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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A good rain

Tuesday, that hang-over of Monday weekdays, whipped in early this morning with a very definite presence of its own, all mighty winds and driven rain. There was water standing over the roadway in places where I have never seen it standing before, and the force of the rain hitting the canvas roof over my little car was palpable, even when standing still before an uncooperative traffic light. I suspect that walking to and from main campus later this morning, even with my rain jacket and silly looking wide-brimmed hat, I will get very wet.

And yet, if I can be allowed the liberty of starting a sentence with a conjunction (a bridge between related thoughts), I do love a good rain. Rain that comes down like this speaks of external forces larger than us, drives a primal disquiet (literally) before it that washes over me as surely as the literal rain drops, and pushes me toward small dry spaces. This kind of work/excursion-ending rain storm calls us to a chair, a small circle of light in a dry protected space, and our thoughts, or a good book, or... .  Or a desk in an office, with a small task lamp and the glow of an iPad's screen.

Great poets like Mother Goose have been inspired by a good rain:

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man’s snoring.
He got into bed 
And bumped his head 
And couldn’t get up in the morning.


Or, there is always the ever-romantic Shelley:

The fitful alternations of the rain,
When the chill wind, languid as with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here and there
Drives through the gray and beamless atmosphere.

Songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in one of his songs, uses a richly visual description of cloud cover that frequently comes to mind: "The clouds were squatting so close over us tonight you'd think they were trying to hatch us."


One poem about rain that really captures the nuanced layers of a good wetting storm, even though it comes from a summer, rather than fall-into-winter context, is Darkling Summer, Ominous Dusk, Rumorous Rain by Delmore Schwartz.  It begins:
A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.


In the second stanza Schwartz turns the phrase, "Hardly an atom of silence amid the roar."  That was what it sounded like on today's drive in, with the rain slapping the canvas soft top like shot pellets, the non-stop slush of water forceably cleaved by tires, the wipers snicking back and forth, and the rattling grunt of a diesel truck's engine somewhere behind my rooster tail of sprayed water.


Music from a severely spare, grey, wet landscape seemed appropriate, so Sigur Rós, cranked up loud enough to be heard above the rain-induced roar of commuting noises, kept me company for the drive in. Specifically, tracks from their wonderful new live concert release, Inni


Good stuff.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We need to be challenged

Thursday, cold and damp. Maybe a light dusting of non-sticking snow over the low lands tonight, if the forecasters are correct. I suppose that also means an early wake up tomorrow morning, just in case conditions are worse than predicted and college open/delay/closure decisions need to be made.

Thursday's are good days for poetry. Poetry can serve as that little extra spark of creative energy necessary to push through the last of a very dense (in both schedule and intensity) week. So I reach for my copy of the Poetry Foundation, pulling it down off the bookmark shelf of my Web browser, to see what I can find.

What will it be? A seasonal poem, something topical, or just a serendipitous discovery not tethered to any taxonomic association I would pre-generate? The latter, as it turns out. An essay, not a poem, on race in America, today's featured offering on the Poetry Foundation Web site.

Writing Like a White Guy, by Jaswinder Bolina is a calmly powerful article on the challenges we face even acknowledging and talking about race, about what makes this challenge different in America in particular, and the many subtle ways being Other affects every aspect of daily life. Bolina eloquently address the fallacy of being "color blind" as well as the ways earnest intelligent people showcase their own biases in their conversations. If you read only one essay, article, paper, or book this year on the subject of race in America, I encourage you to make it this one. Let me tempt you with a short excerpt:

If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field, he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this “assimilation.” Though the Latin root here—shared with the other word “similar”—implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn’t a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so.

Our cultural myth versus the realities of living in our cultural "melting pot." This stuff isn't easy, no matter how much everyone wishes it could be. Bruce Cockburn, in his song Maybe The Poet, observes:

Maybe the poet is gay
But he'll be heard anyway

Maybe the poet is drugged
But he won't stay under the rug

Maybe the voice of the spirit
In which case you'd better hear it

Maybe he's a woman
Who can touch you where you're human

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see

Don't let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it

We do need the honest author, the challenging poet, the writers and speakers who can take us outside of our carefully crafted and earnestly guarded Usual, Normal, Comfortable, Self.

So here I am on a cold bleak Thursday morning, still working through a densely packed work week, seeking a little creative stimulation in the form of poetry and, instead, finding it in an essay. We live in a rich, if complicated, world these days. I hope you are taking full advantage of the wonderful resources at your finger tips.

As I finish up this post this morning Marco Benevento is playing (Chalaza) on the iPod. Almost everything on this album challenges me as a listener. The musicians seem to run all over the place, maybe in the spirit of Ornette Coleman in the late fifties, early sixties. It certainly isn't a tune, and it isn't in any way melodic or fathomably structured. It could be warm up exercises for a virtuoso xylophonist. And yet... it remains compelling. This music lives within a tension between what I appreciate musically and what I enjoy listening to.

Today's playlist pulled two tracks from my past, as disconnected from each other as two tracks could possibly be. The latter track was only half finished by the time I pulled into a parking spot on campus. In its original (vinyl) format, this track was the entirety of the second side of an LP (long play, for those who only know albums as historical objects) record.

- Heart: Crazy On You
- Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells, Side 2

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It would be easy to laugh, but don't...

Thursday is sitting in for Friday again this week, playing all the tunes from the repertoire of the Popular Dude. A four day week comes to a close and a three day weekend awaits.

Veteran's Day holiday is tomorrow, when much of the nation will pretend it gives a rip about our veterans while simultaneously begrudging them the support and medical care so many of our returning soldiers need. Stars and stripes will wave across a hundred retail sales flyers as Americans show their patriotic appreciation at the mall (lower case, as in shopping not National). Someday, I hope, we will honor our veterans, those who return and those who don't, with the things they need rather than one-day-of-the-year gratuitous flag waving.

Speaking of gratuitous flag waving, this week saw yet another episode of that most-painful reality/comedy show, the Republican Presidential Debates. Gail Collins has an insightful and witty piece in the NYT titled, Wait! Don't Tell Me, which pretty well sums up the current state of choice for Republican voters. It would be so easy to laugh at this comedic collection of candidates, to dismiss them all as non-starters, but don't. Because unless something really unexpected happens in the very near future, one of these folks will be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, and could very easily be our next President.

I remember a bus ride downtown one evening. A colleague and I were heading to an evening Russian language class down in Pioneer Square, Seattle, and he was worried about a particular Republican presidential candidate who clearly wasn't the brightest light on the stage but who seemed to be gaining in popularity. At the time, I dismissed those concerns. "Look, when it really comes time to vote, nobody is really going to elect someone who can't string an intelligent sentence together to be the leader of our nation." Needless to say, his concerns were well placed, I was dead wrong.

I hadn't yet come to terms with the politics of hatred. Unleashed and fanned by political operatives like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and a few other Neocons, this was a brand of politics that stops at nothing to fan the flames of hatred and unrest. The goal isn't to build a party of supporters, but to create an un-party of anti-supporters. It plays on American voter apathy by recognizing that it doesn't take a majority of the electorate to throw an election. If you can stir enough folks up with lies and misinformation, get them good and unreasonably angry at the opposing candidate(s), they will turn out in force to vote for nearly anything that is against. Unless voter turnout is very high, this wave of hatred voting is often enough to swing elections.

The appalling beauty of this strategy is that it is so easy to pull off. It doesn't take critical thinking skills to understand simple one-phrase, emotional appeals. In fact, the more emotional the phrase the less important critical examination becomes to most. That candidate will tear apart your families with their pro-gay agenda, and that candidate wants to kill babies, and that one over there wants your every-last-penny to fund huge Socialist welfare programs for lazy un-working bums. Combined with the kind of effortless reach today's media and social media tools provide, you have a formula that would make Joseph Goebbels weep with envy.

Today's fanned hatred is mostly directed at our current President, and let's be totally honest here: it is racial at its core. We may like to think we have made significant progress in dealing with racism in this country in recent years, but the visceral power of hate-driven politics quickly strips that charade clear and exposes the raw broken skin underneath the costume. Listen to voters who have been fanned into voting against Obama and you will hear intense hatred, all too readily channeled because it was all too already-there. The depth of passion these voices emit is far in excess of any of the issues being debated. Obama is a black man, he is smart, articulate, wealthy, and attractive, and he holds the highest office in our country. For many, that is more than they can accept. They are seething for a reason to get him out of office, and any false-truth will do.

How do we know this? Because Obama's policies, the few he has been able to drive through an intentionally and strategically obstructionist Congress, have made some small positive difference (the scale of the economic disaster he inherited being so large to begin with) in lives of most of the same folks who hate him so passionately. There is a total disconnect between the contrived issues cited as reasons for wanting Obama out of office and the depth of hatred with which those flimsy excuses are spat out.

Let us also recognize that this hatred-driven politics is like unleashed fiendfyre, from the last of the Harry Potter stories (don't pull that face, you know you read it, too!). Terrifying, all-consuming, indiscriminate, and uncontrollable, it destroys everything it can reach. From the Potter story, "...the flames chased them as though they were alive, sentient, intent upon killing them. Now the fire was mutating, forming a gigantic pack of fiery beasts: Flaming serpents, chimaeras, and dragons rose and fell and rose again, and the detritus of centuries on which they were feeding was thrown up in the air into their fanged mouths, tossed high on clawed feet, before being consumed by the inferno." Ask them in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Ireland, Palestine, Israel, and much of Africa what the politics of hatred begets, and you may hear a response that sounds a lot like the above quote.

Ok, we haven't gotten to that point, yet, but we are playing with fire and we delude ourselves if we think we are in any way controlling it. Hatred is the low-hanging fruit of emotion. It is easy enough to use hated, channeled through carefully crafted propaganda, to drive enough voters to the polls to vote for anything-that-isn't-that-guy. The cherry on top of this toxic sunday is that this kind of divisive rhetoric disenfranchises larger blocks of other voters, who will then stay away from the polls and politics. That combination of hatred and apathy could easily result in one of the clowns currently participating in the Republican debates becoming our next President.

It would be easy to laugh at these so-called candidates on stage, forgetting their lines, misquoting history, and making statements that would get them laughed out of a high school classroom. One might even be willing to laugh off (with nagging discomfort) the fact that the largely self-selecting audience for these shows applauds when it should cringe and boos when it should applaud. We would do so, however, at our peril. One of these folks could very easily be our next president, and just look around at the sheer scale of the consequences from the last time that happened.

On a delightfully different note, today's short commute soundtrack was very diverse and rich:

- Ludovico Einaudi: Divenire
- David Ford: Train
- Gary McFarland & G : Mizrab
- Sam Baker: Slots
- Ron Carter: Es Woll Uns Gott Genadig Sein

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday was late this morning

Monday arrived an hour late this morning, still making adjustments for the falling back of clocks. Oh, I woke at the usual (by the movement of the planet around the sun) hour, but since my various household clocks no longer reflect the same names for the hours of the day we had agreed upon for the last many months, my body got to rest-in (it can't be called sleeping-in if you're not really sleeping, can it?) for another hour. Frankly, it's nice to have the hours correctly labeled again. DST is a farce my body never really believes in, though it does adapt.

So this Monday follows the second scheduled national jet-lag date of the year, but looks all the kinder for letting me rest-in. This weekend saw some beautiful sunshine, some sad football (from the home teams' perspective), a belated birthday dinner, and a car show.

Of my own accord, I am decidedly not a crowds person. But when the opportunity popped up to take my oldest grandson to the Seattle Car Show along with my son and his partner, it was too good to pass up. Kelvin and I drove down to Tristan and Josh's place, and they drove us all to Pacific Place where we hopped the lite rail down to the ball stadiums. The short train ride was a first for the grandson, and having a ticket to take home as proof of his journey was a highlight of the day, I think. It was great of Tristan and Josh to allow us to tag along for the day, and a lot of fun. Many photos Face-booked/Google-plussed over the course of the day. The weather was so good that I was able to drop the top for the grandson on the return drive, at his request.

Speaking of drop-tops, I saw a few other two-seat convertibles at the car show, to compare against my own humble Miata. A couple of them cost more than a fleet of Miatas would cost. Of course, they also had insanely large engines and more leather detailing than mother nature usually spends on a heard of buffalo, so it was totally apples to dragon-fruit to even compare them.

This morning's commute, back in my own modest ride, was given over to Pink Martini's new release, 1969. The album is recorded with the legendary Japanese recording artist Saori Yuki on vocals, and pretty much all the lyrics are in Japanese (including a fun rendition of Puff The Magic Dragon). The album is amazingly beautiful, and is quickly becoming my favorite Pink Martini album, which is saying a lot.

The full playlist:
- Is That All There Is?
- Yoake No Scat (Melody for a New Dawn)
- Wasuretainoni ( I Want to Forget You, But...)
- LI Janaino Shiawase (It's Okay If I'm Happy)
- Kisetsu No Ashioto (Footstps of the Seasons)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Return from the armchair

Well, that was fun! After feeling somewhat off-camber-wobbly most of last week, whatever it was that was chasing me caught up with me this weekend. So I spent it flat on my sit-upon-icus doing little more strenuous than flicking the pages of a digital book or two or three. Same for yesterday, until I started to emerge from the fog of the virus late in the afternoon. I'm supposed to be at a regional transportation planning breakfast thingy this morning, but frankly feel pretty happy just to have made it into the office instead. I'm pretty certain that by this time I'm on the down-side of contagious, but I can use today's schedule to largely self-isolate myself while catching up.

Today is Tuesday, according to my smart phone, following a weekend I didn't really have, and Tuesday is going to pretend it is Monday. Tomorrow will be Wednesday, if the usual patterns hold true, and this week is going to feel like it is moving too quickly to keep pace with. However, a briskly paced week is much better than the ennui of sitting around all day for days on end!

Yesterday was also Halloween. Melissa had papers to grade and I wanted to watch football, so we fell back on a treat-distribution solution we used the first year we moved into this house (when we unexpectedly had to go out for the whole of Halloween evening but didn't want the new neighborhood to think we were Grinches): Lit a large (life size) wax pumpkin candle at the foot of the front stairs, stuck an enormous Tupperware bowl full of the usual bite-sized candy bars at the top of the stairs, with a large sign that read, "Happy Halloween, please help yourself!" As near as we could tell we had two, maybe three, visitors (all polite, very little candy was taken) all evening (unless the dog-bells weren't paying sufficient attention to monitoring the defensive perimeters). That's pretty much been the body count most Halloweens here, despite this being a stereotypical suburban culdesac-intense neighborhood, with lots of kids of various ages.

One silver lining of being chair-bound for several days is the forced opportunity to catch up on reading. I had three books in play. One was work-related (Switch, and excellent book on change management), one was for a year-long workshop I am taking through Leadership Snohomish County (Positive Leadership, Adam Seaman), and like much of the Western World, I'm reading the biography of Stephen P. Jobs. While all three are interesting, the latter was the most absorbing. The story and characters are compelling, though I can't say I am finding the writing all that great. Good enough to keep the story flowing, but in better hands (or maybe with more time?) I think it could be even more readable. The research is good, though, and the author uses it to weave a multifaceted portrait of what was clearly a very complicated personality.

Today's playlist was similarly complicated and contradictory, and ended with Mark Isham's very electric tribute to the electrified works of Miles Davis' latter years: Internet. It would make a good soundtrack to the Jobs biography, come to think of it.

On the subject of music, Pink Martini has just popped up on the iPod (Ninna nanna), which has reminded me that Pink Martini has two new albums scheduled for release in the US today. Why two new albums released at the same time, I have no idea. Still, what a treat!

The full playlist:
- Fountains Of Wayne: Amity Gardens
- Leonard Cohen: Democracy (Live)
- Lewis & Clark Soundtrack: Heart of the Heartland (The Death of Meriwether Lewis)
- Moby: Shot In the Back of the Head
- Mark Isham: Internet

- Posted via Hermes.