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The Lumineers for the New Year

As the new year approaches, it’s a time to pause and reflect on the past while simultaneously looking forward with some kind of hope and optimism. We all hope that in the next year we’ll get to all the things we’ve not managed to do in the past year, yet we also try to appreciate the good things that have befallen us and the difficulties we’ve gotten through. There’s a weird mix of looking back and looking ahead. Prime time for the complex mixture of joy and sorrow that this blog explores.

So, for my year-end, year-beginning musical offering, I give you The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love.”

The Lumineers have been playing together eight or so years, but have just had their first (rather large) commercial successes in the past year with the release of their first album and two Grammys. They have a lot to look forward to, but, as they expressed in this Rolling Stone interview, they’re aware of the dangers in that. To me, they are young and “new,” but they also have a bit of maturity and nostalgia in their tone. And there’s nothing like a touch of the strings to bring a bit of melancholy to the fore.

I picked “Stubborn Love” for a couple of reasons. The song notes that “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all,” certainly one of my themes, but also speaks to the need to “Keep your head up, keep your love.” This last is a mantra I can embrace.

And I don’t just mean romantically. We give way too little credence and attention to other kinds of love—family and friendship. I’ve been feeling very nostalgic lately about all the friends I seldom see, and in fact may never see again. Facebook is fun in that it keeps us all marginally connected, but sometimes I have to ponder that if there’s someone I haven’t seen in twenty or thirty years, will I ever again?

Here’s hoping we all get to see those people again sometime. And that 2013 is a very good year.

And here’s a terrific 30-minute live session with The Lumineers that also ends in “Stubborn Love” but contains a wider selection. If you have the time, of course, spend a little of it listening to this and remembering all the loves that stubbornly persist.

P.S. The Lumineers have their own website, but there seems to be some problem with it today. Check it out another time. Or connect via The Lumineers amazon page.

Thoughts About Roxanne

Last night on the way home through the dark after an evening errand, as Bruce and I sped along the 417, Cream’s “Crossroads” came on the radio. Instantly, I had a craving to listen to some John Mayall. This kinda surprised me, since I was vaguely aware that Mayall was not part of Cream, which consisted of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.

When I got home, though, and looked up all that past music history, I found that Eric Clapton and John Mayall had indeed spent plenty of time playing together in roughly that same time period. I should not have been the least bit surprised at the resonance between their styles.

It’s odd, though, how one musician becomes a classic icon, as Clapton has, and another plays on in relative obscurity. Of course, that obscurity is relative—as it turns out, Mayall is still touring in Europe and the U.S. and has put out 40 albums since The Turning Point (1969) that burst into my mind last night. In addition, he’s put out several limited-release recordings of live performances, the most recent in 2011. Certainly anyone following the blues will have heard of John Mayall.

Perhaps his most famous song, “Room to Move,” with his hallmark harmonica-playing, is also from The Turning Point, but the one that I always remember is the sexy, patient, subversive, pensive “Thoughts About Roxanne.” Also from The Turning Point is “The Laws Must Change,” which I include here, too, and which also features the harmonica. Mayall’s was a protest song about Civil Rights, but it’s interesting that this past week we had some shifts in laws, too—legalizing recreational marijuana use in two states (Colorado and Washington) and gay marriage in three more states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington).

You can listen to “Room to Move,” or a whole host of other samples on Mayall’s own listen page (scroll down; for some reason, the top of the page is just black).

Regina Spektor’s “Old Jacket”

“Stariy Pedjak” translated from the Russian as “Old Jacket”:

I’ve worn my jacket far too long,
It’s getting shabbier and frailer.
And so I take it to a tailor
To see if something can be done.

I tell him, “Now it’s up to you
To remedy the situation.
The magic art of alteration
Should make my life as good as new.”

It was a joke – but he takes on
The task with single-minded passion,
Bringing my jacket up to fashion
As best he can. The funny man.

He trims and sews without a word,
With such meticulous precision,
As if upon a sacred mission
To have my happiness restored.

He thinks I’ll try the jacket on,
And then – the clouds will part above me,
And I’ll believe that you still love me…
Well, think again. The funny man.

The Sun Is Shining

Tomorrow is 9/11—day of destruction, day of my friend’s birthday. Today as I drove home from the vet’s after Jupiter’s cancer check-up and my own entanglements with the human medical system, raindrops started pelting the car—big, enthusiastic raindrops out of nowhere. The sky was not exactly cloudless—it seldom is during Florida summers (and, yes, it’s still thoroughly summer here)—but I could see only a few fluffy white cumulonimbus ones floating in a blue sky.

For some reason, the kitschy Giles, Giles, and Fripp version of “The Sun Is Shining” popped into my head. The blue sky contrasting with the rain perhaps made me think of the cognitive dissonance of this song. And I was also reminded of September 11, 2001, when I had just started my teaching job at Bucknell University—how beautiful the weather was that day and what shared sorrow visited us at the same time. We could hardly believe that the weather continued to be so beautiful.

Perhaps “The Sun Is Shining” also came to me because last week I was revisiting The Prisoner and my college days, where I also had the pleasure to meet all kinds of new-to-me music such as that of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, as well as the better known King Crimson, and in metonymic rock ‘n’ roll fashion Fripp & Eno, 801, and Roxy Music. I had been so sheltered in my Tennessee country-rock-blues-pop universe that I had never heard of any of these. And I loved them. They were my ticket to a cool I had never experienced before. They exploded in my brain.

For one thing, I loved the fact that they could sustain both high drama and silliness. And “The Sun Is Shining” in all its smarmy truth suited my mood this afternoon. I hadn’t listened to the song in maybe decades, but it appeared in my mind full and funny, and I sang it through the pouring rain and sunshine all the way home.

Once in a Lifetime

Yesterday, a friend asked me about our cable/phone/TV services. He’s in the process of moving and making all these “choices.” My answer ran to four paragraphs and described the complex array of factors that forces us to choose three different purveyors of such services—our cell service was determined by a requirement for iPhones; that same provider was unable to guarantee us high-speed internet at home, which we feel we have to have to make our work (which we often do at home) more efficient; we chose yet another provider for TV because of supposed more variety and higher quality signal, though the damn thing goes off every time it rains. And it rains a lot in Central Florida.

I told my friend that I consider these overwhelmingly complicated “choices” a symptom of a right-wing, ultra-capitalist conspiracy to keep us all from doing things like writing poetry and thinking about the deeper meaning of life. We are so trapped in all these material goods and services that there’s really little time for anything else.

Today, I participated in yet another part of this—the phenomenon of the big box store. We recently had our guest bathroom repainted, and so we are decorating. We went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as well as Macy’s and Dillard’s. Such outings exhaust me and make me wonder what my priorities are. Most of these stores seem to me filled with so much garbage, ready to be consumed in its trendy moment and then discarded.

Yet, I do want to make my world beautiful. I need to start making more things beyond words again, or at least thinking about more ways to incorporate beauty than just by buying stuff. I think frequently about societies in which people work less and spend more time on their families and friends and the day-to-day arts that bring beauty into our lives—gardening, cooking, singing, playing music, drawing, arranging our homes, grooming ourselves, even the art of lovely kisses.

At any rate, in the car driving to the mall, we also heard the Talking Heads, performing their wonderful classic 1980 song, “Once in a Lifetime.” Since the song speaks to our tendency to go through life without paying full attention to where we are and the choices we are making, I thought I would share it today. It helps, David Byrne seems to know all too well, to have a sense of humor and an understanding that all humans struggle with the swift passage of time and occasional confusion about our lives. David Byrne is certainly an individualist, someone not packaged beyond recognition of his individuality, and I wish that more of us managed to remain unpackaged that way. So many forces in the work world tend to turn us into conformists. So, on Labor Day, it’s good to remember that our money, our house, our car, our trophy wife, our career—none of these things define who we are. It’s much more ineffable than all that.

Jolie Holland

The other day I posted about photographer Laurel Nakadate and her project where she cried every day for a year. She noted in an interview that Jolie Holland’s song “Mexican Blue” could be counted on as a good song to cry to. So here it is, though I didn’t find it all that sad myself—a clear sign that often we cry in association with certain memories or personal meanings.

At any rate, I listened to quite a few Jolie Holland songs over the past few days, and I found that her more recent “Rex’s Blues,” a cover of an old Townes Van Zandt song, was more moving to me. I also like the fact that Van Zandt was one of Holland’s Texas predecessors. So I give you that, too, on this rainy day when evil weather of all sorts has skirted Orlando but made its temporary home in Tampa. And just for the record, here’s the Van Zandt version.

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Does It Matter Whether a Smile Is Real?

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The relationship of our happiness to our willingness to fake it has been the topic of debate for a long time, and many a bromide supports the idea that it’s a good thing to fake it if need be. Consider these:

Fake it til you make it.

Go through the motions, and the motives will follow.

Keep smiling—it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to.

Keep your chin up!

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

Put on a happy face! (my video selection above, from the film Bye, Bye, Birdie, 1963)

Of course, there are many sources that repeat this general idea endlessly. But there are also sources that report on the nuances and limitations of such ideas, that qualify the findings of all this research that supposedly demands smiling even if you have to fake it.

Follow with me a kind of trajectory:

First, there’s this kind of thing that notes we have plenty of reasons to smile even when we don’t feel like it. Even when you go to a more professional psychology source that cites particular studies, there’s a kind of silly gloss on it all that bugs me. Take the final study noted on the PSYBLOG—the report here ignores the fact that causation has not been established, only the barest correlation. Photos of baseball players over the years show that the ones that smiled more lived longer. What this most likely proves is not that if you smile more, you will live longer, but that if you are healthy, you will smile more.

I get purely annoyed by this kind of thing. Partly because few of these sources even acknowledge that there is also plenty of research that shows the opposite—the fact that faking happiness can in itself have a negative impact. Here, a study notes that fake smiles can deepen depression, and here that faking happiness at work over time has negative health consequences.

As an aside, I think that the questionable research about smiling at work and the increased productiveness of employees in a good mood is particularly dangerous. While the Wall Street Journal here gives a well-balanced sense that it’s not a matter of axing the less cheerful, but of businesses actually taking some responsibility to provide resources for good cheer, all too often we see imperatives that become dictatorial and inhumane, as in the situation described here of the enforced-smile McDonald’s counter clerk. Not to mention those hideous hiring tests that seek to classify personalities and refuse jobs to those who aren’t as perky as others, no matter their competence.

All of the articles that I read about negative consequences of faking or that call into question the assertions about the benefits of positivity, of course, have to mention those positivity assertions. There’s an odd unevenness in this regard. The sane side has to acknowledge the overly simplified positivity side, but the positivity side feels no compunction whatsoever to mention the nuances and limitations of this body of research.

In a recent example, Jane Brody wrote a column for the New York Times, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.” If you read the comments, you will note that there are many who leap to agree and many who bare their teeth and attack the Brody bromides. Yet, when Brody followed up about the responses she received, she acknowledged only the “hundreds of comments from readers who testified to the value of living life as a glass half full.” She doesn’t deign to even acknowledge the other kinds of responses she received.

Don’t we have to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong when professional science journalists won’t even acknowledge that the science is mixed at best on these matters and that there are people who hold different perspectives? It taxes my credulity, especially when even an undergraduate college student can summarize the research so clearly in such a short paper as this one. The student clearly acknowledges there’s only a minor correlation, but even she has wrongly concluded that “smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!”

And let me observe that people have been trying to prove a stronger correlation and causation since Darwin’s time. They have been unable to demonstrate the facial feedback theory in all these years in spite of overwhelming resources spent toward that end.

However, you can go on to find scientists who are laboring to truly understand emotions in a complex and useful way—and one that won’t be used to hammer people over the head uselessly and cruelly or dismissively. One of these I’ll discuss in my next blog post, but, for now, I invite you to head over to the BBC Spot the Fake Smile test.

If we’re going to be constantly interacting with people who believe that faking their smiles will actually make them happier and that it will earn them our trust, forgiveness, sexual interest, and a whole host of other benefits, then perhaps we want to be more savvy about these fake smiles. I scored 19/20 right, which is evidently quite unusual. Maybe I should publish a paper about the benefits of skepticism: it helps you spot one of those fake cheery people from a mile away. And run like hell away from them and their agendas.

Josh Tillman/Father John Misty

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Most of the songs I post here are old favorites, but every now and then I try to reach forward into the present. I have never been good at following particular musicians or ferreting out new stuff, and I always used to rely on friends for recommendations. I don’t get much of that any more, but, fortunately, I have some former students who are friends on Facebook, and I lurk around their comments about music looking for new sounds. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up on a reference to Father John Misty’s new album Fear Fun.

I’ve also been in the process of adjusting to the idea of my sabbatical being over. I know, big violins, right? Sabbatical has been a miraculous, year-long, hard-working, peaceful, and re-prioritizing time for me. It is hard to see it go, and I’ve been trying to figure out strategies for holding on to some of the peace and humanity that I’ve found this year.

So it was with delight that I found these two songs—the first one, “Year in the Kingdom,” from the J. Tillman album of the same name, reflects a bit of how I have felt about this year, even my sorrow at its passing.

However, Josh Tillman has more recently been recording under the pseudonym Father John Misty. Evidently, with a move from Seattle to Laurel Canyon and a departure from his association with the band Fleet Foxes, he’s come out of a long period of melancholy. His new album has been praised for its variety of mood as well as its musical sophistication in the folk vein, though its lyrics are frequently still dark in tone.

The song below, “I’m Writing a Novel,” with its hallucinogenic sense of humor, points me in a good direction for the coming year. I chose the version to embed because of its bouncy instrumentation. Plus it’s cute to watch the funny dancing. But I also really enjoyed this guitar-only version at the Guardian for its dead-pan delivery of a whacky set-up story about the song’s evolution, and because, if you watch carefully, there’s a little bug that falls out of his hair and crawls across his shoulder in the first seconds (about 42-44 seconds in) of the video. I like these reminders about perspective.

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