Introducing a New Series: “Those Happy-Go-Lucky (and Singin’ and Dancin’) Poor Folks!”

'Dance at Molenbeek,' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

[Image: Dance at Molenbeek (1564), by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shown are pilgrims suffering from the so-called dancing mania of 14th- to 17th-century Europe.]

Any artist in any medium — particularly those in pop culture — confronts a dilemma in depicting the poor, the downtrodden and hungry and homeless: how to do it, period. It’s possible to manage the trick accurately, compassionately, and without condescension, but it can’t be easy. Such a goddam downer of a topic, y’know? “Why would I do that to my audience?!?”

In general, you’ve got three easy choices, at least if you’re a writer — all of them satisfying no real need but to make the audience feel better about themselves:

  • Maudlin “weepies”: stories of tragedy and despair
  • Tales in the noble-savage genre: “Look! These people have nothing… but see how heroically they have it!
  • Inside-out and upside-down celebrations of the experience of poverty: well, they do have a joyously carefree life — no bills! no bank accounts! no jobs…!

I’ve been thinking for a while about posting occasionally on popular music which goes in that third direction. Granted, when they were written, and as they continue to be performed, these songs do not intend cruelty or snobbism. But they just as often exist in fact in a moral vacuum — penned and performed by artists far removed from ghettos and slums, soup kitchens, food stamps and other social safety nets, the simple desperations attributable to life at the very bottom of the food chain.

I recently came across a great passage in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2010) which sort of speaks to the whole thing:

Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan’s Travels a passionate testament to the crucial and uniquely human need for laughter. He told of a film director (played by Joel McCrea), noted for making ultra-light entertainment, who decides that he wants to create a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. Out into the world he goes with a dime in his pocket to discover what being poor, homeless, and on the run is all about. Eventually he finds himself in serious trouble on a horrific Southern chain gang where the only small respite for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they’re allowed to see at a run-down country church nearby. There he watches a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only pleasure they’ve had all week. After he is rescued, flying back to Hollywood, his producers tell him that they’re now ready to back his serious film. But sullivan explains that all he wants to do now is make comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that’s all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

By the way, I’m aware of another danger here, for me: elevating myself to some moral high ground — as though I’m superior to anyone who’d stoop to producing Busby Berkeley-style ensembles of dancing hobos and such. When it it really comes down to it, after all, what the hell do I know about poverty? I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I’ve got a car in the garage. I’ve got a refrigerator full of food — two of them, in fact — as well as a mini-fridge at the bar which contains such subsistence-level items as craft beers and name-brand sodas. I’ve got a JOB, for crissake, and I often look knowingly in the other direction when approached by panhandlers…

Consequently, I really, really do not want this project to come off in an “I myself am so noble and praiseworthy” way. If you catch a whiff of this, please call me on it!

I should add one more caveat: I genuinely like the songs in this series. I like most (all?) of the performers. I’m not humorless, and I don’t think we need to take life — or these songs — too seriously. True, it’s worth sometimes catching ourselves in the act of having, y’know, a bit too much of a good time. But please: do enjoy whatever music ends up in the series — enjoy it as music, as comic relief, as (un)intended social commentary, whatever: on any level at all.

You can expect the first entry in the series tomorrow… if I manage to wrap it up by then!

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Groping at (but Never Grasping) Mystery

[Video: “Who Done It?” by Harry Nilsson (on 1977’s Knnillssonn album). The string opening is reportedly the only so-called “Nilsson” recording not actually written by Nilsson himself; it’s the Allegro movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E Flat, Opus 127. (The Adagio movement is referenced in Jan Zwicky’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

Nirvana is this moment seen directly. There is no where else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment.

(Jane Hirshfield [quoted many places around the Web, apparently sourced from a PBS documentary on the Buddha])

…and:

There is the moment when the silence of the countryside gathers in the ear and breaks into a myriad of sounds: a croaking and squeaking, a swift rustle in the grass, a plop in the water, a pattering on earth and pebbles, and high above all, the call of the cicada. The sounds follow one another, and the ear eventually discerns more and more of them—just as fingers unwinding a ball of wool feel each fiber interwoven with progressively thinner and less palpable threads, The frogs continue croaking in the background without changing the flow of sounds, just as light does not vary from the continuous winking of stars. But at every rise or fall of the wind every sound changes and is renewed. All that remains in the inner recess of the ear is a vague murmur: the sea.

(Italo Calvino [source])

…and:

Beethoven: Op 127, Adagio

1.

Here at the end of summer
the heart talks to itself,
a thin stream braiding
over a lip of rock.

To go through a wall, then another—
galleries of silent, stone-ground light.
To go through, to that third room on the other side,
to empty the forest of your thoughts, the forest of your lungs,
this is where the heart goes in late summer,
the empty forest. Even the sunlight is alone.

In the third room, the heart sits on the floor
talking to itself. A little stream,
braiding over a lip of rock.
It is saying what it has said
from the beginning, no doors, no windows,
if anyone could hear.

(Jan Zwicky [source])

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Caminante, No Hay Camino

'Those footsteps, deep into the silence,' by Aurelio Aslain (user 'ionushi') on Flickr

[Image: “Those footsteps, deep into the silence,” by Aurelio Aslain (user “ionushi”) on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) Aslain exhibited this photo with a poem reproduced below.]

From whiskey river:

Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.

Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

…and:

Until Even the Angels

What the heart wants
is to follow its true passion,
to lie down with it
near the reeds beside
the river,
to devour it in the caves
between the desert dunes,
to sing its notes
into the morning sky
until even the angels
wake up
and take notice
and look around
for their beloved.

(Dorothy Walters [source])

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“New” Computer?

mint1702_postinstall_smOkay, not really. It certainly feels that way, though: I just replaced the operating system I use for “everyday” purposes with a new one: good-bye, Ubuntu 12.04 (Linux), and hello Mint 17.2 (also Linux).

I spent about four hours this morning laying the groundwork, which mostly involved researching the problems I might expect to encounter (and how to avoid or recover from them), doing backups, and so on. In the event, though, the installation process itself took about a half-hour to run — during only a few minutes of which I actually had to be hands-on involved.

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In Media Res

'Charon,' by user h-k-d (Hartwig HKD) on Flickr

[Image: “Charon,” by user h-k-d (Hartwig HKD) on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.)]

From whiskey river:

Limbo

Each of them can’t decide if there is a God
or if there is a self.

Do I have an I? one says
to another who seems distracted, looking out what might have been a window.

What is the difference between a self and a soul?
Is it true that one god is in relationship to each of us?
Or is the each of us an illusion, and we are the god we are looking for?
That’s what the distracted one is thinking and what
she wants to know,

and she wishes that other person would stop bothering her,
and she wishes she had more time to think about these things,
although she has all the time in the world.

(Marie Howe [source])

…and:

Les géographies solennelles des limites humaines…
(Paul Eluard, Les Yeux fertiles, p. 42)

(“The solemn geographies of human limits”)

Car nous sommes où nous ne sommes pas.
(Pierre-Jean Jouve, Lyrique, p. 59)

(“For we are where we are not.”)

But how many daydreams we should have to analyze under the simple heading of Doors! For the door is an entire cosmos of the Half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open…

And what of all the doors of mere curiosity, that have tempted being for nothing, for emptiness, for an unknown that is not even imagined?

Is there one of us who hasn’t in his memories a Bluebeard chamber that should not have been opened, even halfway? Or — which is the same thing for a philosophy that believes in the primacy of the imagination — that should not even have been imagined open, or capable of opening half-way?

How concrete everything becomes in the world of the spirit when an object, a mere door, can give images of hesitation, temptation, desire, security, welcome and respect. If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open, one would have to tell the story of one’s entire life.

But is he who opens a door and he who closes it the same being?

(Gaston Bachelard [source])

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To Be, Not to Be, or Barely to Be?

'unbeing dead isn't being alive,' by Nicole Pierce on Flickr

[Image: “unbeing dead isn’t being alive,” by Nicole Pierce on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The title of this image alludes, apparently, to a quotation by E.E. Cummings — it’s quoted everywhere on the Web — but no one ever says exactly what work it comes from. Maybe he muttered it in his sleep?]

From whiskey river:

Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering, see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?

(Mary Oliver)

and:

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.

(Lewis Thomas)

and:

Late Hours

On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, and occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.

In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.

What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.

(Lisel Mueller)

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Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 3 (“Mas Que Nada,” and The Bossa Nova in General)

[Video: “Bim-Bom,” by João Gilberto: generally understood to be the first bossa nova song written (although not the first recorded). The lyrics repeat those two syllables in various combinations, along with phrases whose English translation (per Wikipedia) simply say, “This is all of my song / And there’s nothing more / My heart has asked that it be this way.” If you’d prefer to listen to all nine of the songs featured in this post at one go, you can jump over all the background, right to the full playlist at the bottom.]

New York City has its “Swing Street,” a block of W. 52nd so named because of the profusion of jazz clubs which once lined the sidewalks there. Even if you’ve never been to Manhattan, you might have heard the name.

Lesser known is Rio de Janeiro’s counterpart: Beco das Garrafas (“Bottles Alley”). Like Swing Street, it’s “grown up” now, apparently with a Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner and other upscale shops on either side. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Beco das Garrafas hosted the birth of the bossa nova.

While researching this post, I found one source which said the term “Bottles Alley” referred to the habit of residents, of hurling beer bottles into the street to silence the noise of the “Bohemians” who frequented the nightclubs there.

The Portuguese phrase doesn’t quite lack meaning, but the straight-up English translation — “new trend” or “new wave” — doesn’t exactly speak volumes, either. A better way to regard the term: recognizing that Brazilian Portuguese has its own slangy usages, and that as far back as the 1930s, as Wikipedia notes, bossa represented “old-fashioned slang for something that is done with particular charm, natural flair or innate ability.”

Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (first published in 1990) traces its origin as a term for this particular musical genre to an entertainment journalist named Moysés Fuks. Fuks was also “artistic director” for a musical group called Grupo Universitario Hebraico do Brasil, or GUHB: the (yes) University Hebrew Group of Brazil. Fuks had a colleague, one Ronaldo Bôscoli, to whom he offered GUHB’s auditorium for use in promoting some kind of concert. Apparently Fuks didn’t care exactly who was on the bill, other than GUHB; “He merely suggested they include someone ‘who had made a name of sorts.'”

Bôscoli’s first choice was a local street-and-club performer (one source describes him as “one of the biggest slackers in the business”) named João Gilberto. Gilberto himself wasn’t available on the chosen night, so they chose a solid alternative vocalist: Sylvinha Telles, who was familiar with GUHB’s music.

Fuks’s role in this? He printed up a program with the set list, and copied it for the band members. In it, “he promised a bossa nova evening.” He later insisted he had no idea why he’d used the term; whatever its significance to Moysés Fuks, it stuck to the music.

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Getting There and Finding Here

'From Here to There,' by user 'allaboutgeorge' on Flickr

[Photo: “From Here to There,” by user “allaboutgeorge” on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The installation (called “HERETHERE” for obvious reasons) straddles the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland, California; some believe that it’s a sculptural joke based on Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there” quip, which referred to Oakland. You can read about the original project proposal here.]

From whiskey river:

A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured, there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

(Mary Oliver [source]) [Read more…]

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The Hour of Lead

[Video: “Numb,” by U2. (Lyrics)]

From whiskey river:

A mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision…

It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.

(Marilyn Robinson [source])

and:

Mary’s Argument

To lead the uncommon life is not so bad.
There is an edge we come to count on
when all the normal signs don’t speak,
a startled vigilance that keeps us waking
to watch the moon, the peculiar stars;
the usual, underfoot, no more a solid comfort
than a rock that might move as a turtle moves,
so slowly only the nervous feel the sudden bump
of the familiar giving way to unrequested astonishment.
And for a small time, the sheer cliff of everything
we never knew can rise in front of us
like the warm dark, where starlight
has its constant conception, where the idea of turtle
blinked and was: a wry joke, an intricate affection.

(Marie Howe [source])

and:

Within each of our forms lies the existential mystery of being. Apart from one’s physical appearance, personality, gender, history, occupation, hopes and dreams, comings and goings, there lies an eerie silence, an abyss of stillness charged with an etheric presence. For all of our anxious business and obsession with triviality, we cannot completely deny this phantasmal essence at our core. And yet we do everything we can to avoid its stillness, its silence, its utter emptiness and radiant intimacy.

Being is that which disturbs our insistence on remaining in the life-numbing realm of our secret desperation. It is the itch that cannot be scratched, the whisper that will not be denied. To be, to truly be, is not a given.

Most of us live in a state where our being has long ago been exiled to the shadow realm of our silent anguish. At times being will break through the fabric of our unconsciousness to remind us that we are not living the life we could be living, the life that truly matters. At other times being will recede into the background silently waiting for our devoted attention. But make no mistake: being—your being—is the central issue of life.

(Adyashanti [source])

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The Mutable (and Not Mutually Exclusive) Real

[Video: “Chameleon,” by Johannes Stötter. For more information, see the note at the bottom of this post.]

From whiskey river:

I would argue that if consciousness exists, it can’t be obliterated; thus we borrow from consciousness in order to become (to get an identity), and we return what we borrow as egos to the greater conscious field when we die, so that’s what happens to “us.” The real question then is the fate not of our consciousness but of our personal identity.

You know, science’s definition of us is that a light goes on, a light goes off, and it wasn’t even a light, but that’s like not existing at all. And we do exist — in the sense that we are not just interdependent with everything else in the universe; we are everything else in the universe, and ourselves too. That’s why we exist at all, why we have a personal identity. Likewise we are not just everything else in the universe; we are one probabilistic form even of ourselves. At each moment, all of our other selves, making different choices and experiencing themselves differently exist elsewhere as well as in deep latency in us, and in states just as physical as ours. They bail us out of this mess, but we bail them out of their messes. We support one another eternally. The light we share never goes on, never goes off, and that’s the Soul.

(Richard Grossinger [source])

and:

This Might Be Real

How long in a cold room will the tea stay hot?
What about reality interests you?
How long can you live?
Were you there when I said this might be real?
How much do you love?
Sixty percent?
Things that are gone?
Do you love what’s real?
Is real a partial form?
Is it a nascent form?
What is it before it’s real?
Is it a switch that moves and then is ever still?
Is it a spectrum of cross-fades?
Is what’s next real?
When it comes will everything turn real?
If I drink enough tea to hallucinate, is that real?
If I know I’m waiting for someone but I don’t know who, is he real?
Is he real when he comes?
Is he real when he’s gone?
Is consequence what’s real?
Is consequence all that’s real?
What brings consequence?
Is it what’s real?
Is it what turned everything to disbelief, the last form love takes?

(Sarah Manguso [source])

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