Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Specials musical treat for Halloween

Many of our Halloween traditions can be traced back to the pagan celebrations of the Celts. The telling of ghost stories, for example, coincides with the Celtic belief that at this time of year, during their festival of Samhain, the dimensions between living and dead became warped and spirits openly walked the Earth (read more interesting trivia on the Halloween page).

As the final hours of the holiday disappear into the ether, what better way to celebrate the festivities than to jump across the pond to the land of the Celts and watch this spooky bit of spirited ska from the Specials.

Scaring up a poem for the holiday

Firmly believing that there's nothing to fear but our fearful selves, I wrote this frightful attempt at an homage to Edgar Allen Poe a couple years back.

I hope it doesn't scare anyone away from this site. (Image at left from the painting Wheat Field with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh ... click to enlarge it)

By Francis Scudellari

Shallow breathing haunts me, trails me,
Seeks me out as I wonder, wander room to room.
A constant companion, never leaving my side.

Even now, sitting alone, turning dusty pages,
I hear the rasp; feel a cold wisp tickling my ears.
An icy finger traces a line up my back, my neck.

As my scalp tingles, my shoulders shudder,
I look around at the book-lined walls,
I search the cobwebbed corners, seeing no one.

Yet it's there -- peering through me, past me,
as I read, keeping pace, mouthing the words.
A presence waiting, watching, wanting.

Untouched by hunger, by thirst, I read on, half aware.
Gripped not by fear, but curiosity;
Distracted by the pulsing mist that caresses my neck.

Darkness spreading, not tired, but heeding time,
I climb the steps. A creak below, behind, following,
I close the door quickly to keep it out.

Inside, I open the window, allowing my thoughts escape.
Unsettled, I stare at the moon's down-turned face.
The chill air creeps in, flows over my bare feet.

The touch of an alabaster skin, ghostly, blankets me,
Like frost spreading slowly o'er the browning grass,
Enveloping the ever firming earth below.

My troubled mind, unable to push out the thoughts,
or dislodge the shaded images of the past,
follows the moon as it traces its lonely arc.

Tilling the field of a thousand lights near and far,
A wakeful dream, as the hours pass and sky brightens.
Distant hills reddening in glad welcome of the sun.

Dragging my body, now so weighted with age,
With care, with resignation, I pass back out,
Through the threshold, toward the glassy tiles.

I dip my cupped hands into the tepid water,
and splash my creased face, the unsalted drops
finding paths down my cracked cheeks

Raising my head, reaching for the cloth, I see it
Hovering, reflected, a vague shape behind.
I return to the basin, splash my eyes once more.

The features grow sharper. The form more distinct.
Each time I look, I see it more clearly,
Sensing, then knowing whose young eyes these are.

My eyes, my mouth, my nose but many years younger.
Facing up, I stare at it, it at me. A tear drops,
Down my cheek, his cheek, our cheek.

And then I, we fade away.

Giving and receiving ... a quick thank you

I have been twice blessed with the Bloggers With Integrity award.

First, Shinade at The Painted Veil honored the Climate Of Our Future blog that I co-author with the award in the category of Social Conscience. Then Deborah, who is the driving force behind Climate of our Future, bestowed it on Caught In The Stream for my Spirit of Giving.

I really appreciate the acknowledgments, especially coming from these two great bloggers. I'll work on selecting some other sites to pass this award on to.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Looking back on Elizabeth's Golden Age ... a self-serving myth?

I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age this weekend, and it proved a piece of cinema more thought provoking than I expected, although I can't completely endorse its sensibilities.

The film is a sweeping treatment of the forging of the British empire, but you do have to get past the overwrought, near-deification of the historic figure of Elizabeth (as played by the always amazing to watch Cate Blanchett); not to mention the rendering of romantic intrigues within the Queen's court that for me detracted from the subject's seriousness.

It's an interesting re-imagining of one of the most pivotal periods in English history, within the context of religious fanaticism that marks our own epoch. The film sometimes plays very loosely with historical fact in order to set up a clearly drawn battle between the ruthless, conquest-bent Spanish Catholics and the more enlightened, exploration-minded English Protestants. The Brits aren't portrayed as completely without fault by director Shekhar Kapur, but their failings are more nobly motivated by a too dogmatic service to principle and self-preservation.

Phillip II, the King of Spain and self-appointed moralistic avenger, at times comes across as simple minded in his child-like faith, affected speech, and mincing gait. He's marked as the obvious villain of the story early on as vampire-like he shies away from the sunlight. The dark complected Spaniard is, however, clever enough to orchestrate the pretext for a war to capture England's Queen, using fellow zealot Mary Queen of Scots as his sacrificial pawn.

The mind reels at what possible modern equivalents Kapur may be drawing comparisons to, but the most obvious parallel is to religious ideologues of all backgrounds and beliefs. Certainly some will see it as a propping up of besieged Western values, but I choose to look at it in a way that yields parallels to fanaticism at play on both sides of the hemispheric divide.

The film does fall back on the time-honored, stereotypical, light-dark duality in its portrayal of good and evil. The luminescently fair Elizabeth, brilliantly attired in her full royal regalia, embraces the ethos of the Age of Discovery, and she sees her rival Papists as a threat to her subjects' freedom of belief. At times wracked by self-doubt and insecurity, she's nonetheless shown as a figure of towering strength who, Christ-like, is willing to sacrifice her personal happiness in order to play the role of sovereign to her people.

There is a very problematic nod to the propaganda of empire, as Sir Walter Raleigh parades two Native Americans before his Queen, proclaiming their need for a ruler. He also offers her "gifts" of potatoes, tobacco and gold that were appropriated from the New World he's claimed in her name. It's a troubling glossing over of the subjugation of the peoples and looting of the resources of the Americas that the Europeans assumed was their divine right. This is a British-made costume drama with no avowed pretensions for documenting the complexities of history, so a more realistic interpretation of events may be expecting too much of it.

In the scene before the film's climactic sea battle, Elizabeth exhorts the troops to victory while astride her horse and fully suited in shimmering armor. It's the moment when she comes into her own as the shining shepherdess of England's Golden Age. With this film, Kapur has taken on the traditional role of praise-singing English bard, exalting the feats of rulers past to assure their lasting legacy in the popular imagination. It's an intriguing piece of modern myth making, but one whose murky ambitions I haven't yet fully grasped.

Speaking of mundane facts about me ... a desktop meme

Deborah, my friend and colleague over at Climate of Our Future, has tagged me with the "What's the look of your computer personality?" meme in which I'm supposed to post a screen shot of my desktop so that the world can gain a deeper insight into my twisted personality.

I'm not sure how revealing it is, other than displaying my weakness for small furry critters (Lucy and Albert the pugs, to be specific), but here it is ...

Before the dogs, I had a lovely close-up shot of a butterfly that my friend Doug took in his garden. Either my mother guessed my personality well when she named me after Saint Francis of Assisi, or self-knowing I had to live up to the name I became a Nature lover. That's an interesting philosophical debate I'll leave for another time.

As my favorite number is three, I'll pick a trio of writers I admire to participate in the fun:
  • It wouldn't be a meme post if I didn't get wonderfully creative Jeane Michelle Culp, the Poetress, involved, so I'll tag her over at Binding Ink.
  • I've always admired the edginess of Raven's no-holds-barred posts over at Stuper Hero Extraordinaire, so I'm sure she'll have something interesting to share.
  • Lisa McGlaun's LifePrints site is a place from which I take daily inspiration, so I'll impose on her seemingly infinite generosity.

A tip of the hat to James Boswell, 18th century proto-blogger

October 29th marks the 267th anniversary of the birth of James Boswell, who is most famously remembered as the biographer of the English literary lion Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Boswell had a habit of meticulously journaling the details of his everyday conversations and interactions, and it was from this revealing record of his time spent socializing with Dr. Johnson that he constructed Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). It's a volume that's considered one of the greatest biographies ever written in the English language because of the depth of the very personal portrayal of its subject.

My good friend and accomplished artist George Kokines has taken to calling me Boswell because of my own tendency to catalog the events of my daily life on this blog. He's also suspicious that I'm committing to memory his many fascinating tales for future use in a biographical tome. As good as George's material is, I don't think I could write anything that approached the celebrity of Boswell's work.

Instead I'll humbly doff my cap to a man who blazed a trail for writers wanting to elevate the mundane jottings of a journal to literary greatness.

Peace, a meditation in 4 parts: Four, Defying Doubters

Those of us who cling to hope in cynical times often face the mockery of a world filled with doubters. Peace is seen by these naysayers as a foolish dream, always doomed to be undermined by what they glibly describe as humanity's combative nature.

Even if they're right, and I don't believe they are, which is the more noble endeavor: to endlessly strive like Sisyphus against impossible odds; or to never aspire to greatness and meekly accept defeat?

We certainly have a steep hill to climb to get to Peace, but recent technological developments should create optimism that the rock is rolling in the right direction. The envisioned path to victory is still taking shape, but the vague outlines of our destination grow crisper each day.

With the improvements in communications, old barriers are collapsing and people are connecting as never before across the crumbling walls. It's becoming harder for those in power to filter our view of others through the warped lens of prejudice.

For those with the curiosity to seek it, a vast amount of information is more freely available than ever before. Given access to an encyclopedic array of resources, we can see, hear and experience the complexity of the world as never before; but we're also interacting with that world more creatively.

The new web-based media tools give us the ability to not only passively absorb other perspectives, but to project our essential selves out into the universe and engage it in a lively conversation. This mixing of varied experiences, in combination with a new capacity to tinker, will help unlock previously unimagined possibilities for progress.

Increased familiarity with other points of view will breed new loyalties, and a contempt for those authorities who continue to perpetuate false divisions. Power dynamics will shift, and old parties will see their influence fade if they don't adjust to these realities. It will be a moment of great opportunity, but also of great danger as the defenders of an inevitably failing status quo will do what they can to hold on to their advantages.

Our best hope lies in staying true to our cause. The moment we put the service of an ideology or political theory ahead of the best interests of humanity and the Earth, we've lost the battle. Our goal is to achieve a peaceful, sustainable existence, not prove the supremacy of a particular viewpoint. If our leaders make demands of us that jeopardize that outcome, we need to find new ones.

Can we win world peace? Changing a question into an exclamation is as simple as altering the inflection of our voice. Rather than asking the cynics what's wrong with wanting peace, love and understanding, we need to insist that nothing is.

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?
by Elvis Costello

As I walk through, this wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?

As I walk on, through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted, sometimes
So, where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony? ... Sweet harmony!
'Cause each time I feel it slip away,
Just makes me want to cry ...
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?

So, where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony? ... Sweet harmony!
'Cause each time I feel it slip away,
Just makes me want to cry ...
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Peace, a meditation in 4 parts: Three, Self and Society

The pursuit of Peace has an inner-outer duality that can prove quite challenging. Chicken/egg questions of priority arise, and each of us usually commits to one extreme more than the other. I know I've always erred too much on the side of the social at the expense of the self.

Can we achieve lasting peace in our social interactions if we haven't mastered our personal demons?

Is it possible to be inwardly tranquil when the world around us is falling apart?

The Medieval pseudo-science of Alchemy embodied a very artful metaphor in its quest to discover the philosopher's stone. This magical object represented the ideal of inner purity that just by touch could elevate baser metals such as lead to a higher, golden form. By an extending leap of logic, the person who achieved the wisdom of the ages could also transform all those contacted, allowing them to reach their full potential.

In practice, however, many of the men who pursued this Holy Grail grew so enrapt in their books and experiments that they shut themselves off from the outside world and were of no use to it. Retreating into themselves in the vain pursuit of perfection, their means became master to the end. Not wanting to act until confident of their abilities, they completely abandoned the stage.

There are stories as well at the other pole of experience, where persons devoted themselves entirely to a social cause at the expense of their self and sanity. Rushing out into the world, hoping to do good without a full understanding of how, it's easy to crash on the wave of misdirected good intentions; and there are plenty of organizations willing to misguide those youthful energies.

When our ideals fail us, it's tempting to seek out the solace of escape. The losing of one's religion often proves pretext to gaining the bad habit of withdrawal. There is a cautionary tale buried in our country's movement from the society-changing fervor of the 1960s to the drug-fueled excesses of the 1970s.

It's a quest in itself to find that fine balance between the needs of self and society; maintaining a sense of who we are as individuals while contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. American society has grown out of tune on both fronts. There's a schizophrenic disconnect between the things we believe and the things we do. Bridging that widening chasm is going to prove very difficult, but we can't shy away from the task.

As we collectively try to reconcile the slipping away of our ideals, we may find ourselves tempted to seek the peace of amnesia. As described in the song lyrics below, it's a false path that will lead us to oblivion rather than serenity.

To be continued ...

Drinker's Peace
by Guided by Voices

At times I wish I were dead
Busy people dancing all over my head
This I value with every move they make
Real bad headache with every step they take

I get a contact buzz
Can't remember what the problem was
I find it hard to even care
Life was too real until you got there

My life is dirt but you seem to make it cleaner
Reduce my felony to a misdemeanor
When I feel sick you're an antibiotic
Organize my world that was pointless and chaotic

I get a contact buzz
Can't remember what the problem was
I find it hard to even care
Life was too real until you got there

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Peace, a meditation in 4 parts: Two, Dispensing with Doublethink

Many times in our society, things become their opposite. In George Orwell's 1984 the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent authority of Big Brother limited the oppressed citizenry's aspirations by sowing mental confusion through turns of phrase that the author dubbed doublethink. It's a wicked little practice embraced bawdily by the allegedly democratic leaders who mask well their closeted desires for autocracy.

The naming of the Peacekeeper missile was one recent American incarnation of this rhetorical bit of twisted logic, and in this Renaissance period for Ronald Reagan Think we're often told that we must wage war in order to win the peace. I can't argue with the efficacy of armed conflict to dispatch many to that state of physical peace we call death. War's ability to lay the foundation for mental, emotional and spiritual transcendence is much less reliable.

Those youth we enlist to do our bloody handiwork across borders usually come back irreparably scarred by the experience. The residents of those countries to which our soldiers are sent as ambassadors of the missile and bullet, are left with bitter hearts and vengeful minds. Back here at home, where the "enemy" culture has been cast in the role of two-dimensional, brutish villains by the best Hollywood and Madison Avenue image crafters, the domestic gross product is dominated by hate and racism.

Too often we're taught that peace has to come on our own terms or not at all. The concepts of right and wrong become deceptively simple when we throw up divisive walls, but they don't mirror reality. Navigating through the ambiguity of conflicting perspectives is much more difficult, but it's the only way to win a fuller comprehension of our own place in this world and universe.

I've enthusiastically endeavored to participate in and promote this new phenomenon of social networking we see dominating the Internet, and I think that an answer lies within that nebula of interactions. The more we know and understand about each other, across the many artificial divides politicians and clerics like to erect as obstacles in our path, the less likely it is we'll make unrealistic demands of our new found neighbors, and ourselves.

Chicago Punk pioneers Naked Raygun wrote the below paean to the Reagan-era bravado that we need to jettison if we're ever going to break through the barriers keeping us from Peace.

To be continued ...

by Naked Raygun

I am the peacemaker
I'll pound sand right up your ass
Our moral codes differ
You're scum ... that is all

A trail of sh*t follows you around
On the edge, it's a hell of a drop
Your number's up
We've got your name and your middle name

I am the peacemaker
I'm right and you are wrong
I am the peacemaker
You are wrong that is all

A trail of filth follows you around
On the edge
It's a hell of a drop


Peace, a meditation in 4 parts: One, Idealism vs. Ideologies

If you've ever participated in an anti-war protest like the one that took place in Chicago's loop on Saturday, you can't help but feel a creeping sense of disappointment. Disappointment that almost 5 years on the message isn't reaching more people; disappointment that bigger things aren't being accomplished; disappointment that too many seem concerned with furthering their narrow organizational goals rather than building a true movement for peace.

It wasn't all bad. Thousands of ordinary folks did rally from around the Midwest to voice their opposition to the Iraq War and its many harmful repercussions. Speeches were made; most with moving and coherent arguments for making better use of the billions of dollars spent on this foreign policy sinkhole. At the end of the day, however, everyone went their separate ways and the course of the war proceeds apace.

Polls show a large majority of Americans are now against our president's Middle Eastern military adventure, but that doesn't translate into a social movement strong enough to influence the country's foreign and domestic policies. There's no coherent vision of a way forward coming from the Left, and that's why so many have meekly taken the hand of our current administration, which is leading us all down a very dark path.

Most Americans still view the peace movement with a mixture of suspicion and cynicism. They suspect that the protest is being driven by the same lefty fringe elements who have always staked a claim to its leadership. They're dubious whether the marches are effective, or are merely empty gestures best left to youth and stuck-in-the-60s radicals. For the idea of Peace to catch fire in the popular imagination, we have to frame the debate in a completely new way — casting aside the whithered ideologies of the past and reviving the ideals that have laid dormant too long in our collective consciousness.

We are hampered by a creative laziness that too easily falls back on old models of resistance, and closes itself off from the full range of new possibilities for change. Our times call for openness; the recapturing of an innocence that allows us to see the world and our actions in new contexts. Only by breaking free of the cages we've built around our imaginations can we reach our full potential.

Idealism is often viewed with skepticism in our society, which confuses principled opposition with naivité. We use the slippery slope of exceptions to damn our hope of better days. Rather than trusting in and appealing to the better natures of the broad majority, we condemn and elevate the example of the most selfish and narrowly motivated.

The only thing we fear more than failure is uncertainty, and many times that causes us to clasp on to the first sure sounding solution offered us. Ambiguity marks this moment in human history, and rather than being cowered into shadowy corners of regressive ideas, we need to take advantage of the possibility for true creativity that comes with it.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from history, but true art lies in mixing those old forms with innovative techniques. It's a challenge that we all must actively take up, and stop waiting passively for the answers to drop deus-ex-machina like from heaven.

To be continued ...

Peace, perfect peace
by Toots and the Maytals

Peace, perfect peace
I cry for peace in this neighborhood
Oh, love, perfect love
I beg you for love in this neighborhood

No water can cool this fire,
Only the Lord can save us
I cry for peace in this neighborhood

I take a look inside and this is what I see
We need more love, we need more love in this community
Oh, I take a look inside and this is what I see
We need more love, we need more love in this community

Peace, perfect peace
I cry for peace in this neighborhood
Oh, love, perfect love
I cry for love in this neighborhood

No water can cool this fire
Only the Lord can save us
I cry for peace in this neighborhood

I take a look inside and this is what I see
Faith can move mountains, only love can set us free
I take a look inside and this is what I see
We need more love, we need more love in this community

Peace, perfect peace
I cried for peace in this neighborhood
Oh, love, oh, love, perfect love
I cried for love in this neighborhood

Friday, October 26, 2007

FEMA's early Halloween costume party

I couldn't resist taking this quick shot ...

Many are rightly up in arms about FEMA's sham press conference where they masqueraded the agency's own employees as journalists posing questions to deputy administrator Harvey Johnson (see the Reuters story US disaster agency apologizes for fake 'reporters'). Considering FEMA's image sensitivity after the black eye of their mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, and following repeated attempts by the White House to use paid propagandists to shape public perceptions, is anyone really surprised?

That said, it's hard not to wonder whether the event would have gone any differently had "real" news writers shown up. With the current sorry state of American journalism, where mass media reporters spend more time investigating the substance abuse of young starlets than the constitutional crimes of Bush and Cheney, it's not hard to imagine their pens dutifully parroting the administration's party line on the California wildfire relief efforts.

On the Campaign Trail: Bashing Inevitability

As I continue my occasional election coverage, which I've too cleverly titled Derision 2008, I find myself wrestling with the seeming inevitability of Hillary Clinton's Democratic nomination. John Edwards and Barack Obama are doing their best to keep their names uttered in the same breath with the word president, but the polls show an ever widening gap, and the big dollars of America's king, now queen, makers are lining up behind the former first lady.

Today is Hillary's milestone 60th birthday, and last night her family trotted out an A-list of musicians and movie stars to help stuff her card with a $1.5 million campaign check (see the AP's Clinton Uses Birthday to Raise Funds). In our backward political system where money becomes the determining factor in every major electoral contest, it's hard not to feel disenfranchised by the mass media using Hillary's financial momentum to proclaim a victor before the first primary vote is even cast.

It's an interesting commentary on our electoral process that alternative voices are so easily silenced by the overwhelming white noise of cascading campaign coin clanking in a rival candidate's coffers. From the highest to lowest national and state offices, the strained call for reform initiated by grass-roots campaigns increasingly stands no chance against the bullhorn of big money championing the status quo.

Already, one-year out, the campaigns of challengers such as Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, whose politics most closely resemble my own, have been rendered completely inconsequential by the media. Unless there's a sudden reversal in fortune, Obama and Edwards could soon suffer the same fate. The one chink in Hillary's armor may be her continued bellicose stance on foreign affairs, and the two remaining jousters are doing their best to exploit that weakness (see CNN's Iran becoming new Iraq on campaign trail).

I'm told that Elvis Costello played for Ms. Clinton's big birthday bash. As thousands of Iraq War protesters prepare to gather in the streets of downtown Chicago tomorrow, I can only hope that Mr. Costello played one of my favorite songs at the fete. It's an emotionally resonant piece about the sad repercussions of the intertwining of war and industry. Hillary should keep it in mind when she straps on her saber for rattling.

by Elvis Costello

Is it worth it
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy's birthday
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we'll be shipbuilding
Well I ask you
The boy said "Dad they're going to take me to task
But I'll be back by Christmas"
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding
With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls
It's just a rumour that was spread around town
A telegram or picture postcard
Within weeks they'll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again
It's all we're skilled in
We will be shipbuilding

A Fall Night Out in Rogers Park: Catching Cabaret, Carving Pumpkins

The amazing and very local (it's literally right around the corner from me at 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.) theater company Theo Ubique is mounting a new production of the musical Cabaret. Last night a group of us attended the final preview before tonight's opening. Under the incredible direction of Fred Anzevino, all the performances were exceptional and I highly recommend dropping by Rogers Park to check it out.

I even have a small personal connection to the production. My good friend George Kokines created 30 large scale drawings based on the sketches of George Grosz, which I helped hang around the theater space to give the audience added insight into the time and place of the drama.

The sometimes cartoonish, sometimes ghoulish characters that populate Grosz's drawings definitely put one in the mood of Berlin between the wars. Below is a sampling of the pieces we hung along the south wall of the space ...

If you're not familiar with Cabaret, it's an interesting play to revive now. Depicting the denizens of a decadent Berlin night club sleep walking their way through life as the Nazis rise to power, it's a cautionary tale of the need to be on guard against the naive belief that the worst can never happen and others will take care of society's problems for us.

Choosing to ignore the spread of brutal, reactionary and racist ideologies, we end up abetting the contagion. There are times when we have to take a stand, no matter how much we'd rather be dancing our lives away. Here is a more detailed shot of a couple sketches ...

After the play ended, our little gang of drawing hangers met at the local watering hole (the Buffalo Bar at the Heartland Café) to raise a glass to the kickoff of a very successful run for Theo Ubique. Sophie, below letting Jim know what's what, organized a pumpkin carving to benefit the good folks at the Howard Area Community Center. If you click on the image to enlarge it and squint, you can make out my knife work next to Sophie's elbow.

Terry, who risked life and limb atop a rickety ladder to staple most of the drawings in place, had a point at the end of his finger to make ...

George basked in the awareness that 25 cents would soon be his because of the Red Sox trending toward a World Series sweep of my favored Rockies. Wanting to give us amateurs a chance, he left the gourd sculpting to Jim and I.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Celebrating Picasso's Gift

Pablo Picasso was born on this date in 1881, and we residents of Chicago are lucky enough to have received a very special gift of public sculpture from one of the last century's most famous visual artists.

He was a towering figure in popular culture — known the world over for his bold, innovative work, over-sized personality and leftist political leanings — and Chicago's Picasso is a perfect reminder of that legacy.

The gloriously ambiguous 50-foot steel structure still graces Daley Plaza downtown, and is one of our city's most famous landmarks. The artist generously refused payment for the work, which was unveiled in 1967 amid some controversy locally. It's become the focal point of many a political rally, as the plaza is a traditional gathering place for protests of all varieties.

I took the photo above during Chicago's participation in the March 15, 2003 worldwide day of protest against the impending war in Iraq. I think the image is a fitting 126th anniversary tribute to Picasso who painted one of the most powerful statements against war: Guernica.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Elemental Vision: a verse reaction

Finding no particular inspiration in any of today's specific news, events, or anniversaries, I retreated into a poetic meditation on the general tenor of my current frame of mind.

Recently, I've been pondering a vague image of an individual's small hands trying to hold back the gushing force of the societal changes raining down on us. The following poem took its first halting steps from that motif, but as with everything I write, it soon found its own stride and the lines flowed in a much different direction than I anticipated.

I'm not quite sure if I completely understand or fully approve its form and content, but as my good friend George Kokines says about his paintings, I've gotten to the point where I accept it.

Elemental Vision
By Francis Scudellari

I. Water
Damned, us, with clutched hands
Prayed on, pushed against
The tidal flood's flow,
Waves surging, drenching,
Overwhelming old
Truths once tightly clasped

II. Earth
Buried, accustomed
To/o neat darkness laid
Lying still, disturbed
Ground quaking, trembling,
Found(n)ations shifting,
Death's pride uncov'ring

III. Air
Sheltered, shut in, out
Of changing winds, back
Turning over, gales
Swirling, toppling, gusts
Razing battlements
Built up against hope

IV. Fire
Heaped, under bitter,
Cold black ash, waiting
Embers igniting,
Lit, new life sparking,
Blazing imagined
Paths through minds, fields cleared

V. Void
Freed, spirit buoyed
Passions un-Earthed, -tilled
Vision unclouded
Enflamed, to create
Chaos re-stored, our
Possible re-berthed

(Graphic Details: Remnants of Kepler's Supernova (en:SN 1604). This image has been constructed of images from NASA's en:Spitzer space telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and en:Chandra X-ray Observatory.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Minding the gaps: it's time to make the connections

Lately, my mind has been obsessing over gaps ...
  • The gap between the rosy colored fictions of global warming deniers and the the paint it black reality of the scientific evidence predicting dire consequences of continued inaction.

  • The gap between the real needs of our society and the upside-down priorities of our government's funding choices.

  • The gap between the backward looking solutions of the misleaders vying to steer the teetering US ship of state and the type of future focused vision we'll require to see us through trouble tossed times that lie ahead.

After years of official foot-dragging and corporate funded refusals to kick our fossil fuel addiction, a new report is in showing that increased reliance on coal-burning power plants is speeding up the damage we're doing to the planet's atmosphere and oceans (see Carbon Dioxide in Atmosphere Increasing from the Associated Press).

Despite the Kyoto protocol, which the world's two biggest polluters (the US and China) refused to sign on to, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have gone up 35% since 1990. That's a rate that outpaced the worst predictions of climate scientists, and it shows the ineffectiveness of cap and trade models that try to set modest goals for reducing our carbon emissions.

The time has come for bold vision and a radical re-imagining of society that gives highest priority to creating a sustainable economy built on renewable energy sources. We need a call to action you won't hear from any of the contenders for 2008's presidency, in either party, as both are heavily funded by business interests with large stakes in the status quo.

The politicos may want to take a look at the October issue of Wired Magazine, which includes a story on a new book that's creating controversy in environmental circles. In Break Through, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have taken on some of the movement's leading lights (including recent Nobel-prize winner Al Gore) for not doing enough in deference to special interests, such as labor.

They've staked out a position outside the traditional perspectives of conservative and liberal policy makers alike, and advocate a major investment of federal monies to develop new green technologies. Here is an interesting and timely excerpt from the article Two Environmentalists Anger Their Brethren:
Even if every American SUV owner were to buy a hybrid tomorrow, that wouldn't come close to offsetting the environmental damage being perpetrated around the globe. In fact, all the standards, cap-and-trade limits, and emission reductions that environmentalists have been pushing for may slow, but will never reverse, global warming. And that is Nordhaus and Shellenberger's inconvenient truth. "There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions," they write in their introduction, "without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute."

... Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue passionately that the only appropriate response to the climate crisis is a federally funded, $300 billion Manhattan Project to rapidly develop new forms of greentech. Nothing short of that, they argue, can jump-start the transition to a green economy in time. ...

Read the full article
I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know the details of what they propose, or their specific criticisms of the movement's old guard. They've certainly cast aside any concern for stepping on toes, but the time for niceties and half-measures is past and I applaud anyone kick-starting a debate with new ideas.

Our priorities have been misplaced for too long, and we're getting to a point of no return. Some projections forecast a doomsday climatic scenario as early as 2030 if we don't reverse current trends. Where could we get the kind of money needed to invest in such a large scale federally backed program? Ending Bush's Middle East fiasco would make a good place to start (see Bush asks skeptical Congress for more war money from Reuters)

Note: Image above taken from Matthew D. Wilson's (LtPowers) photo of The Kintigh Generating Station in Somerset, New York.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The value of these voters may be inflated

The Republican candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination went a courting the religious right this weekend; flowery words and candied platitudes in hand to prove their love to the conservative Christians christening themselves as values voters (see Religious Right Divides Its Vote at Summit from the New York Times).

They are a group who though taking the name of the New Testament's protagonist as their titular guide, never seem to get past the eye-for-an-eye morality of the Bible's first half. They like to rain Old Testament vengeance down on anyone not fitting their mold of moralistic behavior. They have an amazing propensity to ignore the bits of the good book that don't suit their purposes, even though Christ's words most often contradict their own.

Jesus may be their savior, but his lessons fall on deaf ears. Believing themselves righteous beyond reproach, they gladly cast the first, second and every other stone that lies close by their graspy hands. Proclaiming themselves the defenders of life, they were instrumental in electing a President who indiscriminately wielded the power of state execution as Governor of Texas. He also launched us into a war that defies anyone's definition of just, and caused the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and innocent Iraqi civilians.

Their inverted values prize hate over love, and retribution over mercy. Christ's example of forgiveness and inclusiveness got lost in the King James translation of their Bibles, replaced with the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament's vengeful deity. His vilification of those who seek material wealth is conveniently overlooked. His selfless model for feeding the poor, embracing the outcast, and ministering to the sick is mostly forgotten.

If these values voters looked a little more closely at their leadership, they might recognize the manipulation of good intentions that's taking place. Thankfully, the far right's political sway is diminishing as the repercussions of their favorite son's policy's manifest themselves. That's George W. Bush , not Jesus.

A plummeting dollar and upward trending inflation will mean much economic hardship for Americans, a situation exacerbated by the monetary drain of this unwinable war. The next President will likely have to deal with a major recession, needing to feed growing numbers of hungry and provide health care to the mounting uninsured. I don't see anyone in the Republican ranks up to that task. Maybe it will take the second coming of Christ himself to win them back the White House, but I don't think he'd find much worthwhile in the Republican's current platform.

Christ for President
Words by Woody Guthrie

Let's have Christ our president.
Let us have him for our king.
Cast your vote for the carpenter
that you call the Nazarene.

The only way we can ever beat
these crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
And put the Carpenter in

O It's Jesus Christ our president
God above our king
With a job and a pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring

Every year we waste enough
to feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
and we shoot it down with wars

But with the Carpenter on the seat
away up in the capital town
the USA would be on the way prosperity bound!

Scaling the dizzying heights of Gillespie's horn

Continuing my efforts to highlight the great musicians of bebop, today marks the 90th anniversary of the day trumpet great John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie took his first full-cheeked breath. (The image at left is a portrait of Gillespie taken by photographer Carl Van Vechten on Dec. 2, 1955).

Even jazz novices would recognize Diz for the remarkable, almost impossible reserves of air he maintained in those rubbery membranes around his mouth. Dizzy had a unique instrument in both looks and virtuosity. The bell of the horn pointed heavenward, he shepherded the early bebop jazz sound playing with all the legends of the form.

Gillespie also helped give birth to the Afro-Cuban jazz genre that merged Latin rhythms with bebop . He was a world traveler and a jazz ambassador, captivating audiences around the globe with his trademark style and play. Here is a 1958 live performance of A Night In Tunisia that I found on YouTube ...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Casting these ... today's abstract word play

When words otherwise fail, it's always good to fall back on a poem. Today's indulgence is a recently crafted bit of abstraction with quirky word play. It's a good palate cleanser after the last post's feast of overstuffed ideas.

Casting these ...
by Francis Scudellari

Casting these, many taught, lines out
hooked, each name drop-
ping, plinked

shallow ponds, sending ripples
out word circles

lapping, merging, growing one/
all, encompassing,
a- ware/y

channeling, un-damned flows up,
linked, pooled, drawing in
schooled streams

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Escaping a certain fate: changing a frame of mind

I've always been struck by the overwhelmingly negative tenor of most cinematic imaginings of our future. The vast majority of science and fantasy fictive projections of our tomorrows posit a post-apocalyptic world: depressed, dark and barren. They often depict regressed societies forced to go primitive and trying to overcome and rebuild, or escape and survive.

There are of course exceptions, and my guess is that a lot of more positive renderings never make it into the mainstream culture outlets. Negativity sells, modern audiences have been trained to accept cynicism more easily than hope, and all the trends of our time incline the viewer toward cataclysmic thoughts.

I've watched two films recently that cast such dark gazes into our future selves, albeit with very different styles and settings. The first is action heavy with big Hollywood box office aspirations sprawled out across the sandy American southwest. The other is a quirky French art house project acted out with a wry sense of humor in the intimate apartments above a Parisian butcher shop.

Oddly both feature collapsed societies from the not-too-distant future that are dominated by those with a compulsion to devour human flesh. Buried in the blood and gore I tried to discover an abiding faith in the human capacity to circumvent the worst of circumstances, but these are some dire straits.

Part I – Resident Evil

Last weekend I went with a friend to see the recent release Resident Evil: Extinction. It was my introduction to this video-game inspired franchise, but I was able to get up to speed on its general premise pretty quickly. It's certainly not high-brow cinema, but there are elements of it that reflect the contemporary collective consciousness.

The broad outline of the back-story is that the evil Umbrella Corp. has unleashed a deadly virus on the world that turns the Earth's landscape into a uniformly barren desert, and evolves most of its denizens, both human and animal, into zombified mutants wanting nothing more than to chomp the innards of unlucky passersby.

The hero is a super-human, zombie-killing machine named Alice who was genetically modified by the bad guys who unleashed the viral menace. She's a modern female high-plains drifter, skirting her way through the dunes, helping any remaining normals in need, and trying to avoid both the zombies and the Umbrella Corp. henchman. Both sets of villains have a penchant for popping up unexpectedly as in the video game.

Alice's engineered blood holds the scientific key to an antidote, but the mad scientist of the story also sees the potential for using it as a serum to domesticate the zombies into a drone work force. Also traveling the abandoned roadways of the southwest are a convoy of poorly defined characters who have banded together to try to find an uncorrupted corner of the world where they can rebuild.

The film on the whole is little more than a loose story strung together around the money-making scenes filled with special effected explosions, crashes, stunts and gore. It is however an interesting little window into the general cultural cynicism of our time.

There is the mistrust of the corporate-owned science that is tinkering with every aspect of Nature in order to discover new profit-making mechanisms. There is the suspicion of a society over-run by mass mindlessness, where jobs have become so scarce and deskilled they can be performed by automatons. There is the fear of an environment decimated by our mismanagement; the earth returned to a wind-swept rock.

The limited vision of the authors can only offer up the clichéd biblical hope of a new Messiah to rise up out of the desert and deliver us from evil to a promised land. Interestingly, Alice, moses-like, is only able to lead this group exodus part-way toward their goal before going her own way. Of course, the story is to be continued.

Part II – Delicatessen

A few days before heading to the theater, I watched the DVD of the 1991 film Delicatessen. It's a visually clever, dark comedy set in a dystopic future France where domestic animals and their meat have gone extinct, grain is used for currency, and a rebel force of vegetarians roams the sewers. The butcher Clapet keeps his business going by luring unsuspecting tenants to the an apartment above his shop with the promise of free lodging in return for odd jobs.

The circus performer Luison stumbles into this trap, but stays one step ahead of the cannibalistic butcher's knife with the help of Clapet's daughter Julie, who falls for his clownish charm. Luison still looks at this collapsed world with rosé colored glasses, believing the brutality to which most have succumbed a symptom of necessity rather than a moral failing.

Attempting to rise above the abasement, the shadowy Troglodistes have gone underground to the sewers pursued by what remains of a governing authority. They're a well-intentioned but absurdly bumbling mercenary crew, bought off by Julie with promises of access to Clapet's store of corn in order to come to Luison's rescue. As with everything else in the film, nothing goes according to plan, but things work their way out for the best, Rube Goldberg style.

It's a meditation on the depths to which much of humanity will sink when abandoned by society and forced to rely on their own devices to survive. The tenants submit to Clapet's harsh rule to avoid the edge of his blade, and they line up for his ill-gotten goods because, driven by hunger, they've come to expect no better for or from themselves.

Louison, playing the wise fool, maintains his moral compass and survives precisely because of his naively optimistic outlook. His persistent grasp on the finer points of human nature keeps him from falling blindly into the tenants' bestial march to the slaughterhouse.

Conclusion – Escape

What fascinates me about these two so different films, and many others like them, is the sense of a world headed toward disaster that informs the reality of their futures. It's as if the collective creative consciousness detects an inescapably negative trend toward economic, social, environmental, and political collapse.

If such a gloomy feeling dominates our expectation of things to come, these worst-case prophecies may become self-fulfilling. We're at a critical moment in human history, and the choices we make today will shape our tomorrows. Allowing ourselves to be carried along on the tidal waves of suspicion, fear and apathy, we'll wash up on a recognizably arid shore.

It's not too late to pilot our way toward a more hospitable climate, but that will require some much more positive creativity. The innocence and honesty that most today disdain, may in fact hold the key to our survival. Looking at the world with naked eyes can reveal new possibilities.

That's how I escaped my certain fate
by Mission of Burma

This might be your only chance
to prove it on your own
Tulsa's not that ...
Tulsa's not that far

Besides if you stay
I'd feel a certain guilt
Did I hold you
Did I hold you back?

Can I count on you
If I fall apart?
Yeah, if I fall a...
If I fall apart?

That's how I escaped my certain fate
That's how I escaped my certain fate
Innocence, a novice's mistake!!!
That's how I escaped my certain fate
That's how I escaped my certain fate
Honesty's an actor's worst mistake!!!
That's how I escaped my certain fate!!!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In Between Days: Thoughts turning with the calendar

Back in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed a new calendar that corrected a flaw in the Julian method of date-keeping that previously held sway. The older misaccounting of years caused a lag that resulted in the loss of a day almost every century. The Gregorian made solar amends by dropping leap days for centuries not divisible by 400 (for example, in 2000 there was an extra day, but in 2100 there won't be).

Adding to the bitterness of the corrective pill to be swallowed, Gregory struck the dates Oct. 5 through 14 of 1582 from the historical record. Many contemporary folks felt cheated of 10 days of their lives, and balked at the idea. It took the stubborn Brits, along with their colonies, until 1752 to fall into step with the rest of Europe. The Russians required a revolution before joining in the fun in 1918.

I've always been fascinated by the history of the Western reckoning of time; trying to synch our increasingly irregular quotidian cycles to the natural rhythms of the world and universe. We often fool ourselves that we're masters of temporal passages. We sprinkle our leap years with extra days to compensate for imprecise measure of the sun's annual sojourn. We push clock hands forward and back pretending to control the sun's rise and fall.

There are times when skipping ahead into the future might seem a blessing. In the midst of difficult seas, we all want to fast forward to a smoother patch of water. It's usually those in between days that offer us the best opportunity for growth, however, and the hardships of the journey enable us to savor the safe harbor of a destination reached.

In many ways we reside in an in between time now; a threshold moment where technological advances are making possible great social shifts. We stand paused in the doorway between two worlds afraid to step into the seeming darkness that lies ahead. There's a great temptation to turn and go back, but that door is closed and locked behind us. We can best light our way forward with a creative vision fueled by hope rather than fear, using the torch of our imaginations to discern the new possibilities.

The Mayans had their own calendar, and it tracked our world's turning until December 21, 2012. On that date, which they defined as, we're supposed to enter a new world age. There's some debate about the exact significance of this end date (see The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D.), but I choose to look at the prophesied rebirth as more metaphorical than physical. Dramatic changes are in store for human kind. Whether the transformation proves positive or negative will depend on our choices in these in between days.

In Between Days
by The Cure

Yesterday I got so old
I felt like I could die
Yesterday I got so old
It made me want to cry

Go on, go on, just walk away
Go on, go on, your choice is made
Go on, go on, and disappear
Go on, go on, away from here

And I know I was wrong
When I said it was true
That it couldn't be me and be her
In between without you, without you

Yesterday I got so scared
I shivered like a child
Yesterday away from you
It froze me deep inside

Come back, come back, don't walk away
Come back, come back, come back today
Come back, come back, why can't you see?
Come back, come back, come back to me

And I know I was wrong
When I said it was true
That it couldn't be me and be her
In between without you, without you ...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

capital birthday wishes for e.e.cummings

the great poet e.e.cummings was born on this day way back in 1894, which is pretty amazing to consider when you think how modern his style still seems. i've always admired his playfulness with form and language. i've certainly taken inspiration from the ambiguity of his sentence structures, imbuing lines with multiple and sometimes tricky meanings.

(if you haven't guessed: i'm playing with punctuation and avoiding capitalization as a token homage to this homme extraordinaire; trivia: full name being edward estlin.)

below is a poem i found of his that will give you a good taste of what his unique technique is like. i'm short of time today, so i'll let cummings own words stand as the most fitting tribute to his talent and intelligence; finding beauty in the simplest of feelings, moments and gestures.

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
by e.e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Friday, October 12, 2007

Uncle Sam ain't helping, so it's up to US.

Note: The location of this event has been changed to Heartland Cafe at 7001 N. Glenwood Ave. due to flooding at the Wishbone.

If you're anywhere near Chicago this Sunday, come out to the Wishbone restaurant at 1001 W. Washington to help support local musician Micki Croisant whose mother got blindsided by an illness that cost her her job and health insurance. There will be great live entertainment, a chance to win amazing prizes in a raffle, and lots of awesome articles for sale in a silent auction. All money raised will go to help pay Mary Ann Croisant's medical bills, because as the poster above (designed by local artist Christine Cozza) says, we've got her back even if the government doesn't.

In an interesting bit of serendipity, I donated a limited edition print of a painting by acclaimed comic book artist Alex Ross to the auction, and I found out yesterday that he graduated from the same art school as Micki and frequently spoke to classes there, becoming quite the local hero to the students. The artwork itself was also particularly appropriate because it was taken from the Uncle Sam comic book that Ross created with writer Steve Darnall for Vertigo comics.

It's the story of a down-and-out Sam wandering the streets homeless, plagued by troubling flashbacks from his past, trying to understand exactly who he is and how he got there. The painting shows Sam in ragged clothes, with his top hat extended looking for a handout. It's a startling look in the mirror for we Americans. Unfortunately, until we fix our broken health care system, more and more of us will be relying on the kindness of strangers just to survive.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

'Throne of Blood': Caught up in a well-woven web

My introduction to Shakespeare came in High School with the reading of The Tragedy of MacBeth, and the drama captured my young imagination from its first scene, where the three witches lay their trap for the unsuspecting Thane. So it was that I eagerly added Akira Kurosawa's masterful take on the oft told tale, Throne of Blood, to my NetFlix queue.

Fifty years after the film was released, it still enthralls the viewer with its moody atmosphere, spare sets, and powerful performances. The setting of the story has been moved to feudal Japan, and there are subtle differences in the plot and characters, but Kurosawa is otherwise faithful to the cautionary spirit of the bard's work.

It's a movie well-suited for the current Halloween season populated as it is with evil spirits, lurking apparitions, entangling forest, malevolent mist, heaped skeletons, ill omens, benighted treachery, and murders most foul. After opening with a choral description of an empty landscape once drenched in blood and piled with corpses, a curtain of fog rolls back to reveal the ghostly presence of Spider's Web Castle reborn for the tale's full retelling.

Washizu plays the tragic lead in this version, led astray by the fortune-telling of a single mischievous spirit rather than the three hags of the original. We first encounter him accompanied by his childhood friend and brother-at-arms Miki as they ride toward the castle on the heels of a victory in battle over their ruler's enemies.

Lost in the tangled wood of Spider's Web Forest as the sky thunders ominously, they happen upon a white-haired soothsayer singing of the folly of Man while spinning thread on a loom, as if in the midst of weaving the very fabric of the two men's lives. Baited by the prophecy of their soon-to-be-bestowed new titles, the Samurai are told that Washizu will ascend to the throne followed by Miki's heirs.

At first hearing, the prospect seems far fetched, but as they look deeply into their hearts they recognize the forecast's appeal to their unvoiced ambitions. The story unfolds and an opportunity avails itself, wherein Washizu finds that the most direct route to his desires will require ruthless acts of bloodshed and treachery. With each step he takes down that path, his tragic end looms inescapably.

Just like Shakespeare's play, the film delves into the classic themes of fate and human free will. Are the actors locked into their foretold parts, or are they tricked into a destiny defined by their self-limiting choices? Kurosawa's piece also share's the playwright's warning against misplaced trust, casting a knowing glance at the potentially nefarious ability of storytellers to deceive their listeners into a warped world view.

As in several of Shakespeare's other plays, MacBeth portrays the potency of words, which can bewitch the audience into believing in a self-defeating reality when just enough truth is thrown into the potion pot. Kurosawa's spirit puts such a spell on Washizu, convincing him he has no choice but to embrace the role of a murderer, but his wife is an equal accomplice. Asaji, as rutlhlessly greedy for her husband's promised power as Lady MacBeth was, exhibits a control over Washizu befitting a movie director.

Not only does she interpret the motivations of the players surrounding him — filling his mind with suspicion, doubt and fear of those once trusted — but she imbues every sight and sound he experiences with altered meanings — transforming the foreboding shriek of a bird into a beckoning call to greatness. She masterfully stages the murder scene: cuing Washizu's lines, handing him his props, arranging the sets. In one of the movies more visually interesting scenes, Asaji is swallowed up by the darkness of a blackened room as she slithers through its doorway to retrieve a pot of drugged sake.

Beyond this fatal flaw of allowing himself to see the world through others' eyes, Washizu makes the tragic misstep of pursuing power through bloodshed. He feeds a cycle of violence that unavoidably comes back to haunt him. It's a fate foreshadowed early in the play:
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th' inventor. This even handed justice
Commends th' ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.
Near the film's end, in one of its most chilling scenes, the spirit reappears to goad Washizu into a full and final embrace of his foolish pride, which goeth before his fall. Shape-shifting into the guise of different warriors, the spirit exhorts him that if he is to choose the path of bloodshed he must climb to the very pinnacle of evil. It's a last appeal to the samurai's vanity.

In our modern world where too much blood is still being spilled by the various misleaders struggling for power, and where those battles are justified by the most preposterous twisting of truth to shape a self serving reality, the story's lessons are ever worth heeding.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Marvelling at Monk's style and grace

October 10th marks yet another milestone on the time line of musical history — today is the 90th anniversary of the birth of bebop pianist Thelonious Monk. A member of my personal pantheon of jazz idols, Monk was known for his quirky humor, fondness for fun hats, and dynamic and irregular style of play.

As with most innovators, Monk's brilliance met with uneven commercial success. At first the industry was looking for more conventional keyboard work, but eventually the times caught up with his genius and it was allowed to burn brightly. Unfortunately he flamed out too soon, taking an early retirement from music and the world.

Here's a wonderful video of Monk performing Don't Blame Me live in 1966, which I found on YouTube. It's amazing to watch because of its closeups of Monk's fingers at play. Seeing them channel the musical spirits his mind is conjuring — gracefully stepping, leaping, pausing, twisting — it's easy to lapse into a meditative trance with this great player.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Shining on in honor of John Lennon

Sixty-seven years ago today, John Lennon started laying down the tracks of his karmic record in Liverpool, England.

Known the world over for his membership in the fabricated four that were the Beatles, it was his solo work as writer, poet, musician and activist that proved more interesting to me. I have always admired Lennon's idealism and rebelliousness, which manifested themselves more and more as the collar of pop-star expectations choked his artistic and personal ambitions.

Ever willing to explore new sounds, philosophies and sources of inspiration, Lennon's extra-Beatle efforts reflect his adventurist spirit. He mixed politics with his art and became an outspoken member of the peace movement, which alienated some fans of his prior mop topped persona. It also incurred the wrath of the U.S. government, leading to a long struggle with the Department of Immigration, which tried to deport him.

Anti-war anthems such as Give Peace a Chance and Imagine challenged the day's military endeavors in the simplest of terms, becoming a mantra for change against a mistake that once seemed inescapable. His words certainly still resonate in our own time where we find the military industrial complex reinvigorated.

Sadly, Lennon, a man who so passionately sang for peace, love and understanding met with an ironic, violent end — shot by a mentally unstable Mark David Chapman on Dec. 8, 1980. I still recall Howard Cosell's announcement of the tragic slaying during the evening's Monday Night Football telecast. I also remember sitting up as late as I could listening to a static-filled radio broadcast of his biggest hits.

Selecting a single favorite track of Lennon's to highlight is a difficult choice for me. There are some really amazing videos of songs such as Working Class Hero and Mother, as well as the above mentioned calls for peace, on the Official John Lennon Website. Because of the spacey mood I've been in of late, I decided on Instant Karma. A cosmic wake-up call, it both reminds each of us of our innate ability to cast our light into the world, and castigates us for not yet shining as brightly as we could.

Instant Karma

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin’ to do
It’s up to you, yeah you!

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
Better get yourself together darlin’
Join the human race
How in the world you gonna see
Laughin’ at fools like me
Who in the hell d’you think you are
A super star
Well, right you are

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Ev’ryone come on

Instant karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Ev’ryone you meet
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there
When you’re ev’rywhere
Come and get your share

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
Come on and on and on on on
Yeah yeah, alright, uh huh, ah

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
On and on and on on and on

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun

(Photo: John Rehearses Give Peace A Chance By Roy Kerwood)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Digging for Fire: Chicago's big burn

Since Prometheus bore it down from Mount Olympus, fire has held a special symbolic place in the human imagination. When controlled it is the powerful giver of welcomed heat and light. When unleashed by malicious force or unhappy accident, its flames can be the source of unexpected pain, punishment and vast destruction.

The city of Chicago is quite familiar with both sides of that burning equation. Its identity was forged in the heat of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that put to ruin the town that once was, and made possible the bustling metropolis that rose Phoenix-like from the ashes. October 8th marks the 136th anniversary of the start of the blaze.

The prevailing myth tells that the storied conflagration got kick started by Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Historians take issue with blaming the bovine, but the fable of the errant barn animal caught hold of the popular imagination as quickly and irrevocably as the flames tore through the wood frame structures of the city. The cow's presumed guilt may explain Chicago's fancy for slaughterhouses in the ensuing decades.

The fire's spread was abetted by both Nature and our locale's inability to nurture safe conditions. A poorly planned urban experiment, the city had built itself up almost exclusively with lumber, laying wooden planks for sidewalks and streets. It's meager fire-fighting capabilities were almost exhausted before the fatal blaze hit. A prolonged drought had dried out Chicago's predominantly wood structures to the point the city was essentially built of match sticks. Blistering winds from the southwest added an extra bit of bad luck, fanning the flames across downtown.

The fire burned itself out after about 30 hours, aided by a change in wind that brought a dousing drizzle. The damage wrought included over 200 deaths, nearly 100,000 left homeless, and $200 million in property loss. Showing its resilience and dedication to rise up to the challenge, in just over 20 years Chicago had re-imagined and re-invented itself — unveiling its reborn wonders at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The double-edged nature of fire is certainly an apt metaphor for the creative imagination. In the darkest of times, fed by cynicism, fear and suspicion, it can conjure up worst case scenarios that await a mere spark to burn their way into reality. On the flip side, however, the engines of our minds can be used to shine a light on possibilities once thought too remote to ever warm the cockles of our doubting hearts.

I know that I'm personally prone to negativity about the future prospects of a world so entangled in faulty wiring. I'm trying to burn off those backward pulling attitudes and forge a more forward looking self. The inspiration for renewal is all around me, I just need to dig within the fire of my imagination to discover the many reasons for hope.

Dig For Fire
by Pixies

there is this old woman
she lives down the road
you can often find her
kneeling inside of her hole
and i often ask her
"are you looking for the mother lode?"
no my child, this is not my desire
and then she said

i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire

there is this old man
who spent so much of his life sleeping
that he is able to keep awake for the rest of his years
he resides
on a beach
in the town
where i am going to live
and i often ask him
"are you looking for the mother lode?"
no my child, this is not my desire
and then he said

i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire
i'm digging for fire

(Graphic from Chicago in Flames -- The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge, originally from Harper's Weekly, by John R Chapin.)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Grasping at universal connections while hanging onto my ego

Waves of conflicting ideas and sensations have been crashing around my head lately as it's been drenched by a wide-ranging cascade of stimuli:In order to impose meaning on this stream of possibly random inputs, my utterly confused consciousness has unsurprisingly distilled these droplets of social, political and philosophical thought down to a bridging metaphor informed by a misty recollection of an old film's final frames.

I haven't seen it since I was a kid, but the poetic ending of the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man found a lasting home in the recesses of my imagination. The synopsis of the story sounds more appropriate to comic-book-hero myth making than existential musing, but profundity can often be found in the seemingly mundane. Filmed at the height of the Cold War, it offers an interesting glimpse into the American psyche of that era, but it also delves into a more generalized human contradiction: the apparently conflicting desires for individual freedom and social belonging.

Exposed on the open sea to a wandering fog of pesticide, Scott Carey, the movie title's subject, finds his DNA hacked and his comfy middle class world undone. Rapidly losing physical stature and social significance, his mind must make sense of his reduced role as man and human being. Unexpectedly, at the moment all of the trappings of life in 1950s America have fallen away like scales from his eyes, shrunken to the size of an atom and peering into the vastness of the universe to which he has become more particularly linked, Carey reaches the following insightful conclusion:
I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world.
Freed from the outwardly imposed social demands we think inevitably define us as individuals, we're often more easily able to see the more fundamental connections to each other and every other piece of the cosmic puzzle. Janis Joplin intoned the prophetic wisdom "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," and it's that bottomed out perspective that allows us to recognize Lear-like the folly of old ways.

Standing atop Fortune's ever-spinning wheel should give anyone pause, as the inevitable next direction is always back down toward the bottom. Self-proclaimed the world's only "super power" and its current flavor of empire, the United States is in that unenviable position. The high-walled dams we've erected to protect our privileged status will eventually be worn down by the tidal forces leveling the international economy, and when that day comes our ship of state will fall to meet the world's other boats raised up.

In many ways the fear of that unavoidable decline is painting the national psyche in panicked tones. A retreat to the nationalism of bygone eras was a predictable response, with its attendant passions for war and xenophobia. It's a regressive decision that will ultimately prove both futile and self defeating. Feeling unfairly besieged and at risk, we've renounced the cherished principles that best defined us. Armed, enfortressed and obscured, we've ignored the greater social movement toward openness, connection and transparency.

Holding on to old forms in the face of inescapable change is not a uniquely American failing, however, and in some parts of the world they lag behind even the previous century's standards of human rights. Burma is one such holdout, and all Americans should be able to identify with the struggle of its people to win the most basic democratic freedoms. The wonders of new technology are making it harder for repressive regimes to hide behind the cover of isolationism. Through the Internet the cause of a Buddhist monk in remote southeast Asia can more immediately become known to the entire world.

With science giving us opportunities each day to become more aware of our most basic commonalities, what keeps us trapped in the cozy corners of our well partitioned selves? It's much easier to operate in a universe with well-defined borders and clear-cut divisions, no matter how conceptually artificial, because it's the best way to maintain a sense of purpose and self-importance.

When faced with the overwhelming prospect of being a tiny speck on the infinite spectrum of time and space, it's hard to avoid feelings of awe-filled paralysis. If our lifetimes are just a blink of God's eye in the grand scheme of the universe, why bother? Others can answer that question more eloquently than I, but I choose to look at it from a different angle. If I'm connected to everyone and everything, how can I not make sure that I love, honor and respect all that I come into contact with?

From space dust we came, and into space dust we shall return. It's a sentiment that echoes the mantra of most religious teachings, but with the advances in science it's also a proposition that becomes more marvelous by the light year. It should remind us of the wondrousness of the creation to which we are inextricably connected, while dashing away the pretense of self-importance that lies behind most of our ego-feeding misbehaviors. We are the blessed particles of universe given consciousness to sense and know the marvels of our selves.