He was the greatest. He told us so, but he really didn’t need to. His greatness was easily seen, perfectly understood.
When he was 12 years old, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, his bicycle was stolen. Young Cassius Clay, as he was then named, told police officer Joe Martin that he would find and thrash the thief. Martin, who was also a boxing coach, told the youngster that he’d need to learn to fight first. And with Martin’s help, he did.
What makes a great boxer? There has to be more, some X factor, beyond the speed, strength, agility, stamina, and technique that are required just to survive in the ring. Whatever it was, Ali had it. Within six years of the start of his amateur career, he’d won more than 100 bouts, won numerous Golden Gloves, and captured gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
His professional career began soon after, which brought worldwide, lifetime fame, and a series of ups and downs that would also last a lifetime. In the run-up to his first title fight, against Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali achieved pop-culture immortality when he promised to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He also explained away his boasting with a simple, prophetic, and unarguable truth: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” He beat Liston in seven rounds and became the heavyweight champion of the world.
It was Cassius Clay who won that fight, but it was Muhammad Ali who announced, just weeks later, that he’d become a Muslim and had joined the Nation of Islam. His popularity ebbed. And it hit a nadir a year and a half later when he refused a draft summons, declared himself a conscientious objector, and famously said “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He was stripped of his title and banned by the World Boxing Association, and indicted as a draft dodger by the Justice Department.
But he was The Greatest. He had that X factor, that force of personality, and these too would be fights he’d win. In 1970 he succeeded in getting his boxing suspensions overturned. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court vacated his criminal case. In March of that year he lost a 15-round decision to heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. He fought rematches with Frazier in 1974 and 1975 (the Thrilla in Manila) and won both.
Then George Foreman. Then Leon Spinks, Then Larry Holmes. From the seventies into the eighties, Muhammad Ali kept fighting. He was visibly slowing, wasn’t winning as consistently, but he was still The Greatest. He was perhaps the best known sportsman on the planet. He remained cocky, but he was never unkind. He was quietly philanthropic, extraordinarily open and approachable to his fans. By now a Sunni Muslim, he didn’t talk much about his faith, other than to encourage peace and inclusiveness
In 1984 Muhammad Ali, age 42, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a degenerative neurological disorder similar in impact to Parkinson’s disease. Its effects were glaring, heartbreaking. Ali was retired by now, much less in the limelight, but he didn’t hide away. He’d still grant interviews, speaking slowly and carefully, with tremors wracking his body. His mind remained strong, he still had much to say, and far from being shamed by his condition, he seemed content to share it, for the sake of understanding.
In the coming years, rumors of his declining health abounded. So, in his inimitable style, he surprised us all in 1996, at the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Atlanta, by appearing with torch in hand. He slowly made his way through the hushed stadium and lit the Olympic flame. He’d reprise his surprise role in 2012, in the London games, presiding over the Olympic flag ceremony.
Muhammad Ali’s health issues have persisted so long, and he bore them so well, that I suppose we all were in silent agreement that the champ was winning, that The Greatest had rope-a-doped Parkinson’s. Would that were true. A series of systemic infections weakened him over the last twelve months or so. In the last few weeks he developed difficulty breathing. Two days ago he was unconscious, and breathing with a respirator.
Last night The Greatest passed away in a Phoenix hospital, not far from the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. May he have gone gently with the knowledge of how much he meant to us, and may he rest in peace.
Memorial Day,as has been noted before, is the unofficial start of summer, a pre-solstice revelry of warm weather and outdoor fun. For many of us, myself thoroughly included, it’s a long-anticipated 3-day weekend, a barbecue bacchanalia, a day to relax and unwind.
But we’re all too aware there’s a somber, almost sacred subtext to the holiday, one we know we can’t rightfully forget or ignore. Memorial Day isn’t merely a recognition to those who wear or wore the uniform, as is Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is the day of remembrance for those who never made it home.
In post-Vietnam America, military service has become strangely fetishized, Soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines, and the officers who lead them, are placed upon pedestals to a degree unknown heretofore in our nation’s history. It’s a strange phenomenon, and in some undefinable way (to me at least), it’s unseemly. The U.S. military shares relevant traits with most large organizations: peopled by mostly good folks, a few not so good ones, by no means infallible, and hopefully mostly well meaning.
It is the professional, all-volunteer armed wing of the world’s oldest democracy. It has been, and probably frequently always will be, ill-used by its political masters. It has been used dishonorably, yet on the individual level, honor abounds. Historically such forces are used to build empires and to seize wealth (“Gold will not always bring you good soldiers,” said Machiavelli “but good soldiers will always bring you gold“). That tendency hasn’t been unknown in the history of the United States armed forces but when it happens it triggers outcry and revulsion, within the ranks and without.
Our forces serve best, and we support them best, when they’re mobilized to serve the greater good. They’re rescuers and protectors. In the worst of times and in the heat of battle they can be depended upon, unlike the overwhelming majority of their peers worldwide, to preserve the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire. That is honor.
Valor is a particularly military concept of honor. It encompasses bravery, yet goes beyond. It does not imply fearlessness, because fear is part and parcel of warfare. But it implies the grit and ability to subsume fear, and to do the necessary, even at the risk of one’s own life.
And all too often that risk solidifies, and “the last full measure of devotion,” as Lincoln said, is given.
To all American service men and women, past and future, whose lives are lost in the course of their duties, this day is dedicated. Thank you.
Two thousand, three hundred and thirty-eight (-ish) years after his death, Aristotle’s final resting place might have been found.
Greek archaeologists excavating in Stagira, Macedonia (Aristotle’s birthplace) have uncovered a semi-circular temple that, they believe, served as the philosopher’s funerary monument. Aristotle died in 322 BCE in Chalcis, on the Greek isle of Euboea, but it’s now believed that his ashes were later moved to Stagira, with the now-uncovered monument built as both a tomb and temple.
Aristotle is usually listed among the three classical philosophers—Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle—who are credited as the founders of Western reason and thought. What’s important to remember though (these being times when the study of philosophy is equated with dissolution and waste) is that to the Hellenistic mind, the discipline of philosophy included the natural sciences, medicine, mathematics, and music. In founding the field of philosophy, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle may have also invented precursors to the modern scientific method.
Aristotle’s own individual impact on Western history cannot be overstated; as the childhood tutor of Alexander the Great he directly influenced the reach and scope of the Macedonian empire, thereby indirectly influencing the rise of Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid empire in Central Asia, and the Greek and Roman successor states throughout Europe. It’s not a stretch to say that Aristotle continues to influence not just philosophy, but also political realities, down to the present day.
Given all this, might we not consider the discovery of Aristotle’s tomb as not only an archaeological curiosity, but perhaps also as a focus for veneration, maybe even pilgrimage, for now and for all time?
Oh, the imperative to go viral. A million or so YouTubers will tell you that it’s not just transitory fame at stake (alluring though that might be); there’s actual income on the line here, in terms of shares in advertising revenue for the amateur videographer who lures in lots of eyeballs. So the incentives are there to create videos that are controversial, captivating, or catastrophically dumb—whichever seems most likely ensnare the largest audience.
Prank videos are a natural result of this state of affairs, and it wasn’t a stretch to prognosticate they’d get riskier and more intrusive, all in that self-serving quest to go viral, until someone got hurt or someone ended up in jail.
No telling how many times those outcomes have been achieved (common sense tells us it’s probably very common), but in one case at least we have proof, in the form of jail sentences handed down this week in a London courtroom for four not-so merry pranksters, for causing a panic last year at the National Portrait Gallery.
A well-crafted prank can be, in of itself, a work of art. It must be well-intentioned, non-harmful, and funny even to those getting punked. These parameters unfortunately exclude the vast majority of YouTube prank videos, up to and including this one, perpetrated last July. It was the day beforethe tenth anniversary of London’s appalling 7/7 bombings. It invaded the peace and tranquility of one of the world’s great art museums. The rush to the emergency exits, prompted by the smuggled-in klaxon and the bumbling-burglar antics of these would-be comedians, didn’t devolve into a trampling probably only because of that bred-in British poise.
Ten months later, the prank’s on them, and they’re headed for lockup. Not for terribly long stretches—the four drew an average of 18 weeks. Hopefully just enough time to reflect upon the high cost of page-views.
Funny how a single tree can come to represent an entire season in one’s mind. And that must surely be as much a personal connection as it can be a cultural one—the Japanese, for example, uphold a traditional vernal embrace of the cherry blossom tree, with the fleeting pink flowers representing both the passage of time, and the aesthetic of the moment.
At the risk of cultural appropriation I’ll second the Japanese—their tree of spring is my spring tree too.
But as I said, it’s as often as personal choice as it is a culture’s imperative. In my case, it’s just because this beauty graces my side yard.
When we first moved here, nearly 16 years ago, I had no idea what kind of tree this was. Don’t think I even much noticed it. So try to imagine my surprise when, just a few months later, it exploded into life. For nearly every year since, that time of blossoming has been my official notice of the arrival of spring.
(“Nearly every year,” I said. Yes, there have been two miserable years thus far when a late frost or some other conditional vagary deprived us of Cherry Blossom Time. There were seasons those years that somewhat resembled spring, but they weren’t bona fide Springs in my book.)
It’s happening now, which makes this, right now, my favorite time of year.
And it’s fleeting—a thoroughly transitory phenomenon. Lasts a little over a week. The petals are already falling, and will very soon turn most of the yard into a carpet of soft pink tissue. Then those too will be gone.
(Doubtlessly, it’s best this way. Would I appreciate this gift as much if it were a longer lasting one? Also, there’s some utility in the timing: the Google Streetview of our house shows the tree in bloom. It’s strangely comforting to know that although I have no idea what year the Google car drove by, I know which week.)
It’s also good to know this arboreal appreciation is being passed on to another generation. This ↑ is the view from my daughter’s bedroom window. For that storied one week per year she has the best view in the house.
Cherry Blossom Time is upon is. Spring is here. Life renews and all of us find our ways and cues for shaking off the fallow season, and for reemerging.
One gnarly old cherry blossom tree, necklaced with a creaky wooden swing, is this fam’s tested and proven way for ringing in Spring.
Here’s an early passing that we didn’t foresee, and couldn’t have been ready for. Music legend Prince died at home today in Minnesota. Cause of death has not yet been announced, but it’s been reported that he’d suffered from flu-like symptoms for several weeks.
What a time to be alive. Technology has evolved with us and for us, to the point of ubiquity, to the point of utter interdependence. Some think that the next logical step is the self-aware thinking machine, one that might be lacking sympathy or empathy for its wetware erstwhile masters.
It just might be that looming danger that has prompted a clever subset of makers to take technology in an entirely different direction. Their machines lack not only the potential for domination, but also any quantifiable utility whatsoever.
Behold the Useless Machine. It harnesses electro-mechanics to do…not much of anything. Most of them are engineered to simply switch themselves off. If form and function are as inescapably conjoined as industrial designers have always insisted, then this austere form must have a similarly elementary function. Is it merely to give us a chuckle? If so, then mission accomplished.
Useless machines are getting more and more elegant, and still not doing much more flipping their own off switches. They’re still amazing to watch. Check out how useless technology is advancing apace:
Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s hit Broadway musical stirred up a bit of controversy last week, as a casting call specifying “NON-WHITE” actors drew the ire of a theater union and sparked choruses of ‘reverse-racism.’
The verbiage was clumsy, to be sure (and it has since been amended, with producers now saying the auditions will be open to all), but the outcry was a bit overdone, and probably undeserved. In productions of all sorts it’s not at all unusual for the race or ethnicity of characters to be specified prior to and during casting. If the ‘Hamilton’ casting call was guilty of anything, it was a semantics error—had the producers specified that they were seeking actors of color, it probably wouldn’t have drawn any untoward attention at all. Simple phrasing here provided the illusion of exclusion, and a regrettable opportunity for the sort of people who beat their chest over this reverse-racism nonsense every chance they get.
Which is a shame, because by all accounts ‘Hamilton’ is a transcendent play. I haven’t seen it yet but I very much want to. I will,as soon as I can. Broadway musicals tend not to be my thing, but from everything I’ve seen and heard, ‘Hamilton’ is in a class by itself.
Race, I think, is central to the production, but not at all in a negative way. The visual device of casting black and brown actors in the roles of historical white men and women is as effective and uplifting as the aural device of telling their stories in rhyme, rap, and hip-hop. There are many levels to this fascinating and unexpected juxtaposition—it’s not as simple as blending the past and the present, of telling an 18th-century story in a 21st-century voice.
Americans are encouraged, sometimes strong-armed, into idolizing their founding fathers. There’s much in the USA’s origin story to celebrate, but let’s be honest—it’s much easier to revere Revere and Washington and Jefferson when you share their European ancestry. We’ve somewhat failed the hundred million or so of our fellow citizens who don’t fall into that category, by giving them little common ground in which to connect with the people who created America.
‘Hamilton’ represents an effort by Lin-Manuel Miranda and others to create that common ground themselves. Miranda found in the inspiring yet tragic story of Alexander Hamilton something he recognized, something with which he could sympathize. Hamilton was arguably the most self-made of our founding fathers: an orphan, born out of wedlock, provincial and all but penniless. His accomplishments as a Revolutionary War soldier and as an American statesman were products of talent and of will. He created our financial system, helped write the Constitution, founded both a political party and The New York Post. He surely would have been president (he surely deserved to be), but fate and an awful little man called Aaron Burr intervened.
Challenged to a duel by Burr, Hamilton thought, wrote, and discussed with his friends why he felt he must accept even though on principle he was opposed to such barbarity. He said his intention would be to “throw his fire,” or aim away from Burr, and let Burr do what he would. In the event Hamilton’s shot went high, striking a tree branch above Burr’s head. We’ll never know whether or not the miss was intentional.
Burr, conversely, aimed true. Hamilton was struck in his lower gut; he suffered catastrophic organ damage and a severed spine. He was instantly paralyzed from the waist down and although he retained consciousness for a while, he knew he was dying.
Alexander Hamilton died the following day, July 12th, 1804.
Hamilton and Burr were both European-Americans, but there’s no tenable reason why Hamilton can’t be convincingly portrayed by the Hispanic Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Burr by the African-American Leslie Odom, Jr. Indeed, there’s a powerful contention that this casting is inspired, and perhaps imperative.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ is an embrace of American history by and for a populace that might otherwise disdain our foundational annals. And for all of us it’s a way to rethink and re-celebrate those same stories, in a new and valid and ultimately valuable light.
Anyone who’s ever ridden the NYC subway system has shared a collective suppressed groan when a man with a money can stands up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention….”
So for the benefit of us all (and impeccably timed just when we could all use a laugh), those incomparable flash-mob geniuses at Improv Everywhere have turned that awkward scene on its head. This madcap troupe has already improv(ed) the commuter trudge with its now legendary Annual No-Pants Subway Ride. Would you doubt they can do that one better? Well doubt no further. All they needed were a few sets of identical twins and a nightmare scenario from the future. Behold the Time Travel Subway Car:
It’s necessary, no doubt; and at the same time it’s scary as hell: one of the most iconic post-expressionist paintings in existence is about to undergo restoration.
The painting in question is Vincent Van Gogh‘s Amsterdam Sunflowers (1889), the third in his most famous still-life series. Vincent is believed to have completed five sunflower paintings, including one that was probably destroyed by bombing in Tokyo in 1945. The Amsterdam version is owned by the Dutch Van Gogh museum, which has taken it off display for study by conservators. The eventual plan is to remove a layer of varnish that was most likely added in the 1920s, and to restore the original vibrancy of Van Gogh’s cadmium-yellow pigment, which has dulled through oxidation. The museum plans to return the painting to the public collection later this month while a restoration plan is being formulated. No timeline for the conservation work has been given.
The conservators in question are surely on the right side of history here. Preserving Van Gogh for posterity (not to mention undoing the ham-handedness of whatever knucklehead varnished the damned thing) is beneficence on a cosmic-karmic level. Yet one cannot help but to fret. Do-gooding all too often goes awry, in the same blind but hands-on way that forest rangers used to put out every little fire that flared up in the backwoods. It wasn’t until we had those million-acre conflagrations in the ’90s that we realized sometimes the best course is to just stand back and do nothing.
Not saying that restoration isn’t warranted, or that it’ll end up the artistic equivalent of a forest fire. Just saying that this is a Van Gogh, dammit, and that recent experience in restoration has not been exactly encouraging….
Any cinematic effort to tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh‘s tortured last years and tragic death would have to be a seamless blend of visual splendor and emotional anguish. Nothing less would serve to portray the frenetic, afflicted life and death of a genius artist who, in his final year, completed 70 paintings in 70 days, then weeks later bled out in the arms of his brother, a bullet in his chest, his last words reported to be: “The sadness will last forever.”
Conventional filmmaking might just not be up to the task. So all praise, then, to the producers of Loving Vincent, the soon-to-be-released biopic that tells Vincent’s desolate tale through the words of his letters and with interviews of those he left behind, and in the material form—for the first time ever in an animated film—of tens of thousands of individual oil paintings.
Every frame in the film, about 62,000 at last count, is a hand-painted oil on canvas, each done in the style of Van Gogh himself, collectively the work of nearly 100 painters. The project, which included a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to train prospective artists, has been underway for more than four years.
The final release date has not yet been announced, but based on the just-released trailer, it seems (hopefully) imminent. In the meantime we have to enjoy that theatrical trailer, and the 2012 concept trailer. Both are breathtaking. Behold: