Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Hitchens on Orwell.

I'm reading Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell now.  As is often noted about Orwell -- in his short 46 years on this planet, he contributed the adjective "Orwellian" to the English language.  Not bad. 

On Hitchens, for me it's like and hate.  The like and the hate probably come from the same place.  Somewhere in his condescending Oxford drawl was a tone that said, I know more than you. I will show you how stupid you are. 

From a man who began his political journey with Leon Trotsky and ended it with George W. Bush, maybe Hitchens felt there was a lot of explaining to do about his long ideological road.  Or maybe he was just a blind arrogant fool with a canvas sack slung over his shoulder filled with words. Imagining himself to be some ancient mythical hunter, he grasped his quiver replete with the arrows of righteousness tightly. He was a verbal pugilist looking for fights. 

I shouldn't be so angry.  Hitchens got his in the end.  We all do.  A lifetime of smoking and drinking finally caught him, gave him throat cancer and didn't take it away. 

No rapier wit, nor parry nor thrust, fends off one's own mortality.  Even a know-it-all doesn't know.  None of us do. That's the honest response, but maybe it sounds too close to defeat.

I have no doubt that in his dreams Christopher wore the black tights, held the skull aloft in his hand and wondered out loud for the audience to hear.

In truth, in the graveyard scene, he was Yorick.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Making words work on a birthday.

"Make your words work."  This always seemed like good advice to me.  If they sit there and do nothing, it's like a child sitting inside on a Saturday in April.  They should stand up, be bold by being brave and not only carry themselves, but engage some other portion of the sentence too.  I imagine wrestlers locked in a competitive grip in some Ashcan School painting.  If each word does this, then the sentence sprouts three-dimensionally and not incrementally.  At the risk of being muscle-bound, it suffers not from lassitude.

Yesterday morning, I blogged about Mario Testino, who does nothing but glorify our own cheap desire to be someone other than who we are --  through images that consume us with our own envy, or through fashion's ability to turn the human form into an abstract idealization of itself.

But by midday, gracious fate had intervened with me and I sat in a church in Central Square and heard words that work.  Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and Cambridge came together to celebrate.  One could not accuse Dr. King of letting his words sit in lassitude. 

Some people are undeniably a vessel through which history moves.  People of Time and Place, we might call them.  In his short 39 years, Dr. King was a profound expositor of the word.  He produced and produced and produced while also being a social actor of great personal courage, great strategic vision and mamoth importance. 

If one can remove the encrustations of the historic mantle he carries, Dr. King's words still work today, as alive in their meaning in 2013 as they were in 1968.  A sampling of what came from his mouth and his pen makes the point per se:  
“The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die”

“Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

“If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there "is" such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and postive action.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”

“A right delayed is a right denied.”

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. ... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” 

“Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”

“Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent”

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.”

“We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.”

“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”

“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles;
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

“What affects one in a major way, affects all in a minor way.”

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“It does not matter how long you live, but how well you do it.”

“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

“One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it an never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own Government, I can not be Silent.”

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“Quietly endure, silently suffer and patiently wait.”

“There is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.”

"We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. ”

“Hate destroys the hater...”

“We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words ‘Too Late’.”

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

“Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.”

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” (A personal favorite)

Monday, January 21, 2013

"I" went to the museum and saw some photographs.

Something very obvious occured to me the other day. In writing, moving from "I" as the subject of a sentence to "He, She, or It" as the subject of a sentence is actually quite a leap.  Indeed, it might be said that writing begins with the advent of talking about what "She" did the other day, and why that's important.

I, needless to say, have not made that leap, and so I will tell what I did yesterday.  I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see photographs.  You see, this blog post is about pictures, not words.

Photography is a beguiling art form.  Technologically dependent and luck enhanced -- even I can snap of reasonable photo from time to time -- it nevertheless contains all the formal attributes of other visual media.  Lighting, color, and particularly framing of images strike this untrained eye as important.

Mario Testino, fashion photographer to the stars now showing at the MFA, has developed those skills well.  Yet, he's tricky.  His work is popular culture undoubtedly.  He photographs famous people. Often they are in a state of undress.  His images are destined for magazines.  It is the culture of celebrity and the culture of skin and the culture of fashion.  It is also the culture of selling all of these things.  It's grand in scope but tastes like sugar -- sweet quick energy but not nourishing.

Should this be in a museum?  Is this more than just a ploy to get people through the front door?  Is this art?  Some say no. To me, there is still much there to see.  A well composed portrait of Madonna (singer, not mother of Christ) is still a portrait.  Why not?  Plenty of its 18th century equivalents hang in the National Portrait Gallery in London subject to the ogling gaze of non-comprehending tourists from around the globe.  Testino can make the claim that his portrait mimics an aspect of art more closely, namely that his is culturally self-referential in ways that that a 300-year old oil and canvas image of a duke is not.

This question lurks throughout the show. "Popular" culture and "high" culture intersect more and more.  To its advocates, this is a growing and welcomed democratic trend.  To its detractors, it cheapens us culturally by confusing the two.  Perhaps, this is a longer run battle.  The photo of actress Siena Miller, fully dressed amongst larger than life plaster representations of naked nymphs in a Roman museum expresses this point.  In the image, the modern woman is veritable modesty among the heroic nudity of our Western past.  Men have been depicting women (and men) in various states of undress for thousands of years and knowing it as art.  Those ancient versions may have been the titillating popular culture of their time, meant not so much to edify as to arouse.

Is Testino posing these larger questions?  His intent is harder to deduce.  He seems as much in thrall with his own images as he presumably wants his audience to be.  But fashion, the human body and the desire to see are not new to the camera or to museums.  It's just that at the MFA they come crashing together in bright big bold plasticy colors, the visual equivalent of having a Pepsi to quench your thirst.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Golf ball diving. Not a timid man's game.

Wes Stanfield is his name, and retrieving used golf balls from water hazards on golf courses is his game.  In the latest issue of Golf Magazine, reporter Josh Sens tells the story of this man, his job, and the economy built up around his very unique line of work.

According to Sens, Stanfield is "the lifeblood of the used golf ball industry."  Used golf ball industry?  Really?

It turns out that with enough golfers and a high enough demand for less expensive balls, there is indeed an industry to collect and refurbish golf balls that find their way into the ponds and water traps on golf courses around the land.

What makes Wes Stanfield so interesting is that he's making his money by working the Florida courses, going into water hazards to fish out balls that may have found their way into the muck under "chemical-laced waters, laden with bacteria that cause lockjaw, ... home to snapping turtles, poisonous snakes and an alligator big enough to drag a man into his death roll".

Finding and refurbishing golf balls can earn someone $100,000 a year.  Of the approximately 100 million golf balls retrieved every year (three times that number are never found), about 8 million make their way to Stanfield, either through purchases he makes from California middle-men, but more often than not through his own finds.  With profit margins at only a couple of cents per ball, the way to make money is on volume.  On a busy day, Stanfield processes 30,000 balls.

For used golf balls, the industry gold standard is a Titletist Pro V1, which Sens calls "the base currency on which prices get set".  At a high end course, Stanfield will expect to find more of them in the mix.  On a course destined for use by retirees, fewer.  Meanwhile, with the recession's impact still being felt, fewer rounds of golf have been played overall, which means fewer bad shots into the lake, fewer balls to be recovered.

But that only speaks to the financial incentives.  In an industry in which four golf ball divers have died in the last four years, through bad judgment, faulty equipment or just bad luck, the idea that you might run into an alligator while trying to avoid the fishing line and downed tree limbs underwater is hard to imagine.  But Stanfield has done just that.  While diving a few years ago, a gator latched onto him intent on bringing him to the bottom of the pond before making a meal out of him.  With a gouge to the eyes, and a knock on the snout, Stanfield freed himself, found a trapper, and decided to keep the gator's head as a shellacked souvenir.

Josh Sens' piece "What Lies Beneath" is in the February 2013 issue of Golf Magazine.

And here's an interesting look at the life, and second life, of a golf ball:
  1. A Pro V1 ball gets purchased new from a retailer in Southern California: $4.00
  2. Sliced into a pond at Palm Springs
  3. Recovered by a diver who pays the course $0.10 to keep the ball
  4. Sold to a used ball dealer for $0.17
  5. Purchased by a golf ball refinisher for $0.40
  6. Repackaged and resold at a retail shop as "recycled and recoated" for: $2.00

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Neil Young in concert, 1971

The era of my young youth was the era of long hair, until by the mid-70s a cultural exhaustion  descended upon upheaval.  The nation's 1976 bicentennial, which paradoxically commemorated the beginning of a revolution, closed out the era of revolution.  After all, Gerald Ford was president and New York City was basically bankrupt.  Welcome disco.

Once though, long-hair life defined popular culture with Neil Young very much a part of that group.

To see him today, he's round in belly, gray on head, and slightly daffy in his prescriptions to end our dependence on foreign oil.

But in 1971 he was the youthful troubadour that we know from photos.  In February of that year, he traveled to the U.K. to play small gigs, one of them for a BBC audience in Shepherd's Bush and that concert has been uploaded to YouTube.

The patina of time dulls an artist's shine as they move from the forefront of the culture to becoming simply pleasant and familiar background sights and sounds.

But a unique mind retains its uniqueness through time and Neil Young had a unique mind, and voice.  Haunting, somewhat depressed in tone.  And honest.

Music that would be replayed millions of times on turntables around the globe in the subsequent 40 years was once a collection of new songs.  And this audience is hearing them then. They sit in the round listening to the singer-songwriter, but they are really sharing the bounty of the protective enclaves of the garden of youth.

Youth, whence the spark of life springs, creates. 

Age repeats.

Here is the concert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2kAAn7XAxk

Monday, January 7, 2013

Paper Cuts

You take all of your week's recycling out to the large bins lined up on the curb to be collected by the recycling hauler, and this is your weekly moment of virtue.  You're feeling good knowing that you're doing something good for the environment and reducing the overall amount of trash that goes into landfills, which actually saves the city a lot of money.  It feels good, and you feel good.

The bottles and cans rattle and clang as they hit the bottom of the empty large blue bin.  You're the first person to bring down your load this week.  There are the empty wine bottles from your recent party, so many of them.  You really drank a lot that night (and you were so happy that your wine store had that new Bordeaux on special.  It was so delicious and not very expensive).  Those are the plastic containers from Whole Foods.  Good if not cheap.  This one had the hummus and that one, the dolmades.

And then, there's a whole lot of paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  Paper from the pile on your desk, all of the envelopes from the endless fundraising solicitations.  Paper from the cardboard box your new book came in.  Paper from the newspaper you bought while getting your coffee last Saturday morning (although you're trying to move completely to the e-world with your new iPad).  Paper, paper, paper.

Well, John Schmid, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joined by a whole team at his newspaper, followed the Wisconsin paper industry and found a familiar trail with some unexpected twists.  The Wisconsin paper industry is collapsing.  It's a story of another Midwestern industry disappearing under the forces of technology and globalization, although in his NPR interview last night (found here), Schmid took pains to point out that his reporting team was trying to avoid that cliche.  His work is called "Paper Cuts" and can be found at Journal Sentinel's online site or by clicking here

The digital age is indeed putting pressure on the paper industry, though according to Schmid the industry seemed fairly immune during the first years of the 21st century.  Around 2006, however, that began to change. Schmid notes the irony of the papermill having to work overtime to produce the paper for Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, although there is probably no person who did more to move the world to the digital age than Jobs.  That feels to me like building your own coffin or digging your own grave.

And then, of course, there is China.  Once absent from the international paper market, they have emerged in a huge way in recent years.  The Chinese might say that they have re-emerged, since they view paper as one of their cultural patrimonies that they shared with the planet (along with gunpowder and the printing press).  Long thought not to have the wood resources necessary to supply the amount of paper needed by the world's markets, the Chinese have put ingenuity and determination to use, foiling that argument.  They are cross-breeding species of trees that grow to full height in one-tenth the time that a Wisconsin hardwood takes to grow, employing science to solve a problem.

But more telling than their odd and somewhat disturbing experiments with hyper-growing genetically engineered trees is their resourcefulness with something we Americans know a lot about -- waste.

You see, the vast majority of the paper you put into your recycling bin this week, the old envelopes and the cardboard boxes, will be snatched up by China to be reused and returned to the world's paper markets as perfectly serviceable paper products.  There are a number of lessons to take from this parable, but three come to my mind:

  • Of America's defining attributes, one is the ungodly amount of waste that we produce.
  • What we see as waste, China recognizes as value, because China realizes it has a huge amount of use left in it.  
  • America is sitting on a gold mine of wealth in the paper waste it produces, perhaps enough to sustain the Wisconsin paper industry, but we're blind to it, being so focused on Chinese-made plastic objects inside.

My little lessons aren't even the full story. The Sentinel's webpage doesn't let us off that easily.  It tackles the other component in all of this, the carbon question implicit in the paperless, digital world.  "The carbon dioxide emissions produced by running your computer for 23 days are the same as produced by an average American's use of office paper for a full year," it states with unsettling clarity.

Much of this leaves the head in a swirl.  The takeaways are many, but I can't help but focus on what seems to me incontrovertible -- Americans have an incredibly short-sighted view of our future -- a myopia that shapes our definition of what we want and what we need.  The singer Will.i.am referred to it as a "Culture of Now" recently on the BBC.  He is right.  There is a reason that we are out performed by the Chinese in so many spheres of economic activity.  One is the unconscionable amount of waste that we produce.  Another is that our pile of waste has a huge amount of value in it which we will not see.  The collapse of a centuries-old American industry, destroying a regional economy as it goes, gives us yet another chance to pause, look around and see what's staring back at us from the page.

(Not without my own ironic funnybone, I note that I publish this on my online blog.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A thought for a Saturday morning

There are some people of whom you might say: They speak with such certitude of what they know, which can only mean that they are wrong. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Cambridge to ban plastic bags ... soon!

Last night, at the Green Cambridge meeting, I heard that efforts are underway in the Cambridge City Council to ban plastic bags in the city.  Some important details are still to be determined including whether there will be an outright ban on bags or only a fee on them as a disincentive to their continued use, and should this apply to retail establishments of all sizes, or only the larger of them.  Deciding those should only take another two years.

I say this not out of spite.  In my first year on the City Council, I went to a meeting on banning plastic bags where city staff explained all the reasons why a ban didn't make any sense.  That year was 2008.  Five years later, we're only a couple of thorny decisions away from seeing this turn into reality.

As my former colleague Ken Reeves used to remark, the wheels of government do turn slowly.