RIP Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942 – Aug. 16, 2016)

She was one of a kind with pipes of gold. Her privacy was preserved, for the most part, throughout a long and heart-breaking illness. She died today at home in Detroit. May the Queen of Soul rest in peace.

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They stole the crown jewels! (This is not a metaphor)

Here’s an obligatory disclaimer: thievery is bad, mmkay? And we endeavor not to encourage or glorify roguish behavior in any form. Even if it’s in really, really badass form.

On July 30th a pair of pilferers pulled off a daring daylight heist, in the form of a smash-and-grab in the Strängnäs Cathedral, near Stockholm, erstwhile home of the Swedish crown jewels. They seized two crowns and a golden orb, all dating from the 17th century, then made good their escape.

And oh what an escape. They pedaled away from the cathedral on bicycles, then transferred their loot onto a motorboat (possibly jet skis; accounts vary) and disappeared somewhere on the area’s sprawling network of lakes and waterways. They remain at large.

We repeat: thievery is bad. By the transitive property of criminal law, thieves are also bad. We condemn them.

But they stole the crown jewels, and escaped on bicycles and boats. Damn.

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A symphony for the people

I’ve boasted more than once about the state of the arts in my beloved hometown. We’re at the resilient epicenter of a rust-belt renaissance, and we take our public arts very seriously. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this burg loves to put on a show, and its citizens love to come out for it.

So come out we did, the fam and I and a couple hundred kindred, on Sunday evening to enjoy the Akron Symphony performing for us first under a perfect summer evening sky and then finally, poetically, under the stars.

I can’t quite express for you how much this 90-minute fanfare meant to me, or how much I treasured it—mostly because I lack the 75 or so strings, woodwinds, brass and the rest to recreate for you just what I experienced. The program was as eclectic as you could ask for: orchestral classics like the overture from The Barber of Seville, and Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionette (cast your mind back and remember the opening theme of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). There was true Americana from Sousa, Gershwin, and Bernstein. And there were surprises—dancers on, below, and about the stage, and some familiar film-score selections, like West Side Story, Vertigo, and even Star Wars.

What that all added up to was a certain, perhaps unexpected, informality. There’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about music in the park, and that means it and everyone involved is relaxed and relatable.

One of the most charming examples of this was the children’s music instructor stationed near the base of the stage. Early on our conductor, Eric Benjamin, invited the cohort of “mini maestros” to come down for a lesson in waving the baton. On the first pass, the symphony started up just a tad too early. “Hey, stop,” the instructor shouted. “The kids aren’t ready.” The orchestra gamely halted, waited, and began playing again only when the children prompted them to do so.

The conducting lesson also led to one of the most unexpectedly thrilling parts of the evening for me. I was admittedly a bit jealous that I couldn’t wave my own baton, but I nonetheless led my daughter down into the tutelage environs so she could give it a go…and thereby found myself closer to an orchestra-in-action than I’d ever been, closer than I’d ever thought I could be.

It became then a full-sensory experience, one I’ll never forget. It became an encompassing onslaught; I could feel the music. It was a sort of forced synesthesia, and not at all in a bad way. Notes and measures and bars gained mass and density, right there in front of me.

I rode that out for a few numbers, and that was long enough for me to get a grip on my rhapsody, to begin paying attention, and to even snap a few pics. One thing I noticed then, that I hadn’t been able to see from further up the lawn, was just how contented the musicians appeared. Most were smiling, and all of them were displaying this sense of repose that can’t be faked, that can only come from someone in the throes of doing exactly the thing they live and love to do.

We, that lucky audience, were invited and encouraged to take pictures (no rude flashes though, please), but we were adjured from all types of recordings. I’ll admit I found myself tempted to flout that, if only to share with you some pale representation of what I saw and heard and felt. In the end I opted to do as asked, reckoning that they’d given so much I’d be a true chancre to do otherwise. I have since confirmed that the Akron Symphony has a YouTube channel, and I’d accordingly direct you there. I’ve also embedded their preview of the upcoming season below.

But in recognition of the facts that my words can’t do them justice and compressed video format can only one-up me around the margins, I’ll offer the most obvious advice, advice I’m sure comes through by way of my enthusiasm: Go see them for yourself!

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A pox on all our houses

I won’t go so far as to say this country has become ungovernable, but it surely isn’t being governed. That’s become evident as we wrap up a jaw-dropping couple of weeks. The madness coincided with Trump’s foray off-shore; he started off predictably enough: gratuitously insulting our closest allies, and doing his level best to implode the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Trump views NATO the same way he looks at everything: transactionally; and he seems to be convinced the U.S. is getting the worst of that bargain. I’d bet my life that Trump is blissfully unaware that NATO’s Article 5, the mutual-defense clause, has been invoked exactly once in the treaty’s 70-year history: by us, in the aftermath of 9/11. Our allies honored their commitment and came running.).

The real bombshell (or a barrage of them) came days later, as Trump sat down and rolled over in Finland. The story has been well-told by others, and is being busily revised as we speak by the White House, so I needn’t remind you of the horrifying tableau of a sitting U.S. president being so thoroughly dominated by that grim personification of KGB perfidy. Might not be fair to call Putin grim, though—normally that rictus he calls a smile comes nowhere near his eyes…but on this occasion, watching Trump dance for him, he seemed positively joyful.

Trump has been spinning, as he does, recasting the meanings of “would” and “wouldn’t” but more importantly, defending himself. He’s the toughest on Russia there’s ever been, he says. The summit was the greatest success, he says.

Advisory for Trump: when members of your own damned party are so befuddled by your behavior that the likeliest explanation they can come up with is that you’re being blackmailed—then no, the summit was not a success.

Of course, not all Republicans have been that forthcoming. A distressing number are still in lockstep with their leader. Most fall somewhere in the middle: willing to offer some mild rebuke for the hellscape in Helsinki, but not much more. They seem to be approaching it like they do the totality of Trumpdom: just waiting for it to blow over.

The Democrats aren’t exactly holding the high ground, however. The opposition party is united in disdain, but I haven’t seen or heard much from them other than zippy tweets and sound bytes. And much worse—they’re fundraising off this. That’s parasitic.

And it’s ample evidence of what a stain that partisanship has become on the fabric of our republic. This is not hyperbole: a chief executive who plainly and blatantly serves the interest of an unfriendly power is a clear and present danger to the nation. The only people who can possibly stop him—or even mitigate him a little—are overwhelmingly self-serving or ineffectual, or both. What we need now are patriots who’ll work together for the sake of the nation. What we have is a mob that can’t get out of its own way.

So rounding back to the beginning: are we ungovernable? Perhaps based on the system we’ve subjected ourselves to, we’re getting exactly the government we deserve.

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On this date…he threw away his shot

On July 11 1804, founding wunderkind Alexander Hamilton committed history’s most misguided act of chivalry by deliberately firing over Aaron Burr’s head during America’s most famous duel.

Burr, who was only the first U.S. vice president to shoot someone will in office, didn’t share Hamilton’s understanding of the Duel Commandments, and shot him in the breadbasket. Hamilton died the next day.

As a result we have a helluva story, and a Tony-award winning musical. What we missed out on was the probable presidency of one of our country’s most extraordinary geniuses. Crappy bargain, all things considered.

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The art of the Fourth

Happy birthday, America. Enjoy this retrospective of Independence Day in the arts…

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The way of no attachments

It’s been a quiet few weeks here at Deconstruction Central; perhaps you’ve noticed. There may or may not be a reasonable explanation for this…I guess it all depends on your definition of reasonable. I might partially blame it on a sort of paralysis born of these strange and swirling times of ours. What commentary can you make on culture, when the culture seems to have gone mad? And what can you say about art when art is failing to save us?

Oh, but those excuses ring hollow, even to me. So I’ll say just this: I took some time off to regroup and decompress. I suppose I’m nearly there.

In lieu of anything insightful to say, then, p’haps I can just share with you a glimpse of this little project that occupied a bit of my time this week past? The missus and the child were kind enough to obtain for me (as part of my massive and much-appreciated Fathers Day haul) an unpainted Buddha ceramic. It was a veritable blank slate, in a way that I think Siddhartha himself would have appreciated. I opted to go a strange route with it, and I think he might have been good with that too.

Is it an unwarranted mixing of the Eastern paradigms? Have I taken Shakyamuni down the path of the Tao, without his express approval? Maybe. But sometimes paradigm-jacking isn’t just acceptable, sometimes it’s called for. Sometimes you just gotta shake things up.

If you should meet Buddha on the road – give him my best, and tell him I said so.

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RIP Anthony Bourdain (June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018)

This one stings. Today and in coming days we’ll be hearing a lot of descriptions for Anthony Bourdain: celebrity chef, TV host, travel guide…but to me he’ll always be remembered as an extraordinarily gifted writer.

Not sure how Bourdain preferred to think of himself—the tragic fact he took his own life hints at some conflicts that weren’t readily apparent to the world. But I do recall hearing him laugh once when someone called him a celebrity chef. He said something about not having worked as a chef in a while. “But when I was, I was a working chef. There’s a big difference.”

He could be caustic, critical, devastatingly witty…and also sensitive, charming, and always blindingly intelligent and insightful. But now it’s clear these were public faces—the private might have been very dark, very different. We just don’t know.

We know only that he leaves behind a young daughter, who must be broken by this. We know that his good friend Eric Ripert found his body, and will surely be haunted by that for life.

We know this truth: suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. We know it leaves behind grief and anger, confusion and havoc.

I don’t want to judge Anthony Bourdain, because I don’t know what brought him to that terminal place. I want to remember him as a storyteller, as one of the most interesting people who lived in these very interesting times.

Everything’s a little darker this morning, and it’ll probably stay that way unless and until this makes some kind of sense. I suppose all we can do is hope he’s found the peace he felt was lacking.

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Weekend craftiness

So here is a purposeless little project I wrapped up this weekend—because sometimes I feel the call to make something, even if that something has no practical value whatsoever. Sometimes the making is simply for the making’s sake.

It started weeks ago when I found a wind-felled limb from a nearby maple tree, which included this odd curlicued branch. Didn’t have any sort of notion what I’d do with it, but I cut it off and brought it home, trusting that inspiration would chime in sooner or later.

And so it did. I’ve been wanting to dip my toe into lapidary for some time, and accordingly noticed that this ovoid chunk of petrified wood (which seemed apt for this project) fit rather well within the loop—even better once I stripped the bark and sanded the wood. Then I got recursive: a setting within a setting. There’s a dimple in the lower-right face of the petrified wood, so I affixed within it a small meteorite fragment. There is also (you can just see it in this image) a peridot gemstone set into short end of the maple branch. Interestingly, peridot can sometimes be found within meteorites, although judging from the price I paid for this specimen I have to assume it’s mundanely terrestrial.

There you have it. A successfully completed project lacking any objective other than to marry together some unlikely materials, and to give me something unusual to place on my desk and look at. I’ve decided to give it a grand name, inspired by its components from the past, and from afar: Space Time Continuum. Not bad for a stick, eh?

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Remembering Belleau Wood – a century of sacrifice

On Memorial Day we honor those service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. It’s fitting and fortuitous then that Memorial Day 2018 falls so closely to the centenary of the pivotal First World War Battle of Belleau Wood. Between June 1st and June 26th 1918, American Army and Marine forces fought alongside the French and British to stop an all-out German offensive. U.S. casualties included 1,811 killed, and more than 7,000 wounded.

Earlier that year the war’s Eastern Front had dissipated; Russia had undergone its revolution, and the victorious Bolsheviks sued for peace. Fifty German divisions were freed up for transfer to the west. By March they were arrayed against the Allied defensive lines within 100 miles of Paris. The German Spring Offensive was intended to break through and isolate the capital before the newly arrived American forces could be completely deployed. It was a solid plan, and it very well could have won the war.

Throughout May elements of five Imperial German divisions attacked all along the line around the River Marne. On the first of June they broke through around Chateau-Thierry and entered the Belleau Wood sector. They surrounded on three sides American forces, including the 2nd Division and a brigade from the 6th Marine Regiment, which were guarding the Paris-Metz Highway. These were reinforced by reserves, including the 23rd Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the Marine 6th Machine Gun Battalion, all of whom endured an overnight forced march to take their place on the line. They were all that stood between Paris, and the German Army.

The Americans held.

The battle raged for 26 days, at times devolving to bayonet charges and hand-to-hand slaughter. The French and British lines recovered, stabilized, and they were able to reinforce the beleaguered Americans. The Germans were pushed back from Belleau Wood, and the salient left from their breakthrough was enveloped and eliminated. The Germans retreated from France, and in October began suing for peace. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended.

The bravery of American forces at Belleau Wood had repercussions beyond what they could have anticipated, beyond even the beginning of the end for the German-Austrian Central Powers. It marked the rise of the United States to world-power status. It prompted the realpolitik remapping of Europe. And it heralded the mythic prominence of the U.S. Marine Corps, reportedly referred to as Teufelshunde (“devil dogs”) by awed opposing German soldiers.

On Memorial Day 1937 the Aisne-Marne military cemetery, located near Belleau Wood, was dedicated. It includes 2,288 Allied graves, 251 of which inter unidentified remains. To this day, and hopefully for all time, American, French, and British citizens honor these graves and give thanks for the sacrifices they represent.

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Innovation to the rescue

Here are a couple inconvenient truths for you: anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change is a fact, and we’re now way past the tipping point where behavior changes can avert disaster. So what is left to us?

Glad you asked.

Though the notion might be controversial to some (those with reasonable concerns about Pandora and her boxy precedent), it seems to me that innovation—science and technology—are the only viable solutions. Sure, they’re what spawned this catastrophe—in a less enlightened time we embraced the all-encompassing use of non-renewable energy without consideration of side effects. Aside from the willfully ignorant, we now know better. We’re now capable, I think (I hope), of leveraging technology to fix the mess we’ve created.

Cast your eyes toward Goodyear, venerable tire maker, corporate anchor of my hometown. They’ve recently introduced the Oxygene, a concept automotive tire based on current, available technologies that would reduce waste, promote sustainability, and actively reduce atmospheric carbon.

The Oxygene’s superstructure is semi-rigid, non-pneumatic, 3D-printed from powderized rubber waste. It houses a living sidewall, a colony of moss growing inside the tire, that’s watered by moisture picked up from the road, actively scrubbing carbon dioxide and releasing pure oxygen. And more: the photosynthesis actually creates energy—enough to power lights, road sensors, and LiFi connectivity.

If that all sounds too good to be true, well, this is where we remind ourselves this is a “concept” tire. Whether or not the Oxygene ever goes to production remains to be seen. Fingers crossed.

The point is valid, though, and it’s worth emphasizing: engineers and designers are working this problem. They’re grappling with the realities of climate change, and they’re creating viable solutions. The Oxygene tire might seem far out, in every sense of the term, but it harnesses proven, existing technologies. There’s no reason it, or something like it, can’t start converting carbon today.

Goodyear isn’t alone here. Dozens of companies are designing all manner of active carbon scrubbers. Other would-be Captain Planets are building ocean skimmers to remove the floating trash that pollute our seas, and genetically engineered organisms that can consume discarded plastic and spilled oil.

It’s lateral thinking. It’s a new, innovative approach. And it just might save the planet.

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Donald Glover’s American philosophy

Definitions fail us when we attempt to classify Donald Glover’s four-minute manifesto, This Is America. It’s a music video only in the most limiting sense. More accurately, it’s an experience, and not necessarily a pleasant one. DBA “Childish Gambino” (legend has it Glover created his rap identify via the online Wu-Tang Clan name generator), Glover created a catchy, thoughtful, honestly crafted tune, then paired it with a visual assault that can—probably will—jar you to your soul.

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Txt like an Egyptian



In a move sure to be cheered by classicists everywhere, the Unicode Consortium group, they who  guard the emoji gates, have proposed adding more than 2,000 Egyptian hieroglyphs to the approved character sets encoded on new smart phones, computers, and other digital devices.

The proposed list roughly corresponds to Egyptian iconography available to scribes during the early Greco-Roman period, roughly 300 BCE. Earlier, in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom periods (2700 BCE – 1000 BCE) the Egyptian “alphabet” consisted of around 700 characters. This soared to more than 7,000 during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which culminated with the reign of Cleopatra.

Which is no doubt interesting, but the larger point is that we can finally stop dabbling in pictography for our digital blatherings, and start using the original real deal. And although most of us haven’t yet learned to spell “Eggplant” in Ancient Egyptian, something tells me we’ll all soon know how.

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Another “new” Da Vinci

Every few years, it seems, the world is treated to a new Da Vinci attribution—that is, some Renaissance painting that held low-key status in a minor collection suddenly goes stratospheric as it is newly credited to the maestro himself, Leonardo Da Vinci.

It’s happened again: “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo,” a wood-panel painting and once part of an altarpiece at the Pistoia Cathedral in Tuscany, has been identified by conservators as an early apprenticeship work of a 23-year-old Leonardo. The painting is on display at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

The museum has owned the painting since the 1930s, when it was actually tentatively attributed to Da Vinci. As the work is unsigned, and perhaps out of an abundance of caution, the museum’s catalog revised the attribution to “disputed.” Then in the 1970s, they credited the work to Florentine painter Lorenzo di Credi.

The confusion is perhaps understandable, and not only due to Leonardo’s regrettable habit of not signing his work. During his days as a student in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, he contributed to numerous large-scale commissions, wherein he and other apprentices were expected to fill in scenery, background figures, etc.—this was artisanship, not necessarily artistry (or so it was seen at the time). The school itself was considered to be the creator; individual hands were irrelevant.

Posterity’s saving grace, and the reason for this new attribution, is Leonardo’s unparalleled technical mastery, which was evident in even his earliest work. We’re still uncovering the minutiae of his techniques (which helps explain the errors of attribution in previous decades), but we understand now that Leonardo’s use of perspective and vanishing points, and well-nigh microscopic details such as reflections painted onto the surface of subjects’ eyeballs, were unique enough to be signatures in of themselves. All of these are evident in the Saint Donatus painting, and although it’s more than likely that other students of the Verrocchio school contributed to the work, it’s as clear as it might be that Leonardo da Vinci was the primary artist.

All of which makes one wonder: how many more undiscovered Da Vincis still wait for us out there?

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Earth Day 2018

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