This Is Getting Dangerous

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nullifier

The rise of “libertarianism,” if we dare call it that, is the most dangerous trend in America.  Of course, I’m not talking about real Lockean-Jeffersonian libertarianism–you know, the kind that emphasizes civic virtue–but rather the Ayn Rand-style libertarianism that scapegoats the poor and turns politics into a game of thrones.  For them it’s revolution or nothing, man.  Sic semper tyrannis!

Yes, their rhetoric is getting desperate, which is what happens when you lose so many battles.  Like baboons and bad relatives, they do not go away easily.  Yesterday, Ron Paul, their beloved cranky uncle, spoke at a rally for Ken Cucinnelli, the “Tea Party” candidate for governor of Virginia.  And, according to Politico, it got real weird real fast.

“The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits,” he said. “Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally.”

That’s right, they’re not strapping it on for varmints, if you know what I mean.  Our liberties are being threatened “internally.”  What does this mean?  Is he suggesting some dangerous John Brown shit here? Not for the negroes mind you, but for the truly oppressed business owners and squatters who have a right to do whatever the hell they want to do.  It’s in the constitution…so they say.

But maybe I’m taking things out of context.  Maybe the good doctor was misquoted, or mangled his words…or Lew Rockwell said it and he just absent-mindedly mouthed it.

“The taxes involved there, they’re evil,” he said (speaking of the Affordable Healthcare Act). “They’re going to create class warfare, generational warfare” (again, quoted in Politico).

Evil?  Class warfare?  Whose war is he picking anyway?  Given that he invoked his much-beloved notion of nullification I have a hunch where he’s going.  This is no longer just weird.  It is dangerous.  At what point are these supposed grievances going to morph into a “long train of abuses?”  These people scare the shit out of me, which is why I’m damned sure gonna fight ‘em at the polls in the midterm elections.  And you should too.

Thank You Lou Reed

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I was surprised by how emotional it was.  Not that I cried or anything like that, but when I heard that Lou Reed had died I really felt a loss–a very heavy and undefined rupture of…what?  I haven’t even thought about Lou Reed in maybe five or six, or even ten years, but there was a time back in the weird transition days between college and whatever the next step would be (mid-80s), when Lou Reed’s music was almost all that I listened to.  It was important to me because it was authentic, and as I entered the “adult” world of work or whatever it was gonna be, I knew instinctively that I needed to ground myself in something true.

You may object: grounding oneself in Lou Reed’s ethos doesn’t exactly sound sane, right?  Self-destructive, maybe, but grounded?   But it seems to me that my instincts were right.  In hindsight Reed’s music is the most grounded of all.  Although I am a Dylan fan first and foremost, Reed has always seemed to me to be more honest–certainly the tone of his writing is less abstract than Dylan’s, more direct.  It’s what I think Springsteen has always aimed for, actually.  Why wait for Mr. Tambourine Man when you could be “Waitin’ for the man?”   That shit’s real, man.

I really connected with the art of Lou Reed when I heard “Coney Island Baby” (“…the glory of love!”–I must have listened to that song a thousand times and it still moves me), as well as “Street Hassle” and “Perfect Day.”  That’s when I knew for sure that this man was in it for his life, and anyone operating on that level demands respect.  All of my reservations about the early Andy Warhol jive and the Bowie-era fashion facade dissolved into something more transcendent.  The music really did matter to him.  After all, who would possibly recommend making an album like “The Blue Mask,” or “Metal Machine Music” for that matter?  With The Blue Mask my suspicions, which had been aroused by Transformer, were confirmed: this is a cat I can identify with and actually look up to.  This is an artist!  I don’t know if anyone, Dylan included, ever respected rock and roll as an art form the way that Lou Reed did–maybe Patti Smith, but she would probably credit Lou for that too.

So, Lou Reed, thank you, thank you, thank you…my life was saved by rock and roll, yes rock and roll.

What Good Are the Humanities? Try James B. Stockdale’s “Courage Under Fire…”

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Epictetus

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released another dire report on the condition of the humanities in the United States.  It’s called “The Heart of the Matter” (get it?), and despite the metaphorical promise of its title, it arrives lifeless–no beating heart at all.  It does, however, make a depressingly reasonable case for how ignorant we are becoming, losing our grip on basic historical events and foundational ideas.  It’s just that the damned thing, being the product of a committee of about sixty presumably spirited individuals (all of them artists, writers, philosophers, etc.), reads like it was written by one robot.

“The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds.”

Whose syllabus is this?

We need some pop, man.  Fortunately, being the humanities and all, there are a number of good “reasons” why art, literature, and philosophy are good for us–all of them expressed artistically, not bureaucratically (ever seen Guernica, or read “Leaves of Grass?”).  But the goal of a committee such as this is to appeal to politicians, the dudes who write the checks and set the policies, and in this particular case, conservative ones who are afraid that their spending a little scratch on art and literature will make them appear wasteful to their constituents at home.  Never mind that most of the Tea Party’s supposed ancestral heroes–the don’t tread on me dudes–read Seneca in Latin and Plato in Greek.

James B Stockdale

James B Stockdale

Perhaps these politicians are unaware of the deeply moving and patriotic statement on the power of the humanities from former fighter pilot, Admiral and Vietnam prisoner of war, James B. Stockdale.  It’s called “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.”  The laboratory is a North Vietnamese prison camp in which Stockdale spent six years–two of them in leg irons, four in solitary confinement–and where he was tortured fifteen times.  Remarkably, he lost neither his dignity nor his humanity. And for this he thanked the wisdom of an old ex-slave philosopher named Epictetus.

You may remember Stockdale from the 1992 presidential campaign.  He was Ross Perot’s supposedly goofy Vice Presidential side-kick–the guy who brought down the house with his opening remarks in the Vice Presidential debate: “Who am I, and why am I here?” (then, as I recall, he fiddled with his hearing aid the rest of the time, as if tuning out the distortion of a political life for which he had little taste).  Turns out this silver-haired gentleman’s meandering ways disguised the heart of a true Stoic.  He was easily the wisest and most virtuous man of that bunch (o.k., not much of a test).  But it is in his account of his experiences as a prisoner of war that we come to know how deep that wisdom runs, and how much it owes to the philosophy of Epictetus.

Epictetus, as you may know, was a Stoic philosopher of Greek origin, born 55 CE, who lived as a slave under the Roman rule of Nero and as a free man after Nero’s death.  Like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics of his age, Epictetus drew inspiration from the earlier Greek Stoics (ca. 300s BCE) who believed that real happiness was not a fleeting moment of pleasure, but rather an enduring commitment to self-improvement, a long-term process of putting oneself in accord with “nature” (by which the Stoics meant destiny as well as the virtues appropriate to one’s present social situation).  The problem, of course, is that destiny is ultimately out of our control–call it Fate, God, Nature, Zeus, or just “shit happens” (well, it does).  As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”  Easier said than done, right?

Well, right.  The key here is that for Epictetus this insight is the first step toward true freedom.  Rather than viewing destiny as a restriction on one’s freedom, we should see it as an opportunity to act virtuously no matter what life throws at us.  Our popular thinking about freedom, and happiness for that matter, is really childish:  the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want.  But Epictetus understood that real freedom flows from the ability and courage to act in the best possible way in every situation (which for him could include suicide, if that is truly the most dignified possibility available–see Stockdale’s story below, for example).  In other words, while much of life seems to be out of our control–tornadoes that flatten schoolhouses, the drunk driver that kills our best friend, and the shithead that cuts in line at the ticket counter to buy the last twenty front row seats–we can control our reaction to these events.  Of course, we should try to influence them (in the most virtuous way) as much as possible: fortify schoolhouses, enact restrictions on drinking and driving, etc.  But once the deed is done, the measure of our humanity is our reaction to it.

So for Epictetus, the choice is whether to accept this load and be happy, or be dragged along by it and be miserable.  As a friend of mine put it, paraphrasing Plato: are you going to be the dog that pulls the chariot with gusto, or are you going to be the dog that whimpers and complains because the chariot is too heavy and the work too hard?  The fact is, you’ve still got to pull the damned thing.

That is exactly what James B. Stockdale put to the test as he endured six years, between 1965 and 1971, of being tied, beaten, and tortured by his North Vietnamese captors.  What sustained him?  Certainly not his bureaucratically concocted military training (he was actually taught that if he didn’t tell any secrets the first few times he was tortured, then his captors would get bored and give up!). Rather, it was that Greek-born ex-slave from 1st century Rome, Epictetus.

Stockdale was a thirty-eight year old naval pilot pursuing a masters degree at Stanford when he was introduced to Epictetus.  Although his degree was in international relations, he would meet weekly with a philosopher named Philip Rhinelander…just because he thought he could learn something from him. And with that spirit, I’m sure Rhinelander felt the same.

Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study it all happened for me––my inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. From then on, I was out of international relations––I already had enough credits for the master’s––and into philosophy. We went from Job to Socrates to Aristotle to Descartes. And then on to Kant, Hume, Dostoyevsky, Camus. All the while, Rhinelander was psyching me out, trying to figure out what I was seeking. He thought my interest in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was quite interesting. On my last session, he reached high in his wall of books and brought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, ‘I think you’ll be interested in this.’”

Talk about destiny.  The Enchiridion is the distillation of Epictetus’s thoughts on virtue.  Translated, the title means “Handbook.”  And for Stockdale that is exactly what it was, especially during his time in prison.

“Remember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses––if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, see that you act it well. For this is your business––to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to Another.”

After ejecting from his fighter jet, Stockdale’s parachute descends toward a North Vietnamese town, and the Stoic pilot assesses his fate:

“As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. It’s not at all up to me. I’m going right now from being the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men and, goodness knows, all sorts of symbolic status and goodwill, to being an object of contempt. I’ll be known as a “criminal.” But that’s not half the revelation that is the realization of your own fragility—that you can be reduced by wind and rain and ice and seawater or men to a helpless, sobbing wreck—unable to control even your own bowels—in a matter of minutes. And, more than even that, you’re going to face fragilities you never before let yourself believe you could have––like after mere minutes, in a flurry of action while being bound with tourniquet-tight ropes, with care, by a professional, hands behind, jackknifed forward and down toward your ankles held secure in lugs attached to an iron bar, that, with the onrush of anxiety, knowing your upper body’s circulation has been stopped and feeling the ever-growing induced pain and the ever-closing-in of claustrophobia, you can be made to blurt out answers, sometimes correct answers, to questions about anything they know you know.”

Stockdale was the ranking officer, which meant that he was in charge of the well-being of all American prisoners at the camp.  To take the Stoic view, however, his job was to guide them in the most dignified way possible toward freedom, which meant in these circumstances, the will to act in accordance with honor and courage, as opposed to fear and shame.  For this he spent two straight years in leg irons, and four in solitary confinement (in between torture sessions).  He had never been so free.

In fall 1969 a situation arose in which Stockdale decided that it was time to check out…permanently.  His Vietnamese interrogators knew that he had information that they wanted.  Up to this point, according to Stockdale, he could endure any amount of torture as long as he did not think his captors knew that he actually had the information.  But this time they knew, so as he sat alone in chains awaiting interrogation, Stockdale inched his way toward a window, broke the pane and slashed his wrists on the jagged shards.  He did not fear death–he despised dishonor.  And again, call it destiny, fate, God, Zeus, or whatever, it happened…or “it just so happened that”… his wife Sybil (unbeknownst to Stockdale, of course) had been conducting a very high-profile, public campaign to end North Vietnamese torture of U.S. prisoners.  She had been on television in the U.S., France…all over the world, and the Vietnamese, being wary of their reputations, were getting worried.  And Stockdale, being a high-profile captive, was not allowed to die.  When the guards found him in a pool of blood they were quick to seek medical help.  His dignity and the hand of destiny saved him.  This episode marked the end of torture in that prison.

When Stockdale had recovered sufficiently from his self-inflicted wounds, he was once again taken to isolation where he received a secret message from a fellow prisoner.  On a scrap of toilet paper, written with rat droppings, were the following lines from Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Now that’s the heart of the matter, eh?

Blue Demon Jr. Enters the Fray: Immigration Debate Over!

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In the following NY Times video, we are given exclusive behind the scenes access to the congressional debate over immigration reform.  Luchador Blue Demon Jr. settles the issue once and for all…and in a manner that even congressional Republicans can understand.

(Note: you have to click on the nytimes link to see it, but trust me, it’s worth it).

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Blue Demon Jr Body Slams Immigration Foes

Why I Am Still an Astros Fan (and why cabbage isn’t as bad as it seems)

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Telling someone that you are a Houston Astros fan is like telling them that your favorite food is cabbage.  Certainly, the current line-up hits like cabbage–they just set a major league record for most strikeouts in the first three games of a season (43)–and will probably lose 105-110 games again this year.  When your skipper says before the season starts that “success will not be measured in terms of wins and losses” you know it will be a very long year…again.  When Rick Ankiel–yes, that Rick Ankiel–is your team leader in home runs, with exactly one after four games, you know it will be a very long year…again.

And I’m getting real tired of hearing about the “lovable losers” on the north side and the long-suffering Cleveland Indian fans.  Only the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have had 20 losing seasons in a row, have any real claim to the Astros title of “most frustrating team in baseball.”  At least the Pirates are improving, and they’ve got a history of championships.

Yes, there is enough suffering to go around, but it is a statistical fact that no one alive, other than a Houston Astros fan, has any idea what it’s like to endure at least three years in a row of 100 + losses and to never have won a world series championship–ever.  No one (o.k., not even me yet, but I’m assuming another 100+ losses this year–not a stretch).  There have been worse teams in a given year (1962 Mets and 2003 Tigers come to mind), and others have had longer 100 loss streaks (Philadelphia Phillies 1938-1942, New York Mets 1962-1965, Washington Senators 1961-1964) but all of them have at least won one World Series title.  Astros fans don’t even know to whom they should sell their souls.  The devil has obviously locked in a long-term deal with the Yankees.

J.R. Richard and Nolan Ryan make a rainbow connection

Somehow, however, I still feel compelled to check the box score every day, and I must admit that I actually felt a great deal of pride while watching our opening day performance against the Texas Rangers.  It even gave me the illusion, for one stinking day, that we may not be as bad as everyone said we would be.  But three games later, the second stage of baseball grief has set in: anger.  When you’ve gone through as many frustrating and crappy seasons as I have, acceptance comes early, but it doesn’t make you happy.

For some god-forsaken reason I still bleed orange (or Tang, or whatever that color is).  I believe that this deserves an explanation.  My life, you see, began in 1963, exactly one year after the Astros, then called the Colt .45s, began playing outdoors in an old bandbox called Colt Stadium.  I didn’t live in Houston then–I was from a little ranching community in south-central Texas called George West–but the Colt 45s were the only professional baseball team in the state.  I was stuck with them then, and have been stuck with them ever since.

Today, as I connect the dots backwards, I recognize many uncanny parallels between my early life and that of the Astros, such as the fact that my father was a minister, and the Astros obviously needed our prayers; my mother was a school teacher, and the Astros needed someone to teach them how to play baseball. I also find it interesting that it was just about the time my father left the ministry to become a psychotherapist that the Astros began driving me crazy.  But, as the late great Darrell Royal said, “You gotta dance with the one what brung ya.”

I attended my first game in 1970.  I was seven years old and had already learned that the Astrodome was the “8th Wonder of the World.”  I didn’t know, nor did I care, what the other seven were.  Perhaps I would have if Don Wilson had ever pitched in the Babylonian Gardens.  We were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, who would go on to win the World Series the following year (which is why if you are a Pirates fan I believe my suffering to be worse than your suffering).  We lost the game, but it was a road trip I’ll never forget.

I kept my mitt on the entire drive from Corpus Christi to Houston (my family had recently moved to Corpus from George West).  I saw my first hippies on that magic walk from the parking lot to the Astrodome entrance.  They were wearing cowboy boots, and looked to me like some sort of space aliens preparing to board the world’s largest flying saucer.  And here we were, a nice, “normal” family, taking the ride with them (albeit at a different altitude).  Very cool…  I also remember getting dizzy trying to follow the baseball as it arced just below the bright panels of light that served as the Astrodome’s ceiling and roof.  At one point during the game my Mom pointed to a photo of Roberto Clemente, who was of course featured in the program, and said, “Billy, that’s their big dog.”  No lie.  Later that night he hit a triple with the bases loaded and had an assist on a put-out at home plate.  It was one of his famous one bounce ricochets from right field.  That night, the Pirates became my second favorite team, and Clemente my second favorite player, after Astros rookie Cesar Cedeno.

As I got older, and my family had moved to Friendswood, just outside of Houston, I learned the joys of skipping afternoon classes for the “businessman’s special,” and once slipped ten dollars to an entrepeneurially gifted security guard who let me and my buddies in through a side door so that we could see Nolan Ryan pitch against Steve Carlton.  Carlton threw a two-hitter that night, but somehow, even in losing, Ryan’s performance was the more impressive feat. I’ve never seen anyone with such overwhelming power, charisma, and authority on the mound.  After every pitch he would circle it like a jaguar contemplating the kill.  And each time he threw a fastball the thunderous BOOM! and POP! in Alan Ashby’s mitt was so shocking and sublime that it actually quieted the home crowd.

That era, for me, was the golden age of Astros baseball.  They weren’t cabbage then.  The roster included the names Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl, and Joe Morgan (who was, of course, a prodigal Colt ’45).  In 1980 they won their first division title, and any true fan over forty-five years old remembers that achievement with more fondness than when they actually made the World Series (and were swept by the White Sox).

There were other good teams, such as the Larry Dierker squads of the 1990s–the Killer Bs–but as much I appreciate them, they weren’t of my era, the time of my youth, when the rainbow on the uniform started looking like it might actually lead to a pot of gold.  So, as I sit here today, April 6, 2013, celebrating my fiftieth year with the Astros, instead of getting angry at them, maybe I should remember that for some young boy or girl in George West, Corpus Christi, Friendswood, or Cuero, the names Jose Altuve, Justin Maxwell, and Bud Norris may well be recalled with as much fondness as I have for J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, and Cesar Cedeno.  But for goodness sakes, they’ve gotta stop striking out so much!

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Winning Bracket!

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Dear Readers,

This is to let you know that after many hours in the lab, and at least a liter of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, I have developed what I believe to be a fool-proof method for picking all of the winning teams in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.  Said method, being magical, spiritual and completely non-rational in every way, will only be revealed after I win the big prize money at ESPN.  You may purchase it from me then as well.

Imminent revelations notwithstanding, I am so confident in this method that I will now publish my bracket for all to see, copy or just plain marvel at, including gamblers, magicians, and even English professors at small liberal arts colleges.  Herewith and whatever, I now submit my 2013 March Madness predictions.

My Tournament Bracket 2013

On editing a father-son movie project, Part 1: Being in the service of the marvelous

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Andre Breton described the surrealist aesthetic as always being in the service of the marvelous.  After editing a version of the “abduction scene” in my father-son movie project, ‘Alien Trance,’ I realized just how child-like (in the best sense) one must be in order to serve the marvelous.  In other words, I really dig the seven-year old aesthetic.

Basically, the way this project works is that my son Jack, who is seven, creates the story and provides advice on shot selection and editing choices, and I film it and edit it in iMovie.  While I do the technical stuff, he makes the final editorial decisions.  After we film some scenes together I load them into the editing software and play with them until I have a number of choices to offer him–different camera angles, wide shot, medium shot, ambient music, etc.–and he chooses the ones he likes best.

What I’ve found is that he is often disappointed in the scenes that I find the most “artistic,” preferring instead to go with something more over-the-top “dramatic.”  For Jack, and most seven-year olds, a good story is bigger than life, and it has to punch you in the gut, otherwise it isn’t any good.  Subtlety is for grown-ups who have forgotten how to dream.

To be continued….

Why Do I Still Watch the Grammys? What’s Wrong With Me? Help…

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I’m about two hours into the Grammys (off and on), and I find myself wondering, once again, why?  What the hell is wrong with me?  I KNOW it’s a commercial, and an ego stroke, and a lot of bullshit and all that…but I guess I also know that you’ve still gotta be pretty damned talented to sing like Adele. Artist or artiste?  Well…

I also want to think that not all the artistes tonight agreed with master of ceremonies LL Cool J that the Grammy itself is a worthy goal.  In this they would be siding with the original Greek MC Aristotle, who wasn’t at all against fame–just fame and glory as some sort of end in itself.  Anyway, I’m not sure that LL Cool J really meant what he said, although I couldn’t tell for sure.

But let’s face it: someone had enough virtue and good taste to feature Mavis Staples in a pretty damned good rendition of The Weight, a song that I’m pretty sure never won a Grammy.  If anyone embodies “authenticity” in music, she’s it, and that the tribute was for Levon Helm tells me that someone has a heart.

Here is the original, with Ms. Staples and The Band (p.s. we miss you Levon).

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