January 31, 2007

At Least the Music Will be Good

"Infernal racket... Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy is to be made into a musical, with punk as the sound of hell....

"It is being billed as the Vatican musical. One of the Pope's music officials, the choirmaster of St John Lateran, Monsignor Marco Frisina, has written the score for a song-and-dance extravaganza based on Dante's Divine Comedy. It includes punk, rock, jazz and even heavy metal numbers but early reports suggest they figure only in the section devoted to hell....

"La Repubblica reported that, after the "hell" of rock, jazz and punk, Dante would be seen exploring purgatory to the strains of Gregorian chant before entering paradise to the accompaniment of music written in a classical style."

January 23, 2007

Five Things About Me

Durruti of Love and Rage sent me a meme, asking me to reveal five things about myself. I'm not so sure there are five things about me that are worth hearing about, and that I haven't already talked about ad nauseum, worthy or not. After all I'm one of my own favorite subjects. But this is what I came up with.

#1. I can identify mushroom species. If I were to take you mushroom picking in Italy, in the woods of the town where I spent summers as a kid, I would feel confident that I could distinguish the yummy Amanita cesarea, whose cap is orange and whose flesh is pale yellow, from the deadly (yes, you can actually die from eating it) Amanita phalloides, whose cap is a grayish green/brown and whose flesh is white, and from the poisonous and possibly hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria -- the toadstool you often see pictured in fairy tale illustrations -- whose red cap is dotted with white spots, even though all three mushrooms have the exact same physical characteristics, except color.

And I'm also sure that I could tell apart the highly prized porcino (Boletus aereus or Boletus edulis) from the lowly pinarolo, which is abundant and edible but somewhat icky, and that I could distinguish both from my favorite-named mushroom, Boletus satanas, which looks like a porcino except for a slightly off coloration, and whose flesh instantly turns a lurid (satanic?) blue if you stab it with your walking stick. Of course such determinations were never left up to me. My dad was an avid mushroom-picker, and I was all of twelve the last time we all went mushroom-picking; the first time, I was probably four or five.

The town and environs were almost impossibly quaint. There was a field next to the house where you could pick wild thyme, and oregano grew along the side of the road. There were blackberry brambles everywhere. In the woods, so storybook-perfect you might expect to run into woodland nymphs, you could collect bags of chestnuts (the edible kind), and sometimes even hazelnuts, strewn on the ground. In town, old men played cards at outdoor cafes, or bocce balls behind the church, in a not-very-flat area rutted by tree roots. There were about half a dozen churches. Every church rang its bells every day at noon, but never exactly at the same time as another. You could hear the cheerful clanging for miles. The local movie theater showed a different movie every summer night, to a packed house. (I remember seeing The Producers.) Mostly, though, I think I was jealous of the hip teenagers, who were summer vacationers like ourselves, zooming around on their Vespa scooters and hanging out in the town squares laughing and smoking in loud, raucous groups.

#2. I love my online friends. I never thought that I would make friends online, nor did I even try to. I've never joined any sites that exist for that purpose. The reason I joined the Green Day forum more than two years ago was to stay updated on everything the band was doing, and to see the latest videos and pictures. I was also initially hoping to talk about Green Day on the forum but there was just too much silliness: it was nearly impossible to even offer up an opinion. A post that was longer than a sentence wouldn't even get read. But it unexpectedly started to grow on me. The kids were just so damn funny, I went back again and again specifically for the silliness.

Eventually I became a moderator, then an administrator, and then I was voted favorite member. And then, as I am wont to do, I had a falling out with the owner and another admin, so I don't go there much anymore, but the community of online elves I got to know and befriend keeps on. These days you can find me on http://forum.thisawkwardsilence.net, which initially grew as an offshoot of the Green Day forum. Seriously, come visit and join. I'm mbk.

Blogs are an inherently serious kind of medium, so getting to know other bloggers as friends is more difficult. I often want to leave comments on the blogs of people I like but don't have anything pertinent to say, and it would seem inappropriate to just write, "Wow, that's so great, what you wrote. You're awesome! <333" Yes, I've admitted to it many times: I'm 42 going on 13....

I met one of my closest and dearest friends on the Green Day forum. As it happens, she only lives about three miles away so we're real life friends, but between my chronic fatigue and unpredictable sleep schedule and her family obligations we rarely see each other, so we talk by instant messenger most of the time. Again, something I never would have predicted. Riches come from unexpected places, and I consider myself wonderfully and undeservedly lucky.

#3. I've moved 24 times:
Milan, Italy (parents' apartment)
Naples, Italy (parents' apartment)
Savona, Italy (grandparents' apartment)
Sao Paulo, Brazil (parents' house)
Savona, Italy (grandparents' apartment)
Milan, Italy (parents' apartment)
Sao Paulo, Brazil (parents' house)
Exeter, NH, USA (school dorm)
Providence, RI (college dorm at RI School of Design)
Providence, RI (nutty lady's boarding house)
Providence, RI (college dorm at Brown Univ.)
Andover, MA (faculty house on school campus)
Acton, MA (another nutty lady's boarding house)
Providence, RI (apartment with Bill)
Northampton, MA (apartment with Bill)
Houston, TX (apartment with Bill)
Houston, TX (different apartment with Bill)
Houston, TX (house with Bill)
Short Hills, NJ (parents' house)
Brooklyn, NY (apartment with roommates)
New York, NY (apartment with crazy roommate)
Brooklyn, NY (apartment with different crazy roommate)
Brooklyn, NY (YWCA)
Staten Island, NY (apartment with Mike)
Staten Island, NY (house with Mike)

#4. I've been arrested. It wasn't entirely my fault -- not at all my fault if you consider that I didn't commit any crime, but if I had been less ornery I could have prevented it from happening, I suppose. Yeah, I don't like authority. The charges were thrown out, and it was pretty uneventful.

#5. I shook Billie Joe's hand. Some fans refer to such encounters as "meeting" him but I think that's just playing fast and loose with reality. I don't care that I didn't actually meet him and he's not my buddy, all I know is I clasped his damp little hand, and it puts a goofy little smile on my face, even now.

I don't think I've talked about this here, because believe it or not I try to keep references to Green Day in the blog to a minimum. It was in 1994. I had gone to see Green Day play at the University of New Hampshire, which was nutty enough in itself since I lived in Texas at the time, but I was happy to go, I wanted to go, and so I went. I had called UNH to get tickets, and they had told me only UNH students could buy tickets, but since I was coming from so far away they would just put me on the guest list.

I took the train from Houston to Boston. There was a five hour layover in Chicago, which was nice because I had never been to Chicago. It was near Christmas and there were Santas in the street ringing bells, and a harpist was playing inside a department store. I visited an art gallery, I looked out over lake Michigan, I called Bill from a pay phone in the station.

The concert was wonderful of course. Afterward, I saw people line up to go backstage, and I thought maybe my guest list status could grant me some sort of privilege. (It had gotten me in early and I had seen the opening band’s soundcheck.) But no. And being whiny and pushy didn't help either, go figure. But while I was begging I did see what the backstage passes looked like -- big cloth stickers, blue and white, with some stuff scribbled on them -- so when I saw one stuck to the floor, after having skulked away forlornly, feeling guilty for having been such a weasely pest, I giddily knew just what it was.

“Backstage” was a dingy room in the basement of the gym. Billie Joe seemed weary but he was gracious to a fault, making polite small talk from table to table. Then he started to leave. I was near the door so I asked him if I could shake his hand, and he was so lovely: he said, “Oh, sure.” Of course. No problem. Then I lost my mind and said, “I love you.” Oh, dear god.

I'm passing the meme on to Lucia, Jim, Cheryl, Richard, and anyone else who wants to play.

Answers? Anyone?

Richard writes:
"People today think the system is corrupt. But they don't think that joining the marches of the present will have any effect on anything. A good number might have thought it would for those couple of demos in 2003 when there were a million people protesting the war worldwide, but they saw with their own eyes that these marches had no effect whatsoever on the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments. People today do not believe in working within the system; in fact, most people don't do anything political "within the system"; a majority don't even vote. But they don't see how they could have any effect by doing anything "outside" the system, either, especially if being "outside the system" amounts to attending these lame marches, which follow a very old and boring script."

My feeling about the marches has been that while they have had no effect in changing the course of the war, since the politicians in charge can simply ignore them, and have done so, their usefulness was in reaching the members of the public who also oppose or question the war but who, especially when it first began, were not receiving any messages from the mainstream media that confirmed their doubts and questions about its justice or validity. The demonstrations served to say: "Your TV may not be telling you this, but a lot of us think this war is wrong, and that it's a tragic and deadly mistake."

But something like seventy percent of Americans now oppose the Iraq war, and the Bush presidency in general, and many are alarmed by many other issues, like global warming and environmental destruction, loss of civil liberties, lack of job security or access to affordable health care, and many more, but there is a collective malaise that leaves us wondering what any of us can do. We're left with the options of participation in tired demonstrations that have had no tangible effect, anxious hand-wringing, futile petition-signings, the writing of letters that will never be answered, either to politicians who couldn't care less, or to newspapers, where they are read by fellow hand-wringers who feel the same way as the writer but are themselves at a loss as to what to do, or resigned disgust. (I choose the latter.)

So what is there to do? Michael Albert writes (this was written in 2002):
"When we seek an end to a war, what are we doing? The answer is that we are trying to create conditions, via our organizing work, that say to elites -- if you continue pursuing the war you will pay a price higher than the benefits you are seeking to gain by the war. It is very simple. We are trying to raise social costs that compel elites to meet our demands....

"And raising social costs is ... trying to end a war by building a movement that says to elites if you pursue your war designed to defend and enlarge corporate and geo-political sway, then the ensuing movement will actually call into question corporate and geo-political circumstances so effectively as to make your pursuit counter productive.

"During the Vietnam War, when elite senators and CEOs and others changed their views, they never said I have discovered that the wanton slaughter of Indochinese is immoral. They never said I have grown unable to abide the loss of American lives, even. They said, our streets are in turmoil, we are losing the next generation (to radicalism), business as usual is disrupted and at risk...and so, I must now oppose the war."

Raising social costs is something that current tactics don't seem to be accomplishing. Even faced with overwhelming opposition, the Bush administration is continuing on its chosen course, because there is no compelling pressure forcing it to do otherwise.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about tactics to know what could work or how to go about implementing it. (And my own participation is pretty much out of the question because I'm too sick even to attend boring marches, let alone ones that might be lively enough to actually challenge the status quo.) But it frustrates me that for all the talk, articles, and books about what's wrong with the Bush agenda, and with the broader system, there seem to be scant offerings of possible solutions.

Part of the problem is the widespread fear and rejection of any sort of radicalism, socialism, or leftist ideas that has been so successfully ingrained into mainstream thinking, but without that theoretical underpinning it's impossible to talk about working toward justice and equality, it seems to me. Capitalism is inherently unjust and exploitative, and what little safeguards we have against its power to devour, even in American society, are, for the most part, examples of socialism: social security, Medicaid, Medicare, labor unions, progressive taxation....

Anarchism, in particular, offers solid, sensible ideas and strategies that can be implemented right now, and that can make real inroads, but its potential tends to get lost in grand talk among anarchists of "revolution" and "overthrowing the system." The system is not going to be overthrown anytime soon, nor is there any revolution about to happen, and I for one would not particularly welcome it if it were. (I certainly wouldn't want to see any more violence, which a revolution would presumably entail, even thought I understand the counterargument that the present system is plenty violent already, nor do I much want to live in a strictly anarchist society, where we would all be dependent on the goodwill of our fellow man and woman to engage in voluntary cooperation: I don't have that kind of faith in humans.)

But anarchists understand, first of all, that you can't nicely petition those in power to do the right thing -- especially when doing the right thing would go against the powerful's own self interests -- and expect results. Social change is brought about by grassroots movements that can garner enough strength to force those in power to act, which is what the Civil Rights movement was able to do. Personally, I find that perspective somewhat alarming, and I'm saying this strictly from a position of cowardice. During the Civil Rights era, there were many who suffered personal losses and grave consequences for their activism. It's not an easy sell.

But there's another solution offered by anarchism that is potentially effective and less scary, and that is the idea of building alternative institutions: things like free food distribution, such as Food Not Bombs, barter networks, like free stores and freecycling, alternative schools and day care, urban gardens, food co-ops, worker cooperatives, etc. (A related article is here.) The idea is to provide useful, practical services, offer alternatives to the capitalist system, and create a broader ideological framework that demonstrates that it's possible for people to be self-empowered, work cooperatively, and share resources and skills. These projects are often small and are sometimes seen as kind of hippieish and not very organized or effective. But that's only because there's a lack of faith in their potential and understanding of what purpose they serve, which limits participation. And anarchists themselves are frequently their own worst ambassadors, by appearing too insular and self-involved in their own scene and their own ideology, which is off-putting to outsiders. I don't care if alternative institutions are the pathways to building the revolution. Their usefulness is right now, including to people who don't want -- and don't care about creating -- an anarchist society.

A nice little not-necessarily-anarchist overview is here. Scroll down to "Alternative Institutions."

Moving Along...

The last few months I've been so fucking tired. I've had chronic fatigue for something like twenty-five years, and over time it has steadily ground forward like a rusted old wheel, gradually and tirelessly (hah!) getting worse. Not that it's terrible. It's like the flu, or like having worn oneself out working on a demanding project for weeks with little sleep, or having taken an ill advised rock-collecting mountain hike that has now lasted for several days too long, and still there's climbing and carrying packs full of rocks to do.

I don't identify with my illness, it just is, like an annoyance that never lets you go. And frankly I think I've taken it pretty well, considering that it has robbed me of most of what makes up a normal life. I can't support myself, I can't have any accomplishments or even much in the way of interests, I can't take a trip or go on a vacation, I can't raise a family because taking care of children is out of the question. Even a simple social occasion is often something I have to forego, or postpone for an elusive day when I'll feel better. And cleaning up the house is a rare event. But for the most part, none of these losses are anything that I have a burning yearning to conquer or overcome. I like the meanderings in my own head. I enjoy being contemplative, and just thinking, reading when it's not too taxing, and sometimes writing.

That's how I feel now anyway, which is why I'm writing this now. Other times a kind of panic descends on me, when simple resignation is not what I want, and there are things that demand doing that I can't postpone forever -- like buying homeowner's insurance because the old policy was canceled, and having to talk to those sleazy and unctuous insurance guys on the phone without losing my temper -- and things that don't demand getting done but that dammit I think I should be able to do if only I could just squeeze a bit of rational thought and some sense of order out of my fogged up brain, like writing something that makes sense and has a shred of insight or humor. And not just for the blog. I'd love to write something substantial, like a book. But that's something I don't know if I would be capable of doing even if I was well.

The tiny accomplishments I achieve on days when I feel somewhat better are downright quaint. I did the laundry on Saturday and Sunday, went to the laundromat both days (on Saturday Mike helped me). Then I folded and sorted everything by type and put it all away. That was huge. We've never had so many clean clothes, towels, and sheets in the house at one time. I should take a picture of the towering stacks of t-shirts and pants. Then on Tuesday I threw caution to the wind and went to the supermarket too, which was a bit too much. We don't have a car so I have to walk, pushing a folding cart, but the physical walking is not the only challenge, the more subtle demand is not looking wild-eyed, crazed or drugged as you make your way around people, when you really should be at home in bed, resting, instead of out and about, pretending that everything is perfectly fine.

Art vs. Propaganda

I came across three articles on three different subjects that seem to me to be essentially discussing the same idea: how our individual and collective imagination is captured by the opposing but overlapping forces of art and its sinister cousin, propaganda.

The first one is about "branding," the corporate pull for the hearts and loyalties of consumers that is crafted via compelling visual images and emotional slogans. "Branding resides, first and foremost, in the realm of design.... Every moment is to be infused not just with “style” or “beauty,” but with emotional bonding to a corporate entity.... Art, in its most general sense, serves as an ideal vehicle for connecting human emotions to a material object because it strikes us at a pre-analytic level. We experience it and react to it before we can reflect on it." I'm not sure if consumers are really that gullible and easily seduced, but the advertising images with which we are constantly bombarded, many of them created with impressive style and panache, certainly have staying power, whether they persuade us to buy the product or not, and become a part of our experience and imagination. Which is why I'm also not convinced that we are helpless to reflect on those images and their underlying messages: it seems to me humans have an unending desire to pick apart and scrutinize everything that is brought to our attention.

The second, a book review, bemoans the gaudy dullness of popular culture, because its author feels it suppresses the desire for high culture, which is more challenging and therefore ultimately more satisfying. "The obstacles to unfettered imagination are everywhere: reality TV, memoirs galore, novels propped up by historical 'research' (The Da Vinci Code)—all examples of a culture afflicted by a pernicious 'art-suspicion.' Fewer and fewer people are willing to submit to the genuinely made-up, to put themselves 'in the power of another world—the work of art—and in the power of another person—the artist.'" I tend to agree with that, somewhat, although I think low-brow art can often be very engaging, but I'm somewhat disturbed by the notion that one ought to give oneself over to the artist, apparently uncritically, and that only then will one become open to the "unfettered imagination."

Which brings me to the third article (not actually an article but a speech) by the filmmaker Wim Wenders, which advocates for the role that art can play as propaganda. His argument is that while European cinemas and TVs are being overrun with American product, there is no parallel European vision to inspire people to feel and experience European cultural values on an emotional, visceral level. "Europe prefers to use political and economical arguments, over emotional ones ... while in our most important embassies, in cinemas and on TV, the superpower of imagery, America, is pulling people under its spell.... No one ... will be swept away, enthused and inspired by the OPEN SOCIETY, as long as it remains an ABSTRACT IDEA. Such a vision has to be attached to feelings, to places, to memories. These 'European emotions' are right in front of our eyes, ... but politics is widely ignoring them. The field of images is largely being left to others."

In principle, that sounds fine. If propaganda is used for good, to spread a positive and needed message, one that in this case I essentially agree with, then it's beneficial, right? Well, no. Art is not liberating nor authentically inspiring when it tells you what to think or how to feel. What Wenders seems to be urging is for European culture to "brand" itself, for European filmmakers and artists to create a compelling vision of what Europeans value so the message he has in mind, which is primarily political, can be disseminated in a stealthy, emotional way that bypasses the intellect and goes straight for the heart.

I'm sorry but I don't want propaganda that is good for me, or for society, any more than I want myself or my fellow humans to be intentionally deceived by those messengers whose values I don't share. That may seem like a selfish or anti-populist argument, but I give the people more credit than that. I want genuine inspiration and food for thought, for everyone, not canned sentiments and emotional blackmail. I want an artist to throw open a door, give me a glimpse of something I would not have known or thought to imagine, and then let me make my own way through it. If the artist presumes to hold my hand I'm going to smack it away! It's by having honest experiences, with art that is created to be generous and giving, and approaching those experiences critically and with curiosity, that one builds up resistance to and finds easy to spot the fake, unctuous art that is used in the service of deception and persuasion.