The Hunger Games film understands. He says,
"Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear."

Hope can be offered by one to another in an act of love: So we need to find our way out of despair when we feel we are in complete darkness. Martin Luther King suggests that we can only see the stars when it is dark, but we need to be able to lift or heads up to see when our emotions press our heads down away from the light.

The Dawn is Coming: We hear that it is always darkest before the dawn, but we need to have faith that dawn will arrive and in the darkness time ceases to move. By understanding the despair, where it comes from, knowing it is bound in the fears of our own mind, we might move beyond it.
“I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always ... so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.” ― Yann Martel, Life of Pi

"You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it.": Words, identification, communication, people, relationships... hope. And it is the fear of losing our relationships, the people of our stories, the sharing with others, the understanding, the meaning... that controls us so powerfully. So how do we address our fear? We see it for what it is; we reach out to those around us, and we offer love and compassion; we tell them there is light near by even if they cannot see it; we call out; we hold their hand; we place hope in their grasp. Letting go of the fear helps break the cycle, but it goes so completely against what makes us caring and feeling. What a catch-22! 

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." --The Litany Against Fear in Frank Herbert's Dune

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed:
I am certain the answer to despair is simple when there are others gathered around. When we grieve... when we feel despair... we perceive we are alone. Those with the capacity to reach out have the ability to shed light on that perception. Love and compassion offer hope to those who need it most. This is how we must live!

Monday, October 12, 2015

A national holiday...

We would not be here if it were not for the bravery and tenacity of those who came before us.

We could not be great if we had not struggled throughout our history. The things we stubble through are the things we know and value.

We study to past, so we can understand the present, in order to better participate in the future.

So how do we properly converse about holidays that have historical value, as well as hold onto mixed "baggage"? The dialogue needs to continue to happen, and needs to be tempered with empathy and compassion. It's not about taking sides, it's about a diverse set of values and perspectives which need to be explored and discussed. 

I will call into the past, far into the beginning of time, and beg them to help me at the judgment. I will reach back and draw them into me. And they must come…for at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all. --Cinque in "Amistad"

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Deep down the hollow is what you promise me. All I can do is to follow"...

This summer I arrived late to an album that had been getting airplay on independent stations for over a year, Milky Chance's Sadnecessary. Released in October 2013 the album did not make much headway in the US until the following year when they began playing sold-out shows and appeared on late-night with Jimm Kimmel. SPIN magazine picked Sadnecessary Album of the week, and that fall USA Today wrote a favorable review describing the German duo as a blend of folk, reggae, and jazz. Noisey described them as combining house and electronic beats with reggae and R&B influences. None of this actually conveys Dausch and Rehbein's sound though. It's like when gourmet coffee roasters describe a blend with food names and colors that have nothing to do with the actual flavor of the brew, persimmon cherry mocha with a cinnamon finish. [What does that actually mean beyond sounding interesting?] Wikipedia lists Milky Chance as "Folktronica" which is more closely a descriptor, but not knowing any of the definitive albums listed in the genre, leaves me wanting a better category.

While the US was only just discovering Milky Chance last fall, they had been gaining momentum on YouTube and SoundCloud, and had developed a strong fan base all over Europe by the summer of 2014. Their first single has garnered over 150 million views. Winning awards in Germany, touring the US and Canada late in 2014, hitting venues like the Bowrey Ballroom in NYC and the House of Blue in Boston, Milkey Chance has worked hard to gain an audience for this first album.

Songs on Sadnecessary start with synthesized beats (predictable and nondescript, while surprisingly thin and pleasant), adding clean slightly growly vocals (in English) as a layer on top. The contrast of the vocals over the synth is nice, but it's in the the rhythms that sound like clean R&B rhythm guitar with a hint of a reggae strum that my ears really engage. There is a hollowness about the sound that works, each song sounding much like the others on first listen, but becoming quite distinctive on subsequent listens. This album was a passing choice in my list in June, and is a staple for me three months later.

Sadnesessary, Feathery, Down by the River, and Loveland have all become more dear to me that the initial single that attracted me to the album, Stolen Dance. The entire album needs to be listened to which is not something young people do these days, but in this case the temple and pace of the album as presented works. With nearly an hour of recorded material, Sadnecessary is quickly making it to my best albums list of 2014.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"For Truth must be common to all." -- "Children haven't changed. We have."...

Looking at the shoulders of giants: This week I am drawing almost exclusively from other people's printed material, as I feel the proverbial wheel has already been created better than I could have re-imagined it. I have little extra to offer this topic other than a hearty "I CONCUR!" 

I have long held beliefs similar to those offered by Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 18th century enlightenment period. Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), this notable feminist wrote in her preface; 
my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all.
Simply put, if you don't offer equal access, why would you expect anything that resembles equality? The imperative that Wollstonecraft presents us with is teach all the children so that they may fulfill their full potential, [regardless of gender.]

They tried to teach me a gender bias that rang hollow: When I was a kid I heard grown-ups (parents, teachers, employers) say things like "girls are good at language, and boys are good at math." When we asked our grade-school PE teacher, Mr. B., why girls played badminton while we played football, he said "boys and girls are different, and besides, you guys wouldn't want girls with muscles would you?" I knew immediately that I didn't care... I loved Mr. B., but felt bothered by his answer. It felt creepy. I didn't feel as close to him after that day (which is why the memory has stuck in my head all these years). Years later, when this sort of topic came up in my all-boy high school, I remember arguing that if girls were encouraged to play with legos or erector sets more, there might be more "mathy" girls out there. As a father of both a boy and a girl I can attest that boys are girls ARE different. But their capacity for intellectual understanding and interest is not split by gender. Their potential is in no way tied to their sex. Some of their toy interests somewhat align with social norms, but there are so many exceptions that designating girl-pink for her and fire-engine red for him seems rude and wrong! I am proud that both my children believe rightly that there is nothing they cannot achieve if they work for it. I love that their interests are all over the map despite what the world around them tells them is "normal".

The Heart of my post this week started with this comic: Web comic artist M. Patrinos of Seasonal Depression made this clever comic about the questionable marketing decisions LEGO has made to target girls with the "LEGO Friends" line. She simply said on her facebook page"I love you Lego, but-"... 

Reuniting 1981 with the present: I stumbled across an article reposted on social media, but originally appearing on a blog Women You Should Know. In it Lori Day explores this larger topic in part by speaking with the young girl who graces the Lego ad that appears at the top of my entry this week. I will not reprint the article here, but suggest you use the power of the inter webs to click the link and read it either now or after you finish my entry: The Little Girl from the 1981 LEGO Ad is All Grown Up, and She’s Got Something to Say. Lego seems to be trying to win a larger audience (who may have bought into certain gender stereotypes equating serving cakes to guests and pink everything) at the expense of maintaining a beautiful original stance on a gender-less creative toys for kids. To Quote a line from Lori Day's article, "Children haven't changed. We have." I cannot help but think there could be a more subtle way of mixing all sorts of bricks together so that children could creatively seek their own preferences. If color is the issue, why could you not have three bags of the stock bricks to pick the color of your submarine or spaceship walls? Creator legs already offer three sets of instructions for use with the same bricks. Why not three sets of some bricks for the same set of directions?  

ALL is the critical word for me in education: The following instruction sheet from the early 70s reveals Lego's original stance on creative toys for all children. It is included in another blog entry, this one by Stephen Luntz on IFLScience!
A closing: Wollstonecraft writes: "Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison"... Take it for what you will... we may have come a long way in the last few generations but I think we still have a lot of work to do...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Inside outside, under my skin..."

Dad's Treat: This weekend I took my wife and children to see Pixar/Disney's Inside Out, an animated film that follows the psychological processing of 11 year old Riley, a happy, hockey-playing, creative girl from the land of 10,000 lakes. After a family move to San Francisco, Riley struggles to process the radical changes to her life, and we get to watch most of her story from the inside of her animated head. Initial responses when the film was first teased over a year ago were mixed, people worrying that the concept of watching emotions inside a little girl's head would be too silly, or even boring. I remember one article asking if the subject matter was too dark when it was suggested we would be watching Riley go into a deep depression. Well, Pixar managed to avoid these worries, making a film that to date has grossed $750 million.

Two notes of criticism and one delight: We watched the movie in 3-D finding it added little if anything to the experience. Some minor visual depth was passingly interesting at best, but was not worth the real headache and distraction of having to wear cheep 3-D glasses. The whole family agrees that 2-D would have been preferred. Secondly, although there were a few interesting bits and gags in the end credits, they were not up to Pixar par where waiting through the entire credit roll is a pleasure in itself. That said, neither of these criticisms are about the story and movie as produced and have no real bearing on the quality of the film. On a different note, there was a lovely music-based short before the feature film called Lava that actually made me cry. I feel like a sap, but it touched a nerve. The music is performed by Kuana Torres Kahele and reminded me of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's Hawaiian sweetness; the story is simple and takes place over the lifetime of a volcano (millions of years?). The result of good music and a tale of love over millions of years...? I leaked a bit.

The conclusion: Rather than analyzing the good and the great, I'll cut to the chase. Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen nailed Inside Out. Much like Pixar's Up (also one of Docter's stories), the subject matter feels real and involves both humor and sorrow. Resolutions are believable and therefore, satisfying. Anything less would have made the film feel silly (perhaps like Cars). Metacritic's 94/100 and Rotten Tomatoes' 98% tells the rest of the tale of how this film was received by viewing audiences. It ranks highly for me in the Pixar opus, but cannot top WALL-E, Ratatouille, or Finding Nemo.

Sadness is crucial to renewal: I found the following wikipedia entry about the story creation quite interesting, especially Pete Docter's thoughts on his own emotions and the time he spent working on this story for Pixar:
Docter estimated it took four years of development for the film to achieve success in marrying the architecture of Riley's mind and her personal troubles.[26] The concept of "personality islands" helped develop the film's emotional stakes, as they directly affect events inside her mind and in her life.[25] In one draft, the characters fell into "Idea Fields", where they would "cultivate new ideas", much like a farmer would cultivate crop.[26] The character of Bing Bong—a discarded old imaginary friend—came about in one draft of the film as part of a refugee camp inside Riley's mind.[25] It was difficult to achieve the correct tone for the film; for example, viewers could not be distracted by Joy's nature or feel negative about the mess she helps steer Riley into.[25] Rivera credited the casting of Amy Poehler, in addition to the idea of moving, with helping the film find the right tone.[25] 
An early version of the film focused on Joy and Fear getting lost together, as it seemed to be the most humorous choice. By July 2012, the project was set for an evaluation screening with other Pixar filmmakers. Docter gradually began to feel that the story was not working, which led to fears that he might be fired. He took a long walk at his home one Sunday, in which he began to consider himself a failure, his previous successes "flukes", and a general sense that he should resign from the film.[21] While pondering what he would miss about Pixar, he concluded that he would miss his coworkers and friends most of all. He soon reached a breakthrough: that emotions are meant to connect people together, and that relationships are the most important things in life.[22] He decided to replace Fear with Sadness, which he felt is crucial to renewal. He met with Rivera and Del Carmen that night to explain his change of plans, and to his surprise, they reacted positively to it. At the screening, he informed his superiors that new plans for the film were in order. Although a "scary moment", the film remained in production.[17]
Joy and Sadness: Even though I felt connected to Riley's character (and its obvious complexities), it is her emotions that I find myself dwelling on; not the more one or two-dimensional characterizations themselves, but her actual emotions exhibited. My takeaways from the film are not character based, but rather, observations about emotions, the concept: Without joy ahead of us (hope?) we are doomed. Sadness is not despair (the former is necessary, the latter is hell), and sadness serves a healthy place in our lives. While these are probably not the messages intended by the creators of Inside Out, they are emotional conclusions that are turning in my head as a result of this lovely and well crafted story. I find it a tremendous win when a fun and thoughtful animated film that is age appropriately rated PG can provoke serious thought in me. It makes me wonder... as I mention "things" turning in my head, who's at the controls in there?