They burned the Temple down (and that’s a good thing)

A bonfire in Northern Ireland is an event heavy with meaning. In recent times they’ve been as sectarian as most other things in life there: Loyalists tend to hold theirs in July, using them to commemorate the Orange victory and to burn the tricolor flag of the Irish Republic. The Republicans respond in kind in August by burning the Union Jack.

But as perhaps the most Celtic of the Celtic lands, Ireland and her bonfires far predate the modern Troubles. Great fires have always been lit there—rarely to divide people but most often to bring them together. They were lit at the darkest times, the fallow times, to banish danger and to summon courage amongst and for the tribes.

Though early and mid-winter were the traditional times for this (our jack-o-lanterns are an echo of it), it’s not inappropriate to light another such healing fire on the vernal equinox, when day and night reach parity, when winter seems behind us yet spring hasn’t quite bloomed. And it’s certainly appropriate in 2015′s Northern Ireland, when peace is closer than in generations, yet hardly permanently assured.

California artist David Best, who has built and immolated at Burning Man, chose Londonderry—a city on the River Foyle so divided that half of its residents insist on calling it simply ‘Derry’—as the site for his 72-foot high, intricately carved Temple of peace. It was an edifice with a predefined lifespan: construction began in January, and on March 21st it was burned to the ground.

For the week prior to the burn, the people of Londonderry were invited to tour the Temple, and to leave with it messages and mementos of their choosing. Thousands of pleas for peace were scrawled or carved into the wood. Pictures and postcards, even locks of hair were left. At least two people left ashes of the dead. By the end of that week more than half the population of Londonderry had visited the Temple.

On the night of the fire 15,000 more of them turned up, to see the ancient sigil and to hope its message was being received as intended.

Spectacular though it was, it was in the end only a single fire, and by morning it was less than embers. It’d be optimism bordering on irrationality to think that just one Temple, and just one fire, could be catalysts for peace.

Unless it wasn’t just one—but rather just the first.

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Faces of inspiration

The muse presents herself exactly as she wills, and to trying to predict what inspires artists is certain folly. It’s the will o’ the wisp, inspiration is, and difficult though it is to chase and capture, that very elusiveness is the soul of its value.

But as elusive and varied inspiration may be, it has also demonstrated a measure of constancy throughout the history of western art. Certain themes appear again and again, offering hints and glimpses at the muse’s favor.

A timeless example is right here, looking back at us. She wears different faces, and she inhabits different eras, and vastly different cultures. Yet there’s a remarkable consistency, palpable, that has almost nothing to do with the skin she sheds aeon after aeon.

The muse is, after all, woman. May she continue to inspire for eternity.

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A wider perspective

There’s an argument (a dangerously deluded one, IMHO) that proclaims it arrogant to assume humanity has the potential and ability to degrade or destroy its own home. The earth abides, goes this argument, and although I wish that were true everything I see tells me it’s not.

It’s a matter of perspective, I think, along with the inclination to believe or disbelieve what perspective reveals. I’m not sure anything can be done about our inclinations, but our perspectives can always be expanded.

That’s where Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot comes in. To call it a book is to terminally minimize it. It’s more of a project, an outreach, a desperate attempt to expand all our perspectives, by graphically demonstrating precisely the cost that modern civilization exacts on the landscape. Deservedly, it’s getting a lot of attention.

With this wider perspective, it’s much easier to understand how our industry, agriculture, and lifestyles impact our land, our seas, and our skies. Our narrow, day-to-day view reveals little more than benefit. Zoom out a bit and an entirely different picture emerges.

The effect of these images and the stories that accompany them reveals quite a lot about us. It affirms our age-old affinity for pictures and story, while casting doubt on our somewhat newer assertion of being steadfastly data driven. The data on pollution, environmental damage, and climate change has been voluminous and ubiquitous for decades now, and yet it has changed very little.

The images and stories, meanwhile, are comparatively new. Here’s hoping they’ll grant us new perspective on the harm we’re doing ourselves, and new inducement to change course.

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RIP Leonard Nimoy (March 26, 1931 – February 27, 2015)

As Ann Curry tweeted this afternoon, “Spock made being different cool.”

There was a time in Leonard Nimoy’s life that he regretted the inseparability of himself and his most famous character. He was to make peace with it, though; so he’d understand our dual sense of loss today: We have lost Leonard Nimoy, and we have lost Spock.

And as intertwined as Nimoy/Spock may be, let us never forget what a rich and varied career this incredibly talented man had. As a director, an artist, even as a firmly ironic singer, he indelibly influenced the maturity and liveliness of the culture we enjoy today. He was Spock. And he was so much more.

I learned today, much to my tributary satisfaction, that Leonard Nimoy was also a poet. There’s no better eulogy, I think, than one that states “Poet.” So let’s end with his own words:

I Am Convinced by Leonard Nimoy

I am convinced
That if all mankind
Could only gather together
In one circle
Arms on each other’s shoulders
And dance, laugh and cry
together
Then much
of the tension and burden
of life
Would fall away
In the knowledge that
We are all children
Needing and wanting
Each other’s
Comfort and
Understanding
We are all children
Searching for love

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The awful truth about The Dress

By now you’ve seen the dress, and no doubt have debated the dress. You have weighed in with your opinion—an objective truth, surely, from your point of view—and have questioned the sanity of anyone seeing anything else. You’ve probably even delved into the science behind the duplexity, desperate for elucidation as to how our perceptions can be so divorced.

If so, you were given long-winded explications about chromatic biases and of the interactions of retinal nerves and neural pathways in the visual cortex. It sounds good, sure, but it’s not at all satisfying. Is it?

That’s because it’s hogwash. They’re afraid to tell you the awful truth. I am not.

If you see a dress of black and blue, all is well. You’re good. Go about your business.

If you see white and gold, that’s a signifier of something you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear. It’s up to me to bring you up to speed.

If you see white and gold, that means none of this is real. It’s all a dream. You’re in the hospital, in a coma. You have been for years.

Me and the dress have been sent in, to bring you back.

So please, please, for goodness sake—Wake up.

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Mozart in the Jungle – two very different tales

Amazon continues its quest to corner the content market, most recently in the guise of Amazon Studios. Now fully engaged in not just curating, but also producing streaming video for Amazon Prime members, the media giant is serving up a small but diverse and growing selection of original programming. One of the most compelling to date, for my money, is Mozart in the Jungle.

With season one available in its entirety, and follow-on seasons being whispered about, the show has been rightly celebrated for its comedic, sympathetic, yet entirely approachable depiction of the contemporary classical music scene. The inaugural season tracks a few weeks’ worth of developments in the lives of musicians and personalities associated with the New York Symphony Orchestra, as both a red-hot, controversial conductor, and a relatively obscure young oboist, simultaneously take on new and challenging roles. If that sounds a little dry, then take heart in knowing that all throughout, the show more than lives up to the source-book’s subtitle: Sex, drugs, and classical music.

That book, which lends the title and is nodded at with a “based on” credit, is every bit as good, but really couldn’t be much more different than the show. It’s a 2006 memoir penned by abundantly gifted journalist/musician Blair Tindall, chronicling her desperate decades in transition from being a conservatory ingenue to a rather jaded working musician. Where the series takes place in the present day, and only hints at the challenges faced by orchestras in staying culturally relevant, Tindall’s book spans the seventies, eighties and nineties, and is liberally peppered with not just personal anecdotes, but also first-class reporting—facts and figures—supporting a dire thesis warning us that classical music, presented as a municipal non-profit, might be a losing proposition. Spend a bit of time googling the number of orchestras, operas, ballet companies, and chamber groups failing or in bankruptcy, and you’ll get the queasy feeling Tindall knows whereof she speaks.

Depressing as that might be, I very much enjoyed her book, and I recommend it as heartily as I recommend the new Amazon series. For a lover of classical music, or even a casual enjoyer of the same, the book and the series offer two divergent, not-quite-conflicting, inside views of an otherwise cloistered world. One is exuberant and clamorous, the other intimate and melancholy; you get the feeling that between the two, a more or less synoptic view emerges. And, if nothing else, between the two there’s certainly no shortage of sex, drugs, and classical music.

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Brian Williams’s brain

Both explanations are plausible, that’s the most doleful aspect of the Brian Williams drama currently playing out. In the abstract at least, it’s as equally possible  that someone could lie about coming under fire in a war zone, as it is they might “misremember” it.

In Williams’s case it’s an oft-repeated, 12-year old story dating from the earliest days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What seems beyond dispute (although very little can be described that way in this fast-moving story), then-NBC reporter (now anchor) Brian Williams and his crew were in a Chinook helicopter traveling with American forces. Some unknown or unclear distance away, another Chinook, or perhaps a formation of them, was on the receiving end of small-arms and RPG fire, and at least one chopper was forced down. And at some unknown time later, Williams’s Chinook landed in the desert nearby.

Over the years the recounting of that story has changed, culminating most recently, in 2013, with appearances on David Letterman’s “The Late Show,” and shortly thereafter on Alec Baldwin’s WNYC podcast. In both retellings, Williams was now claiming to have been aboard the Chinook that was hit by an RPG, and which made a forced landing.

Over the last several days Williams has apologized, both on the air and in the NBC studio to his staff, for what he said was a mistake. NBC has reportedly launched an investigation, and “Brian Williams misremembers” has become a red-hot meme.

So far there’s been a lot of disdain for Brian Williams, and very little sympathy. Perhaps that’s appropriate. The concept if not the phrasing of stolen valor certainly isn’t new (I sadly recall meeting at least one self-proclaimed Medal of Honor recipient whose name, oddly enough, doesn’t appear on the rolls), but it’s gained harsh new sanction in these twilight days of the long wars. It’s a natural sort of justice that for every blowhard that claims to have been there, done that, killed many…there are probably a dozen who were really there, and who came away equipped and inclined to expose the lie.

But, as I asserted at the top, it mightn’t always be a lie. I’m in no position to say for certain (can any of us be?), but something tells me Brian Williams hit the nail on the head during his on-air recantation, when he said “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind….”

There’s this thing we all know, but are reluctant to admit: memory is terrifyingly unreliable. The underpinnings of our justice system, where the word of the eyewitness is still damn near sacrosanct, is just one of the things that will be seriously shaken when and if we ever come to grips with this fact.

Another, maybe, is our own sense of self-worth. For some reason we see a faculty for recall as evidence of soundness. Faulty memory, then, must be a sign of weakness or decay. But it’s not that simple.

It seems to be a simple fact of biology that our brains are wired to confound our recollection of things we actually experienced or observed. Why? Because we don’t seem to make any real neural distinction between real occurrences, and things we only think happened. Ruminate on events long enough, visualize alternate versions of them, even dream about them, and you’ll cement neural pathways that will convince you that circumstances unfolded the way you imagined, regardless of reality.

Ever seen Casablanca? Unless you’ve just rewatched it there’s a very good chance you clearly remember Rick grumbling “Play it again, Sam“…even though that line is never uttered in the film.

I think that on that day in March 2003 Brian Williams was thoroughly cognizant of what was happening and to whom. I think that in the days, weeks, and years to follow he never intended to deceive anyone, least of all himself. But I think that as the time passed he thought back upon what was clearly a chaotic, impressive, scary episode…and he unconsciously constructed a version that ‘might have been.’ And eventually, for him at least, that version supplanted reality.

Had Williams set out simply to lie, to somehow steal valor, he surely must have known what a dangerous game he was playing. He wasn’t that bent-back old mechanic who told me he’d slit thirty Cong throats. He was the NBC Nightly News anchor. He was someone begging to be exposed.

The ultimate irony is that it doesn’t matter either way, the final result is the same. As long as we collectively and secretly loathe memory lapses as signposts of our own inevitable frailties, Brian Williams will be punished for his, just as severely as if it were a proven lie. Both iniquities are blows to credibility, and lacking that, how can a network news anchor survive? Brian Williams is finished.

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Football is dead to me

Today is going to be a strange, bittersweet day here at Deconstruction Central. For it’s going to be a day without football.

To be sure, we’ve never been the biggest gridiron fanatics up in here. Some of us really couldn’t care less about the game. But for others, The Game has long been a much-anticipated annual event—full of excitement, rampant self-indulgence, and occasional play-by-play live-blogging. But no more.

Don’t call it a boycott, call it a conscious uncoupling. It’s a decision built of weariness, and a slow-dawning awareness that football—the institution, if not the game itself—has purposefully mutated into something I don’t want to be involved with.

Look. I’m aiming to convince no one here. This evening a hundred million of my closest compatriots are going to tune into their favorite yearly spectacle, and I wish them well for that. I don’t have anything to say on the subject that could or should make them enjoy it any less. I’m not hoisting a banner for anyone to flock to. This is a purely personal preference.

Most of my reasons are pretty familiar to us all. Last year the National Football League proved, again and again, that the profit motive far outweighed all other competing obligations. Standards of personal conduct, of even simple human dignity, counted for nothing against the need to operate this business as a going concern.

And it is a business, a $10 billion per year one. Team ownership is a billionaire’s club, the commissioner’s salary is $44 million, the average player salary is $5.15 million…and yet the NFL itself is classified (outrageously!) as a non-profit organization, and the cheerleaders are thus far losing their fight just to earn minimum wage. Something is very, very wrong with all of that picture.

I can enjoy a sport only so far as sportsmanship remains its guiding principle. Professional football walked away from that a long time ago.

And, more’s the pity, college ball isn’t far behind. Sport and academics have long gone hand in hand, and have been synergistic; but the synergy began destroying as soon as the former began trumping the latter. On almost every campus that hosts a football program, that program has become not just a profit center, but a veritable rasion d’etre for the university itself. My own erstwhile, not-very-cherished school recently built a $61.6 million stadium for their lackluster football team, which I couldn’t help ruminating on while sitting in a crumbling classroom, struggling to hear the professor over the sound of clanging overhead pipes.

The point is that football, the business, has at all levels supplanted the game I once happily played and almost always enjoyed watching. And while the game itself changes very little, the distasteful circumstances in which it thrives have simply become too much for me. So I’m done.

In the end this reluctant divorce is as much about nostalgia as it is disgust. Yes, I feel an ethical cringe over the degradation of values in the football establishment. But equally, I’m haunted by a profound sense of loss for the sort of game that was long gone, probably, well before I was born.

So…if anyone out there is interested in starting a league that exists solely For the Love of the Game, please do. You won’t earn much money, but you’ll surely earn some fans—starting with me.

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“Bill Cosby” is a verb now

We’re all individually responsible for our own transgressions. But we’re collectively responsible for the downfall that always comes when we set people on a pedestal, and they inevitably transgress.

Brimfield is a great little town. I’ve been there often. For the past couple years it’s been famous thanks to one man. Now it’s infamous for the same.

As of this morning the full allegations against Chief Oliver have been aired. A full-on flame war is sure to come. The faithful followers of his plain-speaking, mope-interdicting online persona are going to rush to his defense and unleash an impolitic flood of counter-accusations. It’s going to get ugly.

Which is a huge, huge bummer. That same online persona, as recently as a week ago, was the single most successful source of community-police relations we had, in a time when those relations are being sorely tested. Now that’s gone, to be replaced by tawdry controversy. There’ll be a lot of fallout from that, but one of the saddest is that a nice little town is going to be torn inside out, through no fault of its own.

If there’s fault to be assigned, and if those allegations are even partly true, then almost all of that fault goes directly to the former chief himself. Whatever’s left over should be claimed by all of us who stupidly—if temporarily—forgot that Mayberry was fiction and heroes are hard to find.

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NASCAR Nikita – Kurt Busch’s ex-girlfriend can end you

Sure, you have your doubts. But what if he’s right?

ICYMI, NASCAR outlaw and habitual left-turner Kurt Busch defended himself this week against a no-contact order filed by his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, by asserting that Driscoll is an international assassin who could snap his neck like a stupid little twig (I’m paraphrasing here).

Busch claims personal knowledge of numerous hits successfully completed by his cold-as-ice ex, including missions in Africa, and Central and South America. He also recounts a trip to El Paso during which Driscoll left their hotel in camos, and returned in a blood-spattered evening gown.

For her part, Driscoll responded by calling Busch and/or his claim “ludicrous,” and said that he was conflating reality with the plot of a screenplay she’d been working on. We can’t help but pointing out that this is exactly what a covert operator might say when her cover was in danger of being blown.

Speaking of which, it’s safe to say that if Kurt Busch’s claims are in any way true, his head is at this moment centered in a very steady set of crosshairs. And let that be a lesson to us all: when and if we learn our SOs are professional murderers, we should keep that shit to ourselves.

I suppose there’s a better than average chance that Mr. Busch might be mistaken. But let us not assume this is so. There are professional assassins, aren’t there? Do we have any reason to suppose Ms. Driscoll isn’t one of them?

Look at it this way: there are probably ninjas everywhere. The only reason we keep hearing about the ones in Japan is because they’re the absolute worst.

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Je suis Charlie

If there can be any solace in the horrific attack on the Paris offices of the weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo, let it be this: the cowards behind the guns, and the manipulating cowards behind them, admitted both their weakness and their defeat in this same act which condemns them.

Because if your ideology or tenets or piety are so fragile they cannot stand satire, then they are worthless. And if your sense of honor is so deranged as to lead you to slaughter the unarmed and defenseless, then you are beneath contempt and beyond pity. The cowards who murdered the editors and artists and the police officers protecting Charlie Hebdo, should be and are being hunted to exhaustion. So should be any that supported and encouraged them.

More than anything else, though, Charlie Hebdo should drive on. Nothing would refute the murderous hate more than a fresh, unblinking and unafraid serving of well-barbed satire. I sincerely hope that’s forthcoming.

Je suis Charlie – and so too is anyone that cherishes free expression and rejects religious barbarism.

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Bill Viola – art in motion

Congrats and hat’s off to pioneering video artist Bill Viola for his recent feature retrospective in Forbes.

The article salutes a 40-year career—a time span that neatly parallels video technology itself—in the use of electronic media to convey experiential expression. Seems he took to heart, then took to its ultimate conclusion, the proposition that if a picture is worth X words, then moving pictures must equal Xy.

You’ll find in Viola’s work an interplay of time and emotion, and motive expressions of a range of human experiences. Also notable is the recurring theme of natural elements, with a startling emphasis on water and immersion. Only speculating here, but this could very well be a constant reliving of a near-drowning incident from his youth, which took him to what he later described as “the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Whatever the impetus, Bill Viola seems driven to keeping showing us the flickering and unfolding images that describe his world, our world, and worlds both alien and disturbingly familiar….

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Coda 2014: Hope, fear, and necessity

Perception is reality. That’s a mantra that I wallow in daily, using it as both a business/marketing lever, and as a psychological anchor. It reminds me that, for good or ill, our world and our positions in it are largely self-created.

The implications of this are usually pretty stark.

That’s never been more clear, to me at least, than in the wrap-up and the look back at this year that just ended. The perception—and I don’t think I’m alone in this—is that 2014 was one godawful year. It was a year of fear, and of bouncing from one crisis to another. It was a year of reactions, and of being reactionary. It was not a year of progress, or cooperation, or communal synergy.

At least, that’s the perception. Any objective analysis has to allow that developments in ’14 weren’t uniformly bad. There was economic recovery, there were tantalizing hints that intelligent collaboration could, against all expectation, trump some of our thorniest problems.

But objective reality aside, we have to come to grips with the pessimism that 2014 engendered, and with the frightening truth that this pessimism (which doesn’t seem likely to abate just because the calendar clicked ahead one digit) is going to be self-perpetuating. And I have to come to grips with my own participation in that.

Because to be sure, I do have my own whopping dose of pessimism. It’s hard to shake.

Having examined it, though—or to be more accurate, having examined its root causes—I’ve sort of hardened into being a single-issue pessimist. Which is another way of saying I’m now a single-issue voter, and ultimately a single-issue obsessor.

It’s like this: climate change is the problem that edges out all others. That’s not to say all those other problems aren’t pressing—they certainly are. But climate change, and the wider issue of environmental degradation, is existential. We ignore it, and all the others sooner or later become moot.

That’s the pessimism, and the perception shaping our sad reality. The counterbalance to that must be a new perception, an optimistic one, that we can beat this thing.

You know what? We can. The solutions, when implemented, will be technical. Getting to implementation, though, will require personal, political, societal and cultural shifts. Daunting, but doable.

My hope—go ahead and call it a resolution—is that in 2015 we can start down that road. My hope is that all of us take responsibility for doing so—waiting for leaders to act is no longer an option. We must be the leaders. We have to set the example, and thereby set the course.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, upcycle. These aren’t hippy-dippy gestures, they’re collective actions that get results. They contribute to the solution by mitigating our individual contributions to the problem. And just as importantly they demonstrate, in that powerful way that only action can, that we’re committed to self-preservation.

This little weekly(ish) screed of mine has mostly been committed to art, culture, and literature; and only occasionally straying onto the heavy side. I prefer to keep it that way. Art is a refuge.

But art also has a long and proud history of progressivism, and of blazing a trail toward uncomfortable truths and unexpected solutions. May that ever be so.

The arts very much have a role to play in this unfolding drama. Artists have the opportunity, some might say the responsibility, to comment loudly and persuasively on what’s happening now, and what must happen next. And they have a moral duty to adjust their own practices and lifestyles, whenever and however they can.

Let sustainability be our guiding principle for art and for life in 2015. In the final analysis, be it pessimistic or otherwise, or absolutely objective, it’s the only path to survival.

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Let the retrospectives begin: 2014, a year in art

Say what you want about 2014 (and spoiler alert, I certainly will) — it may have been a kidney stone of a year, but like a kidney stone, it’ll pass. Global malaise aside, this was a lively year for the arts. Maybe malaise is a muse? At any rate, as we wind this annus horribilis right the hell down, it’s worth an appreciative look back to see what the creators hath created…

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RIP Joe Cocker (May 20, 1944 – December 22, 2014)

One truly amazing and original voice went silent today. Joe Cocker OBE, a man who had more soul than most of us have blood cells, has lost his battle with lung cancer.

It’s hard to say whether he was best known for his own incomparable singing, his energized stage presence, his solitary and well-earned position as the best coverer of Beatles tunes…or for the eerily accurate way in which his persona was once captured and recreated by the equally incomparable John Belushi.

Doesn’t matter—he was a package deal. All of those things and more synchronized into the being of one of the finest performers any of us will ever see. He’ll be sorely missed.

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