Archive | November, 2012

Pop Culture Friday, Not Ready for Christmas edition.

30 Nov

Hello!  It’s time for Pop Culture Friday!

1.  Cassadee Pope “Over You”–Well the third greatest downloaded song of the week (first is Gangham Style which I will not review because it’s been talked about so much, second is Diamonds which I’ve already reviewed) comes from a Voice performance, which really tells me how popular the show has become despite all the talk about “The X-factor” on things like Yahoo.  (Why do I even bother looking at yahoo?  I don’t know–it’s really just a corporate ad machine–note to self, find a new site to troll when I want random news.)   Anyway, this song is one of those tracks that’s so popular because of the story behind it, more than the song itself.   The song is perfectly ok, I guess, in and of itself–a generic mourning song, but one which I think seems heartfelt for all that.  But the story is that Blake Sheldon wrote this song about his brother who died when he was 14, and he never performed it, but gave it to his wife to perform, which did very well, and now with Cassadee Pope, he’s watching over the song that was too much for him to perform for himself.  The story is kind of big and sappy, but I suppose there’s worse things for people to go for.  My only issue is that this is all taking place on the voice, so I find the teary eyed looking of Blake Sheldon nice but at the same time, maybe just wondering a smidge, if this isn’t all just being played up a little.  Also Cassadee Pope isn’t exactly completely NEW to the music business (she had a somewhat successful band before going on this show) so though it’s nice that she’s performing, she’s not the music newbie that I kind of wished she was.  Also, though I find The Voice to be the least irritating of the talent shows, it’s still a big can of cheese in the end, slightly buffered by musicians and not producers being the judges.

2.  Janet Evanovich, Notorious Nineteen–(Number 1 bestselling books)  Ok, so I don’t know where to start…first, when did we ever need 19 books in a series?  Do you know how many thousands of pages there are in that?  Granted these are paperbacks, and maybe they’re only like 150 pages apiece, but still, that’s practically writing a Bible about something.    Ok, and these stories are about an ex-lingerie buyer who becomes an  bounty hunter?   There’s two things about these books that strike me at looking at them though–the main character is clearly supposed to be a me-too! character–she eats lots of cheetos!  She’s been embarrassed!  The thing is, this writer’s trick is the same for horoscopes and fortune tellers–they take something that is very general, maybe even universal, and make it seem specific so that you feel like the character is talking about you.  Particularly when a writer has a very specific audience that they know well (like I’m sure Evanovich does) they can do it very well.  Second, why do these books remind me of cheesy eighties soap-operas and detective stories?    You know the kind of dialogue that goes on in those things,  and how for whatever reason if someone spills some coffee on their shirt it is hiLARious to everyone else there.  Eh, I don’t want to be a hater–there’s room in this world for light reading, heaven knows, I work in a hospital, and that sure ain’t the place to read War and Peace.

3.  American Horror Story–Now THIS Is a place to go, if you like scary and interesting.  I’m halfway through the first season, and I can tell you either it will be your sort of thing or not, but either way, they have made an absolute runaway train of a show.  SO. MUCH. HAPPENS.  I mean at one point I was sitting there after the rubber man and the beast in the cellar and the nurse fainting at the ultrasound and the burned man screaming for money–I was sitting thinking how much more can possibly happen?  I can’t give this full marks yet as I haven’t finished the season, and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t close as well as it has started, but even so.

4.  Stephen Sondheim music–because I’m not ready for Christmas carols yet.

5.  Spanish Youtube videos—also because I’m not ready for Christmas carols yet.

Pablo Neruda, The Light Wraps You, Poetry Read-through

29 Nov

Pablo Neruda is the poet of love and loss.  Though you might say every poet is about these things and be partially right, Neruda completely gorges himself on love and loss.  In his poems you cannot have one without another, because love, like every other living thing, dies eventually.  The greatest thing about Neruda is he has a knack of making love poems that don’t sound sappy, and believe me that is a damned hard thing to do.

First “the light wraps you in its mortal flame.”  “You” means the object of his love, to whom he is always speaking.  Why is the light mortal?  Partially because it’s twilight and the sun is sinking, but also light is always temporary–being energy, sooner or later that energy stops, or at least changes.  “Abstracted pale mourner, standing that way/against the old propellers of the twilight/that revolves around you.”  First of all, propellers of light is the low beams of the sun at twilight.  Also, doesn’t the image seem a bit angelic?  What is more of an angel than a being that is surrounded by light?    By mourner, I think the poem means (and it’s translated from spanish by the way so meanings are VERY approximate) a person who suffers.  Why is she suffering?  Because she is mortal and knows loss, just as the day is slowly ending.  Keep in mind, Neruda really hones in on the sort of happy-sadness that comes from finding a good day ending.

“Speachless, my friend,/alone in the loneliness of this hour of the dead/and filled with the lives of fire,/pure heir to the ruined day.”     Again, suffering, even if it is a sweet suffering, quietly seeing the day end.  The reason she is the heir to the ruined day is because she will outlive it, and remember it, even when it is no more–the day is ruined because it is done.

“A bough of fruit falls from the sun on your dark garment.”  The day gives one more present to the person, fruit–which could mean pregnancy, or a metaphorical pregnancy, a place where new things (even poems and art) are born.  “The great roots of night,/grow suddenly from your soul/and the things that hide in you come out again…”    Night is a different place, where things grow, and where secrets come out.  It reminds me of daytime being a place which is very practical and social and mundane, while night is mysterious, and dark, and secretive.  I don’t think night is a bad force here, but it is a force that alters, and there’s a darkness that comes with night and hidden things, a less logical orderly place.

“…so that a blue and pallid people,/your newly born, takes nourishment.”  Of course a baby comes out and feeds.  Why is this nightmarish and beautiful at once?  The language is strongly metaphorical–a person who saves the night to make things in, to feed the “baby.”   I think the baby could be almost anything–art, an addiction, our childish sides…

“Oh magnificent and fecund and magnetic slave/of the circle that moves in turn through black and gold…”  He is speaking of a person who is very different in the night than in the day, that is why she is a slave–not in control of it.  I’m imagining someone who is very intuitive and reactive–not a thinker.  But she is magnificent and fertile and magnetic for all that–her state is natural, part of what draws the speaker to her.

“…rise, lead and possess a creation so rich in life/that its flowers perish, and it is full of sadness.”  This poem sounds like an invocation to the muse, the sorts that the Greek playwrights would make to bring on inspiration.  His goal, to make something so true to life that it dies, and has sadness.    Why make such a thing?  Well, I think one purpose of art is to remind us of the greater things, that we tend to get lost in our day-to-day ordinary worlds, never thinking beyond the next thing to do–one thing poetry can do is give us a reminder that life is oh so much greater than that, and the best reminder is that life is never forever, from the moment of birth we are slowly dying, so by making us remember this, through talk of night and fertility and the like, we will too experience that sweet sadness.   And also this “baby” this poem will outlive the writer and go out into the world and hopefully take root their in the dreams and nights of the readers.

This is what I’d like to encourage you to do tonight–to look at your night babies, not to think about them, because these things are never about thinking, but to feed them, and to hold them, to let all those secrets out, and see what happens.

You’ll be glad you did.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel

28 Nov

Well, I’m in the odd position of wholeheartedly recommending a book that kind of tripped me up for awhile.   The book is Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel.  In it, he goes through the whole creative process step by step, and really encourages going through the creative process the whole way through.

The thing is, creating for me is making stuff, whether that be a poem or a story or a painting or just some silly ditty about shoes, making stuff for me is as natural as eating or pooping.  If I have a problem, I make stuff about it, if I’m happy, I’m making stuff, and only in my unhappy frozen moments does making stuff elude me.  Maisel sets up creating as a sort of mystical/psychological journey, sure I can dig it, but that’s not my relationship to the process.  Would I like it to be?  I don’t know.  I like creating being a sort of friendly, cheerful endeavor–a process of bringing ideas into the light, even if those ideas aren’t always  pleasant.  It’s like a discussion with myself, not a tapping into the great depths of the universe.  And hey, maybe I will tap into them, but it’s not something I can really chase.

When I got this book, a long time ago, I was hoping to get into the depths, to really dig deep and pull something out that was wonderful.  The thing is, the deeper I went, the more difficult it was for me to proceed–it’s like I got too self-conscious and would start waffling on every step.   For me creating is like riding a bike, you get into the swing of it, but if you overthink, well you might as well give up before you begin.  Keep in mind, I don’t think this was Maisel’s aim–I just think it’s how this book got to me.

The one thing I learned is that while I can be creative, that I can make things, I’m pretty darned bad at the salesmanship thing, which is part of it for good or ill.  I have never learned to effectively monetize my efforts, but then again I haven’t felt the need to.  I prefer my creations to be labors of love and life, and to let other things bring in the bacon–for one thing, even the most successful creators have to struggle to make it work for them, and for another,  having a day job is a good thing for me, it provides structure and socialization–and also I think in the end I wouldn’t make much more even if I had all day to do it.  The worst situation would be where I was making stuff and I felt like I was a one-man factory–ugh–I don’t want to be a production machine in whatever I do.

And as for the depths, well, my little odd paintings and poems, and yes even my blog, are ways to touch those things–but it’s a conversation, and I can’t really force the depths to cooperate. Sometimes they’re sullen and dark, sometimes they willfully elude me, and still I must make stuff–even when it’s just about a sunny day, or a crummy doodle that I put in the corner of some paper.

However, I think Fearless Creating would be good for people who would like to make something and haven’t a clue as to where to start.  The person who wants to paint but is a little nervous to even pick up a brush, or the person who wants to write but can’t even imagine what they would write about, that sort of thing.  I like the book, but I need something of a slightly different flavor to push me ahead.

Adolph Gottlieb, Nightglow

26 Nov

As always, I urge you to look up Adolph Gottlieb’s Nightglow on google because I don’t have the rights to it, and I also think you’ll get a better view of it than whatever crummy little icon I can make.

A grey background.  A red circle in a white circle.  A black splotch.  Oh it’s very hard for me to not think of people that I’ve heard say “my kid could do that!”  One reason to like art is because of a certain amount of difficulty it requires, but that’s such a limited view, yes maybe a child could paint all these elements (maybe) but they wouldn’t have come up with the idea.

Gottlieb painted a whole series of circles over jumbled letters, and later splotches.   Here the circle and splotch seem to be opposites.  The splotch comes out from a circular hole about it and seems to be darkness itself, while the circle does seem to glow up in the “sky” of the painting.  I notice how the grey has reverberating trails in it, seeming to be connecting and separating the two shapes at once.  The funny think is that it’s really difficult to look at the whole painting at once–the eyes want to jump from circle to splotch to circle again, ping-ponging back and forth, yet at the same time I can’t look at one item without noticing the other in the periphery.

And when I think of nightglow, I think of that big red and white circle, which reminds me of a very red full moon, and the darkness pouring out, and how the two things require each other to create such an experience.  The moon in daylight is usually invisible, and you can’t see darkness without some light.  It’s sort of a ying/yang thing–each depending on the other to create something.

The opposites continue–one seems to be spreading, the other seems contained, one has little pieces, the other is a unified whole.  One is all black, the other is white and red.  One is on top and the other is on the bottom.  Yet they are perfectly balanced–there’s a centered feel to this painting, an elegantly simple system where the slightest change would throw it off.

Yet, because it is called Nightglow, and because the grey background seems less than completely stable, this painting indicates a temporary balance–like a frame in a movie that is picturesque until movement ruins it.  Sooner or later these elements will alter, maybe interestingly, maybe not, but this sort of balance is uniquely captured here–this sort of order only lasts so long.   Also it’s not, in this instance, very mathematical–you couldn’t say that 1 splotch equals two circles or something like that, it’s an intuitive arrangement that might not work even if it was copied exactly.

By showing a completely balanced painting, Albert Gottleib illustrates the tenuous nature of balance, and how differences create a unified impression.  Certainly no child could have thought all that up.

Action and Mindfulness

25 Nov

Hello everyone!  Today I’m writing about action and mindfulness.  I am a big practitioner of mindfulness, it really does me a lot of good.  For of you that don’t know about it, it’s a meditative technique of watching and seeing and relinquishing control.  To be clear, I’m not telling anybody what they should be doing, and am not trying to spread mindfulness in any way.  It works for me.

It works for me because my ego is very sticky–if there’s an event in the future I start thinking about that, and then there’s the event, and then there’s after where I rehash it all.  Now, there’s productive ways to use that system for sure, but when preparation includes, dread, fret, worry and other things like that, after I’ve done all can really do, then it isn’t productive–it’s just taking away from my now time, which is right there in front of me to enjoy.  Rehashing is even worse, because outside of a few lessons I might learn, there’s nothing I can do to change the past.

That’s where mindfulness comes in, it’s simply paying attention to my thoughts and how I feel, and to be completely in the moment–whether that moment is good or bad doesn’t matter, it’s what you’ve got.  In general, mindfulness makes my life a lot more manageable, and my focus changes from goals to just day to day existence.

However, the little puzzle I have is where action connects to mindfulness.  Mindfulness is all about acceptance–accepting the situation I am in, accepting the people around me as they are, recognizing all those desires to change things, and admitting that most of those things I would change are in my control.  However, what about those things I can control?  What to do then?

In a way, I feel like my mindfulness practice is sort of like someone who’s comfortable driving a car as long as it’s only going straight–no turns and for heaven’s sake no  parallel parking.  I do have the option of leaving mindfulness to the side when making a change, but it’s been such a good friend to me (or I’ve been such a good friend to me, mindfulness also has to do with becoming friends with yourself) I want to find a different way.

The problem is for me, that it’s so easy to get caught up into things and to lose myself with action and then I get back into the fretting, obsessing, planning thing I would wish to avoid.  Another metaphor is someone who responds to nausea by sitting extremely still, not moving at all.   Hmmm–what I’m going to do is practice with small actions, little things, and work up to the big one (I’m really unhappy with my job right now, I’m wanting to change it–I’m not going too far into that, because the same old story is everywhere and mine is not that different.)


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe

24 Nov

I picked The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to watch recently because I loved the book as a kid, I wanted something fantastical and fun, but I wasn’t in the mood for something overly challenging.  The thing is this movie is missing something, and I’m trying my hardest to put my finger on it.

Ok, the story is simple–a family of four children sent to the country during WWII because of the London blitz find a magical country in a wardrobe and save it.  The story is a bit heavy on the Christian allegory (particularly with Aslan) and the land of Narnia is trapped in a season that is always winter but never Christmas.   The main enemy is the white witch who sacrifices Aslan after Edmund proves himself to be a traitor.  Aslan rises from the dead and after a great battle the children and the lion win.

That’s a broad sketch of the story, but here’s the thing, the Disney version never gets beyond broad sketch, but let me start at the beginning.

Before they go to Narnia, actually this starts off to be a pretty good film.  The children are all good actors that don’t go for cuteness (which was one of my fears, Disney loves pushing cute), and there’s actual menace with their time in London, and the sibling rivalries play out well as they are bored in the house.  However, once they get to Narnia, most of this is swept to the wayside.

Oh and why, exactly, is Edmund such a jerk through most of the movie while the other kids are nearly perfect angels?  It’s frustrating.  I know it was similar in the book, but at least there I remember little moments where all the kids had failings even if they weren’t quite so bad as Edmund’s.  I almost started rooting for Edmund due to how much he was raked over the coals by nearly everybody for not being goody-goody and a bit simple minded.

My biggest issue with this movie is there’s a general lack of danger.   I don’t know exactly why, but at no point did I feel any sort of tension for what the characters were going through.  Even though I like Tilda Swinton, I felt like the White Witch was mostly irritated through the movie rather than being malevolent.  The CGI doesn’t help any, I can think of a few scenes where it was painfully clear the children were in some green-screen room talking to the wall rather than around living beings.  The fight with the wolf seemed to be about as tense as a kid smashing a pinata.

Even if we can’t have the risk, I also miss the sense of enchantment.  Outside of Tumnus’s house, the landscape is bland and barren.  Perhaps this was to show how the neverending winter was a bad thing, it nevertheless made Narnia seem much less magical and wonderous.  Outside Aslan and the Beavers, we don’t see the children interact with magical things very often at all.  Also, beyond their initial arrival in Narnia, the children seem pretty non-plussed to be in a magic land, and after a half-hearted discussion about maybe going back to their respective families, there’s no sense of separation anxiety either.

Weirdly, despite this being a long-ish movie, the action moves a little quickly.  All the scenes are really short–we don’t get a chance to really see much.  None of the travelling seems wide enough in scope, and all the battles end almost as quickly as they begin.  There seems to be a tour bus mentality with this movie, where we have to make all the stops so we can’t ever pause for very long.  This feel makes it hard for us to really connect to most of the characters.

I’m wondering if the CGI might have drained the human element out of this movie, because until they go to Narnia, there’s absolutely no problems with these issues.  And there are some good things, Lucy is a wonderful actress in particular, and the scene in the Beaver’s dam is funny and warm.  If only the rest of the film had more character!

In the end, I would say watch this if you love the series, if you have kids and don’t want to see something annoying, or if you want something inoffensive to watch with the family over the holidays, otherwise you can definitely give it a pass.

Pop Culture Friday! Thanksgiving leftovers!

23 Nov

Happy Leftover day people!  I hope you’re enjoying your cranberry/stuffing/turkey sandwiches or however you eat your leftovers.  You know, I honestly prefer things the next day on holidays like this–so yummy.  And for those of you who went shopping, well rub your bunions and get a load of this!

1.  Holiday Specials–Of course what would Thanksgiving be like without holiday specials!  I watched two.  The first is the Peanuts Thanksgiving one, where they eat popcorn and jelly beans and Peppermint Patty throws a hissy fit.  No idea where Lucy is here, Linus is at the table but I guess Lucy decided not to come this time.  Also, last years Doctor Who Christmas special!  (The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe).  Weirdly enough this is the most Christmasy special they’ve done yet, what with all the trees that sprout ornaments and the stars on top, then there’s wood people, and a WWII plane, and Amy and Rory–well you’ll have to watch it yourself, but it’s a treat.

2.  Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven”–Well, number one this week is Rihanna, which I reviewed last week, and then there’s Gangnam Style, which I’m not even going into because there’s been so much said about it already, so number three is Bruno Mars.    I didn’t really get into Bruno Mars when he first came out–he was a little too Disney sounding even if he did sing about sex now and then.  I can say “Locked out of Heaven” is a little more musically interesting–he’s got all of his influences right out there–The Police, late seventies arena rock, dance music from the mid nineties, Phil Collins.  The weird thing is he manages to stick it all together without a hitch (and arguably more interesting than all the preceding influences besides the Police).  The video looks like an imitation of old imitations of old videos, and pretty much sums up the good points and bad points of Bruno Mars all at once.  Clearly he is an extremely charismatic performer with energy to spare, his voice is solid, and he’s genuinely likeable.  The problem is that none of this feels real–and I’m not claiming that it’s meant to, but even when he sings your sex takes me to paradise, it sounds like something that he’s singing because it sounds edgy, and not because he particularly means it.  Also, weird thing in the videos, why do I get the impression of all the effort to show him being one of the guys, (there’s a street scene with gambling, and then a spin the bottle thing) he seems more isolated than ever–like he doesn’t know how to act?  It’s a sort of unintended sadness behind those images–like somebody who doesn’t have real friends.    All this being said, this song is infinitely superior to the blandness before even if it still is extremely corporate and calculated.

3.  Vince Flynn The Last Man–Sigh, the top-selling books are never the ones I really like.  (Ok, sometimes, but not very often.)  I haven’t read The Last Man and do not intend to, nor am I going to really criticize this book because that isn’t fair.   What I can say is that this is one of a series of espionage books starring Mitch Rapp, and that Vince Flynn is a conservative commentator.  I’ve never been into spy thriller books, with the possible exception of James Bond because he’s so fun, these books tend to have very little humor in them.    Now keep in mind, I’m not saying that spy thriller books are bad, I’m just saying they’re not for me.  Funnily enough I’m not surprised that Flynn is a conservative, as these books tend to cut things into black hats and white hats–just like old cowboy movies, and I can see reading these books as a sort of escapism from a world that can sometimes be frustratingly ambiguous.   Also, one fact that I noticed in his bio was that Flynn is dyslexic, but started reading a lot and writing to conquer it–so I can certainly see the attraction towards a super-spy who does everything himself when someone is a “bootstraps person.”   At the same time, sometimes bootstraps people can be shockingly insensitive towards all the people and communities that helped them get where they are–because nobody gets anywhere completely on their own.

4.  She & Him–WHY ON EARTH DID I NEVER PAY ATTENTION TO THEIR CHRISTMAS ALBUM BEFORE?  OMG it’s so wonderful–especially Christmas waltz is perfect for her–oh and Zoey Deschanel, the one girl who can play the manic-pixie-crazy-girl and I still love her at the end.

5.  Dumb Ways to Die–Fun YouTube song that basically is a public service announcement to be careful around trains, but it’s really fun with cartoon characters doing stupid things.

Poetry Read-Through, Poem For the Time of Change by Archibald MacLeish

22 Nov

Happy Thanksgiving!  For this special holiday, in between checking and rechecking my turkey as it bakes, I am doing a read-through of Poem for the Time of Change by Archibald MacLeish.    I was going to choose The German Girls! The German Girls! because it sounds very thankful, but it seems a little, not in the Thanksgiving spirit of thankfulness, if you know what I mean.

For background, I had gotten this giant book of poems from Powells of Archibald MacLeish.  I’m generally against collected editions of poetry, I mean does anybody need 300 pages of poetry by anyone?  Doesn’t that just sound exhausting?  That’s why I’m cautiously hopeful about the future of poetry as written print drifts towards electric sources.  Poetry is not meant to be consumed in large quantities at once–honestly, it’s like somebody thinks that perfume would be better in 3 gallon jugs, because more equals better, right?

Rather what I want is collections of 10-15 poems, chosen specifically to fit together, in a book that can fit in my pocket, with plenty of blank pages to write what I think in them.  Maybe some discrete art as well.  I’m not picky, they can be paperbacks, written on that cardboardy paper.  And I would sell them for like five bucks apiece.  I’m just saying that one thing that keeps regular people from reading poetry is always presenting some giant bible of every word some author wrote.

Ok, now for the poem, a very short one today, we have the speaker, “There were above me three hawks.”  Keep in mind that MacLeish is writing in 1936, the heart of the Great Depression, and the poetry at the  time is very cognizant of the possibility of war.  But also considering that this is set in a season where winter is coming, the hawks are also creatures that are fully developed to survive harsh seasons, looking for prey.

Inside, it’s the season where flies walk on “the chimney stones, the kitchen ceilings.”  I take this as meaning the weather is cold enough that flies wouldn’t be alive in nature, but in the artificially heated homes, they have lived a bit longer.  However that they’re walking shows that their season is nearly over.  Combining hawks and flies in one poem is interesting, as they aren’t exactly complementary creatures–one being on top of the food chain and the other being so close to the bottom that their relationship to each other isn’t very strong (though the hawk preys on creatures that might prey on flies I suppose.)    Flies also are creatures that come out of bounty, surprisingly, they live off of rotting things–and there’s nothing sitting around rotting in lean cold times.

Keep in mind, our speaker is not seeing these flies, he’s thinking about them–he’s outside with the hawks.  He mentions three hawks again, and the weather–a “ragged and rushing sky” and the hawks “head to the wind’s violence.”    Three is a magic number of sorts, certainly the kind of number that seers and prognosticators always notice.  Three is also the number for pattern–1 could be an exception, 2 a coincidence, but 3 means it’s what is here, we have moved from the season of the fly to the season of the hawk.  Unlike most creatures, the hawks head towards winter and the wind’s violence.

We return back to the flies, who “cling and live a little til the wry/cold/kills them with their numb wings weakly folded.”  There’s a particular focus on their inability to see their own situation “in house-room groping where the vapor rises.”  A big focus on ignorance.  One thing that I can’t shake, though, is the idea that the house-flies might stand for domestic lives, the people who only live from day to day.  Does he think they will all fade?  Well, considering it was 1936, maybe that was a real concern.  If so, the speaker is neither happy nor sad about it, just noting it as a change of seasons.  In a way he was right–domestic life would take a big hit for another decade and a half or so.  The Cold standing for lean times–a time where unaware people won’t do very well.  I can’t help but look at the focus on middle class life, the picket fence and whatnot–isn’t that just an illusion?  Couldn’t it all be taken away in a very short time, and all the things we use to keep the real world far away with it?

And then the final stanza “Three hawks soared in the/rushing sky; before them/winter and its snow/sleet, the wind blowing./Three hawks soared.”

The return to the three hawks over and over again, the speaker seeing this as a sort of sign of harder times again, of cold and want.  However the hawks are soaring–there are some creatures that thrive during winters.  And there’s a sort of foreboding towards the future.

The reason why I chose this poem for Thanksgiving, however depressing it seems, is that it also has the seeds of hope in it.  Personally I found 2012 a very bitter year for our country, the politics were a bit too strong, the stories a bit too cynical, a sense of dreaming gone sour, a sense that regular people  have trouble being heard because of their demands to constantly be a numb fly-like audience.  And the hope is, the good is, that seasons change–whatever is going on right now for good or ill will eventually end and change to the next thing, and the seasons change in ways they have for generations, whatever technology we have today, people are still people.   And in the end, given enough time, amid all the politics and corporations and news media conglomerates, people always win, because of those daily lives, their children and neighbors, their homes.

All we need is for all these people to stop being numbed, and to continue to have these lives and families and homes, while really seeing the world and not be sedated until their wings are pinned behind them.  More hawk and less fly please!

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

21 Nov

Why do we work?  It’s a good question, and for it taking such a significant part of our lives, it’s really not a question that is often asked.  A better question is why do we work the way we do?  What does work mean?

De Botton tries to get to the heart of these questions in “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.”  Starting at Cargo Ships and ending at an airplane graveyard, his scope is breathtakingly wide.  In each workspace, De Botton functions as a sort of platonic questioning observer and offers occasional commentary at the end.

The beginning is focused on supply–and a thread that goes through this whole book is how extraordinarily much goes on behind the scenes, for instance the journey of a fish in the sea to somebody’s dinner table involves logistics that are unbelievable to even contemplate, from fishing boat to cargo ship to warehouse to lorry to supermarket to dinner table, each step involving the livelihoods of whole cultures, and yet the understanding is so limited as to how this works.  This gives us a wide overarching landscape from where all the other careers stem from.

The next part, Biscuit manufacture, focuses on the interest on how involved people get in creating an item with relatively indifferent social worth.  The most interesting bits are the creation of the Moments series of biscuits, which cater to a social need–a person having a moment to themselves to give a little treat–that social need is created by the pressures of work.  Every detail of the moments line is thought out to excruciating detail, from the print on the package to how the biscuit should look.  There’s a great since of inflated importance to this whole endeavor.  At the same time, he looks at the actual factory workers, whose tasks have gotten so specific that they lose meaning.  De Botton’s biggest theory here is that through hyper-specialization the intrinsic worth of work goes down for the individual doing it.  They become more like a cog in a machine than a person providing a service.

That’s where the sort of cynicism creeps in, because in the world that De Botton paints, work is a great machine, where each person is so small that they do not comprehend the whole.  He does not seem to think that anybody is in charge of this machine, but it still goes because people participate in it.  And he also comments that one of the characteristics of work in the modern world is to make every item in it completely banal, repetitive, and measurable.

The next chapter is on Career Counseling, focusing on a specific counselor who works from home.  The man believes in his job, but his expertise is limited.  He guides people who are clearly unhappy in their current positions.  De Botton questions work’s ability to make anybody happy, and thinks that this might be part of the problem.   Also he mentions that as important as work is in our society, there are precious few resources allocated to understanding how an individual can find fulfillment through it, while at the same time there’s an expectation that fulfillment will be had.  The last item I found interesting is how individuals in the workplace have status based on how useful they can demonstrate they are, regardless of actual function.

Then we fly off to French Guiana to where a group of scientists are sending out a satellite for a Japanese Television station.  The scientists hold a higher social cachet, yet their ultimate goal was for another non-essential outcome.  Danger was mentioned, and though the launch went right, a safety instructor handed them all completely useless gas masks in the event that the rocket misfired.  A reporter was there, spreading misinformation and focusing most of the action on herself.  De Botton wonders if scientists have replaced priests in the modern world, and science magic.  How nature is now viewed as extremely vulnerable, as scientific progress is seen as indestructable.

I question the points he has here a bit, though the image of the scientists in this country that they have no idea as to their culture or beliefs, and a reporter who has no clue as to the scientists and their aims, resounds.  The western world is driven by impersonal connection.

We continue in this manner for the rest of the book–the most interesting parts being an entrepreneur fair where a vast majority of people will go nowhere for their ideas because what is making money here is none of the products that people have thought out and presented, but the fair itself. Also an airshow where industry shows off the different airplane implements and parts and industry members can shop and see what’s going on.  Each scene and each part drips with pointlessness, and the book isn’t exactly a pepper upper in terms of worldview.

De Botton’s theory seems to be that we work, that we identify so strongly with our work, because of a fear of mortality, that burying ourselves in daily nonessentials lessens existential dread.  That may be.  (And for those who say we work to have money, consider this, as a society we could provide all the necessities for people with much less effort than this, work seems to be a purposely inefficient system in this regard. )    There is also a sense that people want security, however most workplaces are extraordinarily indifferent to the welfare of the people they hire.

All in all a very interesting book, and though I’m not sure I’m completely on board with all its conclusions, I do know that De Botton is much smarter than I am, and I trust that his thinking here is much deeper than mine has been.

Oh and also there’s a series of photos in this book, of decent to just ok–not a reason to buy the book in and of themselves, but not distracting from it either.



20 Nov

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

–May Sarton