The Door Opens Outward

Consider the LobsterI just read a short essay by David Foster Wallace, “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed.” It really made me think how much we are prisoners of our brain chemistry. Because Wallace gets it. He really understands what life is all about. And yet he chose to end his own life to avoid the psychic pain that leads many brilliant and insightful people to do so.

I don’t talk about this a lot, because I think it just disturbs people. Life is a form of anti-art. It is like we are all composers working on a piece of music that no one will ever hear. Eventually, no one will even know that it existed. It won’t even be like those Shakespeare plays that we only have titles for. Our lives come to nothing and I absolutely do not mean that metaphorically. The process is the art. And that is glorious!

Wallace understands this completely. He wrote in the essay:

And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward—we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.[1]

I understand: it is dark. It is hard. People don’t like to think this kind of thing. But to me, this is freeing. On my best days I feel like a painter whose brush cannot err. And the memory of those days carry me through the days where it seems all I do is brush more grey on top of the grey from the day before. And for me, that is enough. Sadly, it was not enough for a mind as great as David Foster Wallace. And now all that is left of his art are shadows in the form of his writings and others’ memories. That would have happened eventually, of course. But songs that end abruptly as so frustrating.

Das ist nicht komisch.


[1] “This is funny.”

Marshall v. Board of Education

Thurgood MarshallOn this day in 1714, the great German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was born. I have a great fondness for him because his Flute Concerto in G was one of the first real pieces of music I ever learned. He composed during one of my very favorite periods: the transition from Baroque to Classical. He’s also very interesting for a curious historical fact. Gluck’s protege was Antonio Salieri. And despite the fact that Mozart disparaged him in one letter to his father as one of the Italians who were holding him back, Salieri was about the least Italian composer of that period. He may have been Italian in birth, but spiritually he was all German. I tend to think he was just that way and that is why he and Gluck hit it off so well. Gluck, like Salieri, was primarily an opera composer. It was the great age of opera. Mozart certainly thought of himself as mostly an opera composer. Yet Beethoven, born only a few years later composed all of one opera. Opera didn’t do well in the early days of the Romantic period. (Actually, I would say that music didn’t do that well in most of the days of the Romantic period, but I don’t want to start a fight.) Here is a fragment from Gluck’s opera Alceste:

And speaking of Germans, the great writer Hermann Hesse was born in 1877. Rene Lacoste, the tennis player who invented those stupid alligator shirts, was born in 1904. He was apparently know as “the alligator” because of his aggressive style of play. Also because he couldn’t move his jaw from side to side. (That’s an alligator joke; look it up!) Bizarre and brilliant science fiction writer Cyril M. Kornbluth was born in 1923.

Civil rights icon, Medgar Evers was born in 1925. It is strange, but no injustice in the world has quite the grip on me as his murder. I find it almost impossible to talk about him and even writing about him makes me upset. I think that an excellent movie could be made based upon his investigation of the torture murder of Emmett Till. I’m surprised that no one has done that. Anyway, if you don’t know about Medgar Evers, you should at least watch this Democracy Now! segment about him on the 50th anniversary of his murder:

And Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas was born in 1932.

Polly ‘Kiss My Grits’ Holliday is 76. Stock car racer and sexist asshole Richard Petty is also 76. Comedian Larry David is 66. One of my favorite character actors, Saul Rubinek is 65. So he won’t be acting anymore. And truly amazing pianist Roy Bittan is 64.

The day, however, belongs to the great Thurgood Marshall, who was born in 1908. He is probably best remembered for being the first African American on the Supreme Court. And in recognition of his service, when he retired, Bush first tried to replace him with Robert Bork. When that didn’t work, we got stuck with Clarence Thomas. If Marshall had just hung on like all the conservative justices and served until he died, Clinton would have been able to replace him. Imagine what a huge difference that would make today. For example, the Voting Rights Act wouldn’t be effectively abolished. Regardless of this, I most remember Marshall for successfully arguing Brown v. Board of Education. He was a great man who would cry to see the way that people like Samuel Alito dump all over his legacy.

Here is a great interview of Mike Wallace with Thurgood Marshall after Brown v. Board of Education:

Happy birthday Thurgood Marshall!

Afterword

Can you imagine how Mike Wallace’s son Chris would have handled that interview? I don’t think too ill of Chris Wallace, but I feel certain that in the context of the time, his interview would have been something that today we would see as explicitly racist.

The Fuck You Party

Eric CantorSteve Benen revisits an issue that he and I have both discussed a lot. Back in March, I wrote about Rob Portman. He is the anti-gay rights Republican who suddenly became pro-gay rights when he learned that his son was gay. The point is not that there’s anything wrong with this. It is natural. But most of us don’t have to experience something personally to empathize. To take it to extremes, I don’t have difficulty feeling sorry for pedophiles; it must be awful to be sexually attracted to children—especially in a society that sexualizes children. (This does not mean that sexual predation shouldn’t be criminalized.) Why is it that so many Republicans seem unable to understand the difficulties of anyone not exactly like themselves or their families?

The most recent example of this comes from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor is (theoretically) in favor of more money for medical research. Very insightful conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru asked Cantor, “What do you tell your Republican colleagues who are inclined to say, ‘Look, we spent too much money as it is?'” And Cantor replied: because his dad’s sick. That’s it. Before his father got a rare disease, Cantor had no reason to think that maybe the whole country should work together to find cures. But now it’s personal.

I think that conservatives believe that making these claims humanizes them. And it may well be the case that people perceive it that way. But to me this just screams, “I’m a selfish asshole! I only give a shit about anything if it directly affects me!” This is what I think when I look at the Cheneys. As you probably know, they are extremely conservative—except when it comes to gay rights. And they are only liberal on that one issue because their daughter is gay. As I wrote before, “How can these kinds of conservatives look at their entire ideology with this one exception carved out and still maintain their faith (because it is nothing if not pure faith) in the rest of their belief system?”

What explains it is that conservatism as a philosophical system is nothing but a polite rendering of “childish selfishness.” If you are a conservative, you don’t think that taxes should be low because that’s fair. You think that your taxes should be low because otherwise it harms you. You don’t want to pay for artificial limbs unless you need one. You don’t want environmental regulations on what you do, but you will freak out if someone else’s pollution affects you.

Now look: I understand that the “serious” conservative thinkers aren’t like that. But this is how the national Republican Party behaves. Sometime back, I entered a bumper sticker design contest run by the local Republican Party. I offered up this:

Republican Bumper Sticker - Designed by A. L. English

But that isn’t quite right. It is more accurate to say that Republicans are the “Fuck You Party.” Their guiding philosophy is, “I’ve got mine; fuck you; and the only way you will change my mind is if somehow I lose mine.”

So Eric Cantor is for more medical research because daddy’s ill. I’m sure he’ll find the money by taking it from something he doesn’t care about—like nutritional aid. I’m sure he doesn’t know anyone on SNAP. So fuck them.

Meaning of Blondie’s “Rapture”

Blondie - RaptureYesterday was Debbie Harry’s birthday and I was shocked to see that I had not written about the meaning of the song “Rapture.” Or at least I hadn’t written about it here. I did write a discussion of the song over at Song Meanings. So let me expand on that a bit. To me, the song is very clear. This is distinct from just about everyone I’ve heard discuss the song. There are two primary theories. The first is that the song means nothing because Harry and Stein threw it together on a limo ride to a gig. As it seems I am forever reminding people: meaning is a construct of the listener, not the speaker. I may mean to communicate some idea to you in a story, but you are the final arbiter of what it meant. Or put another way: a comedian may think a bit is really funny, but if no one laughs, it isn’t funny.

The second theory is the fallback for all rock songs: it’s about drugs! But when writing about drugs, most songwriters are pretty explicit about it. For example, “I’m Waiting for my Man” is about drugs; “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (LSD, get it?) is not. Anyone who has ever done LSD knows the song seems very much like what someone who has never done LSD thinks it is like. Even “Lookin’ out My Back Door”, which seems like a guy coming home, dropping acid, and tripping on his back porch, is probably not about drugs, but rather about a man home from work who finally gets a chance to play with his creativity. I honestly don’t know why people would say that “Rapture” is about drugs. Do people on drugs hallucinate about aliens devouring cars?

Before I get to the song itself, I want to dispel the idea that “Rapture” was any kind of cutting edge song. Blondie did not invent rap, or for that matter, “white rap,” whatever that might be. Certainly the group was aware of Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) if not “The Last Poets” and similar groups. But more to the point, “Rapture” was just a punk attempt to do what white musicians have been doing for hundreds of years: co-opt the cool stuff that black musicians were doing. In this particular case, it is hard to believe that “Rapture” would have ever existed if The Sugarhill Gang hadn’t been so successful with “Rapper’s Delight.” And none of that takes anything away from the brilliance of “Rapture.”

Before I started talking to people about it, I thought it was obvious to everyone what “Rapture” was about. It is about environmental destruction and over-blown consumerism. Not that I’m saying it is that simple, but in one sentence, that’s what you get. There is clearly a lot about sex, but this too is related to the commoditization of the act. Look at how they deconstruct the human interactions in the song. When dancing close, the body is breathing “almost comatose.” They aren’t grinding pelvises, they are “back to back” using the sacroiliac join—indicating that they are trying to interact as little as possible with each other. When they do face each other, they don’t look at one another. Without human connection, what is left: the things we buy.

The man from Mars, is, of course, us. He eats up cars until there are none. Then he eats bars until there are none. Then he eats guitars, but before he can get through them, the song ends with the best guitar solo on any Blondie song. The whole issue of “The Rapture” is present throughout the song. At the end, Harry’s disclosure that the man from Mars has gone back up to space is cold comfort. She seems to say, “The Rapture is a myth, no one is really going to come down and destroy you, but your things are going to be taken away from you — by you and the way you live — and you will be left with, what? Each other.” Thus, the song provides a tidy message: don’t relate with your things, relate with each other. The song is more relevant today than ever.

“Get up!”

Chris Kluwe Better Punter Than Writer

Chris KluweChris Kluwe is a punter for the Oakland Raiders. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by punters because their kicking legs went up so high. You’ve got to be flexible to do that kind of thing. And in a game as unrelentingly boring as football, the punters and kickers are kind of cool. But I had never heard of Kluwe until yesterday when I read an article he had written for Salon, Here’s What’s Wrong With Ayn Rand, Libertarians.

He read Atlas Shrugged and determined what was wrong with John Galt: he lacks what Kluwe calls “rational empathy.” What he means by this is basically the Golden Rule. And that is not a form of empathy. One doesn’t have to agree with another or think that one might find himself in the same situation to empathize with that person. Kluwe accepts Ayn Rand’s philosophical framing: I’ll help you because it helps me and for no other reason. He just wants to soften the rough edges of her philosophy. The problem is that he’s attacking a caricature of that philosophy. Objectivism is really no more cruel than the philosophy that Kluwe has on offer.

There is so much to criticize about Ayn Rand. Corey Robin has long been very insightful about her melodramatic approach to life, as in Garbage and Gravitas. Or if you prefer something less intellectual, there’s Kevin Drum’s question about the timing of Atlas Shrugged. Or there is my own discussion of Ayn Rand as the racist she was, Ayn Rand and Indians. But Kluwe just bites around the edges of Rand as if he pretty much agrees with her. He even repeats a tired conservative canard about the “welfare collectors who churn out babies because it means another weekly check to buy shoes or purses.” Why doesn’t he come right out and say what he means: the welfare queen in a Cadillac.

None of this really mattered as I read the article. Kluwe is not a public intellectual and he was at least grappling with ideas that very few people do. Then I got to the end of article where it said, “Excerpted from the book Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe.” This is a big complaint of mine. Kluwe made $1.6 million just from playing football last year. Does he really need to publish a book in an already crowded industry? This is what I wrote about Stephen Colbert:

Ever notice that any given movie star manages to direct (And often write!) a passable movie? It’s because they get loads of help and all the department heads they surround themselves with are professionals. Note how no actor goes on to be a focus puller in a movie. They are “directors” with a nod and a wink. I would say the same thing about most celebrity writers. Recently, I spent about 90 seconds reading Stephen Colbert’s entire I Am a Pole (And So Can You!). That’s 32 pages for $15.99. Can you guess how it ends? I did! The only intelligent thing I ever heard Russell Crowe say was that if they ever used his music in a movie of his we should shoot him. Any star who is an aspiring writer (or whatever) should send their work out anonymously to figure out if they really have talent. In general, I’m sure the answer will be a resounding, “No!”

But in Colbert’s case, he can actually write. Kluwe’s writing, despite all the editorial help he undoubtedly received, is weak. It’s awkward. He repeats himself in an almost random way that reeks of a first draft. Yet the book is a best seller—not because it is a good book but because Kluwe is a star in the NFL. This is yet another reason we have The Winner-Take-All Society: because success in one field guarantees it in all others. We can only hope that Kluwe doesn’t get it into his head to start a band and direct movies. But if he does, I assure you they will be hugely popular.

Afterword

Am I jealous of Kluwe? Of course! It is entirely unfair that such a literary and intellectual mediocrity gets to write for Salon. There is no way this SubGenius would be published there or anywhere else except that he apparently can punt a football with great skill. It is an offense to all serious writers—good and poor.

Anxiety

anxietySince it’s summer time I’m able to spend more time with my son and seeing that two of his largest battles are anxiety and perfectionism.  He’s constantly has his guard up, worrying about anything and everything, always questioning, trying to predict an outcome (what if?) of every daily event. If things do not have his envisioned outcome he gets very oppositional. He always needs to know details about everything, i.e. what we are getting at the store, what is he doing next, why are we going to the bank, etc…He also worries that he’s not good at school, he does not have enough of play dates, he’s not good enough in sports or other activities. To be honest with you, he did great in school this year, he’s an exceptional athlete and has lots of friends but not according to him.

This summer he’s spent two weeks at basketball camp but every day complained of a stomach and headache before going and always asked to be late so he did not have to do the warm-up drills. Basketball camp is now over and after a short conversation about “it’s not good to arrive late”, I now know that he did not want to do the warm-up drills in fear of not performing up to his standards (better than others). His recent stomach and headache complaints bring back memories from the school year and how many times he complained, now I know he was scared of failure in school too. And then his anxiety over not being perfect in soccer, basketball and baseball this last year and seeing himself as a failure if he did not pitch a strike, make a goal and/or basket. Wow, it’s absolutely heart breaking and I can’t even imaging how hard he works every day just going through life!

He already has anxiety over the next school year, saying it’s will be too hard. I keep on talking to him about keeping up with his math and reading skills during summer so he will not loose his current skills, but he refuses to read or do any math with me. He sees an educational therapist (same one he’s been seeing for two years now) every week to keep practicing math and reading but last week he shut down and would not do anything with her. I guess I’m kind of at a loss.

Nothing is a guaranteed cure for my son’s perfectionism and anxiety I hope creating more stress free environment at home (a challenge), find a more suitable school (working on), medication & therapy (already doing), and teching him to relax are just a few things we will continue to work on!