Sunday, August 13, 2017

Prosody

Or, "How to Actually Do Anything, Part Two."
--

So in our last post we saw how "mid-way upon my life's journey" -- or quarter-way, I suppose -- I found myself completely lacking in anything remotely resembling a technical skill, or any useful art. Until, that is, I realized that I was capable of acquiring some elementary Spanish through evening study. This, as I said earlier, seemed to open up boundless new fields of possibility, but it also filled me with a secret guilt. If it was, after all, so easy, why had I not done this before with countless other fields of human endeavor? What excuse did I have for having spent so much time in perfecting the art of the useless -- that thing I earlier defined: expert generalism, or literary knowledge -- the medium of the "public intellectual" -- which seems always to take over wherever other arts and sciences -- even philosophy -- abandon their last and most remote claims to practicality?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Actually Do Anything: Part One

It's a funny thing, but every eight years or so, thus far in my improbably letter-perfect Eriksonian life journey, I have fallen victim to a mania for self-reinvention. And the weirdest part of all is that these episodes, when they come about, are usually not sparked by failure, but by success. My 8th grade belief that I was suddenly, against all the odds, going to become "cool"... my sudden conviction in my third year of college -- really just a very slightly matured version of the first -- that I was going to become after all a "normal adult" (I didn't realize yet that that's not a thing), with a high-salary job and a house and family in the burbs ("I... choose... a mortal life," I would generally repeat to myself in the ethereal voice of Liv Tyler's Arwen when I was spinning out this fantasy -- signifying in the very act, I suppose, its inherent implausibility). Each of these, I say, was preceded by an epoch of relative achievement.

I notice something else too: that these periodic attempts on my part to kick the goad of innate dorkiness have grown progressively more feeble; and that this last, most recent attempt --the one I wish to describe in this series of posts -- has proven perhaps the most short-lived and outwardly indiscernible of all. But the point I want to make here is, again, that these efforts to shed my boring old familiar self, like a snake sloughing off skin, are never made because I have despaired of achieving that self, or of reaching the perfected state of whatever it is, but because of its very fulfillment and consummation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

K Dramas

When my sister first developed her obsession with K-pop (ahem, Korean popular music, for the uninitiated), she attempted various lines of attack to get me to share in the same fixation. And she wasn't off-base to try. The numerous and heavy-looking defenses of seriousness that I place around myself, when left to my own devices, have all fallen before to the most implausible pop cultural adversaries -- even when I knew at the moment of transgression that it would take me years afterward to purge myself of the dishonor; even when I knew I would have to submit to a stern regimen of Edwardian fiction and entries from the Criterion Collection to wash out the crime; even when it was Desperate Housewives. (As V.S. Pritchett describes his childhood love of the "Greyfriars" school stories (so memorably and sociologically dissected by Orwell), "I knew this reading was sin and I counteracted it by reading a short life of the poet Wordsworth.") But this time, my sister's incursions did not seem to avail, at least for a long while. It's not that the k-pop music videos she showed me bothered or offended me in any way. I was fine to have them exist out there for others to enjoy. I just didn't see that they needed to have anything to do with me.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Goy Troubles

I have a friend who doesn't like Amy Tan at all. Not even one bit. Which doesn't particularly affect my life-- I've never read a word of Amy Tan and don't particularly have an opinion one way or the other. But nevertheless, when he told me this, I felt the inward tremor of guilt and self-doubt. Because my friend is Chinese-American, and when he told me exactly why he doesn't like Amy Tan, I realized that -- as indifferent as I may be to her novels -- there is a vast corpus of material that I do like -- nay, adore -- that could theoretically be held up for the same type of criticism. I refer to the audio archives of This American Life. If this is seeming like a stretch to you so far, well, bear in mind that I have a particularly acute -- well-developed, shall we say -- ability to invent reasons for guilt and self-doubt. Also, keep reading. Maybe this will start to make more sense (though probably not much).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Turist (2014): A Review

I can't stop thinking about Ruben Östlund's Turist (released in some parts of the world as Force Majeure), that long, strained, strange, and glorious 2014 Swedish movie about a marriage on the slow melt during a week-long French ski vacation. Rarely have I just straightforwardly loved a movie as much as I did this, on first viewing. There's nothing I even particularly want to mock in order to start this review off in style, as I usually feel compelled to do even with films I liked (I guess so as to hedge my bets). I can't do it with this one. Pretty much every frame in this thing was well chosen. The movie is painful and devastatingly funny, with the pain perfectly abetting the humor and vice versa.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bigness

The recent-ish news that Amazon is acquiring Whole Foods seems as good a prompt as any for us to pose over again the old, old question -- the same one that Pippin asked on the battlements of the citadel, with face innocently upturned: "Is there any hope, Gandalf?" That is, is there any chance that the little Shires of the world will survive the onslaught of the great Molochs and Mordors of the retail conglomerates? To which the latter replied -- unhelpful as always -- "there never was much hope." We may be able to do little better. None of which is to shed too many tears over the lost innocence of Whole Foods, by the way, which is hardly Bag End, but one is certainly justified in worrying that if even they are being bought out by Amazon, what hope can there be left for Mom and Pop?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hamilton and Dr. Johnson: A July 4 Special

My 11th grade history teacher -- a key mentor figure for me in high school and later -- was, among other things, a prolific aspiring dramatist, and among his many creations was a play of some considerable length about, of all people, Alexander Hamilton. Who? The proposal was clearly far too far ahead of its time to be appreciated by the slack-jawed philistines, like me, of our Florida town. Alexander Hamilton? We said. The guy from the Treasury? None of us could have foreseen that this minor and oft-maligned footnote in our history textbook would come roaring into his own as a pop culture idol, of all things, in 2015-2016, of all times!

To the extent I knew or thought anything at all about Alexander Hamilton before all this, it was to assume, due to some unexamined and indirect hangover of Beard and Parrington, that he was the root of all evil in American life. Beyond that I just thought he was another dull and insipid schoolbook figure. It was only my teacher -- and, apparently, Lin-Manuel Miranda -- who had the good sense to see past all that -- to appreciate that here, at least in the hands of Ron Chernow, was the stuff of real drama -- the amorous blackmail; the intellectual ménage à trois with the two sisters. My teacher may have missed the hip hop ingredient, but otherwise, he saw something coming that we all missed. When I started to hear, two years ago, that there was something sensational happening on Broadway called Hamilton, I had a moment of pause. You mean, Alexander Hamilton? For an instant, I thought that perhaps my mentor's opus had made it all the way to the big leagues.

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Tour Through the Childhood Archives

Spending a week at home after being away for four years of your mid-twenties is a bit like slipping into a tropical fever -- an effect that is magnified if that home happens to be located in coastal Florida. I am here now amidst the mangroves and mosquitoes, and for the first few days back I am still fighting the current; clutching at driftwood and débris left over from what has already become a dimly-recollected adulthood. No wait, I was working on something... a project... I was reading something... something was happening at work... already they are lost to me, these links in a chain of thought. The years slip off me like a Dance of the Seven Veils. I am a teenager again. A decade of experience has vanished. I am that boy whose plans are made without respect to fulfilling them, since the time ahead is limitless. I am the would-be reader who is continually defeated by the size and number of unfinished tomes next to his bed -- where to begin? The possibilities are endless, and therefore actually starting on anything is impossible. I even slept in until 11 o'clock yesterday -- something I have not done in any recent year I can recall. I am praying for work emails as for a lifeline, to remind me that my twenty-seven year-old existence still continues on somewhere, even if it involves a different self.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Quotes: Talking Turkey After Four Years

"Twas just this time, last year, I died," quoth the bird, accusatorially (citing Dickinson -- more on this practice below) -- for indeed, the third anniversary of Six Foot Turkey came the previous June and went, I fear, unremarked by me, such that it feels almost as if it might never have happened. And it seems in some way that its spirit did evacuate this mortal realm on that occasion, and hasn't been with us since. The blog has ceased, especially in recent months, to be the primary creative outlet in my life and has become a kind of mausoleum of poems and repostings that didn't have a logical -- or decorous -- home in the pulpit but that I wanted to stick somewhere, since I'd gone to the trouble to write them.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Cross-Postings

My final column in the church newsletter:

Memories

This past Christmas I embarked on a project that has been on our family’s bucket list for years, and that I don't think any of us ever actually expected to see get done: namely, transcribing all of our old home VHS videos on to DVDs. Although I've heard there are professional places that do this, I was afflicted with a D.I.Y. bug when I contemplated all the unknown mortifying childhood antics I might be handing over for a stranger to record. I figured I’d get the equipment myself – pretty cheap and portable in this day and age, especially if you are fortunate enough (as I was) to drop in at Target and find what must be the world’s last known VCR on sale at the way back of the shelves – and transcribe the tapes on my own.

Five Poems


I.

The moment I knew
In my strange youth
That I was sure to come
To no good
Was the day I was left
In the presence of
An item known
As Bass Clef.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God's Army 2: States of Grace (2005): A Review

From the morass of products of most questionable quality that is LDS cinema, the work of Richard Dutcher juts upward like a monumental rock face. Here at last is sublimity. Here is art. I believe this statement is uncontroversial, even among Mormons, for whom their distinct film industry, such as it is, is not to my knowledge a point of especial pride. In a field that is otherwise made up, near as my fellow investigator and I can tell, of student-produced shorts from BYU in the 1960s and '70s, largely intended for seminary audiences (who in LDS contexts, recall, are mostly teenagers) and with vague P.S.A. overtones (in one of them, a student actually does awake at the end to learn that the terrible warning conveyed by the film about the importance of temple marriage was "all a dream" -- à la "Come back, Zinc! Come back!"), along with a handful of godawful "comedies" made in the last two decades in which some mildly rebellious Mormon twenty-something learns that it's actually worth it to follow church rules because it is the only way to win back his gorgeous future Mormon spouse. Among this sallow competition, Richard Dutcher is, indisputably, the best. And the uncomfortable part? He left the church in 2007 in a high-profile way, announcing he was no longer a Mormon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Three Poems

Laika

Space dog of Moscow,
In my school books I learned
That you orbited the earth – yet I never 
 asked how you returned.
I learned only late,
 in my twenty-seventh year
That you didn’t survive at all -- 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Meaning of Life: A Provisional Assessment

People can't really mean what they say when they ask for the meaning of life. Words have meanings in relation to the objects to which they refer, and we already know what the thing is that corresponds to "life" -- well, I don't know -- but definitions can probably be found in the scientific literature. Or maybe not; maybe that's a false, if intuitive, understanding of how words and objects interact, but to complete that thought would require some passage about Wittgenstein and the early chapters of Augustine's Confessions, and I haven't thought my way through that question in a long time, if I ever did. And I've gotten lazier about pursuing that kind of digression since I turned twenty-five and my brain stopped developing (which happened a little less than two years into this blog's existence, for whatever that's worth). At any rate, there's no way that people who ask about the meaning of life are trying to gesture toward some intellectual finger-trap of this sort -- what they are really asking is: How can life be made enjoyable? How can it be something that hurts less?; something that is appreciated rather than just got through?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Poem

Lo yon college student
Who defined for me
The word ‘acoustic’
  After dropping it
Not quite casually.

I suppose he thought
As I did,
  and countless others before us,
That because before our present state
We were none the wiser

Then none of those
Outside the groves
Could know it either.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Cultural Revolution


 It had been thus with him all his life.  If there had come at any time a gleam of sunshine and hope, it was to be obscured immediately -- Samuel Butler

I suppose it did seem
It was time
For a turn
Of Fortuna's wheel
I did feel
I had been insufficient brave
In defense of fallen comrades
Much breath had been spent
On the subject of courage
  In facing the enemy
I did not foresee
The only need of it would come,
As it does, in the end
From facing
  my friends.

Cross-Postings

From the church newsletter for May:

"Agency"

At the beginning of last month, we completed our yearlong discernment to become a sanctuary congregation. I could not be more thrilled to have been a part of it during my internship. We made a choice to live into our values in one of the most exacting of forms, and we did it in a way that was energizing and – dare I say – fun! It was also a constant learning process for me, however, and the lessons were occasionally hard ones.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Poems

I.

Every time I see some customer in line
Hectoring the barista, say,
about how little lime
There is in this selzer
Or how this mocha was supposed to be
Extra hot, and have
More foam
  Than usual

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Two Unrelated Poems

I.

"Though I may be sent to Hell for it, such a God will never command my respect", was Milton's well known opinion of the doctrine.
 -- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Parsons, Giddens Trans.)

What an incredibly intriguing quote!
Which Weber attributes as if it were spoke
By a great puritan poet, and yet -- 'tis plain
It is a heroic rebuttal of all Calvin's pains!
 How could that be? And it is made
more tantalizing still by the striking fact
That it is apparently "well known," yet its source--
 impossible to track!
Each undergraduate asks:

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Recent Preachings

A Reflection for Good Friday, April 14, 2017

The story of the suffering and execution of Jesus is one with really only three characters –there is the persecuted and long-suffering prophet; there is the heartless ruling power and its machinery of death; and then there is the third character – whether it’s Pontius Pilate or Simon Peter is all the same. This is the character in the middle, the one whose heart is not necessarily on the side of the executioners, but who dithers, or who washes his hands of the suffering of others, or who denies three times before the cock cries. He is the one who looks away at the critical moment.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Four Poems

I.

The Orange Line-- to take it
Is to plunge into the abyss
A hellish labyrinth of passages
 A Babylon of writhing limbs
Until out of it
One is yanked
Like a wide-eyed plate-bound fish
Into the polite and sunlit world
 And one's only sincere wish 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cross-postings

My April newsletter contribution is below. I guess it's kind of saying exactly the opposite of my other most recent contribution to this blog, but hey, perhaps the complexities of life merit such contradictions. I choose to hide behind the words of Hugh MacDiarmid, etched on his tombstone, from his "Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle": I'll ha'e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it's the only way I ken/ To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt/ That damns the vast majority o' men. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Two Poems

I.
What is “identity politics”
            In 2017?
Does anyone even know
  What that term means?
I can see how in the old days,
Putting up the Quebec flag
Or saying “Why wasn’t Columbus included?
Could be kind of a drag
  But these days it seems
Like all it signifies
Is: “issues mainly concerning people who are not –
  Ahem,
white guys.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The New Rainbow Coalition

Isn’t it amazing that
  The man whose political mentor was Roy Cohn,
of all people,
Is now accusing the rest of the world of
“McCarthyism” (didya hear that one?)
 For finding it just a little bit odd
That he has so little love for American democracy and so much for the
Mass politics
Of the Bear across the Bering Sea
Whom Tocqueville once said would hold
  Half the world in its paws (the
Other half, that is – the one
Not too busy being batted around by us)—isn’t it
  Funny how

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Cross-Postings

From the most recent church newsletter:

Manitoba 
In recent weeks, Canadian border agents in Manitoba, Quebec and elsewhere have been encountering asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. border, some bearing scars of frostbite from the sub-zero weather. These are not people who meant to end up in Canada. They originally came to the United States, seeking protection and refuge. But the actions of our government – especially the so far-foiled “ban” against refugees and people from Muslim-majority countries – have convinced them that there is no welcome here. In other words, our country, which once declared itself a haven for the outcast and persecuted, has now created a refugee crisis of its own. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Cross-postings

From the most recent church newsletter:

 “That’s American” 
With countries as with people, I guess sometimes you have to be reminded that it’s actually possible to lose them, before you can appreciate just how much you need them. That’s why the first week of the Trump presidency has reminded me of how deeply I love this country. I love our universal franchise – on the occasions when it is allowed to function; I love the Fourteenth Amendment; I love the Refugee Program; I love the fact that, as much as this country has always failed to live up to its ideals, the awareness we all feel that it ought to be different – that we can and should one day be a democracy, rather than a caste society – is part of this country’s story too. That’s American, wrote Langston Hughes.

Poems



I.

Life story

Sometime around the year
2012
Or 2013
I realized that
I was not nearly as good
As I had thought –
That I did things too
That hurt other people
That were selfish and stupid, and that I did them
A fair amount of the time.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Toast for Inauguration Day 2017

From the poems of Anna Akhmatova,

I drink to our demolished house,
To all this wickedness,

[...]

The coarse, brutal world, the fact
That God has not saved us.

      (1934, Trans. by D.M. Thomas)



Friday, January 13, 2017

Expectations

The worst of all kinds
Of pain, I find
Is hope
That comes along and gives
Visions of happiness
That are not mine
Please God
Withhold it from me,
If you are there,
Give me instead
A taste of despair
So that sometimes,
Even often,
It might be that
That is disappointed

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cross-postings

My most recent contribution to the church newsletter:
December, 2016  
Recently, my thoughts have turned to an old movie– a Czech historical drama from 1967 called Marketa Lazarová. Set in a bleak and uninviting version of the Middle Ages, in which small clans war perpetually with one another, it is a meditation, among other things, on the brutality of un-restrained power in a lawless world. In the film’s closing scene, an omniscient narrator foretells that two “strapping boys” would be born to the heroine but that, “alas... cruelty and love [...] would contend for mastery of their souls.”

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Poems y Poemas

Phone on Vibrate

Oh God! That sound – not again, have mercy!
Like a hornet, like a drill, I hear it, curse me!
Just ignore it, says a voice – devilish, winking
But I know by now I cannot do whatever
it is thinking
And already my shoulders droop, already
I wilt
For even once it’s gone, comes the new drone–
Of guilt!