Saturday, April 28, 2007

Do you have time for beauty?

From Pearls Before Breakfast written by Gene Weingarten (The Washington Post, 4/8/07):

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was [Joshua Bell] one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

[Audio of complete performance.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Key to Life is to Forget Things

"The key to long life, is to immediately forget things. If you forget, then instantly and inevitably, a new state of consciousness always arises," says Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master who turned 100 years old this month. My meditation teacher, Shinzen Young interprets for his teacher in this short news clip.

Sasaki Roshi entered a Rinzai monastery when he was fourteen. He earned the title of Roshi (which means "old" and "teacher") when he was forty and moved to California to teach in 1962. His most famous student is Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-writer who served as the Roshi's personal assistant during the years he spent in seclusion at Mt. Baldy Zen Center.

Shinzen was ordained as a Shingon monk in Mt. Koya, and has been teaching Vipassana meditation for thirty years. He draws the majority of his teaching analogies from mathematical and scientific concepts and emphasizes the similarity among the contemplative and ethical traditions of the world's religions. He has extensive experience coaching people who are suffering from chronic and acute pain.

A Vast and Unsustainable Act of Taking

Cell phones, Orlando 2004

"The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits."

Photographer Chris Jordan

Cell phones #2, Atlanta 2005
Thanks Kit!

Cooperating Causes

"Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web."

-- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


From The Journey Home, by Olaf Olafsson:

…I think there is a certain arrogance in precise recipes and I’m uncomfortable with laying down the law about how people should prepare their food.

The day before yesterday, for instance, I sneaked a few figs into the chicken I was about to roast. I did it at the last moment because I had a sudden intuition that Anthony would appreciate the flavor of figs when he tasted the bird. Somehow I sensed it in his expression when he came trailing back from the tennis court. Sometimes I’m moved to cook snails in honey for the simple reason that I’ve seen bees buzzing in the sunshine; sometimes a bird singing on a branch will give me the idea of putting blackberries or currants in the sauce I’m preparing; sometimes the breeze billows the curtain over the little window in the corner and I think perhaps I’ll serve baked cinnamon pears with the veal I have in my hands. Why? Did the breeze waft me the scent of spices from distant lands? Did it bring me a message from someone who was thinking kind thoughts about me?

How could I possibly put these feelings on paper without running the risk of spoiling the pleasure or revealing what should be discovered in peace.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Inhaling the Memory of an Act Never Experienced

"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one's voice isn't just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing."

-- Jonathan Lethem, from The Ecstasy of Influence

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Star Guitar

Michel Gondry translates the musical elements of Star Guitar by The Chemical Brothers into objects that he can sync with the song:

Oranges and shoes are replaced with poles, buildings, and a number of other objects which the director filmed from a train in France.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Asking the Same Questions

From The War of Art by Steven Pressfield:

The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals. Each asks the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?

At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have to deal with such questions. In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community. It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore.

These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.

...The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern them.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Making Life More Bearable

From Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country:

Here’s a lesson in creative writing. First rule, don’t use semicolons. They’re transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. And I realize some of you might be having trouble trying to decide if I’m kidding or not. So from now on, I’ll tell you when I’m kidding.

For instance, Join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I’m kidding.

We’re about to be attacked by Al-Qaeda. Wave flags if you have them, that always seems to scare ‘em away. I’m kidding.

If you really want to hurt your parents and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding.

The arts aren’t a way to make a living. They’re a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sakes. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend—even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You’ll get an enormous reward. You’ll have created something.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

You Are Not Alone, Others Feel As You Do

Excerpts from a KCRW Bookworm interview with Kurt Vonnegut a year ago discussing his last book, A Man Without a Country. He died yesterday at 84 years old.

The crucified planet earth, should it find a voice in a sense of irony, might now well say of our abuse of it, ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’ The irony would be that we know what we are doing. And when the last living thing dies on account of us, how poetical it would be if Life could say, in a voice floating up perhaps from the floor of the Grand Canyon, ‘It is done. People did not like it here.’

Millionaires and billionaires are the only ones who have representation in our government now. And we pretend to have two parties, but it’s one party financed by millionaires and billionaires. The Repulicans and the Democrats fight—pretend to fight and to be really angry—but they’re both very well paid to pretend to fight and actually not to make any trouble for the possessors of great wealth.

My dream of a utopia right now is public schools with classes of fifteen students or fewer. That’s it. Just everywhere. And this we could easily afford. All our money...has gone into weaponry.

At the very end of every graduation address I say, ‘All right, now I’m going to want a show of hands. Everybody here: parents, students, campus cops, anybody. How many of you in the course of your education between kindergarten and today, have had a teacher who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive than you’d previously believed possible? A show of hands please.’ And so a lot of people will fake it, of course. And then I say, ‘All right, now please say the name of that teacher to someone standing or sitting near you.’ And all these murmurs go on. People who were faking it will suddenly think of a teacher who was that good. Look, all you need is one great teacher and some people really love to teach.

Susan Sontag said something [about the Holocaust] that was so helpful to me…‘Ten percent of any population is cruel no matter what, ten percent of any population is merciful no matter what, and the other eighty percent can be pulled in either direction.’

I have said a reason to write books—or to write anything—is to say to other people, ‘You are not alone, others feel as you do.’

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Nothing is Exempt from Resurrection

by Kay Ryan

Not even waste
is inviolate.
The day misspent,
the love misplaced,
has inside it
the seed of redemption.
Nothing is exempt
from resurrection.
It is tiresome
how the grass
re-ripens, greening
all along the punched
and mucked horizon
once the bison
have moved on,
leaning into hunger
and hard luck.


"Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."

--George Eliot, Middlemarch

Between Stability and Chaos

Sherwin Nuland on Speaking of Faith (Jan. 18, 2007):

"Wonder is something I share with people of deep faith. They wonder at the universe that God has created and I wonder at the universe that nature has created. But this is a sense of awe that motivates the faithful, motivates me. It provides an energy for seeking. Just as the faithful will always say, 'We are seeking,' I am seeking.

"We're seeking different things. I'm seeking an understanding of this integrity of everything, this unity of everything, of the equilibrium of not just the homeostasis as the physiologists say—the staying the sameness—but of the closeness that we are constantly coming to chaos."

[Listen] "Responding to sensory input from the body and its surroundings, delivered over incoming fibers and via chemical messengers, the human brain has, I believe, engaged itself in the instinctual battle between stability and chaos, echoing up from its deepest cellular self. That battle is expressed in the psychological conflict between Eros and Thanatos—the forces of love (and therefore life) against the forces of death instinct. Because the two are irreconcilable, the central nervous system of man has had, since the time it originally came into existence with the birth of the first Homo sapiens, to conjure with itself—to try various combinations of circuitry and chemistry, and to turn to its excess reserve capacity in exploratory ways—until it became what it is today, a vast machine works of intellect, spirituality, and even neurosis.

"It might be pointed out, and properly so, that all of the foregoing presupposes a state of constant improvement, and therefore presents Pollyanna's view of the mind and its potentialities. But my definition of the human spirit is not restricted to the sublime qualities developed within our species. It includes, as well, those other characteristics of which we are far less proud, the baser qualities in all that is subsumed under the rubric of humanness. If there is an antonym for everything we customarily associate with spiritual, it must surely be mean-spirited. The same adaptive use of circuitry and molecular interactions that allows humankind to perform the mental gymnastics leading to our finest accomplishments is also in thrall to our baser instincts. Like all adaptations, some are maladaptive. The maladaptations, the conflict between order and chaos, as well as the imperatives of living in societies in which individualistic drives must be restrained in the interest of community—these are the stuff of antisocial behavior and neurosis. This, too, is part of humanity.

"The very instability of the multitudinous mechanisms that maintain our homeostasis is reflected in the instability and ambivalence with which we view our fellows and the universe, but especially ourselves. Echoing his inner physiology, man is engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the equilibrium that permits daily living. The conflict between constancy and consistency on the one hand and chaos and destruction on the other is mirrored in the mind's equally persistent struggle between the goodness that is in us and the dark drives of anarchic catastrophe. That luminous quality of reason that we value so highly is precariously perched on the unsettled knife edge between good and evil. The human mind being some 200 million years younger than the mammalian body to which it can trace its origin, the quality we might call mental homeostasis is not yet as effective as its physical counterpart. We function not only physically but mentally too, in a crucible of conflicting forces; we continue in stable emotional life only because a degree of balance is achieved by the internalized morality that is sustained by our individual and societal equivalents of enzymes and other regulatory mechanisms. Sometimes we lose the uneasy equilibrium we have attained with so much effort. The result is mental illness, injustice, and the maleficence to which we give daily witness.

"My rabbinic teachers first made me aware of the Talmudic teaching that man lives in eternal conflict between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, his good and evil inclination. Civilization began and persists because the maintenance of what might be called social homeostasis, and therefore a civilized society, demands that the forces of equilibrium—the forces of the good—win out. But the history of the twentieth century and the events of which we read in our daily newspapers tell us that this is an ideal too often unattained. Society's struggle, like ours, never ends."

Monday, April 09, 2007

Fiction and Synchronicity

I went to hear Tony Vigorito read tonight. I hadn’t heard of him before seeing the advertisement for the reading. I was charmed by the Dostoevsky quote used as the epigraph from his first novel, Just a Couple of Days [Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it. If we would, we should have heaven on earth the very next day. ] and by his relaxed approach to the reading. He recounted a surreal experience which occurred over the weekend involving a dubious stranger disemboweling a deer which his vegetarian girlfriend had accidently struck and killed with her car.

He talked about his first novel being about language and his recently completed novel, Nine Kinds of Naked, being about synchronicity. He read from the manuscript of this newer work which will be published next spring. He told us about strange coincidences related to it the work and his approach to it. (This reminded me of a Jeffrey Eugenides essay about writing Middlesex.) He asked us if we wanted to share any synchronicities from our personal experience. I nervously tried to recount a story about a fortune cookie.

When I got home, I went in search of my journal from that time to compare my memory with the facts.

January 2004

Lunch at Asia Wok with Connie. My fortune cookie said, “The only way to catch a tiger cub is to go into the tiger’s den.” Hers was something about if metal is ground down repeatedly it becomes a fine point. I didn’t know what my message meant and was convinced our wires had been crossed since I’d just returned from a meditation retreat. Connie takes these things seriously and refused my offer to help sort out fate by trading.

Before going to bed, I read through my email. An email from Writer’s Almanac from the day before mentioned Haruki Murakami (born 1/12/49), saying, Widely considered one of Japan's most important 20th-century writers, he is heavily influenced by American culture, and has been criticized by some Japanese for being too westernized. He said in an interview, "I write weird stories. Myself, I'm a very realistic person. ... I wake up at 6:00 in the morning and go to bed at 10:00, jogging every day and swimming, eating healthy food. ... But when I write, I write weird."

Clicking on the link embedded in his name, I was taken to a interview which said that his writing was considered confusing, which connected back to developing skill at reacting to confusion with equanimity which had been a significant topic during the retreat. I popped open a browser to reserve The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from the library. The interview was three pages long and I kept reading it in spite of being sleepy. The interview concluded with:

Q. It sounds like when you feel scared about writing something, you decide to pursue it.
A. You can't escape from that. There is a saying in Japan: "When you want a tiger's cub, you have to enter the tiger's den."

I ran downstairs to look in the trash for my fortune. I couldn’t find it, but felt relieved Connie could vouch for me.

The next day, squirrels got into our trash and scattered what failed to interest them around the backyard. Among the litter I discovered my fortune, folded in half and lying on the frozen, snow-covered grass. [I taped it into my journal.]

Mind and Fiction

From Briant Kitely, author of The 3 A.M. Epiphany:

Consciousness in and of itself is a kind of fiction, a cleaned up version of reality. Understanding how the mind works is vital to creating interesting and innovative fiction. William James said that consciousness seems to be continuous, “without breach, crack, or division.” We move cleanly from one thought or feeling to the next without breaks or pauses.

But James also claimed consciousness only seemed “continuous to itself by an illusion.” He said consciousness was a function, not an entity. Its four essential qualities are sensation, emotion, volition, and thought. Our own minds build continual fabrications, elegant and simplified summaries of reality, and writers should take note that fiction, like consciousness, is artificial.

There is also a great deal we do that our minds don’t really notice—turning a steering wheel, tapping the brakes, picking our noses as we adjust the rearview mirror. Even our own minds edit out the extraneous material of a day’s activity. Fiction is made up of all sorts of other bits of language and image, knowingly borrowed some of the time, but most of the time unconsciously stolen.

Infinite Distances

"Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky."

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters


I am a dancer. I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.

To practice means to perform, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

I think the reason dance has held such an ageless magic for the world is that it has been the symbol of the performance of living. Even as I write, time has begun to make today yesterday--the past. The most brilliant scientific discoveries will in time change and perhaps grow obsolete, as new scientific manifestations emerge. But art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man.
- Martha Graham, I am a Dancer

Sunday, April 08, 2007


We saw this animated short at Studio 35 over the weekend as part of The Animation Show. The Fun With Dick and Jane-inspired illustrations and vocabulary-enhancing labeled nouns create a nostalgic tone that quickly becomes ironic when greed and violence begin to blossom.

(PS We hung around for The Dead Girl written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, a dark, satisfying character-driven study of five women connected by a murder, all of them in search of emotional resuscitation. Great cast, careful direction, difficult with a humanizing payoff.)

Synopsis: A selection of 1950s educational stickers, found in a provincial junkshop twenty years ago, provide the ingredients for this adult fairytale. When a boy and girl find an idol in the stomach of a rabbit, its magical abilities lead to riches, but for how long? A modern mystery film of lost innocence, greed and nature.

"I love the look of the stickers and was excited by the prospect of creating a story from the finite selection of images. Biggest challenge was creating the movement of the protagonists from such a limited source." - Run Wake (writer, director, producer)

Hate Really Sells

Excerpts from Rise of the Takedown by Alex Williams, New York Times (4/8/07):

“It’s a new generation, and there are a lot of people who say they have more of a feeling of entitlement,” said Michael Addis, director of the new film, Heckler. He added, “They feel like they should be getting the attention.” Indeed, Asher Patrick, a temp worker whose hectoring of the comedian Jamie Kennedy at a Nashville comedy club last year earned him a brief appearance in the movie, said in a telephone interview last week that he saw his role as “more of a critic” than a hooligan.

But what is driving all this vitriol? One factor, at least where the Internet is concerned, said Mr. Addis, is that “sex sells, but hate really sells,” and helps bloggers draw traffic. Mr. Kennedy believes that Internet meanness, which flourishes on media gadfly blogs and pop culture Web sites like and, and independent movie review sites like and, has bled over into public discourse, a point echoed by P. M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who founded the school’s long-running Civility Initiative.

The psychological term, Dr. Forni said, is the “disinhibition effect,” where people express themselves more openly or bluntly online than they would in person. The old filters — namely, good manners — atrophy offline, and the result is a cultural narcissism: people think that only their feelings and opinions matter.

The comedian Kathy Griffin said in a later interview that heckling has thrived as “the lines have become blurred” between legitimate performers and mass-produced pseudo-celebrities, like those manufactured by reality television and YouTube home videos. If everyone’s a star, no one is — so forget the traditional deference that fans once accorded the famous.

“Let’s face it, it’s their moment in the sun,” she said of taunters. “The guys who heckled Michael Richards did 20 interviews.”

Saturday, April 07, 2007



by Jorge Drexler

Spanish lyrics translated into English

Child of Russian immigrants who got married in Argentina to a Jewish painter, married for the second time to an African princess in Mexico.
Hindu music contrabanded by Polish gypsies is a hit in the interior of Bolivia.

African zebras and Australian kangaroos in the London Zoo.
Egyptian mummies and Incan artifacts in a New York museum.
Japanese lanterns and American chewing gum in the Korean bazaars of São Paulo.
Images of a volcano in the Philippines are shown on a television network in Mozambique.

Naturalized Armenians in Chile look for relatives in Ethiopia.
Canadian pre-fabricated houses made with Colombian wood.
Japanese multinationals establish businesses in Hong Kong and manufacture with raw materials from Brazil to compete in the American market.

Greek literature adapted for Chinese children in the European community.
Swiss watches counterfeited in Paraguay sold by peddlers in a Mexican neighborhood of Los Angeles.

A French tourist photographed semi-nude with an Arab boyfriend in the Baixada Fluminese.
Italian films dubbed in English with Spanish subtitles in Turkish movie theatres.

American batteries feed English household appliances in New Guinea.
Arab gasoline feeds American cars in South Africa.

Italian pizza feeds Italians in Italy.
Iraqi children fleeing the war can’t get a visa at the American consulate in Egypt to get into Disneyland.

March 20, 2007 NPR interview.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of triumph.

by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven. Posted today on The Writer's Almanac.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

New Shoes

Also check out a live set at Borders Live at 01 in Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Most Optimistic Version of the Truth

"I talked to somebody about their resume, and they explained to me that they had barely any experience at all doing a particular kind of software programming, but they implied on their resume that they did have experience. And I asked if that was deceptive, and the guy said, 'No, it's just telling the most optimistic version of the truth.'"

- David Shulman, associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Lafayette College discussing his new book From Hire to Liar on NPR

Read an excerpt here and submit your workplace quandry to NPR here.