Friday, July 31, 2015

And on the sixth day, He created global warming

If you ever wonder why our planet's environment is so screwed up, you ought to seriously consider getting very angry at God. I mean, basically, He told us to do it. In case you don’t remember how it all went down, here's the scandalous transcript of the meeting ...

26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 
28: And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. 
29: And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. 
30: And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. 
31: And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Before my righteous indignation gets too high and mighty, I will point out that living in the wild is pretty brutal too, and I also like a cheeseburger once in a while. Still, "dominion over the fish of the sea" and the command to "replenish the earth, and subdue it"? I mean, WTF? Folks, it might have made some sense in an Iron Age culture struggling to survive, but in case anybody bothered to notice, Iron Age ended a while ago.

Ok, it's a Friday, so I'm going to end it here. But seriously people, let's show some outrage here. I mean, can you believe this stuff?

Friday, July 17, 2015

The difference between labor and capital

With labor, I work with my hands and you pay me for my time.

With capital, I work with my money (or better yet, I work with your money) and you pay me just for being around.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The New York of my youth, the television of it too

There are many ways of looking at the “me” in each of us.  At any given time, we exist in so many different worlds simultaneously that we could be said to be different people connected only in body, not in mind. Our work world, our home world, our play work, our love world, our think world — these different worlds integrate into one person whom we call “you” or “me”, but in practice, the very parts of us that make up us may be coexisting oceans apart from each other.

Time adds a whole other dimension to it all. Living a lifetime allows a person to have many different lifetimes. The crawling infant turns into the playing child turns into the amorous adolescent turns into the contemplating adult turns into, you get the idea. Mewling and puking in our nurse's arms, or something like that.

To make sense of it, we push a needle and thread through these different layers of persona, binding them together into one continuous life story, one we insist has a direction, a point and a purpose. This life includes a full cast of characters, heroes and villains alike and everyone in between, joined by events that produce the person you and I become to be. Still, dissonance never pulses far away.

Dissonance is not a sound unfamiliar to any of us. Every child struggles with a certain amount of it, and we might say that the task of childhood is to make sense out of a world that otherwise would make no sense at all, filled as it is with odd incongruities and these strange creatures called adults.

I was thinking this morning of one my incongruities, which I’ll call the intersection of a world of realities and a world of dreams. I am speaking about the city I grew up in and the television I saw at the time. The first was New York City in the 1970s, and the second was the suburbanized fantasy world of cheap sitcoms.

Pictures show this dissonance more succinctly than words could describe, so I won’t bother with the words. Furthermore, interpreting this dissonance is to some degree what subsequent life is all about, an ongoing performance piece happening in real time for all to see. So again, I’ll let my own too many threads be its own exhibit for inspection and loosen my clammy grip on the writing pen for the time being.

Here’s the goods in pixels …

Kids at play, on a cold day, in East Harlem, circa 1971

Yes, this was New York in the early 1970s

An image of American Eden, from Leave It To Beaver, in the immediate post-War years.

One of the most iconic houses in all of TV land, the southern California template for fulfillment in the 1970s, with sidewalks to nowhere, off-street parking and traffic-free streets, where the Bradys lived.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bobby Brady, eat your heart out

If you ever saw The Brady Bunch episode where Bobby tries to do his own laundry and puts too much detergent into the washing machine and bubbles overflow over the whole room, well, I just lived Bobby's nightmare except I did it with my dishwasher. 

I had just bought Seventh Generation dishwashing soap (I do live in Cambridge after all!) and so squeezed some of its clear liquid into the dishwasher's little receptacle. I did think, "Odd. I thought the liquid was cloudy not clear, but hey, perhaps they’ve changed the formula."

On went the machine. Within minutes, from a crack in the rubber seal around the door out came the sudsy bubbles, spreading like a slow disease over the floor.  Quick, get the mop!

I swung briskly into action, grabbed the handle and massaging it back and forth dragged the mop head across the gray tile. I stopped the machine and opened it up so that I could scoop out some of the bubbles. I restarted the machine, but again out came more bubbles. I stopped the machine again. More mopping. More scooping. I poured cold water into it in the belief that cold water breaks down soapy water more effectively than hot. 

Machine back on. But out come the bubbles again, this time flowing across the slate with an even greater ease, more diluted by the water.  Again and again this repeated.

For the past two hours, I’ve been mopping and wiping, wiping and mopping. When there was a brief pause in the bubble mania, I took the opportunity to mop the bathroom floor too.

Not quite as dramatic as the Brady Bunch, but still a white frothy mess!
In the middle of all of this, I emailed the company to express my rage at their incompetence, with this subject line “Dishwashing liquid = terrible.” It was just then that it occurred to me, maybe this wasn’t dishwasher machine soap after all. Maybe it was dish soap for the sink.  I grabbed the container and scoured the label intently. Sure enough in small but distinctly unmistakable capital letters it read “NOT FOR USE IN AUTOMATIC DISH WASHERS.”

Yeah, they didn't hide the message, that's for sure

Sometimes a bad television show comes up with a gag so stupid you assume it could never happen in real life. And then it happens in real life, and you realize, the writers got their idea from somewhere.

It was all very humorous in that way that very annoying things can be very humorous in very annoying ways.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A thought for a Monday

If you have the luxury of shaping your life as you go, then you tend to end up liking things just the way they are.

If you feel like nothing but a victim of circumstances beyond your control, then change is what you're after.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A thought for a Sunday

 The final destination wasn't what was interesting. It was the things they saw along the way.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A visit to Jack Kerouac's grave

I don’t typically post photographs of myself. I prefer to look out onto the world than to let the world look back at me.

It’s probably not the ideal trait. The ancient Greeks urged us to “Know thyself” and looking in the mirror isn't a bad place to start. And think of all those self-portraits hanging in the Met or in the Tate or in the Uffizi or the Louvre … they are the thread of the Self in western culture.

Frida Kahlo

Albrecht Durer

Gustave Courbet

Pablo Picasso

Rembrandt van Rijn

Vincent van Gogh

Stanley Kubrick

Andy Warhol

Vivian Maier

So I must remember that every time I think the modern selfie culture represents a major cultural ill, an unhealthy prioritization of the “me" over the "we", a narcissism of unconstrained license, I need only recall that it’s a puzzle we’ve been trying to deconstruct for a very long time.  It’s just that now technology has democratized it in the 21st century.

The First Selfie, taken by Robert Cornelius, Philadelphia 1839

Still, that’s not where I was going with all of this.

This past Tuesday, I did something of such personal significance in my own life story that I want to note it here. I went up to Lowell with Peter Blok ostensibly to look the industrial history of that city.

But because both Peter and I are of a certain age, we agreed at the outset how our day would end … We would make a visit, dare I say a pilgrimage, to Jack Kerouac’s grave.

There’s something about the Beats, and about Jack Kerouac in particular, that governed the thinking of a generation and then of another and then another. Bob Dylan was warmed by their light. The Grateful Dead grew up in the city of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore.

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg visit the grave, 1975

The Beats held sway for decades, so much so that when I was a teenager, they were still cool in an arty, pretentious kind of way.  I can still hear the late-night teenage cackle as Larry Fessenden and I and a couple of others strayed into the wee hours one summer's eve trying to get to the meaning of it all and why reading On The Road was so important.

As we walked past the rows of gravestones, Peter asked if I believed there was a goal to life. I understood the question to mean, do you think we're put on earth for a purpose.  No, I answered, that's not what life is. Life is life. It's its own thing. Goals are what we bring to the equation. That's how he thought of it too. It was exactly the conversation to be having while trying to find Jack Kerouac's grave.

Once there, I broke out my copy of On The Road, given me by Max Ryan in Berkeley in 1986, and I read the first few paragraphs aloud. It had a familiar jangly rhythm to it.

We each placed a quarter on the flat stone and left a piece of blueberry muffin there too because, as I cheekily opined, you never know what you're going to need on the road. The muffin probably ended up in the mouth of a squirrel or a rat and the quarter probably made it into the pocket of the cemetery staff but nevermind. Like most things having to do with the dead, we didn't really do it for them. We did it for us.

We took photos of ourselves, to mark us being where he was buried -- this working class kid of French-Canadian stock from Lowell, Massachusetts who went to Columbia University in the early '40s and then dropped out and eventually wrote an obscure novel that ended up taking on a huge force in American cultural history.

Back in Cambridge, we drank a beer at the Plough and Stars to his memory. Everyone we talked to we told ... we just returned from Jack Kerouac's grave. And everyone had a Jack Kerouac story.