You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘New York Times’ tag.

mumbaitreeshrine
Tree shrine in Mumbai, August 2008

As a follow up to my earlier posting about Mumbai, I am including a very moving op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend. For those of you who are long time or newly converted Indiaphiles (I’m in the latter category) I think this piece will move you.

My bleeding city. My poor great bleeding heart of a city. Why do they go after Mumbai? There’s something about this island-state that appalls religious extremists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness.

Mumbai is all about dhandha, or transaction. From the street food vendor squatting on a sidewalk, fiercely guarding his little business, to the tycoons and their dreams of acquiring Hollywood, this city understands money and has no guilt about the getting and spending of it. I once asked a Muslim man living in a shack without indoor plumbing what kept him in the city. “Mumbai is a golden songbird,” he said. It flies quick and sly, and you’ll have to work hard to catch it, but if you do, a fabulous fortune will open up for you. The executives who congregated in the Taj Mahal hotel were chasing this golden songbird. The terrorists want to kill the songbird.

Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores. The Taliban also banned, wouldn’t you know it, the keeping of songbirds.

Bollywood dream-makers are shaken. “I am ashamed to say this,” Amitabh Bachchan, superstar of a hundred action movies, wrote on his blog. “As the events of the terror attack unfolded in front of me, I did something for the first time and one that I had hoped never ever to be in a situation to do. Before retiring for the night, I pulled out my licensed .32 revolver, loaded it and put it under my pillow.”

Mumbai is a “soft target,” the terrorism analysts say. Anybody can walk into the hotels, the hospitals, the train stations, and start spraying with a machine gun. Where are the metal detectors, the random bag checks? In Mumbai, it’s impossible to control the crowd. In other cities, if there’s an explosion, people run away from it. In Mumbai, people run toward it — to help. Greater Mumbai takes in a million new residents a year. This is the problem, say the nativists. The city is just too hospitable. You let them in, and they break your heart.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

And now it looks as if the latest terrorists were our neighbors, young men dressed not in Afghan tunics but in blue jeans and designer T-shirts. Being South Asian, they would have grown up watching the painted lady that is Mumbai in the movies: a city of flashy cars and flashier women. A pleasure-loving city, a sensual city. Everything that preachers of every religion thunder against. It is, as a monk of the pacifist Jain religion explained to me, “paap-ni-bhoomi”: the sinful land.

In 1993, Hindu mobs burned people alive in the streets — for the crime of being Muslim in Mumbai. Now these young Muslim men murdered people in front of their families — for the crime of visiting Mumbai. They attacked the luxury businessmen’s hotels. They attacked the open-air Cafe Leopold, where backpackers of the world refresh themselves with cheap beer out of three-foot-high towers before heading out into India. Their drunken revelry, their shameless flirting, must have offended the righteous believers in the jihad. They attacked the train station everyone calls V.T., the terminus for runaways and dreamers from all across India. And in the attack on the Chabad house, for the first time ever, it became dangerous to be Jewish in India.

The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. Cricket matches with visiting English and Australian teams have been shelved. Japanese and Western companies have closed their Mumbai offices and prohibited their employees from visiting the city. Tour groups are canceling long-planned trips.

But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. Dream of making a good home for all Mumbaikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean running water, humane mass transit, better toilets, a responsive government. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

Suketa Mehta
New York Times

Suketu Mehta, a professor of journalism at New York University, is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

mumbai1

mumbaidhobighats

mumbabus

Advertisements

This presidential campaign year has seen a morphing of many of the gender issues that have circulated in our culture for nearly 40 years. I have watched this play out in the political arena with feelings of anger, amazement, frustration and, most recently, a profound sense of hopelessness.

As a topic, gender is still radioactive. Back when I first read Betty Friedan and Kate Millett, I never imagined it would remain unresolved and problematic for so long—the ultimate bubble under the tablecloth kind of problem. But then again, I never imagined that my own views on what it means to be male and what it means to be female would change as drastically as they have over the years. At age 18, I thought I had it all figured out. I didn’t.

Tuesday’s Science Times had a fascinating article on this topic that adds a number of additional layers to the ongoing complexity. I’ve posted most of that article here, with a few edits. It’s a worthy read.

When men and women take personality tests, some of the old Mars-Venus stereotypes keep reappearing. On average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.

What’s not clear is the origin of these differences. Evolutionary psychologists contend that these are innate traits inherited from ancient hunters and gatherers. Another school of psychologists asserts that both sexes’ personalities have been shaped by traditional social roles, and that personality differences will shrink as women spend less time nurturing children and more time in jobs outside the home.

To test these hypotheses, a series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India’s or Zimbabwe’s than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.
These findings are so counterintuitive that some researchers have argued they must be because of cross-cultural problems with the personality tests. But after crunching new data from 40,000 men and women on six continents, David P. Schmitt and his colleagues conclude that the trends are real. Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

The biggest changes recorded by the researchers involve the personalities of men, not women. Men in traditional agricultural societies and poorer countries seem more cautious and anxious, less assertive and less competitive than men in the most progressive and rich countries of Europe and North America.
To explain these differences, Dr. Schmitt and his collaborators from Austria and Estonia point to the hardships of life in poorer countries. They note that in some other species, environmental stress tends to disproportionately affect the larger sex and mute costly secondary sexual characteristics (like male birds’ displays of plumage). And, they say, there are examples of stress muting biological sex differences in humans. For instance, the average disparity in height between men and women isn’t as pronounced in poor countries as it is in rich countries, because boys’ growth is disproportionately stunted by stresses likemalnutrition and disease.

Personality is more complicated than height, of course, and Dr. Schmitt suggests it’s affected by not just the physical but also the social stresses in traditional agricultural societies. These villagers have had to adapt their personalities to rules, hierarchies and gender roles more constraining than those in modern Western countries — or in clans of hunter-gatherers.

“Humanity’s jaunt into monotheism, agriculturally based economies and the monopolization of power and resources by a few men was ‘unnatural’ in many ways,” Dr. Schmitt says, alluding to evidence that hunter-gatherers were relatively egalitarian. “In some ways modern progressive cultures are returning us psychologically to our hunter-gatherer roots,” he argues. “That means high sociopolitical gender equality over all, but with men and women expressing predisposed interests in different domains. Removing the stresses of traditional agricultural societies could allow men’s, and to a lesser extent women’s, more ‘natural’ personality traits to emerge…”

Men and women shouldn’t expect to understand each other much better anytime soon. Things could get confusing if the personality gap widens further as the sexes become equal. But then, maybe it was that allure of the mysterious other that kept Mars and Venus together so long on the savanna.

I found this article by John Tierney in the New York Times particularly helpful at resetting my ambient guilt factor. It’s a bit long, but worth reading clear to the end. I hope it brings a little relief to your background rumblings of discomfort as well…

For most of the year, it is the duty of the press to scour the known universe looking for ways to ruin your day. The more fear, guilt or angst a news story induces, the better. But with August upon us, perhaps you’re in the mood for a break, so I’ve rounded up a list of 10 things not to worry about on your vacation.

Now, I can’t guarantee you that any of these worries is groundless, because I can’t guarantee you that anything is absolutely safe, including the act of reading a newspaper. With enough money, an enterprising researcher could surely identify a chemical in newsprint or keyboards that is dangerously carcinogenic for any rat that reads a trillion science columns every day.

What I can guarantee is that I wouldn’t spend a nanosecond of my vacation worrying about any of these 10 things. (You can make your own nominations in the TierneyLab blog.)

1. Killer hot dogs. What is it about frankfurters? There was the nitrite scare. Then the grilling-creates-carcinogens alarm. And then, when those menaces ebbed, the weenie warriors fell back on that old reliable villain: saturated fat.

But now even saturated fat isn’t looking so bad, thanks to a rigorous experiment in Israel reported this month. The people on a low-carb, unrestricted-calorie diet consumed more saturated fat than another group forced to cut back on both fat and calories, but those fatophiles lost more weight and ended up with a better cholesterol profile. And this was just the latest in a series of studies contradicting the medical establishment’s predictions about saturated fat.

If you must worry, focus on the carbs in the bun. But when it comes to the fatty frank — or the fatty anything else on vacation — I’d relax.

2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.

4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated.

As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.

It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking.

Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.

But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.

Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.

7. Deadly sharks. Throughout the world last year, there was a grand total of one fatal shark attack (in the South Pacific), according to the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida.

8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.

So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.

9. The universe’s missing mass. Even if the fate of the universe — steady expansion or cataclysmic collapse — depends on the amount of dark matter that is out there somewhere, you can rest assured that no one blames you for losing it. And most experts doubt this collapse will occur during your vacation.

10. Unmarked wormholes. Could your vacation be interrupted by a sudden plunge into a wormhole? From my limited analysis of space-time theory and the movie “Jumper,” I would have to say that the possibility cannot be eliminated. I would also concede that if the wormhole led to an alternate universe, there’s a good chance your luggage would be lost in transit.

But I still wouldn’t worry about it, In an alternate universe, you might not have to spend the rest of the year fretting about either dark matter or sickly rodents. You might even be able to buy one of those Nalgene bottles.

Has it happened, are there more blogs now than people on the planet? The uncontrollable sprawl of online scribblers has led to a lot of pondering in the media lately, with cultural critics ready to unpack and dissect the implications of this curious new form of expression and interconnection.

I have intentionally kept clear of this increasingly overexposed dissection of blogs, bloggers, blogging, the blogosphere, the battle for airtime and audience grab. It isn’t because I feel untouched by these issues because that isn’t the case. I’m a blogger like a gazillion other people. But it wasn’t until I read the New York Times magazine cover article on Sunday by Emily Gould that I realized just how much I was chafing against the increasing meaninglessness of the term “blogger.”

If you didn’t read Gould’s article, it was a tell all confession of a highly charged, high profile case of “he said/she said”, one that can happen when you live your life out loud, online, without much in the way of editing. Gould began as a blogger who openly shared the details of her relationships and personal life, was hired to be an editor at the now infamous website Gawker, pissed off a lot of people particularly when she defended the ethos of Gawker’s celebrity stalking, lost her job, became a target just as she had targeted others, and now is reconsidering just what it all meant. Gould is 24 years old, which explains a lot. Tact and temperance were not qualities I had honed when I was her age either.

But Gould’s confessional mea culpa—with a twist (there’s always a twist)—has been bouncing in my head for days. Her compulsive need to “overshare” (her term) is a feature of her personality she says, and even though she would like to search and destroy many of her earlier and unwise postings, she seems committed to continue her maturation process online, in full view of the public. Reading her New York Times account has inspired me to articulate my own reasons for writing and for making the determinations about what I share and what I do not.

I have a few favorite bloggers who are regular self-scrutinizers. D at Joe Felso: Ruminations recently wrote one of his ever thoughtful postings on his own blogging oeuvre, including some ideas about where he would like to take his site. Another favorite, G, who currently captains the excellent Writer Reading, taxonomized the categories of bloggers on one of her previous blog incarnations. (I particularly liked the label “Sheherazadists” for bloggers like G–yes, another G name–at How to Survive Suburban Life who use the blogging form to write about their life story in a series of vignette postings.) C at Mariachristina has written about the constraints of writing without the cover of an alias or avatar. She has had to truncate her observations and expressions in order to respect the privacy of her family and friends. The analytical and intellectually probing J at little essays often asks out loud what her blog should and could be, particularly during a time when she is pressured with pursuing an advanced degree in art history and expecting her second child.

I am not of the Gould mold. If anything, I am an undersharer. The oft-evoked distinction Stevens makes in “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” between inflection and innuendo has resonance for me. I want to be subjective, to a point. Idea driven, to a point. Personal, to a point.

I am not a journalist, a confessionalist, or memoirist or a dialectician. The closest analog I can find to describe my aspirations for this blog is my aspirations for my paintings: Evocative, but not manipulative. Suggestive, but not formulaic. Mysterious but not self conscious. Memorable and yet personal, sized for a human being.

One of my favorite descriptions of an artist is from Donald Winnicott and seems apropos for blogging as well:

“Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

Gould’s blogging style of full disclosure is probably more in keeping with an increasingly confessional, privacy-blind culture. I for one am in search for something more. Or perhaps something less.

brain.jpg

It is a strange and esoteric chemistry that moves the inner dial of our moods. Who hasn’t taken a micro-second whipsaw ride from ebullience to hopelessness? For me, some days in the studio are all flow. On others, nothing goes right. If only I could clear a pattern headed in the wrong direction as easily as the horse’s snort described in Alexander Star’s New York Times review of Daniel Lord Smail’s new book, “On Deep History and the Brain,” (cleverly titled, I Feel Good).

Here’s a sample:

Why do horses snort? Sometimes, at the approach of a stranger or the appearance of a plane high above the pasture, a horse will widen its eyes, flare its nostrils and send a stuttering column of air out into the world. On other occasions, horses have been known to snort for no reason besides their own boredom. By suddenly creating a sound, the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. The horse has in effect fooled its own nervous system — and benefited from the self-deceit.

If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing…

Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.

Of course, there was more to the Enlightenment than that. It’s not clear how a neurohistorian of the future would treat attitudes and beliefs alongside cravings and moods. Nor does Smail directly address the larger implications of what has been called “the psychoactive revolution.” What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electrical constituents of our experiences while we are having them? Is there a price to pay when we make the care of the brain a pre-eminent virtue?…

Smail focuses more attention on the “pursuit of psychotropy” than on its consequences. Still, an intelligent disquiet runs through these pages. As we “grow numb to the mechanisms that stimulate our moods and feelings on a daily basis,” we ceaselessly shift from one device to another. The prospects for human foresight and self-knowledge would seem dim. In the 1860s, Walter Pater wrote that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Has art become superfluous? Smail suggests we are all the choreographers of our own chemical dance, enjoying the “spikes” and “dips” as they follow one another, and simply for their own sake.

I love the Pater quote in the last paragraph–art offers “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” So Zen, yet so long ago.

I have been a life long advocate for the importance of original art in daily life. Of course that is a position that is nothing short of self serving, but it is also based on a very distinct experience from my own childhood. My parents were suburban middle class people who grew up on farms in rural Utah during the Depression. Once they moved to the Bay Area, their cultural exposure expanded to include the symphony, opera, ballet and theatre. But their participation in the visual arts was strictly museum fare. Contemporary, gallery-oriented art was a beast of a different color, so to speak. The edginess, occasional nudity and “in your face” imagery just didn’t appeal to their lingering Victorian sensibilities.

Three original paintings hung on the wall in our home, purchased by my mother before I was born. When examined with a trained eye, these small landscapes are ordinary and rather forgettable. But when I was a child, these paintings loomed LARGE in my consciousness. I memorized every square inch, examining the scumbling on the right, the heavy impasto to the left. Those paintings made me feel like there was something special about my family.

So anyone who is advocating for the buying of art is a good guy, right? After reading an article in last week’s New York Times Home & Garden section, I have conflicting responses to that question.

This piece, Easing the Pain of Collecting, features Jen Bekman, an entrepreneur who has successfully created an online photography gallery selling low cost photographs in various sizes. Her primary proposition was that most people feel intimidated by galleries and don’t know how to find, select and purchase quality artwork.

An excerpt:

But flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog, Ms. Bekman had another realization. Even though she had often longed to buy art, she had never bought anything from a gallery.

“I didn’t know how to, I was completely intimidated,” she said. “The only opportunities I saw for people like me,” she said, were the mass-produced stock pieces sold by places like Pottery Barn.

What she wanted, it turned out, was not just to produce a show but to change the way art is sold and collected.

Ms. Bekman immersed herself in the online world of art, did as much research as she could about the way traditional galleries functioned, and began reaching out to emerging photographers whose work caught her eye.

Today Ms. Bekman has relationships with hundreds of artists and photographers, represents 18 of them, employs a staff of four, and feels connected, she said, to every one of the 40 or so pieces on the walls in her apartment, like the large, provocative photograph of a woman brushing her hair given to her by Benjamin Donaldson, a photographer she represents. On March 15 her gallery will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and last week 20×200 shipped its 6,500th print.

The placement of this article in the Home & Garden weekly section rather than the Arts page is in itself an indication of how the Times is positioning Bekman’s venture. My issue is not stealth art elitist snobbery but a concern about the Pottery Barn-inspired business model approach to art. Outside the wealthy jetset world of art fairs, investment frenzy and fancy galleries (which do feel exclusionary and intimidating to most of us), what are the options? Is Bekman’s low-cost, non-threatening decorative orientation to “original” art the fallback position? Like a lot of art makers, I long to find easier ways for people to have a deep connection with art work on a personal basis. Neither approach seems to fill that requirement.

heaneyw.jpg

I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:

”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”

Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.

Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”

**
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”

**
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”

In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”

He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”

**
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”

Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”

The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.

**
”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”

Francis X. Clines
New York Times

I’m a huge fan of Stephin Merritt, inspiration behind the Magnetic Fields and a slew of other collaborations. He has that Elliott Smith-like proclivity to combine unexpected lyrics with a wide range of hummable music. (I like this description: “bitterly smart lyricism and a musical-survey style.”) The results don’t feel forced or manipulative, just delightfully paradoxical. Like fried ice cream.

And then there is this, a riff on Merritt’s wardrobe strategies, from a recent piece about him in the New York Times:

“I have a strange relationship to variety,” the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt said recently, as he sat at a West Village cafe meticulously tearing a croissant into little bits. He was discussing his wardrobe — absolutely all of his clothing is in a white-to-brown color palette — but also his career. In music, at least, “I like variety,” Mr. Merritt said…

He started dressing in brown about five years ago. “It’s going really well,” he said. “I had a green shirt that looked brown when I bought it, but I recently got rid of it.” All his pants are khakis. His homes — he has an apartment in New York and house and studio in Los Angeles — are decorated in brown and bright red. “If I didn’t make these decisions ahead of time, because my tastes tend to be sort of eclectic, I would have disasters,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is not an O.C.D. thing. This is a way of warding off what other people regard as horrendous, egregious errors in taste.”

Apparently, he’s right. “I knew him during the all-black phase, I knew him during the Hawaiian-shirt phase, I knew him when he wore, I think it was a 20-foot-long braid up on his head,” Mr. Handler [fellow musician and author of Lemony Snicket] said. “I admire the all-brown.”

This is not as fanciful or trivial an issue as it may seem. The All Brown approach sounds very sensible to those of us who have serious “everything is interesting” proclivities. I love to look. There’s no color combination that does not interest me, no symbol that does not intrigue, no panorama I can ignore. Things have a power all their own, and my susceptibility is legend. While a hierarchy of better and best clearly drives my art making decisions, I can be hypnotized by anything. The minute the light hits the retina, I’m a goner. Going All Brown feels like a reset, like finding a safety zone.

borwn2w.jpg

This morning I posted an excerpt on Slow Painting from a New York Times article, Yours for the Peeping. Penelope Green reports on the new trend of glass apartment buildings with little or no concern for privacy, from pedestrians on the street to the residents in the spaces themselves. I have been thinking about her article ever since I read it on Sunday morning. It nags at me.

Much has been written about the generation now coming of age and the shift towards a collective sense of unselfconsciousness. Because of inexpensive and ubiquitous video cameras, digital photography that is virtually disposable, and tell-it-all sites like Facebook and YouTube the argument goes, the Net Generation has adopted an uncensored, “living out loud” style of communicating.

Like most trends that are skewed along generational lines, there is more going on than a simple “response to technology” story line. The changes all of us have seen in the way we live our lives now—private vs. public persona, the rise in voyeurism coupled with a rise in exhibitionism, transparency vs. secrecy, TMI (too much information) vs. the edited, succinct response, the drive for connection as well as the need to be alone, the difference between who we are online and who we are in rl (real life), communities and what they mean, both real and virtual—there are many issues that can be discussed in relation to the rise of UC me/ICU apartment buildings in New York City.

Local luminary and passionate observer of all things online, Sherry Turkle of MIT has written at length about the ongoing implications of these themes. I admired her years ago when she was one of the few academics to endorse MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games.) Her argument: Many MIT students are socially challenged, and role playing games teach them important social skills. (I believed her.) She saw value in many of the trends that others were too quick to criticize.

But lately she seems to have become a bit more cautious. She recently described the hallway scene at a recent conference on robotics:

In the hallway outside the plenary session attendees are on their phones or using laptops and pdas to check their e-mail. Clusters of people chat with each other, making dinner plans, “networking” in that old sense of the term–the sense that implies sharing a meal. But at this conference it is clear that what people mostly want from public space is to be alone with their personal networks. It is good to come together physically, but it is more important to stay tethered to the people who define one’s virtual identity, the identity that counts. I think of how Freud believed in the power of communities to control and subvert us, and a psychoanalytic pun comes to mind: “virtuality and its discontents.”

Turkle talks about other hidden costs. For example, she sees a possible connection between a lack of concern about the government’s citizen spying and the willingness to tell all online:

High school and college students give up their privacy on MySpace about everything from musical preferences to sexual hang-ups. They are not likely to be troubled by an anonymous government agency knowing whom they call or what Web sites they frequent. People become gratified by a certain public exposure; it is more validation than violation.

My proclivity is to minimize differences between my children’s generation and my own. But the place where we have the least amount of overlap is privacy. I crave it. I need it like sleep and food. And I have to have it on my terms. Is this correlated with my rage at a government that spies on its citizens?

Turkle makes another point:

The virtual life of Facebook or MySpace is titillating, but our fragile planet needs our action in the real. We have to worry that we may be connecting globally but relating parochially.

This observation is not aimed at just the younger generation. More and more of our lives is lived in that meta state of online, and the center of gravity is shifting for all of us. I don’t have a definitive position or answers to what this all means. But it does matter that we are observing these changes and that we can discuss the implications. As an rl painter, with a dependence on rl widgets like art supplies, a studio space, galleries and patrons, I want to be clear and precise about what in this world is worth fighting for.

Advertisements