Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Poetry Was Still Magic

I am yet to find any school in America that teaches history well. For most high school students it is rapid march through a list of bullet points with a few deliberately bland and lame explanations of why things happen the way they did.

One of America's greatest strengths and weakness is its general ignorance of history. Being free of the burden of history keeps you focused in the here and now. Practical problems are easier to solve when you're no longer also trying rectify past injustices. But without the context of history past lessons learned are lost and the whole world is without depth.

When talking to one high school student I asked him to imagine reading an edited edition of Lord Of The Rings (his favorite story) where all the history of the characters and the kingdoms was deleted. He thought that was a stupid idea, without the back stories the book is just a short description of battles and a trip to Mordor.  History is the back story of the world and I wish we would teach it like it was really is important.

Sorry for the side trip because what I really wanted to write about Ken Nordine. The name probably doesn't ring a bell but if you're over 30 you might have heard his voice in a TV commercial or in a movie. It's a very distinctive voice.  
If you're a little bit older you might have heard his poetic narratives. Some light and comical others that are dark, trippy and experimental.  Ken Nordine was most productive during a very pivotal period in America, 1959 - 1967. It was the end of the Eisenhower 50's and the great overblown emergence of the Counter Culture was yet to happen. The stereotypical image of the 1960's was really all about the events of the last three years of that decade. Where there was the Summer of Love, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, the moon landing and Woodstock.     

Just like every guy in the 1950's didn't wear a leather jacket of have his hair in  DA, everyone in the 1960's didn't wear the hair long, drive a VW microbus or have that red eyed glazed look of being stoned. In between the 1950's represented in the musical Grease and the 1960's represented by the musical Hair was a very special and not well understood time. If you ever watched the TV show Mad Men you would know it as Don Draper's America.

The early 1960's was a golden era of American culture. American movies, books and music were sort after throughout the world.  It was the last time poetry meant anything in America. Ken Nordine was a little bit like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol -all three men had a foot in the commercial world and in the artistic community. I guess because they were able to stay financially solvent they didn't fade away like their contemporaries .  

This period, the Don Draper period, was about the last time an artist could write serious poetry, get published and even expect a royalty check for his efforts. During these years Allen Ginsburg becomes famous for Howl and Frank O'Hara for Meditations In An Emergency. Sylvia Plath will shock the world with both her poem Daddy and her suicide. Live Or Die by Anne Sexton changed a generation of how woman looked at themselves. Even the older poets like Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg where popular and widely read.

So much has changed. Can anyone name a promenade poet of the last thirty years? Once poetry was magic. Some of my fondest memories started with a poem.

A life without poetry is like being partially color blind. You can compensate, there's no trouble in getting around or being understood, most of the time it's barely noticeable that anything is missing. But there are those time where and when only poetry will work. If you took all the poetry out of Shakespeare's plays the plays would still be good but maybe not as memorable.  Maybe it would be like changing the blue to grey in all of Van Goth's paintings.
I'm happy to find out that Ken Nordine is alive and working at age 94. I have included a few of his works. They are as accessible as they are entertaining.

Everyday should be more than making a living. Bring back the magic, everyday can have poem, a song, an important verse to make it special.

The greatest incantation of your soul has rhyme and reason all its own.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This Might Be Illegal

There was once an artist in Philadelphia that wanted to make a statue. It would have been a ten foot tall Mickey Mouse holding up a bottle of Coke-a-cola while standing on a pedestal that had the word OK prominently chiseled in. You would think this light hearted poke at three of most universally known bits of American culture would be greeted with a chuckle. But the artist found out not everyone has a sense of humor when he received a phone call from a lawyer. 

The lawyer represented Disney Inc. and he explained that the statue the artist was working on was a copyright infringement.  At first the artist probably thought this was a Godsend. A lawsuit over Fair Use could generate tons of free publicity, it could make him famous. He could turn the tables and put Disney Inc. on trail.

As the story goes the lawyer mentioned that all kinds of things could become public information during a lawsuit and darkly hinted about the artist's past. The artist had no doubt the lawyer had already investigated his past. Whatever the artist wanted to keep secret might be forever lost to time because the statue was never finished.

The Super Bowl is coming. The phrase "Super Bowl" is owned by the Nation Football League.  If I have a business I can not advertise a "Super Bowl Special" without paying the NFL a royalty fee or running the risk of being sued.

The NFL has already sent lawyers out to contact bars, restaurants and small family businesses on the consequences of unauthorized use of their protected "Super Bowl" trademark.  One church that was planning to have a Super Bowl party ran afoul of the NFL.  The church wanted to have the party as a fund raiser but the NFL objected, so the church turned around and made their Super Bowl party a free event. The NFL objected again when they found out the church was going to show the game on a TV that was bigger than 55 inches. Any TV that is bigger than 55 inches can be consider a "public performance" .  

Potentially if you have one of those really huge TVs and invite more than a few friends over to your house on Super Bowl Sunday -well the NFL might come after you. It's ridiculous to think  the NFL could effectively police the country over every Super Bowl party but they could cherry pick one or two parties and make a very heavy handed example out of them. Harassing a few  usually has a very chilling influence on everyone else.  Like dealing with a lunchroom bully, it's easier to hand over a little change from your pocket than to get constantly hassled.  The NFL sees a payday -even a few extra cents from a billion views is tens of millions to them.

Over the last thirty years America has pushed aside the consumer and has made business its first priority. When considering which is more important property rights or civil rights; property rights has been the clear winner.

Football isn't alone, Major League Baseball is working extending its control over its "property". Have you ever wanted to be a sports announcer? Do the play by play. TV or radio stations might not have any openings but on the internet you could be star -unless MLB gets a hold of you. They really chase after any "unauthorized" use of their broadcast. If you do not have prior written permission from MLB, you can not do live play by play of a major league game on the internet.

Major League Baseball is interest in taking copyright privileges one step further by claiming all baseball statistics are protected property. That means someday if I publish the fact that "Babe Ruth had 714 life time home runs and that was a major league record that stood for almost 40 years until it was broken by Hank Aaron".... well I will need MBL permission or will have to pay a fee.

Once upon a time there was a clear understanding of the fair use clause in copyright law. As big business closes in fair use to turn it into a cash cow a commercialized form of censorship is creeping in. That kind of censorship is becoming possible because computers can keep track of so much data and the ownership of the media continues to consolidate into the hands of smaller and smaller groups of owners.

There is hope. Once there was a day care school near Orlando Florida. Partly out of local pride they decorated the walls of the school with Disney characters. The minions of Disney Inc found out and threaten legal action. The good people of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons can to the rescue, they removed the "offending" images and replaced them with their own characters -free of charge. I will not question Hanna-Barbera's motives, even if they did what they did just to embarrass Disney, it was still a noble gesture.

The day care school is safe until someday when Disney buys out and owns Hanna-Barbera. Hopefully by then we will either rebel against or reject the mass media.  It could be nice returning to a time when people also entertained each other, where every story wasn't owned and every imagination had to be fenced in to protect some corporation's property rights. I  fear the possibly when every thought in out head will be metered and charged for.

One twist irony is an ordinary private citizen can not copyright his own life story to protect his personal information. You have practically no control over the information about yourself. That information can be bought, sold and traded -and you have no rights to the profits that information can generate.

It's funny how some people can whip fear over big government but government is the junior partner in the brave new world that's coming at us, where we will be nickeled and dimed into servitude instead of being shackled in irons.

Otherwise enjoy the game.

It's a celebration of athletics and money -and making more money. And isn't that what life is all about?
Some people say money is a very addictive drug -just look at anybody who is jonesing for some.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

This Post Has Not Been Rated

Several people I know at a local cafe have decided to start a film club.  You may have heard of communities where there is no place buy fresh fruits and vegetables referred to as a "food desert". Could the same concept be drawn when it comes to the arts, can a town be a "cultural desert"?
Like the food desert, a cultural desert is a question economics. As big box stores and online merchandising have further dominated huge swaths of commerce, the small shops have folded. As an example it's next to impossible to sell office supplies profitably if there is a Staples franchise only a few miles away. Once every town had a book store and music shop but they have disappeared because of the distributional advantages and the economies of scale a business on the internet has. When the shops that brought the casual foot traffic to main street closed the other businesses found it harder to stay open. Here's the beginning of a downward spiral.

The revival of many small town main streets has depended on arts and culture as a cornerstone of redevelopment. Those towns lucky enough not to have demolished their old movie theaters have discovered there is still a market for live performances and classic movies.  Let's say I want to see the film Casablanca, I can stream it online and watch it at home. But occasionally I would rather see it in a movie theater with a group of people -even if it isn't convenient and costs more than watching it at home. People are social animals and watching a favorite movie alone is a lot like having a great glass of wine by yourself. The quality of the experience is enhanced by having someone to share it with.
Back to the film club.  The town the cafe is in lost both its old theaters over three decades ago. Within in 15 miles there is about forty screens but only one screen is dedicated to classic, foreign and independent movies. Not quite a desert but I think the club members would really enjoy sharing a favorite or obscure movie with their friends.  I know the owner of the cafe would like to see all of us buy a refreshment and a snack at every club meeting.  

The film club had a chance to talk about what films to pick. I suggested This Film Has Not Been Rated a documentary by Kirby Dick. It examines how films are rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA actually has a secret board of "ordinary" people who decide what the guide lines are for each rating. It's curious to see what separates an R rated film from a NC-17 rating. The film also explains how and why the NC-17 rating has become a commercial kiss of death and something to be avoided at any cost.

A couple of people were a little uncomfortable with that choice. The question of when does describing pornography become pornography came up. And though this film is funny, thought provoking and not particularly graphic -still there was a real hesitation to include it. I always thought of it as a film about censorship and who has the right to control what we see.
Then again what is pornography? Somewhere beyond the romantic and the erotic is fifty shades of grayness, that any place along this shadowy spectrum somebody will say that's too much and someone else will disagree and want more.  Nudity and sex have always had an undercurrent of anxiety attached to it.

From past history and anthropology classes it was surprising to see what sexual act or what part of the body was consider obscene at any given time or in any given culture. One poet had a line where she said "a woman without mystery is like a night without stars".  Later she elaborated how there are some parts of our bodies and our minds, that by choice, we should only be shared with people we are totally intimate with.  So over time and across cultures some part of a woman's body has always been deemed sacred, protected or taboo. 

The poet, she thought it was frightening to have a world were nothing is sacred, protected or taboo.  I can see why women have the same reaction to pornography -not only does it make a woman's body a commodity but it always seems to be pushing the boundaries further and further leaving nothing sacred -or at least covered and mysterious. 

In one anthropology class there was a lecture on the Venus of Wllendorf. It's a small statue of a very corporal female figure that over 35,000 years old.  There isn't one Venus but several from that time period. Either carved out of ivory or carved into limestone almost all of the women depicted are large and very curvy -maybe not only representing fertility but also that culture's image of the idea woman. In a group of hunter-gathers where it was either feast or famine  the possibility of a couple of pounds of body fat was an extreme and coveted luxury.

In class I wondered if the Venus of Willendorf was just as likely an object of sexual arousal as it was one of primitive worship?  That caused a real buzz in the class. The Professor thought the idea had merit and after the lecture had a separate discussion about it.    

There is no way of knowing in any detail what people 35,000 years ago thought was right or wrong, erotic or distasteful, sacred or profane. The trap of seeing their world through our perspective is always there. Still as times and customs change I believe people have a core of consistent and common experiences. One time I was reading a translation of a 4,000 year old cruciform clay tablet. It was an agreement to sell a plot of farmland. The new owner would pay the former owner over time and the payments would not be based on a set amount of silver but instead the payments in silver would change year to year relative to the price of barley.  In short it was an adjustable rate mortgage.  Ancient and modern societies might share more than we think.

In some old magazine there is a one panel cartoon where a jungle witchdoctor is standing over a bag of fertilizer and looking at a crowd of disappointed tourists. The witchdoctor says "it's a fertility rite -what did you expect?".  Some of the old Pagan fertility rites were rather randy and tawdry ceremonies.  Here you would have an R-rated celebration of sex that was part of the local religion.   
What needs to be censored is a troubling question. Pornography is a word taken from the Greek language and means dirty pictures. I have always felt violence was more pornographic than sex and nudity. It upsetting to see entertainment where a human being can shot, burned or torn apart in a hundred gruesome ways but happy naked people are obscene and the final images carefully edited to match the right rating for the movie's target audience.   

The movie This Film Has Not Been Rated was made in 2006. It's beginning to look a little dated because the internet is changing how films get distributed. The internet and unrated DVDs are becoming an end run around the MPAA and the movie theaters. Over thirty years ago the VCR made pornography partially respectable because you could watch it at home instead of going to a seedy X-rated movie house. I'm trying to imagine the future where there will be even fewer gatekeepers of morality. Maybe in the end all we really have is ourselves and a small circle friends that really keeps us from becoming twisted and depraved.

In future postings I will mention any movie that incites the film club into having an orgy -but I really doubt that's going to happen.

                               Next meeting I'll ask if we could put Lenny on the movie list.

            And two clips from the real Lenny Bruce please don't listen if you are easily offended.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Winter can look nice through the window of warm house. Otherwise this is the beginning of a nasty Monday morning starting off with snow turning to sleet and ice. The traffic reporter on the radio has that shrill whine of frustration in his voice. He has stopped describing the accidents and just keeps saying "don't even try, you're not going to get though".

The imaginary vacation I posted about last week is becoming more and more enticing. I only wish I had the time and money to drift away to some place warm.

Yesterday Harrison was over. He was ready roll with rant about story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A father had threaten his daughter and wife with a AK-47 Why? He was dissatisfied with his daughter's high school report card. It was all As but this quarter two grades dropped to Bs. Understandably the world is a competitive place but pointing a gun at your child probably isn't the best way to motivate them. Honestly I have one son who is as sharp as tack but could barely trouble himself to strive beyond academic mediocrity. If he came home with a report card of all As and two Bs, I'd hire a marching band and have a parade.

Harrison, who is no fan of guns, pointed out that the father was clueless of why he is being charged with two felonies. Not only did the father feel it was in his right to discipline his daughter, he also tried to assure the police that he was being a responsible parent because he checked the gun first and knew it was empty. There was one more layer of irony on top of all this, the father just recently bought the AK-47 because he was afraid the gun was going soon be banded.  Harrison kept saying "you can't make this stuff up".

For a couple of years Harrison lived in Mexico and to play Devil's advocate I asked "doesn't Mexico have really strict gun control laws?"

"They do, but since they practically have no functioning police, it only shows you laws mean nothing unless there's somebody ready to enforce them."

From here Harrison could side step into some other less volatile topic, like Tijuana.  Once Tijuana was the cross boarder suburb of San Diego. For the adventurous and frugal you can work in San Diego and stay in Tijuana. Sort of the best of both worlds, a high paying American job with an apartment and a maid at Mexican prices.  It has its downside too. The border crossing can be a ten minute perfunctory nod to national sovereignty or a hellish two hour traffic jam in 120 degree heat. If all the world is a stage, then Tijuana is a 24 - 7 carnival but like all carnivals the midway games are rigged and as Harrison said there really isn't anyone there to enforce the rules. 

Mexico seems intriguing because it warm but also because it is a little bit dangerous. Tijuana has grown to the point where it is the metropolis and San Diego is the suburb. Harrison also went on at length about Mexico City, that it has one of the most perfect climates in the world. The tropical sun is tempered by the mile high elevation, so it's just the right temperate with no oppressive humidity but like Tijuana, Mexico City has a downside too. The whole city sits in valley that traps the air pollution in and has the same effect on your lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day.

With a wistful grin Harrison said "if you can handle that Mexico City will reward you." It has its history, a large intellectual community and a very cosmopolitan culture.   
What's most interesting about Mexico to me is it's a place that you think you know -but you really don't. Harrison has been toying with the idea of going back. As the American economy slowly pulls out of this last recession, the Mexican economy has been growing at a healthy 4-5 percent. Things have been so promising that Mexican immigrants in the US have return back home. The newly return not only have a little extra money in their pockets but plenty new ideas of how to make Mexican institutions work better and work for everyone.

So the rest of Sunday afternoon Harrison reminisced on the recipe of Santa Clara cookies, how the fins of manta rays taste like scallops (and that restaurants in Baja California use to serve manta ray fin as the more expensive scallops) or that the Colorado River no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez (because so much of the river water is diverted in the US).

I think one thing Harrison missed from Tijuana was the Mexican lotto or bingo cards.  Harrison brought home a box load of the cards when he return to the US and wall papered the bedroom of his first apartment in Philadelphia with them. It looked cool but when the landlors confronted him about the d├ęcor, Harrison was as clueless as an irate father with a AK-47.

Another thing I think Harrison misses is the Space Age Bachelor Pad music of composers like Juan Esquivel. What can I say, it's an acquired taste. The music is a little cheesy and little campy, but it's fun and you would never think of it as indigenous to Mexico.  Harrison tells me it's good to keep on hand if I ever want to impress the pretentious hip of Los Angeles.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Friesign Theater Challenges You

It's Saturday, it's cold and there's snow on the ground. I'll be outside later but during some part of the weekend I plan to indulge in a little bit of juvenile entertainment. In my youth there were comic books, lurid pulp fiction novels, Saturday matinee movies, as well as all the other avenues of delinquent misadventure.

As a parent I feel it's part of the job to protect your children from all the things that can be harmful but also to introduce them to things of questionable value. We can't be stern hypocritical Dickensian - Calvinists all the time.

Even when they were quite young, my two sons developed a deep appreciation of Monty Python. One of my wife's cherished memories is of both boys performing the complete Dead Parrot routine flawlessly. Add to that all the works of Nick Parks best known for Wallace and Gromit; I don't know how many seasons of Red Dwarf and Robot Wars -and dozens and dozens of episodes of Mystery Science Theater. They have both developed a healthy appreciation for the absurd.

I feel I've been negligent because I didn't introduce them to Firesign Theater until recently. I had posted a few paragraphs on this blog about the joys of old vinyl. While digging through the record collection (research) my two boys kept looking through the albums asking -who is this?        

So for any of you who are having a lazy weekend or are just in the mood for some light entertainment -here's both sides of a Firesign Theater record for your enjoyment.

Firesign Theater - Everything You Know Is Wrong - Side One 

                                 Firesign Theater - Everything You Know Is Wrong - Side Two

Friday, January 25, 2013

Utopia Lost

I have always had a love for history and enjoyed science fiction as history that hasn't happened yet. One of those books that was required reading back in high school that was Edward Bellamy" Looking Backwards which was kind of like history and science fiction mixed together. The protagonist, Julian West, is put under a deep hypnotic sleep in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000. Julian has a chance to see how far humanity as progressed.

The book is almost totally forgotten today but was third most published title of the 19th century and strong seller though the first half of the 20th. Overall it is an optimistic tale of how through cooperative effort and planning for the public good everybody gets to live in a world of personal freedom and material prosperity.  Of course it's a Utopian vision of how the future can be it and was fun to see how many things Edward Bellamy had gotten right.  There was the ubiquitous credit card and mass distribution of goods through what we would recognize as a shopper's club. With affordable transportation there would be a decentralization of cities into satellite communities, small green belted urban villages, which may have been the best vision of what the suburbs could have been.   

These days the ideas of Edward Bellamy are not in fashion. He championed the nationalization of industry were enterprises would be operated as  non-profits.  Successful managers would be paid more than less successful ones and every citizen would be a collective stockholder in the nation's prosperity. One irony is Germany operates its national health care system on a this model and they have the excellent affordable universal health care that we don't.  The unregulated economy of the United States in late 1800's would create unpredictable cycles of boom and bust. There would be periods of rapid growth in wealth followed by devastating depressions. People of that time saw Looking Backwards as a possible and reasonable plan to escape this cycle and have something better.

Science fiction can examine the past and present by comparing it to a fictional future or by making the future an exaggerated parody of the past. The genre can  ask what would it be like if we could do almost anything we can imagine, though so far history shows us that no matter how many technological advances we make -people still remain people.

Maybe the biggest impediment to Utopia isn't the technology but our own human short comings.  That fear, belligerency and selfishness promotes and justifies the kind of waste that enrich a few and impoverish the rest of us.  One of the great economic potlatches and orgies of waste is our own military spending. Depending on who's numbers you use the United States is responsible for just under or just over one half of all the world's  military spending.  If you include NATO the supposed free countries of the world out spend the rest of the world by more than 2 to 1.  Which means we are not getting our money's worth or it's time for a new strategy.

One of the complaints of the post Cold War era is that the world is less stable. When the Soviet Union was the other super-power both us and them were in competition to spend development money in every corner of the planet were we could buy a friend.  Plenty of that money was wasted but some of that money did help the people it was suppose to. During the 1950's and 1960's the world economy grew at a much faster rate and that growth spread much deeper into the underdeveloped third world.  

Money should not be wasted but not all waste is equal. Spending billion dollars on a weapon that does work means that most of that doesn't get to circulate back into the economy. As a billion dollars in misguided social spending will still have spin-off benefits because that money has to be spent (as a defective weapon might be placed in storage or kept in reserve). Almost every dollar the government provides in social programs it gets spend locally as wages, rent, food and heat. It's inefficient, certainly it would be better if everyone had employment at a living wage. Since that is politically impossible right now, it guarantees government spending either providing a minimum amount of food stamps or more money to hire extra police to keep hungry people from rioting.      

The big disappointment of Utopian dreams isn't that the goal is so far away, because it's not.  Utopia is unobtainable because we rather fight that live in peace, because we rather dominate others that mind our own business, because we are much more focused on  what divides us than what we have in common.

These's one quote that comes to mind as I'm writing this. I had ask somebody about the failure a business deal they were negotiating. He shook his head, "it would have worked if I could have convinced everyone to stick with their second greediest position."  

For thirty after Looking Backwards was published there were about two hundred chapters of Bellamy Clubs across the country. Could such a thing could happen again and maybe this time we recreate Eden on their own. I like to believe it closer than we think