Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kind Of Blue


This March 2nd (my birthday) will be the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's seminal work, Kind Of Blue. NPR had a nice little piece about it this morning that inspired me to make the disc my day's soundtrack.

I've owned the album for years now, and it's still gets regular play in my house and car. I can't think of very many jazz recordings that are more important, or that still sound so fresh fifty years later. When Klaatu comes to our little blue planet looking for justification to keep us around, aside from showing him a few Peanuts specials, I would recommend playing Kind Of Blue.

Miles does a version of 'So What' on Steve Allen's Show:


Herbie Hancock gives us his interpretation of the same song, with Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter :


Tom Harrell performs 'Freddie Freeloader'

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike


John Updike was the guy who made me want to write short stories. It was through his jacket blurbs that I branched out and explored other literature, and it was in his writing that I found juicy echoes of my own neurotic humor. I can't say I'm sad that he's dead, because he was old, and it sounds like he led a pretty good life. I can say that anyone who likes short stories should go out immediately and grab a copy of The Afterlife, and anyone who likes good writing period should read all of the Bech books, The Coup, A Month Of Sundays, and Couples. His poetry was also wonderful: A first edition copy of Verse is one of my most prized possessions. Great writer. To whomever is responsible for endowing such talents upon us: more like this, please.

Talking Shop:



Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Always The End Of The World


I keep track of asteroids. They’re interesting to me. When I look at the above image, there’s a little fear, a little thrill. My human solipsism is confounded by the idea of a universe without us, but at the same time the prospect is sobering. Walking across the Cincinnati suspension bridge the other day, I looked at our beautiful little city and found it unimaginable that it would one day be gone. All of the bridges down, all of the windows blown out. Ohio used to be underwater. A walk along the evolutionary stones at Sawyer Point illustrates that nicely. Who knows what the next big shift will bring?

Here's a possible change agent: A little asteroid named Apophsis. Apophis is the Greek name for the Egyptian god of destruction. Maybe the name is appropriate, but it’s a little melodramatic for my taste. I prefer Daisy.

Apophsis (sensationalism aside) is expected to be another in a long line of near misses. Only if it passes through what is called a ’gravitational keyhole’ as it zooms past us in 2026, could it cause a problem, creating a highly probable collision in the year 2036.

Why is all of this so appealing to me?

How can it not be?

If you allow yourself to slip from the Summer Blockbuster angle, step past the survival fantasy, and override the slight tingling in your death instinct, there are good reasons to contemplate both your own, and the Earth’s, ultimate revelation. Such considerations aren’t--at least on my part--purely morbid, nor are they some kind of Hicksian yearning for Arizona Bay. While as humans we surely fall short, I don’t eagerly anticipate some kind of cosmic come-uppance.

Knowing that the story has an end, that our time is finite, and that indeed,we are lucky to be here at all, can only do us good. As Richard Dawkins opens his awesome book Unweaving the Rainbow :“The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains in Arabia.”

Out of all the variations, disasters, missteps, etcetera, that could've happened to us along the way to existence--navigating our way across a long, unbroken chain of evolutionary idiosyncracies--we are here. And we are alive, which is doubly lucky! The miracle in this scenario is our presence. We have already overcome the greatest hurdle we could ever face; all before we were even conscious of the concept of hurdles at all (and I was worried about getting into grad school)!

We are all grad students in the school of life.

So for creatures so random, so free to create our own meanings in this life, is it so bad to consider that someday we're going to check out?

It helps me. To know that I'll die--to know that you'll die too--takes a hesitation away from action. I am not here forever, and I can't be sure about anything that comes after this. I can't stow away my true intents and secret philosophies for vindication at a later date. I need to do it today. To know that I am finite and fallible (not necessarily operating on marching orders from some divine force), tells me to be open to others and to be kind. We are all in a similar situation here. And we're not guaranteed tomorrow.

Someone said all of this better than me:

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day.

who could argue with that?

There’s at least metaphoric rock at the end of both mine, and the Earth’s life. While it can be unsettling to consider, it helps keep me on point, and adds a poignancy to both the sound of my children's bare feet patting across the living room floor, and the sound of my now creaky knees as I stand up.





Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Simple Observation

Two basically decent human beings embrace:

A List Of Musical Instruments That I Own, Yet Do Not Know How To Play

1. Acoustic guitar.
2. Piano.
3. Djembe.
4. Recorder.
5. Accordion.
6. Cornet.
7. Harmonica.
8. Violin.
9. Spoons.

Musical instruments that I own and know how to play:

1.Kazoo.


*
Hawksley Workman performs 'We Will Still Need A Song', with funny hats and small instruments:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Me V. The Pope (round 1)

A reader sent me the following quotation.

"Even if I throw in my theoretical lot with agnosticism, I am nevertheless compelled in practice to choose between two alternatives: either to live as if God did not exist or else to live as if God did exist. If I act according to the first alternative, I have in practice adopted an atheistic position and have made a hypothesis (which may also be false) the basis of my entire life..." -The Pope

Here is my response:

Thanks for the link, Sic. I'm actually a fan of Andrew Sullivan. I link to the daily dish over in my 'Free Refills' section.

The pope is wrong here (hail mary). To be open to the existence of God while not being convinced that he or she wrote one of our religious books doesn't defacto lead us to the necessary adoption of any kind of theological worldview. You can be an agnostic and live according to a christian worldview, a muslim worldview, a sikh worldview, etc. To accept the precepts of a religion as true (or simply reasonable) doesn't mean you have to be 100% certain that there is a God. In fact, I'm more of an agnostic when it comes to the validity of world religions than I am in regard to the existence of God. Where does that leave me?

There is no default atheist worldview*, so that option is off the table. All people must ultimately rely on what Norman Mailer referred to as 'The Authority of the Senses' when it comes to making choices about religious belief. There are plently of moral conclusions you can come to without the aid of a religious text: Many are strikingly similar to the dictates of Christianity.

The discovery of the existence of God & what God wants from us is a pursuit that is beyond reason. For a person to say that they don't know whether their is a God, or that they don't know if any of the world's religions accurately capture the mind of God, is simple honesty. None of us know for sure. You could argue that on some level we may "feel" what is true, or some part of us may "know", but I wouldn't stray too far from the safety of those quotation marks. We know very little about our selves and our own world. The farther we get away from statements about these domains, the more dubious our claims are bound to be.

Faith is a fine thing. Have faith. I have some, and it's great. When it comes to God however, I've decided to stop trying to make him fit into my tiny human mind. GK Chesterton had an awesome quote that goes something like this: The reason scientists go insane and poets don't is that scientists want to get all of heaven into their heads, and poets just want to get their heads into heaven.

I don't know whether the particulars of that statement are true, but for the sake of this argument, I'm with the poets.


*Atheism (unlike other faith assumptions) does not come with a user's manual. Therefore, atheists are pretty much free to go wherever they want to philosophically.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Who Eats Who?



We went to Red Lobster last Friday for dinner. In the waiting area, there were many children gathered around the lobster tank, my two sons among them. These were some of the liveliest lobsters I have ever seen. They were scurrying around the tank and over each other energetically; Two of them were engaged in a kind of boxing match with fat rubber bands standing in for boxing gloves. The kids were watching these two with the most interest, wagering on who would win. My oldest son provided sound effects as the two creatures tumbled around the tank, backing each other up into corners and making sudden jabs with their impotent claws.

"Someone told me they scream when you put them in the water." My vegetarian wife said.
"Really?" I said. "That's terrible. I hadn't heard that. I hope that's not true."
She shrugged in a self congratulatory way. 'Think about that while you're prying boiled lobster-flesh out of it's shell.', she seemed to say.

I returned my attention to the lobster tank, aware that she had only somewhat foiled my intention. Until I knew her little story was true, I would be able to rationalize ordering a big lobster tail.

Suddenly, a waitress came from out of nowhere, picked up a long stick with several dulled prongs on the end, and pulled one of the battling lobsters from the tank.

"I guess the other one wins." Said a man holding a stack of coats. A few people laughed, myself included, but I noticed my oldest son looked distressed: Up until this moment he knew where his meat came from, but until then he had never given a name to an animal from which it was taken. He sniffled, and I tapped him on the shoulder. "You want to go outside and talk?" I asked. He said he did.

Outside in the parking lot, I hugged him, and asked him what he was thinking about. "I don't want to eat meat anymore." He said. "I don't think it's right for us to kill animals. I'm going to stop that from happening."

I was proud of my son for his compassion and thoughtfulness. I certainly wasn't so compassionate when I was his age. "That's fine if you don't want to eat meat anymore, but I want you to understand that some animals are designed to eat meat. We're animals too, and we are able to eat meat."

"But it's not right." he said.

"Well, that's debatable." I said. "It's certainly fine not to eat meat, but it's not wrong to eat meat either, so long as we treat the animals well. There are some animals that only eat meat. There are some animals that only eat plants. Those lobsters in there, they eat meat too. They eat worms, crabs, and small fish. It's part of life."

I then proceeded to launch into a mixture of Mufasa's Circle of Life philosophy from The Lion King, and Roger Scruton's A Carnivore's Credo. My son wasn't having any of it, and I wasn't having any lobster for dinner that night.

I love my boys. Both of them have excellent, inquisitive minds, and big hearts. I look forward to seeing what kind of men they grow into. If my son decides to stay a vegetarian, more power to him. I will support my boys in their choice of lifestyle, provided it's not a destructive one. Even then I will always have their backs, and will always be there for them when they need me.

It's funny, the things you find yourself articulating when you're a father. You find out more about yourself too, as you find yourself saying what you really believe, and what values are really important to you. I emphasize the word really, because as a good father, you don't want to lie to your children, and you want to protect them from your prejudices and shortcomings. You don't want their development to be hindered by the bad ideas or biases that hindered your own development. You also want to share your mistakes with them so they don't make the same ones.

Parenthood is an important and edifying job: This becomes clearer to me as the requirements of my job deepen. I've only been a parent for seven years now, and the role has already changed me significantly. I can only begin to imagine what the future holds for my little unit, but I'm honored to be able to partake in these instrumental moments in my children's lives. I just hope I don't screw them up too much as I fumble around for the right answers to the questions they ask.

We can't all be Cliff Huxtable, but we can certainly try.



PS: Lobster's don't have vocal chords, so they can't scream when they're put in boiling water . That being said, I would imagine being boiled alive still sucks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Medicine Cabinet Recommends

1.Diane Rehm interviews Michael Davis about Sesame Street: This was a great interview. There's a popular conversational icebreaker that goes like this: "If you could have dinner with any historical figure you wanted, who would you pick?" Some people throw out names like George Washington, Jesus, Gandhi,and Martin Luther King, Jr. I couldn't handle all of that austerity. Without missing a beat, my answer is always Jim Henson.

2.Rabbi Shmuley v. Christopher Hitchens: Who do you think won?



3.Survival Of the Weak and Scrawny, by Lisa Huang: Seems like if hunters want to keep scoring the big bucks they need to start breeding them in ratios larger than they are shooting them. It's evolution, baby.

4.Bill Ayers on Hardball: I would probably ‘pal around’ with this guy. Barack Obama’s association with Ayers was one of the lowest, silliest weapons in the republicans handbag this time around. First of all, Ayers seems like a thoughtful and reasonable man. By the time Obama had met him, he was an established college professor, not a violent reactionary. Secondly, isn’t it a testament to Obama’s Christian faith that he was able to look past the sins of Ayers's past and find common ground with the man? A president will need to ‘associate’ with many different kinds of people. Obama’s ability to associate with Bill Ayers only reinforces my belief that we elected the right guy.



5.Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets, by Michael Shermer: Shermer dispels myths about evolution theory and capitalism.

6. Covering, by Kenji Yoshino: I’m reading this book for a class I am taking on sexual orientation. It’s wonderful, and a must read for civil libertarians.

7. I don't care if it makes me less sophisticated in the eyes of Jazz purists: I like The Bad Plus:




Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Excellence In Broadcasting


“Rush is just an amazing radio performer...Years ago, I used to listen in the car on my way to reporting gigs, and I’d notice that I disagreed with everything he was saying, yet I not only wanted to keep listening, I actually liked him. That is some chops. You can count on two hands the number of public figures in America who can pull that trick off.” -Ira Glass, Host of This American Life on NPR.

This NYT piece about Rush Limbaugh predates the outcome of our last presidential election by a couple of months, but it successfully encapsulates some of what I find intriguing about the man, and what sets him apart from his competitors.

Most talk radio hosts lose their flavor for me once I discover the neurosis that drives their selection of issues: Sean Hannity is a republican boyscout with very little personal nuance. Michael Savage suffers from sexual repression, and is bitter because he wasn't more thoroughly embraced by proponents of the beat generation. He later became even more bitter because he wasn't welcomed with open arms into the mainstream conservative intelligentsia. Glenn Beck is a conspiracy theorist who views himself as prophetically instrumental in some kind of upcoming--LDS flavored--American Revolution fantasy. He is also (understandably) struggling to find meaning in his life after suffering several substantial personal tragedies: He takes the lessons he learns on this journey (which should be a personal one) and projects them onto global and national political events.
Bill O'Reilly (as Rush tells us accurately in this piece), is Ted Baxter.

All of these characters are sympathetic in their own way, but they'll never be as compelling or entertaining as Rush. If Rush is suffering from serious personal demons, he doesn't let them drive him. While debating angry liberal callers, he hovers above the exchange amusedly, rejoindering as if from on high. Most importantly--as he says himself in this piece--he is a businessman and entertainer before he is a conservative, unlike his competitors. That gives him an edge the others do not have.

He doesn't start off with a message, he starts off with a vehicle. It's kind of like the difference between rock musicians who happens to be christian (Joseph Arthur/Bono) and christian rock musicians. The first group starts off with a love for the music that allows the inevitable bleed through of spiritual themes to seem organic, and thus believable. The second group (often less talented) start off with a message that they want to force into a form that may not be appropriate for it, and their finished product is often awkward and unconvincing.

While I don't share all of Limbaugh's worldview, I'll never accuse him of being awkward or unconvincing in his expression of it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Capitalism: The Final Frontier

My inner child is doing cartwheels over this APOD report. A dutch architect has constructed the most complete set of plans for hotels on the moon thus far. A BBC report I heard this weekend guestimated such an endeavor could be possible in around fifty years. I will be seventy-seven at the time if this speculation is correct, so the idea of me hitting golf balls into moon craters some day is not an impossibility. Very exciting.

Also interesting is talk about sub-contracting the business of converting moon ice into oxygen to private industry.

A possible transition for oil executives worried about losing their jobs to green technology?



I drink your milkshake...in space!