Sunday, April 26, 2009




Oh Hallelujah!
To Be Free Again to Say:


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cursing Sasha Frere-Jones

Yesterday, I had to sit in my car for a few minutes until the song I was listening to came to an end. A common occurrence for me and for all of us, I'm sure, except for the highly disturbing fact that it was only playing in my head

This song isn't one I would ever have heard on the radio, and the artist isn't one I would ever have found in my head absent a seductive piece by Sasha Frere-Jones. His articles and blogs always teach me something about a singer or a band, but they are often a closed loop, piquing and then satisfying my interest. What he wrote about this particular singer and his music was no closed loop, but more like a rabbit hole.

Generally speaking, I hate singer-songwriters, too confessional or too genteel. But this singer-songwriter is raw and elemental, not merely naked. His harmonies are thrilling, not merely surprising, even after so many listens. I cannot come to understand how he writes what he does. He is an addiction, costing me a good 45 minutes and 46 seconds at least once a day, for many many days. I bless Bonnie "Prince" Billy, but I curse Sasha Frere-Jones. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Punctuated Equilibrium

There are incidents that make us know ourselves. And there are incidents that make others know us. Thankfully, these are not often the same incidents. 

Once, I was baking a cake, late, the night before a dinner party at my house.  The oven kept smoking a little, and I kept taking the cake out and trying again. Then, to my shock, the whole oven caught on fire. (Unfortunately, the guest list was all carnivore, but civilized carnivore, the most difficult kind, so "raw" was out.) I called my sister, the professional sacher mom, to ask if there was any way to salvage a cake that had been slightly baked three times for 5-10 minutes only, and she knew the way. And she said something that made me think about cleaning the oven, which I have to admit had not occurred to me. And I don't mean, had not occurred to me in light of the fire, but had not occurred to me since I'd moved in and started using the oven. I dug out the manual and studied the "judgment day" self-clean option that promised to turn all to ash. I was nervous because of the fire at a much lower degree, so I set my alarm for every half hour, just to be sure to catch any fire before it spread to the rest of my house. And again to my shock, it worked, and all was fine, including the cake baked four times. 

All was fine, except for what I finally understood: That it had never occurred to me to clean because at some point I just saw it as too dirty to clean. And that was an analogy that traveled far and wide and deep.

I think about this now as I get ready for visiting dignitaries, usually defined as new man, parents, or certain kinds of acquaintances. In some ways, that early epiphany is a corollary to the algorithmic life, but it is more insidious too. You need geologic time to understand what you have trained yourself not to know and not to see any more. You may never know why.    

Thursday, April 16, 2009

No Geriatric Pandas Here

Gustavo Dudamel came again to My Fair District of 97% Obama, conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Tickets to the concert itself had been snapped up in nanoseconds eons ago (if that phrasing doesn't rip the time/space continuum), but some of us were lucky enough to get tickets to the dress rehearsal 4 hours before the concert itself.  

When we walked into the concert hall, the stage was all activity -- setting up, chatting, stretching. It was the largest orchestra I'd seen in a while, made larger by the sheer activity, which you would never see in context of the true concert. (The program listed close to 200 names, including my favorites, Elvis on the French horn and Galaxia on the harp.)

Then Gustavo Dudamel walked out, to great applause. He was casually dressed, wearing a pullover sweater that let us see the strength and beauty and effort of his shoulders and back when he conducted. He began by talking to us directly about the happiness and privilege of returning to conduct here in My Fair District of 97% Obama. He mentioned the program of Ravel, Castellanos, and Stravinsky and a few other things. And then it was all Rite all the time. 

I'm not the kind of listener who can provide a knowledgeable rundown of the musical treatment and authenticity of The Rite of Spring. I can tell you that the orchestra conjured Nijinsky and made us see both the modernity and the primitivity of the work. Actually, Dudamel himself conjured Nijinsky with his conducting style, even leaping into the air at one point. 

The orchestra played each part through, with Dudamel drilling them on certain passages over and over at the end, which often had to do with complex percussion or pizzicato or overlapping rhythms. During these drills, he talked directly to the orchestra in Spanish, so we couldn't understand even the little that we could overhear. And I was sorry. And then I wasn't sorry, thinking that maybe it was best this way, the same way that praying in Hebrew, where you don't always understand what you're asking for, seems more profound and spiritual.  

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is part of a great larger musical initiative focused on helping children and teens living below the poverty line. The child and youth orchestras throughout the country give over 250,000 children the idea and support and knowledge for a better life. I cannot think of any similar initiatives in the United States, where sports and the military seem to be the acknowledged ways out of poverty.

Maybe Gustavo Dudamel can rekindle a love of classical music and a recollection of the importance of the arts as both standard of living and quality of life. I remember going to the zoo once baby pandas had arrived and being amazed at how active and unpanda-like they were. It took me a while to realize that all those earlier years of geriatric pandas had given me the wrong idea and now I was seeing the real thing. Here's to Dudamel. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Algorithmic Life (or Reflections for April 15th)

The algorithmic life always finds me, but it is never one I want to lead. In order to do Y, I must have done X-- not thought about doing X, but done X. Which often shines the spotlight on W and other troublesome earlier letters. 

The trick, everyone advises, is not to procrastinate. The trick, everyone advises, is to make the change slowly, so it sticks. So was I wrong to take all this advice seriously and apply the smart starting strategy of not waiting so long to procrastinate, but procrastinating earlier? Yet, here on April 13th,  I fear that there is a fallacy in this logic. I will look into looking into it tomorrow.  

Living the algorithmic life can also necessitate finding a longer alphabet. Cambodian, here I come, with the hope one day of Rotokas.   

Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Do People Have Faces?

This is the question that arose during the first seder, when we were talking about the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who is just too young. The Haggadah (Passover seder book) used a kind of abstract paper tearing (in a Wiggles meets South Park kind of way) to show that the four sons were all stages or aspects of each of us.  No one had a face, prompting the question from 4-year-old McQueen, Why do people have faces? 

The adults explained that faces hold some of our most important senses, like eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, noses for smelling, and mouths for tasting. McQueen pointed out that chins were for thinking and showed us how, adding that he also liked to think with his cheek. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

This Blog Is Not Kosher for Passover

The night before Passover--that is, right now--Jews conduct the search for chametz, to rid their households of all foods forbidden during that holiday.  I have done that in my kitchen. I have done that in my living room. I have done that everywhere in my house that is snackable.  There is just one place that will always remain out of reach.  

I realized how bad it was some months ago. My keyboard went on strike--that is, it refused to strike--and the Apple Genius Bar was just the thing to put it right. When I started to pack up the keyboard, though, I really saw how many loaves of bread and pieces of poptart were in there, and I knew that it was better to buy a new keyboard than to show a genius how I actually lived and typed. (I'd call it a bad habit, but let's be real: It's a routine, not a habit.) Before I had to do anything drastic, though, my keyboard recovered. And now it has many many more months of crumbs in its little ecosystem. 

So this blog will not be kosher for Passover. But once there are more matzah crumbs in there, I think it's an open question.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

These are the words I own: "Are," "I," "own," "the," "these," "words"

If you pay to photograph a quilt at a museum to use in a book, do you own the rights to the names sewn into the quilt? Apparently, at least one person thinks so. This was the most interesting story I heard at a recent conference, where one panel addressed digital copyright. 

The whole episode came out of a student's using the photograph in a paper, which was then hosted on a website, which was then taken as inspiration for another researcher to investigate the names sewn into the quilt. (It was a World War quilt.)

What a fabulous concept!

I am adapting this to let you know that, from now on, I own all the words that I use on this blog. Violate at your peril.  Contumely. (I just want that word too.)