Senses of Self

Image: 'The Tragedy of 'Dona Ajada' - I - The Headdress,' by José de Almada Negreiros

[Image: “The Tragedy of ‘Dona Ajada’ – I – The Headdress,” by José de Almada Negreiros. This is the first of six lantern slides produced by Almada for a 1929 collaborative multi-media theater piece, with music by Salvador Bacarisse and poems by Manuel Abril. This work was performed only once, on November 29 of that year; according to a recent monograph accompanying an exhibit of Almada’s work at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, Dona Ajada was a “free adaptation of Lope de Vega’s poem La Gatomaquia (1634), the satire of a classic epic whose principal characters were cats… it seems that Abril and Almada had replaced [the feline female protagonist] for a witch, Dona Ajada, while slightly altering the 17th century plot.” All six slides can be viewed, needless to say, at Flickr as well as other locations around the Web.]

From whiskey river:

We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.
An interpreted world is not a home.
Part of the terror is to take back our own listening.
To use our own voice.
To see our own light.

(Hildegard of Bingen [source])


…if we watch ourselves we are many people. All day long our field of consciousness is entered by autonomous complexes. If you can recognize them as such, you can steer them, either to keep them out of your system, or by going along with it and knowingly putting it aside again. But if you are possessed, so to speak, it means the complexes enter you involuntary and you act them out involuntary.

(Marie-Louise von Franz [source: see below])


I’ve Been Known

to spread it on thick to shoot off my mouth to get it off my chest
to tell him where
to get off
to stay put to face the music to cut a shine to go under to sell
myself short to play
myself down
to paint the town to fork over to shell out to shoot up to pull a
fast one to go haywire
to take a shine to
to be stuck on to glam it up to vamp it up to get her one better to
eat a little higher
on the hog
to win out to get away with to go to the spot to make a stake to
make a stand to
stand for something to stand up for
to snow under to slip up to go for it to take a stab at it to try out
to go places to play
up to get back at
to size up to stand off to slop over to be solid with to lose my
shirt to get myself off
to get myself off the hook

(Denise Duhamel [source])

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Pay Attention to This Dream You Are Having

[Video: TED Talk by the puppeteers behind the War Horse stage production. The play was originally based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and was itself adapted into a very successful film by Steven Spielberg. Having seen this talk, but neither the play nor the film, I can’t imagine the imagery was much improved by using real horses. See the additional note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (italicized passage):

…my definition of magic in the human personality, in fiction and in poetry, is the ultimate level of attentiveness. Nearly everyone goes through life with the same potential perceptions and baggage, whether it’s marriage, children, education, or unhappy childhoods, whatever; and when I say attentiveness I don’t mean just to reality, but to what’s exponentially possible in reality. I don’t think, for instance, that Marquez is pushing it in One Hundred Years of Solitude—that was simply his sense of reality. The critics call this “magic realism,” but they don’t understand the Latin world at all. Just take a trip to Brazil. Go into the jungle and take a look around. This old Chippewa I know—he’s about seventy-five years old—said to me, “Did you know that there are people who don’t know that every tree is different from every other tree?” This amazed him. Or don’t know that a nation has a soul as well as a history, or that the ground has ghosts that stay in one area. All this is true, but why are people incapable of ascribing to the natural world the kind of mystery that they think they are somehow deserving of but have never reached?

(Jim Harrison [source])


Being a Person

Be a person here. Stand by the river, invoke
the owls. Invoke winter, then spring.
Let any season that wants to come here make its own
call. After that sound goes away, wait.

A slow bubble rises through the earth
and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
even the outracing, expanding thought.
Come back and hear the little sound again.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

(William Stafford [source])

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Midweek Music Break/What’s in a Song: “Makin’ Whoopee”

'Whoopee' just meant a cowgirl's yell: yeah, right

[Sheet music from the original Broadway show. Note implication that
“whoopee” just refers to a cowgirl’s yell: yeah,

Over the weekend, a couple of TV experiences converged to drive this song into my head:

On Sunday, we watched the great Otto Preminger-directed film of 1959, Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart plays a defense attorney for a confessed killer, an Army lieutenant played by Ben Gazzara. The killer was driven to it impulsively — so goes his defense — when he learned that his wife had been beaten and raped by the murder victim.

At one point, the lieutenant’s wife (Lee Remick) takes the stand in his defense. Although the prosecution has argued strenuously (albeit ineffectively) to keep the rape out of the testimony, they can’t help trying to turn it to their advantage. Lead prosecutor George C. Scott, practically leering, compliments the wife on her cute little dog (who’s just made a courtroom appearance), and then attempts to paint her as a tart who dresses and acts in a way almost guaranteed to lure men from the straight-and-narrow path of chivalry and honor. He calls attention to her beautiful hair, her tight clothes, her drinking, her playing pinball, her occasional disregard for even common everyday decencies like wearing underwear—

Jimmy Stewart leaps to his feet to object. Your Honor, he demands rhetorically, is the assistant Attorney General from Lansing pitching woo, or is he going to cross-examine?

The Missus and I snickered: pitching woo. Like, huh? woo???

But in fact the synaptic groundwork had already been laid in my head. Earlier, I’d watched an episode of the late SyFy show, Eureka. In this episode, the beautiful-but-tough-as-nails deputy sheriff, named Jo Lupo, suddenly starts behaving out of character. In particular, she reveals a sudden (and heretofore unrevealed) interest in the nerdy assistant-to-geniuses named Fargo. During a karaoke session in the local cafe, as Fargo plays the piano, Jo — in a slinky gown — goes into a rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee”… crawling around on the piano, and concluding with a kiss.

That scene in Eureka, red dress and all, was so close to another — Michelle Pfeiffer on the piano, Jeff Bridges at the keyboard, in The Fabulous Baker Boys — that it had to be intentional.

So I already had the song in my head. And then (as one does) I started to poke around on the Internets…

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I Have Found It (or Maybe I Haven’t)

[For more about the video, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Discovering the selfless nature doesn’t have a monumental “Eureka!” quality. It is more like being continually perplexed, the way we feel when we’re looking for the car keys we’re so sure are in our pocket, or when the supermarket’s being renovated and what we need has moved to a different aisle each time we go shopping. That experience of being somewhat dumbfounded is the beginning of wisdom. We’re beginning to see through our ignorance — the everyday vigil we sustain to confirm that we exist in some permanent way. We look at our mind and see that it is a fluid situation, and we look at the world and see that it is a fluid situation. Our expectation of permanence is confounded.

(Sakyong Mipham [source])


The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Conversations, Sacred and Profane

[Image: photograph of a massive (115″ x 53″) jigsaw puzzle, by Clementoni, of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (also known as Venus and the Bride, but subject to various other interpretations as well). The puzzle contains over 13,000 pieces. I almost used this image instead, for no other reason than (a) the title and (b) its depiction, at the lower right, of the Polish Saint Maximilian Kolbe, canonized in 1982 as the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners, families, journalists, prisoners, the pro-life movement, and in general — get this — “Our Difficult Century.”]

From whiskey river:

The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few steps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merely turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.

(Simone Weil [source])


Transience is the most general phenomenon of the cosmos. Change is the only changeless reality. Seasons, livelihoods, personal relationships — all of these will change. Our experiences in life are transient and relative. Only death is certain, completing the cycle of life that begins with birth. By meditating upon this truth, we recognize that we, too, are manifestations of transience.

When we understand this teaching deeply, we become humble and sincere. We treasure each moment and endeavor to do our best. We feel less stress and become more accepting of the diverse phenomena of life. If something good happens we can feel the joy and be thankful. But we know that the conditions for the situation will not last forever, and we do not become attached to the feeling.

We will simply consider every moment and every experience as a blessing.

(Ilchi Lee [source])


I asked the river
About its destination
And came out lucky:
It babbled about nothing
And never came to a point

(Gyosen [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Louis Armstrong, “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”

Louis Armstrong’s public persona so often seemed so happy-go-lucky, so ingratiating, that the song “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” — from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess — seems to fit him like a glove. It comes across as a bouncy, jaunty tease. Without the context of the surrounding plot, here’s what we hear: a gentleman with a sly sense of humor is kidding a lady friend of his. If she’ll only come away with him to the big city, he seems to say, their life will be perfect: he’ll spoil her with finery, they’ll strut and smile and be happy in their “swellest mansion.” The very arrangement, and Armstrong’s solos, bespeak flirtatious temptation. And if this rendition of the song included Bess’s response, we could read it, too, as a funny, scornful toss-of-the-head, shaking-an-index-finger refusal:

You low, crawlin’ hound! Get away from my door, I tells
You, leave it, you rattlesnake. Dat’s what you is,
A rattlesnake!

[Below, click Play button to begin There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 4:56 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Great, right? You can almost see the high life and the sheer fun this couple would have out on the town…

But in context with the actual storyline, the situation is bleaker: Bess has lost two of the men closest to her — the first, Crown, a brute murdered by the second, Porgy, who gets led away by police for questioning. In despair, she’s visited by an acquaintance named Sportin’ Life: a dope dealer, who offers her some “happy dust” as a way out of her misery. And then he tells her that she and he, Sportin’ Life, could make for New York and have a big life — a boat’s leavin’ soon! After all, he beguiles her, Porgy is probably going to be put away for years…

And even then, given that last stanza, we might think, Good for her! for her turning that hound, that rattlesnake away from her door.

But that’s not the end of the story: ultimately, Bess succumbs to Sportin’ Life’s temptation. She takes the drug, and she does go away with him — to a future, we are given to understand, of rather greater ugliness than the one Sportin’ Life has painted for her.

As it happens, Porgy is jailed for only a few days; unaware of the drama that’s unfolded in his absence, he returns to Catfish Row to take up life (as he imagines) with Bess. Here’s the scene from the end of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, on which the opera is based. He confronts Maria, a mutual friend, regarding Bess’s whereabouts. In this version of the story, Bess has yielded not to “happy dust” but simple booze, and she’s been “ganged” by a half-dozen men not to New York but to Savannah, the nearest city. (Note that the dialect is written in a version of English tinged with coastal South-Carolina Gullah.)

“Where’s Bess? Tell me, quick, where’s Bess ?”

…Maria tried to speak, but her voice refused to do her bidding. She covered her face with her hands, and her throat worked convulsively.

Porgy clutched her wrist. “Tell me,” he commanded. “Tell me, now.”

“De mens all carry she away on de ribber boat,” she sobbed. “Dey leabe word fuh me dat dey goin’ tek she all de way tuh Sawannah, an’ keep she dey. Den Serena, she tek de chile, an’ say she is goin’ gib um er Christian raisin’.”

Deep sobs stopped Maria’s voice. For a while she sat there, her face buried in her hands. But Porgy had nothing to say. When she finally raised her head and looked at him, she was surprised at what she saw. The keen autumn sun flooded boldly through the entrance and bathed the drooping form of the goat, the ridiculous wagon, and the bent figure of the man in hard, satirical radiance. In its revealing light, Maria saw that Porgy was an old man. The early tension that had characterized him, the mellow mood that he had known for one eventful summer, both had gone; and in their place she saw a face that sagged wearily, and the eyes of age lit only by a faint reminiscent glow from suns and moons that had looked into them, and had already dropped down the west.

She looked until she could bear the sight no longer; then she stumbled into her shop and closed the door, leaving Porgy and the goat alone in an irony of morning sunlight.

Not exactly what we’d expect to follow on from this perky musical sample, hmm?

The idea of escaping with someone else has appealed to songwriters for decades. To get a taste, find a Web site which lets you search song titles — or search your own music player — for titles containing the simple word away. Here’s Norah Jones, not doing the saucy-temptation thing but just beseeching you, heartsplittingly, to come away with me…:

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Answers in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

[Image: xkcd #936, on password strength. Click image to enlarge; see xkcd itself for the full six panels and the punchline.]

From whiskey river:

This accidental
meeting of possibilities
calls itself I.

I ask: what am I doing here?
And, at once, this I
becomes unreal.

(Dag Hammarskjöld [source])


Ch’ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.

His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern
With what he was doing.

No application was needed
His mind was perfectly simple
And knew no obstacle.

So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

No drives, no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.

(Chuang Tzu [source])

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The Kindness of Every Split-Second

[Image: display window of “mini-prints” taken with the Fujifilm Instax camera (originally from the Photojojo store). See note at bottom of post for more.]

From whiskey river:

You know what I believe? I remember in college I was taking this math class, this really great math class taught by this tiny old woman. She was talking about fast Fourier transforms and she stopped midsentence and said, “Sometimes it seems the universe wants to be noticed.”

That’s what I believe. I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it — or my observation of it — is temporary?

(John Green [source])

and (italicized portion):

In the Storm

Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing

hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,

five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,

and settled
in a row
behind the ducks—
whose backs were also

covered with snow—
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under

the roof of the ducks’ tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away

out over the water,
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back

and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
stoop there, and live.

If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?

Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned,
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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What’s in a Song: Body and Soul (1)

It starts in silence. By the end, the singer has thrown him- or herself melodramatically, almost operatically on the mercy of a lost love. It’s drenched in self-pity, but was written for and first performed by a woman once dubbed “Hollywood’s first maneater.” One of its most famous covers includes no vocal at all, and barely follows the tune. And it’s gone on to become, arguably, the single most-recorded pop standard in history.

Finding something to say about “Body and Soul” isn’t hard. What’s hard is shutting off the tap.


John W. “Johnny” Green was a Harvard economics graduate working on Wall Street at the cusp of the Great Depression — not a great place to be building a career at that supremely wrong moment of history. Luckily, he didn’t care much about economics; his real interest was in writing music. Indeed, in 1928, at age 19, he’d already co-written (with Gus Kahn and Carmen Lombardo) a hit Broadway song, “Coquette.” With his father-in-law’s encouragement, Green started to establish working relationships with other musicians in New York.

And right about then, in 1929, British actress Gertrude Lawrence sashayed into his life.

Alas, I couldn’t think of a way to crowbar the story into this post. But while researching it, I came across a fascinating 2009 article at the Mail (UK) Online site, looking back at Lawrence’s life and career. The image presented in the first few paragraphs alone may be burned into my brain for years.


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Oceanic Complications

[Video: “Ten Things I Have Learned about the Sea,” by Lorenzo Fonda. One of whiskey river‘s posts this week was based on the text in this video. For more information, see the Vimeo page.]

From whiskey river:


Each one is a small life, but sometimes long, if its
place in the universe is not found out. Like us, they
have a heart and a stomach; they know hunger, and
probably a little satisfaction too. Do not mock them
for their gentleness, they have a muscle that loves
being alive. They pull away from the light. They pull
down. They hold themselves together. They refuse to

But sometimes they lose their place and are tumbled
shoreward in a storm. Then they pant, they fill
with sand, they have no choice but must open the
smallest crack. Then the fire of the world touches
them. Perhaps, on such days, they too begin the
terrible effort of thinking, of wondering who, and
what, and why. If they can bury themselves again in
the sand they will. If not, they are sure to perish,
though not quickly. They also have resources beyond
the flesh; they also try very hard not to die.

(Mary Oliver, from What Do We Know [source])

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