Thursday, November 17, 2011

Equality vs. Freedom?

I wrote this in response to a Jason Lewis commentary in last Sunday's Startribune. Since the letter wasn't printed, I'm publishing it here:

Besides being a possible act of plagiarism (see George Will's 2004 Washington Post column, "Freedom vs. Equality"), Jason Lewis' "Do You Want Equality or Freedom?" posits what might just be the most obnoxious straw man/false choice in American political discourse. Is it helpful to examine a nation founded on ideals of both equality and freedom, then build a fence between those two ideals and demand that we live on one side or the other? (Sounds a bit like intellectual eminent domain.) 

The real dividing line between our current conservatives and liberals is the idea of whether you see interrelatedness or individualism as the more dominant force. Liberals look at the internet, social media, pandemics, global supply chains, climate change and European economic contagion as evidence that, for both better and worse, our world is smaller and more interconnected than ever before. Conservatives hold to the narrative of a basically fair world in which self-made men and women make individual choices and rise to the top (while others fall to the bottom) because they deserve it.

A conservative says there is no shame in being a rich and powerful man. A liberal merely points out that other people helped form that man, and that to some degree, the well-being of those other people is also in his self-interest.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Ray?



After seeing Ray Davies perform last night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, I am once again driven to intense self-examination. Why has this 67-year-old suburban Londoner always stood apart as my favorite pop musical artist? For now, I've devised four families of explanation. Tomorrow, the reasons might be completely different. (If I do this long enough, I might just get it right one day.) 

1. The Contrast

The same guy who wrote "You Really Got Me" also wrote "Waterloo Sunset." On one hand, that's an incredible compositional achievement. On the other hand, so what? All decent songwriters work from a full palette. Bob Dylan's catalog speaks for itself. And remember, the same Beatle who wrote "Back in the U.S.S.R." also wrote "Yesterday." The same Beatle who wrote "Revolution" also wrote "Julia." And the same Beatle who wrote "Taxman" also wrote "Something." And they were all different Beatles.

But there's something so stark about the Ray Davies song style contrast, it's almost impossible to believe that he isn't actually two people. As has been often discussed, Ray (and his brother, Dave) arguably invented the guitar riff. Songs like "All Day and All of the Night," "I Need You," "'Til the End of the Day" and "So Tired" get more mileage out of simple two- or three-chord hooks than any other (though it should be noted that their structures are deceptively complicated). But on "Waterloo Sunset," "Misfits" and particularly during the chorus of "Too Much on My Mind," which (amazingly) was performed last night, something else happens. A lush, lilting, melancholic contentment spreads through the air -- a scent that's even more "Kinks" than the crunchy power chords of "You Really Got Me." For me, this is their true sound.  

2. The Search

I've been asked by non-Kinks fans to name the "definitive" Kinks album. Some would say "Village Green," others "Arthur." I'd toss "Face to Face" and "Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround" into the ring. "Sleepwalker" is also a sleeper, and "Give the People What They Want" is actually what first hooked me on the band. But the truth is, there is no definitive Kinks album. Much as I love the band, I can't think of a single album that shines all the way through. Even The Kinks' best efforts are uneven. Despite his reputation for pickiness and perfectionism in the studio, Davies' talent for self-editing has never matched his talent for songwriting. 

I've often thought that listening to a Kinks album is like listening to a great outtakes compilation taken from some other definitive, ground-breaking record. An ongoing tragedy of being a Kinks fan is that this ground-breaking record simply doesn't exist. The Kinks don't have a "Sgt. Pepper," "Exile on Main Street," "Led Zeppelin Four" or "Who's Next?" And yet, you keep imagining that they do.  

3. The Theater

Ray Davies' face resembles many things -- most immediately, The Joker. But throughout a live performance, it basically wavers back and forth between the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy. And this is fitting, because Davies has always possessed a unique talent for conjuring dramatic images. This is a man trained first as a painter, who sings often about cinema, and whose mashup of stories and music paved the way for VH1's Storytellers series -- a feat that ranks among his most significant accomplishments.

Songs like "Sitting in My Hotel" and, of course, "Waterloo Sunset" create a sense of place unlike anything produced by the other British Invasion songwriting giants. Yet, although Ray Davies is an observational songwriter, you seldom get the feeling that he's actually standing in the thick of what he describes. One of the most telling lines from "Waterloo Sunset" is "every day I look at the world through my window." A similar voyeuristic feel permeates songs like "Sitting in My Hotel" and "Art Lover." Ray Davies is always a step removed, always looking through a plane of glass. To see him perform live is to watch a theatrical production in which you are watching Davies watch the world. 

4. The Extra-ordinariness

But if I'm truly honest with myself, my love of Ray Davies as an artist probably comes from his irrepressible normalcy. Look at the songwriters to whom he is often compared: Lennon, McCartney, Townshend, et al. These guys always had (I hesitate to use the heinous phrase) an "it" factor. They were exceptional people doing exceptional musical things. 

Ray Davies has always seemed like an ordinary man doing occasionally extraordinary things, and that's something very different. As Davies himself has said, his brother was the real rock star. Dave was the guy doing (most of) the carousing and drugs. Almost from day one in the Kinks' long career,  Ray was actually married and pushing a pram. He sang "I'm not like everybody else," but I imagine that he felt that way because he was an artist who actually was a bit like everybody else.

At the Fitzgerald show, Davies told the audience about a time in British cultural history when the national mantra became "mediocrity rises." And then he followed that with what are now my favorite words ever spoken by an artist on stage: "And being slightly mediocre myself," he said, "I rose." 


Friday, May 27, 2011

Eulogy for a Grandmother

I’m not sure how you begin to talk about a life that spanned nearly a century—a woman whose time included half a dozen wars, The Great Depression, and 17 different presidents. But of course, this isn’t about history. It’s far more personal. For some people, we’re here to celebrate “Lou.” For others, “Mom.” For others, “Great Grandma.” For some who are here in spirit, it’s “sister,” “daughter” or “spouse.” For me, and many others, it’s “Grandma Lou.”

As Lou’s grandchildren, let’s face it, we were spoiled rotten. A lot of people don’t get to spend as many years with their mothers as we did with our grandmother, and she made every moment count. For those of us who grew up in and around the Twin Cities, Grandma was an everyday part of our lives. Even for those who visited from New York, Chicago or Anchorage, Grandma Lou was still a presence we always felt—someone who gave life some much-needed grounding. She was the center, the heart.

For me, as a child, I usually only got to see Grandma Lou and Grandpa Bob once a year, in the summer. After the interminable 500-mile drive from South Bend to the Twin Cities, you finally took that glorious left turn onto Avon Street, where the sight of the ivy-covered house at the bottom of the hill meant that you would soon be eating exotic sweets like Poppycock, running around a huge back yard that had a maple tree planted in your name, and glancing at faded black-and-white photos in the TV room—images that proved that even your grandma and grandpa were children once. At the end of one trip, I famously cried my eyes out when it was time to leave. Even more famously, I once served as a teenaged bartender during a mortgage-burning party in the basement. (For the record, I needed instruction on how to make every drink.)

Fortunately, my “Grandma Lou time” increased greatly when I moved to Minnesota in the winter of 1993. The first stop was Grandma’s house, where I would stay in the basement for a week before securing an Uptown apartment. My first memory of this experience is walking up the steps the morning after arrival to see a strange man eating bacon in the dining room. Grandma Lou strolled into the kitchen as if this was a normal occurrence, and when I finally cornered her to ask “who is that?”, her response was nonchalant: “Oh, that’s Don, the plumber. He seemed hungry.”

Like many in this church, in the last few years, my visits to 756 Parker Avenue took on a different meaning. We all tried to pay back some of that surplus of nurturing that had built up over the years, as impossibly wide as that deficit was. Some did the hard work—stopping by frequently to look after Grandma’s medical, household, financial, social and spiritual needs. I played the role of the hack documentarian. Armed with lunch and a laptop, I would visit sporadically—usually, it seemed, in winter—and we would talk for an hour or so over chicken chow mein and coffee. I was discreet about where I placed the USB microphone, but Grandma would always look at it as if it were an alien, a cockroach, or (worst of all) something from Minneapolis. The idea of recording our talks clearly made her uncomfortable. And when I started our first session by asking her standard oral history-type questions like, “please state your name,” “where were you born?” and “what were the names of your siblings?”, it felt more like a test than a real conversation. So I decided to wing it.

Of course, when it came to memory, Grandma’s long-term was far more lucid than her short-term. But even with the distant past, she wasn’t as quick to elaborate as I had hoped. I craved detail. I wanted room-to-room descriptions of her childhood home on Manomin Avenue. I wanted deep character sketches of her parents and siblings. I wanted her to remember what she got for Christmas when she was 6 years old, the smells of Thanksgiving dinner, the feel of her wedding dress—anything to give me a cinematic portrait of the past. I also wanted to capture actual recordings of the stories I already knew and loved—especially Grandpa Bob’s visits on the streetcar that ran from Midway to Cherokee Heights. And the story where she gave Grandpa an ultimatum during their courtship: “If you don’t get a car, I’m going with the other guy” ... and how Grandpa promptly spent all his money on a used Whippet and covered the torn seats with old suit jackets. (At family functions, my cousin, Erin, would often elicit a big smile from Grandma by reminding her that none of us would be here without her. I used to think, “Man, without that Whippet, I am toast ... ”)

I captured fragments of these well-known stories, but not as much as I would have liked. I did, however, uncover the occasional gem, like the story about a train trip to see family in Chicago, during which one of Grandma’s cousins basically proposed to her. Or the one about going to confession at the German church, and being told by the priest through the screen to “keep walking” another six blocks to the Irish one where she belonged—a story that I later snuck into a screenplay. Or the one about how during the Depression, her mother would gladly welcome complete strangers into their home who were going door to door looking for work, or a meal—something that we agreed would never happen today, and a story that suddenly made sense out of the whole “Don the Plumber” incident.

Over time, I realized that Grandma Lou’s dementia wasn’t erasing memories randomly. It was hierarchical ... a process that I thought of as distillation—like a fine spirit. The most important memories—the real flavors of life—clung on. And that makes sense. After all, in the big picture, “what did you have for dinner last night?” isn’t really that important. I came to expect that Grandma would tell certain stories in every session. Like the time she gave birth to her first baby, and the doctor said, “Wait, there’s another one in there.” Memories of her father’s strictness, which she regretted for the distance it placed between them. The unfairness of having to iron her brothers’ clothes and make their beds. The joys of the family’s summer cabin, and swimming across Lake Owasso to visit a boy she had a crush on. Or ice skating in Cherokee Park, and the thrill of having “a fella” skate up from behind and put his arm around her (something that I found rather forward, if not downright creepy, but that always brought a smile to her face). When she would inevitably ask me if they still “let kids skip a grade in school these days,” I finally caught on that the proper response wasn’t “I think so,” but “didn’t you say that you once skipped a grade, Grandma?” I tried to get her to say “colorful” things about her own children—Annette, Anita, Bob, Tim and Sue—who, let’s face it, all seem a little too good to be true. But she wouldn’t dish on any troubles or fights. The challenges of motherhood had all disappeared. I could see by the twinkle in her eye, all that was left was the joy.

Grandma Lou never stopped eyeing my microphone with suspicion, but over time, she did come to enjoy our sessions. I imagine that for a person who lives in a confused present, the chance to spend an hour or two walking through life’s deepest, clearest and most vivid memories is somewhat of a relief. Truth be told, I wish I had started sooner and done a lot more, because she always seemed a little younger when we were done.

But what I remember most about these sessions are the times when Grandma Lou would seem to drift away for a few seconds. Sometimes she would look out the window at that big back yard, and talk about deer sightings, or the days when the kids would skate or swim down at the pond beyond the fence. But other times, her gaze would turn inward. After talking about her childhood, her parents, her siblings, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren ... after finishing her second cup of coffee and looking at endless pictures in photo albums and on the refrigerator that documented the tremendous amount of life that she brought into the world—as I would wait for an answer to some specific inquiry like “what was your favorite Halloween costume as a girl?”—Grandma Lou would let the question drift away and say, almost to herself: “I’ve lived a good life ... ”

And I knew that this was the ultimate distillation. The memory, the feeling—the spirit—that would never leave her. Or any of us, for having known her.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Troy Smart: World's Worst Stuntman

This morning, I found myself interviewing the world's worst stuntman, Troy Smart (he's here on Facebook, Twitter handle: @actionologist).


Troy is the product of idle time spent on a movie set. He's part Michael Scott, part Ricky Gervais in "Extras." He doesn't fancy himself a "stuntman." He sees himself as an "actionologist," which isn't simply an occupation, but an entire way of life.

What I learned in the interview is that this man (who actually thinks of himself as the greatest stuntman ... sorry, actionologist ... in the world, even though research shows that he's never done a stunt that has appeared in an actual movie or TV show) is confused. He's not sure where he's from. He claims that he has doubled Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and "the lion in 'The Lion King.'" And judging by the somersault stunt he attempted during the interview, he's only marginally acquainted with the laws of physics.

Maybe I'm the one who's confused. For example, I'm not entirely sure why Troy Smart keeps a plastic packet of fresh dill in his oversized fanny pack. I'm not sure if the spider he talked about living in his apartment really qualifies as a "pet." I'm not sure if or why he was pretending to talk to Michael Bay on his cell phone (or if what he said about Bay's mother was entirely appropriate). I'm not sure if it was wise for him to be slamming a "health martini" at 9:00 in the morning. And I'm not sure if the classmates who applauded after a student pushed him down the steps in the 9th grade (the incident that, he says, launched his career) were inspired to do so because of his performance.

At any rate, it was an interesting start to the day. And I hope to soon post some "excerpts" from this "interview" for your "enjoyment."

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's the Empathy, Stupid

About five years ago, Chris Rock had a standup routine where he argued (convincingly) that if you haven't fantasized about killing your spouse, then you're not in love. He should have done the bit about kids instead, and I don't just say that because yesterday was Mother's Day.

Oh, don't shoot me that shocked expression. I would further riff on Rock by stating that if I find myself talking to a mother or father who acts positively MORTIFIED that I would would DARE say something like that about my OWN child, and that they have simply NEVER felt that way, nor WOULD they ... I make a mental note that I cannot be friends with this person.

Our joys and challenges with our little boy are well-documented (mostly by me). But after having spent an intense weekend with this certifiably intense child (we sponsored a belated birthday sleepover, two other boys), I have a slightly new perspective on the matter.


Childhood is a war zone, and I don't know how we survive it. James' buddies (The Alienteers) are good kids ... really good kids. But every five seconds is a new competition, especially with a party of three. The political grounds constantly shift to produce a roving two-against-one advantage. Each boy has to constantly fight for his turf, even if that's simply "calling middle" in the back seat of the Honda. It's exhausting. And sometimes it seems the only way to unify a group of boys is to do one of two things: Play the enemy, or play the clown. I find myself doing both.

When James was 5, a friend of my parents once patiently listened to me vent about the challenges of raising this boy. When I finally gave her an opening to respond, subconsciously hoping that she would say some version of "poor you," she said, "I think it's really tough to be James." Ouch.

Those words instantly rewired my brain. And this weekend, the insight finally hit home. This is a kid who senses everything around him to a level I probably can't imagine. I know that on paper, but this weekend was different. You know that sensation in your mouth after you've had an Altoid, when everything you eat or drink feels like it's hitting a million raw nerves? This is how I imagine James' whole body feels ... all the time. (Hey, it's not a great analogy, but it works.)

I'm used to his combativeness, his teenager arrogance and impatience at home. But until now, I've never really imagined what's it like to be James in school, except intellectually. Now I've seen more clearly his insecurities with friends: wanting to be liked, wanting to be as funny as the other guy, wanting to fit in, not wanting to feel like he's the odd man out. This is normal stuff, but when it's your son ... I don't know, there's just a trace of heartbreak in it. Maybe it's because you feel simultaneously that you've been there, and you're over it, and you want to tell him (and you do, later in the hammock) that there are ways to deal with this stuff, that he shouldn't be so sensitive, and it's all going to be okay. But at the same time, a part of you realizes that this struggle never ends.

Chris Rock had it right. But even his bit wasn't an original insight; it was his own riff on a phrase that I still find to be one of the only incontrovertible truths out there: The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Vertigo, Mr. Sunshine, and My Growing Impatience with Impatience

I've already seen Hitchcock's Vertigo at least six times, but seven couldn't hurt. I just saw it again ... this time on the big screen at The Riverview in Minneapolis ... and, nation, it's time we had a talk.

First, there's this: I've heard it said that San Francisco has never been filmed as lovingly as in Vertigo. Indeed, from the opening nighttime rooftop chase scene, the film's sense of place is staggering. Everything from the obligatory Golden Gate Bridge to the sequoias, the Presidio and the San Juan Batista mission ... Hitchcock even made certain that nearly every interior scene included a (fake) beautiful view through the window. And it's somehow not distracting. Every detail in a Hitchcock film is beautiful, including the wardrobe. For my money, this level of gorgeous detail has since only been (almost) achieved by Mad Men.

With the exception of a few moments (like Jimmy Stewart yelling at Kim Novak's character that her hair color "can't matter to you!"), Vertigo holds up well. Haters have always accused it of being slow and boring. To most of the under-30 crowd, it's probably excruciating. For example, as Stewart's character, Scotty, begins to follow Madeleine, Hitchcock famously gives the viewer 10 minutes with no dialogue. Never has a score worked harder (thank you, Bernard Hermann) than during these sequences of Stewart driving, looking, driving, looking, following, looking, hiding, driving, looking. It's actually an amazing cinematic feat. And probably one Hitchcock couldn't have pulled off without his silent movie background.

But one random scene really struck me this time.

As Stewart sits inside Judy's apartment and waits for her to return, hopefully looking like the deceased Madeleine as the result of his extreme makeover control-freakishness, Hitchcock could have played it many ways. For example: Stewart hears Judy coming to the door. She opens it. Boom! She looks exactly like Madeleine. They kiss.

Instead, it goes like this: Stewart looks out the window at the street. Nothing. He paces. He looks again. He appears to have noticed something. He opens the door, looks down the hall. Nothing. We hear an elevator bell. He looks again. Judy rounds the corner. It's a moment, but not a big one. We (and Stewart) are let down by the fact that Judy's hair isn't styled like Madeleine's. She comes inside. Stewart insists that she make her hair right. She reluctantly goes into the bathroom. Stewart waits. NOW she emerges, cast in a ghostly green haze from the hotel sign outside (exterior intruding on interior), finally looking exactly like Madeleine.

That's patience. That's sense of place. That's suspense on a basic non-hacking-someone-in-the-shower level. And it's exactly what I'm seeing less and less of, especially in some new network comedies. Let's take two of the more highly touted new series: Matthew Perry's Mr. Sunshine, and Happy Endings, which just debuted after Modern Family last week. Both shows drive me nuts, and I knew it was for roughly the same reason. But it took Vertigo to make me realize why.

Neither of these shows has any real sense of place (even for a TV show). The environments are all interior. The camera angles are all standard (I think they're both one-camera shows). I feel an odd sense of claustrophobia while watching them. Everything just feels ... tight. Characters don't feel like they came from anywhere or are going anywhere. They just magically walk into frame for no reason, talk, usually insult one another, and then leave. We have no idea where they came from or why they're there. But more important, we have no idea who they are. There's no setup, no reason to care. In short, there's no patience. These shows are written, shot and edited as though "environment" and "character" are luxuries at best and annoyances at worst.

It's a big contrast to what's being done on HBO, where everything from 30-minute comedies (Curb Your Enthusiasm) to episodic dramas (In Treatment) and even cinematic mini series (Mildred Pierce) are so well-crafted. So I'm left to wonder: Is HBO now the network for aging Gen Xers like me? Am I simply becoming the inevitable crank who "doesn't get it"? Does the nation really suffer from collective ADHD? Or are network shows chronically underestimating their audiences?

Probably all of the above, and so be it. Regardless of the truth, I'd just like to thank Mr. Hitchcock once again for reminding me why I love movies, and why patience is indeed a virtue. After all, you needed it to get through this entire post.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Deal

When I take in everything I see, hear and read, I basically have only two choices: I can take Shawn Mullins' sage advice and believe that "everything's going to be all right," or I can actually start believing that Armageddon is knocking at the door.

Believing that the end is near isn't hard to do. Nearly everything I read leads me to believe that the tension between overpopulation and our food and energy needs (with a healthy dollop of human greed sprinkled in) is causing a slow but massive killing of the species. Climate change, check. Disappearing bees, check. Topsoil destruction, check. Dying oceans, check. The fact that every large species of animal on earth is in a state of decline, except for (and because of) us, check.

All of this growing evidence reinforces the following thesis: Human beings are the most intelligent species on Earth, but we're also the most self-destructive. At some point in our evolution, we became "apart from nature." (I would argue that it was the moment when we became truly aware of our mortality and began to live knowing that we're going to die.) And ever since, we've sealed our fate by trying to overcome nature. I've often thought that the very story of Adam and Eve is really just a literary reflection, passed down through oral and then written traditions, of this reality. And I'm sure that's not an original conclusion. Biting the apple was saying, "Now that we know too much about what's going to happen, watch as we screw it all up."

But then there's a different idea that creeps up now and again. For me, this starts with a line I heard from a "dog historian." He said that at some point in our joint evolution, dogs basically struck a deal with humans. They realized that to survive, they would have to be domesticated, so the deal was this: "You take care of us, we'll take care of you." Plenty of other animal species have bigger brains than canines. But what do dogs have that even orangutans don't? The ability to recognize when a human being is trying to help them. And it's this perceptive ability (and their willingness to return the favor) that has put them in such a prized position. Dogs can't go back to being like their wilder ancestors. The deal is done.

The spirit of this sentiment is echoed by Michael Specter in his book, Denialism. With apologies to the aforementioned dogs, it's the idea that, "Hey, the cat's out of the bag." Specter would argue, for example, that to assume that genetic modification of foods is bad for health is to deny the fact that everything we eat, every single day, has been genetically modified. Reductive? Yes. But the broader point is that humans struck a deal with "nature" a long time ago, just like dogs. The mere fact that the word "nature" exists proves it. We are capable of altering the world around us. That's what we've been doing all along. And the only way to survive is to keep doing it. There's no such thing as "going back to nature." The deal is done. And any notion to the contrary is sentimental at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

To add more perspective, Bill Bryson (among others) has pointed out that more than 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Measure this against the broader perspective of the history of Earth, the universe, etc., and to assume that there is some kind of perfect harmony that we should strive to get back to becomes kind of absurd.

So for me, trying to figure out whether to be fatalistic or not is no easy task. I can believe that we need to "get back" to something, or I can believe that there truly is something called human nature, that it is unalterable, and that the solutions to our problems are simply always going to rest on another dimension of world-altering and nature-tinkering.

The former idea is more attractive to me because it seems to hold the moral argument. And I will continue to live a relatively low-impact lifestyle (for an American) and support the people and causes who make this argument. I will recycle. I will buy an electric car. Some day, I'll get around to composting. But if I were asked to predict how we will actually address global warming, for example, I would put my money on the idea that rather than actually changing our lifestyles and reducing our greenhouse gas output, we're going to pump sulfur into the air, send giant reflectors into space or create a machine (someone already has) that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We will alter genes. We will explore synthetic biology. We will create entirely new forms of life in my lifetime.

And then one day, one of those new life forms will realize how vulnerable we all are and try to kill us ... or strike a deal to guarantee our mutual survival. (Note to self: new movie idea!)

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Dismantle a Vicious Circle

A few weeks ago, I had the luxury of experiencing uninterrupted reading time. In two days, I devoured a novel-length interview with Bono conducted over a few years in the "Atomic Bomb"-era by French journalist Michka Assayas. I could write multiple posts about what was said in that book, as well as in the Hitchcock biography I read after that, but the line that comes to mind today is this: Bono said he's never understood writer's block. "Just start with how you feel right now."

How do I feel right now? Like I miss doing this. I used to write BBS more often. I used to take pride in how many posts I could create in a month. I used to look at my viewership stats (never a big following, but loyal). I used to love thinking of ideas and then putting the effort into writing them in some semi-thoughtful (yet still mercifully brief) kind of way. Now I get to it maybe once a month. Why?

It seems to be the Vicious Circle of Practicality. The writing that I enjoy the most ("compressed essays," not "blogs") pays absolutely nothing and is, I've heard, the least popular genre in the bookstore, after poetry. A minute spent BBSing is a minute not spent billing. So what? Well, "billing" financed the trip to Mexico that allowed me to sit on the beach with a gin and tonic and have the uninterrupted reading time in the first place.

I need to bill, so I can take a vacation, so I can relax, so I can read, so I can clear my head, so I can think of new ideas, so I can bill more, so I can take a vacation ...

I'm not sure about this model anymore. I'm going back to fundamentals. I've always maintained that writing is thinking. The two are inseparable. You can't be a good writer without being a good thinker. When I stop writing, I stop thinking. Writing helps me think. Thinking helps me write. This is a virtuous, not vicious, circle.

And hey, if I ever start to think that "compressays" don't pay the bills, I can remember that they do at least help me avoid the psychiatry bill.

Friday, February 18, 2011

No Fly Zone Friday #8

Today gave me a glimpse of the impossible: being 25 and retired at the same time.

I headed toward Minneapolis at about 8:00 with no plan, and after wasting precious minutes trying to find a hard copy New York Times (I am old), I ended up at French Meadow Bakery for breakfast. After that, it was time to visit the newest in the line of upscale, Clover-brew coffee shops, Dogwood, in the shockingly remodeled and suddenly very sunny Calhoun Square.

Eighteen years ago, I wandered into the original Calhoun Square (as the world's squarest 23-year-old alternative lead guitarist) to get a cappuccino in the exact spot where Dogwood now sits. The place at that time was called Kafte Coffee, and I remember that people were already grumbling that the emergence of a Gap across Hennepin was proof that Uptown had finally sold out ... a sentiment that has continued unabated for two decades. I also remember my surprise when the Kafte barista asked me how my day was going. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was the perfect Minneapolis moment: a slacker service worker greeting you at a pretentious coffee shop.

After Dogwood and the Times (Spider-Man the Musical is now in negotiations to hire a script doctor ... all that attention to wire rigs, and it still comes down to script), I ventured across the street to the world's greatest bookstore, Magers & Quinn. My mission was to find suitable material for the upcoming mini-vacation in Zihuatanejo. I knew that serious lit wouldn't do (as I passed a black-covered copy of Mein Kampf, I imagined the stares I would get reading it on a Mexican beach), nor would American history or essay.

I ended up with a copy of a Bono biography in the form of an extended interview, plus bios of Hitchcock and Sacha Baron Cohen. Since M & Q has a fantastic audiobook section, I also grabbed CD versions of John Meacham's American Lion (about Andrew Jackson) and the Tom Davis memoir of his Saturday Night Live years, 39 Years of Short-term Memory Loss. Short of a gym membership, there's no greater bang-for-the-buck on the planet than a solid haul from a used bookstore.

Finally, the main event: "Cedar Rapids" at the Uptown. I had planned on finally seeing "The King's Speech," but the gods seemed to be pointing me in a different direction. And the movie didn't disappoint. Ed Helms does the hard work of carrying the movie (while also showing why the words "character" and "caricature" are so closely related), but it's really a John C. Reilly vehicle. If you like Dr. Brule, "Cedar Rapids" is mandatory viewing ... as is seeing the movie if you're a Minnesotan (the script was written by "one of us": former KARE-11 reporter, Phil Johnston).

All in all, the day offered a glimpse into my personal paradise: feeling psychologically in your mid-20s without all the personal and financial insecurity (for one day, let's not get carried away) that accompanies that age. In other words, it was like getting to be retired without having to be 65. When someone asked my father what he was going to do when he retired, he responded, "I'm not going to do anything. I'm just going to be." The fact that you're not expected to live your life in that state until your body is long on its decline is a crying shame. A crying, crying shame.

Friday, January 21, 2011

No Fly Zone Friday #7

Today's stops: Day by Day Cafe for breakfast and the New York Times. Kopplin's for the world's greatest cup of coffee. St. Anthony Main for "True Grit." The original Dunn Bros. on Grand and Snelling for an afternoon cap and reflection.

Today's theme starts with a question ... the same question that begins one of my favorite books of 2010, Denialism, by New Yorker science writer, Michael Specter:


If you had a choice to live in the past or in the future, which would you choose?

My guess is that most people would choose the past, and indeed, that would be my initial leaning. I would probably choose the so-called "Roaring '20s" in America, but who wouldn't be tempted by any number of other eras in other places?

A great deal of my recent reading is making me think otherwise, however. I just finished a biography of Albert Einstein, which reminds one of the true Nazi threat, not to mention the horrors of a real world war. "True Grit" could have been edgier than it was in placing you amid the hardships of the American frontier, but it does offer enough to make you think twice about romanticizing it. But most important, Bill Bryson's new book, At Home: a Short History of Private Life, which I've been playing in the car for weeks, pretty much terrifies you into loving the present.

At Home is an ingenious idea (though not executed as cleanly as it sounds). Bryson uses the home as a device in which to talk about modern human history. For example, in the living room, you learn about the advent and evolution of furniture. In the dining room, you get a brief history of the spice trade in answer to the question, "Why, of all spices, did we settle on salt and pepper?" I'm currently in the bathroom (in the book, that is), and of the history this room encapsulates (the former occupation of "night soil" removal, the practice of Middle Ages Christians to never bathe for fear that open pores led to disease), you do not want to know.

Of the present, we always have a certain amount of disdain. We are convinced that in the past, people were nicer and food was more wholesome. There was no global warming or terrorist threat. No incessant political bickering or 24-hour news cycle. No Snookie, no spoiled kids. Everything was simpler. We weren’t pulled in a million directions. Our attention spans and our governments suffered no deficits. People were better educated, more personal, more decent. Music was better. Art made sense. People had some measure of job security, and birds didn't arbitrarily fall from the sky.

Bryson's book brings things into sharper perspective. Of the environment, imagine yourself being sickened in your sleep every night by the paint or wallpaper in your bedroom (and not realizing it). Imagine living in London and seeing human waste and animal carcasses clogging the Thames. Of "things being simpler," imagine the state of your teeth, or the procedure that might be used to address breast cancer. Of decency, don't delude yourself. You might find the woman blocking your way in the Target aisle annoying, but nobody is challenging you to a duel. Intelligence? People lived with open fires in their homes and got rained on (due to the necessarily slatted nature of roofs) for millennia before someone finally came up with the concept of a chimney. And as for kids being nicer and less spoiled, well, that might be true, but back in the era you might admire, you wouldn't have been surprised to see half of your children die of disease.

Speaking as a person who can't even enjoy lying in the hammock in summer and staring up into clear blue sky, because he can't stop thinking about all the gasses in the atmosphere toasting the planet ... and wondering if his own son will see food shortages and real political chaos in his lifetime ... this actually eases my mind. As Bryson points out, basic concepts like "privacy" and "comfort" (not to mention "dental care" and "antibiotics") are very, very new. Fittingly, this gives me great comfort. Perhaps The Beatles were right, "It's Getting Better All the Time (It Can't Get No Worse)." I'll choose the future, please.

Then again, to have actually seen The Beatles in the Cavern Club ... damn.


Einstein's Accidental Theory of Everything

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds. It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts.

I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

- Albert Einstein