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Category Archives: Music

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.

Franz Liszt’s Orpheus & Travels in Time

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While Bruce and I were in Berlin, I had planned a few posts that I intended to go up while we were away. Alas, my technical understanding was lacking, and they didn’t get posted. One of them was a follow-up to my piece about squabbling over the arts, which I’d illustrated with two depictions of Orpheus before and after he met his untimely death in spite of the beauty of his art. Today I give you the song that I intended to run that same week—this poignant symphonic poem by Franz Liszt on the subject of Orpheus, Part I above and Part II below.

I had also selected this piece because Liszt wrote it while he was living and working in Germany—Weimar to be exact—and in one of those funny coincidences, Bruce and I, much to our surprise, ended up spending a day and a half in Weimar last week. We drove over from Berlin with Bruce’s old friend Kai, who happened to be slated to play in a tennis tournament there. While he played, we toured the ancient city and walked in the footsteps of Liszt, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Richard Strauss, Hans Christian Andersen, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, and many other artists, writers, and musicians.

Goethe’s garden house in Weimar, Germany.

It’s hard to imagine as you walk the cobblestone streets of beautiful Weimar and stroll through the park along the Ilm River to Goethe’s garden house that just eight kilometers away, the Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp, or that after the liberation of the concentration camps Allies forced the citizens of Weimar to tour the remains of Buchenwald on foot. Scenes from that episode in Weimar’s history were recorded and can be seen at the end of Billy Wilder’s Death Mills, a 1945 anti-German post-war propagation film, available in its full 20-minute form here at the Holocaust Museum website. (Warning: this film is largely composed of clips of dead and dying concentration camp victims. It is brutal.)

It’s also difficult to imagine Weimar as an East Germany city. It retains its old-world charm because many of its buildings and monuments were spared from bombing during World War II. However, on the outskirts we found numerous of those concrete-slab high-rise apartment buildings, some of them fallen into decrepitude, typical of the cheap, radically modernist efforts of post-war Socialist architects and builders. They seemed particularly odd in the bucolic hills around Weimar.

We did not visit Buchenwald—time was short, and Kai was more eager to get back to his family in Berlin. But one thing that is true in Germany is that history peeks through everywhere. The Topography of Terror memorial site sits on the location of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, but is also rimmed by a remnant of the Berlin Wall. Even as I enjoyed the quiet, clean, and plentiful trains that made getting around Berlin so easy and pleasant, I couldn’t help but think how this train system was used and perfected in the transportation of humans to their terrible deaths.

Bruce said that as he walked around Berlin he was constantly wondering, “What happened here? In this exact spot?” It’s a good question for any one of us to ask any day and in any spot. You can bet something happened wherever you are, even if it’s been covered over or obliterated by the passage of time. When I take a moment to let that reverberate in my mind and body, I am enlivened and reminded to choose carefully (and to the extent I can) which kind of path toward the future I might participate in.

Hallelujah

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A beautiful song for the third anniversary of my marriage to Bruce. This “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, whom I posted about just the other day, and is sung here by kd lang, who Bruce and I saw in concert here in Orlando last Sunday.

So many thoughts—

One reason why this song is perfect for today is that Bruce, like lang and Cohen, is a Canadian. “Canadian content” is one of our short-hand phrases for pointing that out—the distance from which we came together.

Another reason is that the love of people our age is complicated. Just this morning, I woke up with a low blood sugar and burst into tears over anxiety about our upcoming trip to Berlin—all my fears of not being able to keep up because of the arthritis in my foot and needing to rummage around in his friends’ kitchen for low-blood-sugar juice in the middle of the night and of my stomach getting upset over unfamiliar foods… Bruce and I had to talk it all out, and I told him after I realized what day it is that maybe I should wish him an unhappy anniversary. But, no, he loves me—and I love him—in spite of all the flaws of our human condition. “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value,” Cohen is quoted as saying about the song, and that seems appropriate today, even though I would not call my love a cold or broken hallelujah. Quite the contrary.

But even the kd lang concert the other night gave me much food for thought. Beyond the beauty of lang’s voice and the sheer pleasure of the concert, I have to note that it was not particularly well attended. Bruce and I—and no telling how many others—had gotten free tickets in a last-minute promotion, which was no doubt inspired by poor ticket sales. The Hard Rock Café concert space was even so only about 2/3 full, and I felt bad about this. Lang gave a terrific performance, and I know that non-sellout shows must be a standard feature of the musician’s life, but it was hard for me to believe that someone as distinguished as kd lang hadn’t filled the place up.

Bruce noted that there’s really no great way to keep up with events going on in Orlando, and several friends commented later that they, alas, had not realized she would be here. We ourselves had missed a John Prine concert just a few days earlier in spite of the fact that I’m his fan on Facebook and would have loved to be there. (I first saw him in concert in about 1977, and perhaps we should label him with “Appalachian content” to also indicate the different roots Bruce and I have.) It’s just hard to keep up, and we are distracted from our “entertainment” options, even the profound ones, by our work.

Such is the unpredictable and accidental nature of fame, art, love, and human life. Today, I am grateful to be experiencing all that together with him.

So Long, Marianne

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Leonard Cohen was in Toronto recently to accept the Glenn Gould Prize, and I heard his son, Adam, talking on CBC Radio about the event, where he’d also performed a couple of songs in his father’s honor, including this Cohen classic, “So Long, Marianne.”

Though there’s a bit of that insider clubbiness evident in the interview, and an inane comment by host Jian Ghomeshi about the “sexy” nature of Cohen’s songs, there are some wonderful comments about Cohen and his priorities, and Adam Cohen is articulate about some aspects of his father’s artistry. He also does a great job playing his own version of “So Long, Marianne” and one of his own recent songs, “Like a Man.” Beautiful stuff. (Ghomeshi himself is smarter here in his brief introductory essay about Cohen’s receipt of the award and the value of poetry.)

Here’s the entire twenty-six-minute interview with Adam Cohen, and below a few comments that seem especially relevant to my themes here.

On why Cohen doesn’t usually accept awards (he declined the Governor General’s Award, but accepted this one out of respect for Glenn Gould):

“This is a guy who is not interested in self-congratulation, certainly not publicly.”

“Outside of true and genuine humility, not some act, not some artifice, not some social device, outside of an aversion to the self-congratualtory aspect of awards, his interest is art. His focus, his devotion, his life… I mean, what distinguishes him and delineates him from so many others is precisely his commitment to the work and not the vanity, not the social status.”

On Leonard Cohen’s “most unlikely and delicious, triumphant come-back,”… “this return to the public eye in the highest of forms” and the fact that he is “more pertinent than he’s ever been before”:

“We’re living in what is, for the first time, collectively what is regarded as an impoverished time for the arts. I think that there has been a staggering collapse in the social value of what we think of as the arts. My Volvo was broken into, and they didn’t take the twenty-five CDs that were in the front seat. They took my car seat, my kid’s car seat. And what was more upsetting to me was that they didn’t take all these fantastic CDs, and it was such an emblem of the lack of esteem for music and the arts. It’s not downloading; downloading, pirating, has always happened. When I was a kid and you were a kid, we taped stuff off the radio on a cassette. So that’s not the problem. The problem is a dip in the cultural value of music and of the arts. And my father is part of a group in this incredibly splintered culture that we’re in—where there is no more consensus, there is no more Ed Sullivan, there is no more Tower Records. There is just this fractured civilization, everyone looking in their hopeless little screens. And what my father represents is a person standing in this one category that is unanimously regarded as the golden era, the people that produced Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, my father, and several others, and there he is standing on the heap of his work in this sort of apocalyptic, cynical time, and he’s like this bastion of truth. He’s weathered the storm. And I think it’s because of the poverty of the land.”

I don’t accept these last comments completely at face value, and I will take up this issue of fragmentation and its threats and opportunities in another post soon. But today, the melancholy strains of Leonard Cohen (and Adam) seem right to simply honor and celebrate.