Archive | March, 2013

Presidential Review: John Quincy Adams

31 Mar

If there ever was a family that seemed bound and determined to piss off everyone in America, it would be the Adams family.  John Quincy Adams had a remarkably similar fate as his father, but for completely different reasons.  Like his father, John Quincy was a brilliant man, who unfortunately was not the best executive politician.  (He was, however, one of the best supporting politicians of all time–he was brilliant as Secretary of State, and extremely successful in the House of Representatives).   

John Quincy Adams also was unfortunate in the fact that while his father had Revolutionary War credentials, and thus would always be well known historically regardless of the nature of his presidency, John Quincy does not have that distinction.  

Anyway, he politically shot himself in the foot during the Presidential Election.  So he was running against Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay.  Jackson had the most votes, but nobody had a majority of Electoral College votes, so the choice came down to the House of Representatives.  In these meetings Henry Clay gave his votes to Adams, which put John Quincy over the top.  Jackson, who fully expected to win, was livid.  

In the election of 1824, Jackson was extremely popular with the public (after a string of military victories and such) but not with politicians.  Clay saw Jackson as a dangerous man who did not follow protocol, as evidenced in the Florida invasion in 1819.  Also, there was a fear, after Napoleon brought down democracy in France, that a great war hero could gather a following that would undo all the progress that had already happened.  

In any case, Adams did the absolute worst thing by bringing Henry Clay in as his Secretary of State.  Jackson publicly claimed that it was a “corrupt bargain” a planned out scheme to make sure that one of them would win the presidency regardless of what the voting would have been.  There’s little evidence that John Quincy Adams had such a deal going on, however the scandal stuck, and guaranteed that John Quincy would be unpopular before he ever took office in the first place.

In such a situation, partisanship started taking hold, with Jacksonians pretty much refusing to budge on the issues, Adams could make very little progress.  However, I contend that he was still a brilliant president.  Just look at this quote.

. But she [the United States of America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

I really wish we listened to this quote years ago–ever since the cold war it seems that America’s foreign policy is almost exclusively looking for monsters to destroy.  

Two things he accomplished were great strides in America’s transportation system, spreading roads and canals out to the west, thus encouraging development.   This was the first time that the National government was involved in such domestic matters, having spent the first generation of presidents questioning its constitutionality.  In the end, Adams was right though, while each state could govern over the roads within their respective boundaries, it took the national government to organize a network of roads and canals that made sense on a national level.  Also the idea that roads would develop as needed was patently false, roads were a prerequisite for people to settle in a place, not the opposite, particularly in the landlocked interior of America.

Second, John Quincy Adams was the last president for awhile who tried to have a fair relationship between the United States government and Native Americans.  Adams considered them as much a part of the country as any settlers were, and tried to use the government to protect them and make sure they were treated fairly.  The south and the west hated this state of affairs though–they felt it was the government intruding on their right to take what they wanted.

In any case, John Quincy Adams left office after one term and a very nasty election in 1828.  However, as I said, he found his niche in the House of Representatives, where he did not have to worry about representing a set of beliefs he did not agree with.

In a way, Adams was way ahead of his time.  He was completely against slavery, believed in Native American rights, wanted controlled expansion emphasizing steady development rather than huge social changes.  Unfortunately, he didn’t really have a chance to do much about it, as president anyway.  

Pop Culture Friday: Not as terrible as it could be edition

29 Mar

1.  Pitbull featuring Christina Aguilera–Ok, so this is your standard pop-rap song–take a very familiar hook from a classic song (this time it’s Take on Me), rap about how popular and rich you are, and oh yeah how much you’ve learned, and then bring in a big voiced singer to do some big swoopy chorus.  Repeat and rinse.  One thing I don’t understand is why anyone would want to listen to a song that anybody sings that’s about how great they are.  Is that meant to make me feel great?  Am I supposed to identify with Pitbull here?  I mean, he’s not arrogant–just a little braggy–so it’s not terrible or anything, it just doesn’t engage me.  Also in the video Christina Aguilera has the weirdest hair-extensions–they look like they are about to pop off any second.  She seems to be trapped in some room where a camera just spins around her over and over again, when Pitbull is traveling around, in front of crowds.  I think he has her trapped in a special room or something where she has to sing OOOOHWOWOWO I JUST WANT TO FEEL THIS MOMENT 10,000 times before he lets her out.

2.  The Croods–Ok this is the movie of the week.  Item 1) The animation looks amazing.  Item 2) everything else about it looks like a retread from the Flintstones.   I like the Flintstones well enough, though I have to admit sometimes their humor gets a bit schlocky, and the Croods looks pretty similar.  I mean the girl in this has shoes invented for her and she goes nuts for them and it’s supposed to be funny because girls like shoes–see what I mean?  And also there’s a bunch of other tropes, people doing old-time versions of modern things, a sassy old lady character, the dumb but lovable brother–the whole bit.  So I don’t know what to think.  An incredibly well-animated movie with a somewhat lazy story?  Oh it’s Dreamworks.  Of course.

3.   Six Years, Harlan Coban–I’m very suspicious of any book where the name of the author is in bigger print than the name of the book.    However, by all accounts this is a very solid mystery.  I’ve read snippets and I have to admit that Jake Fisher is an appealing character–he’s chatty, curious, a little bit more than the hard-boiled boring he-men of other books like this.    And the story?  Twists and turns!  (I’m being a little sarcastic here, I don’t always want the unexpected, sometimes the best stories are where things are not only expected but inevitable.)    Oh well, I’m kind of snarky today, so I have to admit that perhaps this might be a worthwhile book to read.

The Pixies–Velouria

28 Mar

The Pixies have a bunch of great songs, but my favorite–by far–is Velouria.   Velouria doesn’t follow the same twisted pop mood that The Pixies tend to normally wander.  First the sound is very spacy-lush, like an alien that has just landed in a planet of green ferns.   Punctuated by feedback that sounds like rising alien ships.  Though the lyrics are nonsense, they are also the sounds of following a muse that will lead to strange places.

Any song that starts with  “Hold my hand, we’ll trampoline, finally through the roof, on to somewhere near and far in time” brings forth every wonderful children’s trope flying into my head–I think of things like “No Flying in the House” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”    The lyrics seem to be referring to some wonderful adventures, a sort of promise for the future.  I think that’s what is so different about this song, for once, the Pixies sound heartfelt of all things–“Oh velveteen!”

I love how he wants someone to ask him about his adventures with Velouria (is she a planet or a woman?  Nobody knows.)  And how his answers to this question, just by believing this is a question worth asking is “We will wade in the shine of the ever.”

And how, even in California, Velouria is here–he can see the tears.  But what I love is how the background voices are singing Velouria, but it sounds like Amen, making Velouria almost a sort of mystical Mary.

A beautiful song–that expresses the inexpressible.

Poetry Review, John Keats, When I Have Fear

25 Mar

If there was an award for the most awful life for poets, Keats would have certainly been in the running.    His father died from a fall from a horse when he was very small.  Then his mother ran away for many years.  She returned, sick with tuberculosis, and died soon after.  Keats starts on the track for becoming a Doctor, but quits to devote his life to poetry.  His favorite brother caught tuberculosis, and Keats nursed him until his death.  Then Keats got tuberculosis.  He ended up dying in agony, begging to be allowed to die for good and forever.

So “When I Have Fears” is not some healthy person worrying about the off chance that they might die before they reach their peak.  Keats wrote this after his brother’s death, and probably after he found out he had tuberculosis as well.

So the first quatrain is his first fear–That he will “cease to be” before his pen has gleamed his teeming brain.   So he’s got a lot of ideas that won’t come to fruition.  He talks about being published, and compares his imaginary works to “full ripened grain.”    Ripened is a good word here, because it signifies something growing perfect in time, an item that Keats does not have.

The second quatrain is his second fear–that he will never seek out the mysteries of the world through art.  He looks at “night’s starred face/huge cloudy symbols of a high romance/and think that I may never live to trace/their shadows, with the magic hand of chance.”    He’s comparing himself to an artist, and in copying these night skies he could learn from them, however, he won’t be able to.

The third is Keats’s fear of never knowing love–that he can only know a woman for an hour and never see her again.  The reason being with him being so sickly and mortal, he could not really have a stable relationship with anybody.  He can “never relish in the faery power/of unreflecting love!”  To Keats, love is something unreflecting, by which he means not returning to the self, it just goes out.  Unreflecting can also mean, not thought out, or not of the mind.  He will never know passion.

So when he thinks on these three fears “then on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone, and think/Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”   What’s interesting here is that not only is fame fleeting from Keats’s point of view, but so is love–in the grand scheme of things love disappears, it’s a thing of the moment, it does not conquer all but fades away.   Oh, and on the shore–I’ve never personally heard this, but I think of on the shore between life and death, like the shores of the river Styx–so when he is considering his mortality, Love and Fame do not matter anymore.  He’s not saying this is a bad thing, he’s just saying it like it’s a fact–even if he had all the love and all the fame a person can ask for, he would still be in the same position.  Love and fame would not make it easier.

It’s the conclusion that’s the kicker here–saying love ultimately doesn’t matter very much is really hard for Western readers to stomach, now and then.  After all, love is one of the primary reasons people stereotypically write poetry in the first place.   However, in regards to romantic love, he’s kind of right.  It’s nice to see people in love, and it’s sad when they die without it, but at the same time that sort of love is only crucial to the people in the relationship as long as one of them lives.

Also, thinking of Keats as someone who knew death was looming, fearing all the things he would not experience is not exactly living life.  Perhaps his fears about these things took away from the pleasures he did have time for, and this was his way of coping.    It kind of casts a shadow over our petty wants, doesn’t it?

James Monroe Presidential Review

24 Mar

Let’s look at presidential nicknames shall we?  Washington is the Father of our Country, Adams is the Colossus of Independance, Jefferson is the Man of the People, and Madison is the Father of the Constitution.  Sounds like I made a super-hero team for Democracy.  Well, every super hero team has its member that’s a little bit…less.  You know, like Ant-Man or Aquaman or Invisible Girl.  Well, here we have James Monroe–The Last Cocked Hat.

Monroe was totally pushing is Founding Father cred at the time, insisting to dress in an out of style 18th century get-up long after the rest of the world had moved on.  Was he a founding father?  My answer is not completely.  He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War, and yes he was involved in the Constitution ratification process, but he wasn’t at the convention.  In fact his greatest connection to founding fatherhood was that he was an aide for George Washington for a short time in the Revolutionary War, and studied law under Thomas Jefferson.    However every president up to Monroe was directly involved in making this country, so Monroe emphasized his tenuous credibility as much as possible.  Thus the out-of-fashion garb–and I do mean out of fashion–he dressed more like Washington than Washington himself.

That being said, Monroe is one of the few presidents who was much more popular at his time than his place in history would suggest.    One reason outside of the Monroe Doctrine you usually get blank stares when is name is mentioned is very little happened when he was president.  The country was doing well economically, there were no wars, outside of slavery (which we’ll get to) there were no divisive social issues that ended up being historically relevant–he was the perfect status quo president–things were going well and he was not about to screw that up.

Also, his successes pale a little after the giants before him.  Yes, his administration bought Florida, but after the bargain-basement success of the Louisiana Purchase, Florida is a little anti-climactic.    The famous Monroe Doctrine, which set foreign policy for nearly a century dictated that America would remain neutral in European politics except for in the case of the western hemisphere where the United States would resist any further attempts to colonize or undermine any independent country.  It’s a wonderful set of policies that really clarified the United States’s position in the world.  No longer would we have to get in the middle of inter-European conflicts like between Britain and France.  However, this policy was mostly constructed by John Quincy Adams.

Then we get to the Seminole War.  At the time, Florida was mostly a backwater with a large Native American population and also was a place where many runaway slaves ended up.  Spanish settlers were few, and the United States really wanted that land.   Truth be told it was a dirty war with military operations done under the table, exaggerated accounts of the Spanish supplying arms for the Native Americans and runaway slaves.  That’s the other thing that makes this war a little skeezy–the Spanish (at this time) had a much more progressive view of race-relations than the United States, and there was even a fort completely managed by runaway slaves.   Jackson had popular support to invade Florida to destroy this fort which he saw as being an intentional effort by the Spanish to destabilize America..whatever.   After a series of burn and raid missions from both sides, the Spanish agreed to sell Florida just to get rid of a big giant headache for them.

Ok, now for slavery.  We have the Missouri Compromise, which like all compromises, pleased nobody.  Missouri wanted to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, however that would  tip the balances for Congress by having one more slave state than free state.  Also, many in government wanted to end slavery as an institution slowly–starting by not allowing new slave states at all.  At the same time many others thought that states should be able to decide on their own whether they want to allow slavery or not–that’s how the current states got there after all.  Monroe (who was a slave owner) was in the second camp and seriously thought that Congress should not have the power to determine what is and is not legal in individual states.  This sounds like he’s waffling, but he was a very consistent anti-Federalist, so it does fit with is political worldview, however it might have been convenient for his situation.   In the end Missouri was admitted as a slave state with the addition of Maine as a free state, and slavery would be only allowed in new territories below a certain longitudinal line.  It doesn’t matter, because when the next bunch of states came in a decade later, the whole issue would be revisited again.    Monroe signed the law despite his misgivings because it was politically expedient and he wanted the issue behind him in an election year.

On a side-note, Monroe was a huge proponent for African Colonization by former American slaves.  He saw this as the answer for slavery.  In fact he was largely responsible for founding Liberia.    On one hand, it shows that Monroe did want an alternative to the slavery issue, on the other hand it’s not a very practical answer.  Yes, they sent only willing people to Liberia, but for all the slaves in the country, it’s not like they all wanted to go to Africa–in fact many had family lines that stretched as far back as the founding fathers.   Also, compared to emancipation, this seems like a particularly expensive answer to a problem–I mean, he’s proposing to send about a million people across the world with early 19th century resources.    In any case the plan didn’t ultimately work for that very reason.

So in the end President Monroe gets an A for the Monroe Doctrine, an F for the Seminole War.   His views on slavery I don’t even know what grade to give him because his plan is kind of crazy, and he mostly side-stepped the issue domestically.  With the Monroe Doctrine though he did guide American international relations and makes me end up tipping him on the side of good rather than not.

5 Rules I Have to Remind Myself Of

23 Mar

1.  Take Breaks–When I’m at work, I forget to take breaks until I’m to the point where I’m so befuddled that I can hardly be trusted to tie a shoe much less get actual work done.  Breaks are necessary–they let me get more done in the long run, plus make it less likely that I will go to home a hollow out old shell.

2.  Don’t eat sugar at work–talk about a horrible afternoon slump.  Yuck.

3.  Yoga is my friend–it’s SO easy to cut out, but it relaxes me and lets out tension and I really like it.

4.  Give things time–I always want things done yesterday, but some of the best things take a bit of time to mature.  Let things breathe.

5.  Don’t compare–I am not other people.  There’s no reason for me to compare my stuff to their stuff–our paths are all different and who’s doing better will just lead to discontentedness.

Pop Culture Friday: Roxette, a Dirty Plastic Surgeon, and Back to Flying Monkeys (again.)

22 Mar

Pink, Learn to Love Again–Pink has had a much longer shelfl-life than I initially gave her credit for.  Not for lack of talent–I think she’s got gobs of it, but due to being too specific a style to be able to adapt to changing pop tastes.  Well color me wrong, because it’s 2013 and she’s got a hit.  My big thought about this song is “my god, did she listen to all of Roxette’s albums or something?” because this song is like a seance for 1990.  Even the video is completely early 90’s with the floating mattress, all the water, the man singing in the tv, the swimming–my god all the swimming!!!!  That being said, I’m glad the song isn’t drenched in early 90’s production (which sounded like music made in a microwave).  The production is simpler and classier here, putting emphasis on the voices.  A nice piece, if a little bit generic.

James Patterson, Alex Cross, Run–WTH?  A plastic surgery named Elijah Creem?  Drug fueled industry parties?  “Don’t think, Alex Cross?”  What is up with all the top-sellers being these cheesy crime novels.  I guess America really likes bad guys getting caught.  Anyway Alex Cross is genius psychologist crime fighter against Creem (what is up with that name?  Why is he named that?  It’s so weirdly sexual.)   I dunno, completely not my bag.  Oh well.

Oz the Great and Powerful–Well, this just makes me shrug.  I like the original Wizard of Oz well enough, but this seems to be just a knock off of Wicked.  Other than the 1939 movie every other Oz production just has problems of one sort or another, and this one is no different.  I like Sam Raimi, and I’m glad there’s some family fare that’s a little smarter than some idiot movie, but at the same time I really wanted them to be more interesting than this.  The problem with anything Oz related (even a lot of the original books) is that they end up just being tourist trips through a fantasy land that tries really really hard to be “magical.”    I like Raimi though, and I”m glad that he’s got a shot at something big budget though, so there’s that.

Ok America, so you’re in a nostalgic place I guess.  I can handle that, but please, control your books!  Elijah Creem?  REALLY?  That’s your idea of a good villain?

The Mob Song, Beauty and The Beast

21 Mar
 Say a prayer
 Then we're there
 At the drawbridge of a castle
 And there's something truly terrible inside.

Ok, so I’m not into the disney princesses thing–it seems very calculated to get little girls to spend their parents money.     Also it’s part of the trend towards kid’s stuff being so sanitized that it becomes cold product.  (Funny thing, we mind as a society anything that could disturb kids, but don’t mind things to manipulate them to spend money, but that’s another thing entirely.)

What people forget is Beauty and the Beast has one of the most terrifying songs in any of the modern movies.  “The Mob Song” shows human nature at its most frightening, a town of friendly folk through one song are crying for blood.   Also extremely creepily the song 10 years before Bush said it quotes “Either you’re with us or against us.” You can hear the song grow, and the beast’s descriptions growing and warping, until he’s tall as a mountain.

The thing the mob isn’t only in this out of fear, but they talk about how this is exciting and interesting and they completely get carried away.    You see them wandering through the woods and sharpening their stakes and the theme “Kill the Beast” coming back faster and faster until that becomes the song.   And the song gets the fear, anger, and excitement of mob thought that is the true monster of Beauty and the Beast.    In fact as worked up as they are, it’s lucky that Belle and her father simply got stuck in a cellar, called crazy, and forgotten.

I think the darkness and sophistication here makes the nice stuff credible–it means something at the end because it’s possible for there to be a different end (and actually, rumor has it that Disney toned the song way down in the end product because it got too frightening.)  Remember, whatever we call a monster, however bad the creature is, does not give us permission to become monsters ourselves.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

20 Mar

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that I don’t love all the way, but it does make me think, which is a lot more than many films do these days. I’d definitely call it a movie worth watching, but what does it actually say? This question has been rattling around my brain for a couple of weeks and I’m ready to try to answer it.

First–the basics–this is a survival story pure and simple, where a community from New Orleans adapts and survives the force of hurricane Katrina. My first thought was about how Katrina has moved from being a current event to a historical one without me noticing. I know some years have passed, and in the last decade and a half we have quite a few gigantic events that end up being historical but after the ho-hum 90’s it’s interesting to mark the time between where we say “this is now” to “this happened.” It’s longer than I originally thought–9-11 in its way lasted 1 day, but also 10 years, and Katrina held on long after the final winds died down.

Anyway, this neighborhood adapts and survives. That is all. It’s seen through the eyes of a little girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, known in this movie as hushpuppy, and she is one of the best child actors ever. She does not play cute, she does not mug, she roars through this movie with a precocious strength that is almost terrifying–around her all the other characters, as likable as they are, fade to grey. About the only character who can stand toe to toe with her and still be noticed is her father.

Anyway, Beasts cuts the world in two camps, consumers and survivors. The theme is contrasting how these two groups live. The survivors feel pain but have great moments of joy as they scramble from crisis to crisis. They are the beasts–not in a horrible sense, but in a sense that they live in an older, less conceptual manner. The consumers we see in the hurricane shelter–plugged into walls where they can live, sitting and waiting, and doing little else. There’s a certain sense of a fear of death leaving everybody stuck in an endless limbo.

And this is where the message grates on some–the idea that the really poor have depths and wisdom while the urban citydweller lives an empty and commodified life is a bit simplistic. Wisdom and ignorance lives in both places. And there’s a little danger in praising the beast sides of us too much–there’s a certain kind of wisdom there, sure–but there’s also violence and lack of reason and not trusting plans and all sorts of impulses that need to be aimed correctly lest they get dangerous. However, the alternative here is sitting in some waiting room allowing others to take care of you, like penned up beasts is no better. That’s the thing, beasts are beasts, they can be trapped or free, but you don’t change them.

The film is brave enough to show the disenfranchised without rose-colored glasses. Their area does not get better, they just continue surviving in it, and not all do. And as much as the word “noble savage” gets thrown around whenever people talk about this movie, it’s not really about that. It’s more about “noble childhood” and how Hushpuppy survives a world that completely broke by owning herself. Do I believe that’s possible? I don’t know. But I want to.

Milton, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont

18 Mar

Milton is a very difficult poet for modern readers.  Part of it is that he has a voice close to an Old Testament prophet, what he has to say is rarely pleasant, and he’s got an anger that rolls on like the wrath of God.  Another part is that he rarely wrote about small personal matters, focusing on the spiritual and political–we’re so used to art being either lyrical or corporate that these heavy opinions are less savory than they once were.  However, Milton is one of the biggest influences in English writing just short of Shakespeare in that regard.   He brought into the English speaking world the modern epic almost singlehandedly.

But to appreciate him, lets look at a smaller work.  Three sentences in fourteen lines, that rages like some forgotten section of the Bible.  All this regarding an Italian massacre of Protestants in 1655–by all accounts one of the bloodiest tragedies of the reformation.  Stories passed around about babies being bashed against stones and the aged burned alive in their homes and even more boiled the blood of Protestants at the time and really gave strength to the Protestant cause.

“Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,/even them who kept thy truth so pure of old/When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones.”   Listen to that hard O at the end of every line–every line ends with it, and it climbs down the poem like a howl.    Yes, what he’s saying is important (asking God to avenge the death of innocents) but the sound makes the sense here, and how hard these words are to even say–you almost have to spit them out.

“Forget not: in thy book record their groans/Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold/Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled/Mother with infant down the rocks.”   So Milton isn’t asking only for earthly revenge, but he wants God to permanently write these horrors in the eternal book so they will be remembered for all time.

“Their moans/The vales redoubled to the hills, and they/To Heaven.”  This could be taken literally, but also their moans echoing out of the valleys can be interpreted as their story coming out to the world.  The they to heaven bit could mean that their moans also climbed that high, but it more likely means that the martyred souls have gone to heaven.

“Their martyred blood and ashes sow/O’er all the Italian fields where still doth sway/The triple tyrant.”  Here Milton starts a good old fashioned curse.   The blood and ashes sow (we’ll find out what later) but over Italy where the pope still runs things.  He’s the triple tyrant because he’s an authority on heaven, earth, and hell.  However, there’s a definite antichrist hint here, because of the number three.  Also the other major three–body, mind, and soul–it could be said that the Pope was repressing all three by forcing people to rejoin the Catholic church or be tortured and killed and suppressing free speech.

“-that from these may grow/a hundredfold, who having learnt thy way/Early may fly the Babylonian woe.”  So here’s the end of the poem, curiously having all this rage he’s not really wanting bloody revenge, but a spiritual one, that hundreds will leave the church (which actually happened) thus removing all its power.

So why read this, since the massacre of 1655 is long over particularly if you aren’t interested in church history?  First because this is the rare example of a poem reacting to an emotional event without coming off as over the top and silly.  Where Milton  has his sights is on his own feelings beneath his diatribe, he’s not really trying to convince us to feel the same way as him (which is the problem with reaction poems tend to have).

Second, underneath his rage, you can really track an attention to emotional reaction–and this is the genius–had Milton cursed the church at the beginning I’d imagine it would be vicious and destructive, but by the end he had spent the anger far enough to ask for a sensible thing that doesn’t cause more direct harm to individuals.  It’s the general direction of anger a hot spark that gradually cools down.   We all could learn from that.