Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How Our Minds Work

"A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, so it's natural for it to continue much as before after the other person's death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent-detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive...We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none. It's natural; it's how our minds work."

- Jesse Bering (Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland) quoted in "Darwin's God," by Robin Marantz Henig in The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

According to Strength, Pleasure, and Happiness

In 1912, Kafka wrote "The Metamophosis", "The Judgement" (which he wrote in one night), large segments of Der Verschollene (Amerika), and published his first book, Meditation. It was the same year he met his fiancé, Felice Bauer. He described his daily routine to her in a letter:

From 8 till 2 or 2:20 office, until 3 or 3:30 lunch, from then on sleeping in bed (usually just trying to, for a week in that sleep I saw nothing but Montenegrins with an extremely disagreeable, headache-inducing clarity of each detail of their complicated costume) until 7:30, then 10 minutes exercise, naked at the open window, then an hour walking alone or with Max [Brod] or with some other friend, then dinner with my family, then at 10:30 (although it’s often as late as 11:30), sit down to write and stay at it according to strength, pleasure, and happiness until 1, 2, 3 in the morning.

- from Kafka’s Prage: A Travel Reader by Klaus Wagenbach

Music in the Air

"In the 1940s, when big bands were hiring pretty girls with sweet voices to bob over their beats, Tharpe fronted Lucky Millinder's raucous swing outfit with gutsy force. In the late 1950s, when blues revivalists prized rootsy growls and acoustic guitar twangs, she happily shouted praises over electric riffs. And when early rock historians reached back to trace the form's lineage, this middle-aged lady cheerily shouting and soloing in front of robed choirs didn't quite fit their secular guitar-as-phallus ideal."

- from Can I Get an Amen? Laura Sinagra's review of Shout, Sister, Shout! (first chapter)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Five Open Mouths

"Lisa Bufano is an award-winning artist who recently performed her first major dance work to a packed house in New York. She is also a double amputee. Bufano's legs and fingers were amputated when she was 21 after a staph bacteria infection raged through her body, shutting off blood flow to her limbs."

"A few months ago, she received a grant to stage a modern dance work in New York City. The piece, choreographed by Heidi Latsky, is called Five Open Mouths. The title alludes to the five wounds where Bufano's fingers used to be; the dance tells the story of Bufano coming to terms with her body as it is."

"The dance ends with a symbolic removal of the bandages that cover Bufano's fingers."

- From Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation by Andrea Shea (All Things Considered, NPR, 03/19/07). The article contains links to video clips of her work.

The Supreme Fabulist of Modern Man's Cosmic Predicament

From the forward by John Updike (originally published as an article in the New Yorker) to The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka:

"It is the shorter stories, too, that sparkle most with country glimpses, with a savor of folk tales and a still-medieval innocence. They remind us that Kafka wrote in a Europe where islands of urban wealth, culture, and discontent were surrounded by a countryside still, in its simplicity, apparently in possession of the secret of happiness, of harmony with the powers of earth and sky. Modernity has proceeded far enough, and spread wide enough, to make us doubt that anyone really has this secret. Part of Kafka’s strangeness, and part of his enduring appeal, was to suspect that everyone except himself had the secret. He received from his father an impression of helpless singularity, of being a 'slave living under laws invented only for him.' A shame literally unspeakable attached itself to this impression. Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, 'amateurish' in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; more than a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Goodness, Restraint, and Messiness

"One of the things that I’m always interested in is the problems of goodness. I’m very interested in goodness. I think badness gets a lot of treatment in literature and the notion is that goodness is not interesting. To have encounters with goodness can be as vexing as having encounters with evil. And goodness can create its own distortions in the person on the other side of goodness. And we often don’t know how to respond to goodness in the same way that we don’t know how to respond to evil…What does goodness prevent in human intimacy? We know what it allows, but what does it prevent? What is the patina that it creates over the soul of the good person that makes her or him impenetrable?"


“One of my great problems in life is that I think I am temperamentally a formalist and I’m very attracted to restraint in art. That would sort of link me with conservatives. But ethically, I’m very attracted to the mess of humanity and so that would link me to less traditional habits of mind. That’s a tension that I think marks me very much. It causes me a lot of anguish…I love restraint and I love human vitality and so I’m always trying to honor both in my work. [I’m] always doomed to fail on one side or the other, but it is a project that I’m committed to.”

- Mary Gordon, talking with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm about her most recent collection of short stories.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Into Great Silence

Genuine contemplative practices are difficult to describe with words. Director Philip Gröning captures the ineffable experience of daily monastic life by letting it speak without words for itself in Into Great Silence. It took him sixteen years to get permission to spend six months filming inside a nearly thousand-year old monastery in the French Alps. We were fortunate for the opportunity to see the documentary over the past weekend at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

The rhythms and repetition of the monastic routine whispered its secret: there is far too much noise and confusion in our contemporary lives. I have learned from direct experience that there is deep satisfaction gained from giving up talking, eye contact, news, weather reports, cell phones, television, movies, the Internet, and email even for a few days at a time. We assume that great simplicity results in intense boredom and can easily be surprised to discover unexpected paradoxes.

Just as in meditation practice, not every sitting period can be overflowing with bliss. Impatience and even boredom provide their own lessons. I have sat countless times waiting and pleading for someone to strike a bell to release me from the exponential expansion of discomfort during a meditation sit. At times during this 162 minute film, I found myself wanting it to end. But that seems to be one aspect of this films brilliance, its ability to convey so much without handing us explanations, analysis, background, or biography.

What a rare and generous gift: to glimpse the quiet insights acquired by those who give up everything in order to discover them before drifting back out into the noise we've surrounded ourselves with like a threadbare security blanket wondering what it is in life that truly brings happiness.

I read somewhere recently that renunciation is not so much about relinquishing ownership of personal possessions as it is about profoundly embracing the reality that everything is impermanent.

Which Those Who Live Call Life

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Great Technology

I just started reading a collection of short stories by Olaf Olafsson called Valentines: stories. Each of the dozen stories is named for a month of the year. I came across the story, "On the Lake," in the Winter 2006 issue of Zoetrope: All Story and was fascinated by its precision and understatement. The reader's eye is directed to the surface of the action allowing the palpable tensions and emotional undercurrents to bubble up on their own. I read it three times like a kid in a magic shop trying to uncover the secret. The trick seems to be a combination of great care, faith in the reader, rigorous restraint, and the ruthless removal of extraneous details. The story was retitled "April" for the collection.

Olafsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1962 and has a degree in physics from Brandeis University. In addition to writing short stories, novels and plays, he was the founder and former president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Inc. where he "was involved in developing the CD and...the PlayStation computer."

"[His novel] Fyrirgefning syndanna (Absolution) was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1991 and the short story collection Aldingarðurinn (Valentines) won the same award in 2006...His novel, The Journey Home, will be filmed in 2007, directed by Liv Ullman."

In a 2003 discussion of his dual career as writer and Vice President of Time Warner with CNET, he said, "One form of media still in my mind is best served by traditional methods, and that's storytelling. Books provide a great way for people to tell stories. Movies are the same. Paper is actually a great technology, when it comes to a novel."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

What a Story Is

"For me to do a story, something has to happen to someone. It’s a story in the way you learn what a story is in third grade, where there is a person and things happen to them and then something big happens and they realize something new."

- Ira Glass speaking with Deborah Solomon in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (3/4/07)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Help Desk

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Say It's Possible

From an interview with Terra Naomi on The Daily Reel (1/31/07):

When Terra Naomi began uploading installments of her "virtual summer tour" six months ago, she never expected to become an online celebrity. How did a cheap camera and Best Buy tripod lead to a record deal and international renown? All thanks to YouTube. past summers, I would drive myself around and unload my gear, sell my merchandise, load my car back up, get back in the car and drive -- I was putting ten thousand miles on my car over a period of six weeks, and sometimes I would show up and play for twelve people after driving fifteen hours. This year, I figured that it wasn't worth the effort and money that it took, so I just started filming myself and putting my videos up, figuring that a thousand or so people would see them. But Chad Hurley, one of the founders of YouTube, saw my video for the song Say It's Possible. He then sent it to a few people on his staff, and they decided to feature it. It started getting a lot of plays. And then the strange and wonderful thing is that people started covering it. So they were filming their own videos of the song. I think there are over 200 of those. And they pretty much play it exactly like I do, because I was getting hundreds of emails asking me "what are the chords?" So instead of just listing the chords, I made a little video showing them how to play it.

I was contacted by someone from a music magazine in London, and he said "I've seen your videos, and I'd like to send them to some people I know in the business." So he sent them to one person who he thought would be the best match for me as far as a publisher went. And that person was head of Universal Publishing in London.