Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Origin Story

The block party behind our house would fade into dusk as if stage lights were being lowered, all that was left were gray silhouettes of neighbors, bikes, grills, and parked cars, the dart-like movement of the kids and the lumbering of parents cut-outs against the receding dark out of which something else now would arise, the unnamed smells of Scotch and Bourbon, car headlights coming on one-by-one to illuminate neighbors sighing and sagging and laughing into their lawn chairs, the tinkle of ice and lowered chuckles a new timbre against the careening Big Wheels and girls' laughter, the booze a kind of foreign oil moving across the tide of my childhood, and so I'd sniff, curious, something added to the strange odors of grown-ups, a smell that seemed to come with the dark and the spent, long afternoons, food eaten, stories swapped, a new, exotic tenor out there in the suburban air, a strange current, beguiling, not mine, humming through the next few years as I grew unafraid of its wattage, plugging in, a decade later winding up with my buddies in the woods behind Kemp Mill Shopping Center chasing Cutty Sark with orange soda that we bought at Giant Foods, that same strangeness, now vivid and joyous and cut with mayhem, descending with a different dusk—into which I awoke, later, wrapped around my ten-speed bike in the county strip along Arcola Avenue, my feet twisted through the spokes, a dog barking somewhere, lights in a strange house coming on, my older brother staring down at me, the streetlight behind him, his car idling, my mom waiting a half mile away on the front porch, blurry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Raybeats: Now, not Then

Marty's '71 Pontiac LeMans convertible was, it turns out, the perfect vehicle in which to experience a revival. We were two late-teens tooling around suburban Washington D.C. and the District, empty Schaefer cans rolling around in the back seat, rock and roll on the tape deck, wary of roaring through puddles that would shoot jets of rainwater up through the patched-together floorboards. Among the many, many bands we listened to as we cruised to bars and shows and back was the Raybeats, a neo-surf instrumental group from New York that originated in that city's No Wave scene. I don't remember how we got hooked to them—it was probably through Weasel, our favorite DJ at WHFS—and I recall seeing them only once, a delirious, sweaty blast of a show at the (old) 9:30 Club. We drank and danced all night.

What strikes me now is how fresh and new the Raybeats sounded and felt. They were, of course, "neo"—but that word meant little to me at the time. The Raybeats were innovating the surf sound for the Post-Punk era, yet though were revivalists, too. They played inside of, pushed against the walls of, a box that didn't matter to me: I didn't care so much for what tradition they were mining as for how they presented something alive to me, something that made contact with what came before but only because the wire from then to now was alive and humming. When I picture us driving around town in a car that was already nostalgic for the past, listening passionately to cover versions of songs that were already a couple decades old, I see two kids poised between teenagedom and adulthood, grooving to rock and roll that lifted us above eras and styles, plugging us in to something timeless, the greatest and most valuable commodity of all. (I'm not embarrassed to write that, at their best, the early Spongetones did this for me too.)

The Raybeats ca. 1983
It turns out that the Raybeats album that we loved—1983's "It's Only A Movie!"—would be the band's last. The album was recorded in drummer Don Christensen’s loft during the summer of 1983. Guitarist and sax player Pat Irwin commented on a peculiar aspect of the album: “[Most of the] material on the record was totally influenced by the introduction of the drum machine,” Irwin recalled. “The drum machine was everywhere, and like most of us at that time, we kind of fell under its spell. . . . My memory of the drum machine is not a happy one. It was a sound that seemed to be everywhere and we just kind of went with it.” The digital drum sound is heard well on "Sad Little Caper," and it's one of the qualities of the album that I loved, a kind of bridging of the past with the present, smirk, or ironically-raised eyebrow, included.

The word "revival" was first used in the Seventeenth century in the sense of "the bringing of an old play back to the stage." (The next century saw the word employed in the religious sense by Cotton Mather.) Yet there was nothing old about the Raybeats, though there sure should have been. About the Beatles' 2000 compilation 1, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote: "If you give this to any six or seven year old, they'll be a pop fan, even fanatic, for life. And that's reason enough for it to exist." It all has to do with listening context—a kid hearing "Please Please Me" or "Penny Lane" for the first time, as his parents did in the last century. To two great buddies rolling through D.C. in the Marion Berry Coke Era in a beat-up, primer-coated convertible with a cranky top and great speakers, what the Raybeats were reviving might as well have been introduced the week before. Who cared? Songs like "Soul Beat/Intoxica" and "Banzai Pipeline" got into us, shook us up, drained us, and worked their way out. If we felt like it—wringing the sweat from our shirts after a show—we labeled it. But mostly we just turned it up again.

Photo of the Raybeats via The Tone Zone.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Going Through and Forgetting

Recently at BPS Research Digest, the "brain and behaviour" blog of the British Psychological Society, I read about a wild discovery: merely walking through a doorway increases forgetting. A study led by Gabriel Radvansky "shows that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it more difficult to recall information pertaining to an experience in the room that's just been left behind."
Dozens of participants used computer keys to navigate through a virtual reality environment presented on a TV screen. The virtual world contained 55 rooms, some large, some small. Small rooms contained one table; large rooms contained two: one at each end. When participants first encountered a table, there was an object on it that they picked up (once carried, objects could no longer be seen). At the next table, they deposited the object they were carrying at one end and picked up a new object at the other. And on the participants went. Frequent tests of memory came either on entering a new room through an open doorway, or after crossing halfway through a large room. An object was named on-screen and the participants had to recall if it was either the object they were currently carrying or the one they'd just set down.

The key finding is that memory performance was poorer after travelling through an open doorway, compared with covering the same distance within the same room. "Walking through doorways serves as an event boundary, thereby initiating the updating of one's event model [i.e. the creation of a new episode in memory]" the researchers said.
Concerned that these results might have occurred as a result of the simplistic nature of virtual reality, Radvansky and his team conducted a second study employing actual physical rooms with objects in them. "Participants passed through this real environment picking up and depositing objects as they went, and again their memory was tested occasionally for what they were carrying (hidden from view in a box) or had most recently deposited. The effect of doorways was replicated. Participants were more likely to make memory errors after they'd passed through a doorway than after they'd travelled the same distance in a single room." Wishing to discount the memory-enhancing effect of context—i.e. "the basic idea being that we find it easier to recall memories in the context that we first stored them"—
Radvansky and his team tested this possibility with a virtual reality study in which memory was probed after passing through a doorway into a second room, passing through two doorways into a third unfamiliar room, or through two doorways back to the original room—the one where they'd first encountered the relevant objects. Performance was no better when back in the original room compared with being tested in the second room, thus undermining the idea that this is all about context effects on memory. Performance was worst of all when in the third, unfamiliar room, supporting the account based on new memory episodes being created on entering each new area.
This is fascinating. What I find especially interesting is the door as metaphor, something figurative that is empirically vetted by these experiments. If metaphor is a carrying over, a bridge between the rational and the irrational, a study like this suggests that tat bridge is a sturdy one. Think of the door and its many associations: through a doorway I enter, depart, seek shelter, find shelter, hide, discover, expect comfort, experience surprise, shed a persona, adopt a persona. All of these and more we associate with the doorway, the dividing line between inside and out, private and personal. It makes sense to me that when we go through a door, a page turns, narratively speaking, in our imaginations and in our memory. We feel that a new section, a chapter, had begun, or we revise the rooms, the chapters, we were in earlier. Joyce Carol Oates understood this as she imagined poor Connie at the end of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." Connie's standing at a literal threshold as she's preyed upon by Arnold Friend. In the story's final moments, before she submits to Friend, Connie's poised at a doorway, behind her her flimsy, inessential house, in front of her "so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it." Richard Rodriguez, too, at the end of Hunger of Memory, recognizes the power of the doorway: Rodriguez is leaving his parents' home after a holiday dinner, and at the door gives his father's coat to him. "In that instant," he writes, "I feel the thinness of his arms. He turns. He asks if I am going home now too. It is, I realize, the only thing he has said to me all evening." Framed in a doorway, Rodriguez, as all great autobiographers can do, recognizes a silhouette of himself in an image of lasting value, at a door through which he departs and thus everything behind him changes, and is partially and permanently lost to memory.

A painting's frame is a door, too, through which we enter and through which we depart to re-enter the world, maybe changed slightly, having forgotten for a moment where we were. What we remember of the world in which we were standing has been affected, or more likely, begins again.

Of course, John Ford got it, too:

What's your favorite door scene in a book, movie, or song?

Image of door via ePhotoZine.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Beatles Girls, redux

I've expanded "Beatles Girls, Where Have You Gone?" into a video essay up now at TriQuarterly Online:
Beatles Girl won’t go away; she confounds my attempts to understand her. I picture my sentences orbiting the photo, looking for a seam, a way in. An essay about Beatles Girl stymies autobiography—it’s not me, it’s you, I want to tell her. Yet my search for meaning in her expression reveals something about me as well. I’m not simply attempting a biography of a photo; I’m implicated in a pursuit that began in my parents’ basement all those years ago, when as a Beatles nut I devoured the oversized book in which she appears, always drawn back to her after I’d turn the page, the “Red Album” providing the score in the background. She’s sobbing a kind of foreign language. I wonder about her, and also about the ways, and maybe the reasons why, I’ve been tattooed.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nostalgia, Data, Pas de Deux: A Conversation with Dave Jordan

Sport tends to grow as it recedes into the past. Filtered through the imagination, feats on the field grow in mythic stature. In memory, long games are longer, become "epic," homers are hit further, higher, fingers are stretched beyond their limit; as in a surreal painting, ten yards is twenty. Nostalgia works in a similar way when we consider athletes who might have been less gifted in talent than the superstars, but who linger in memory as among our favorites. This is where sentimentality—nostalgia's cute twin sibling—might infect our clear-eyed view of accomplishments. "There are two worlds: the world we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination." I've quoted this Leigh Hunt observation often, and it's on my mind now as I consider Sabermetrics—the statistical compiling and analysis of baseball players' offensive and defensive performance using objective evidence—and its stubborn, nearly joyless tendency to challenge, if not debunk, memory. There's some tension for you: the heat between data and nostalgia.

Where did you go...
Ken Singleton. Willie Randolph. Ruppert Jones. These guys were among my favorite players in the mid-1970s, players whose baseball cards I coveted, who I hoped to catch a glimpse of on ABC's Monday Night Baseball or NBC's Saturday Game Of The Week, and whose stats I'd pore over on Sunday mornings, when the Washington Post would run each qualifying player's season-total stat lines. These men lived in my head as much as on the field, acting out in real time the games I played in the backyard and, less enjoyably, on the CYO fields. Jones played for the exotic, briny Seattle Mariners, whose light-blue uniforms I loved, and when he went on the Disabled List as a rookie I made my first and only sports radio call, asking Ken Beatrice at WMAL in a quavering voice when Jones was expected to play again. (Pre-Internet = Glacial Era.) I wasn't a stat head as a kid beyond what Topps provided me every week, gum-scented data and trivia washed down with a Cherry Coke. I followed the usual numbers in charting my hero's rise or fall, but these days I'm not an obstinate purist. Over the years I've converted to the BA/OBP/SLG line, to OPS, WHIP and some of the other core metrical categories of statistical analysis that are clearly valuable, and superior to older, more conventional statistics. I'm not interested here in debating the merits of Sabermetrics but in wondering how objective numbers-crunching might be at odds with affection, how objective evidence might bump up against loving memories of a player who in our imaginations played with grace and excellence (or at least with "grit") but who when his numbers are crunched settles ignobly into the bottom half of career players. When the numbers tell you that a beloved player from your youth was below-average, what does that tell you about statistics, about your love for a game. About memory?

Dave Jordan, founder of Instream Communications, has wondered about this stuff, too. A former Wall Street trader who focuses on investing in media and advertising companies, Dave led a group of graphic artists last year in creating The 1975 Topps Traded Project, a visual reboot of every traded player and rookie in the original 1975 Topps to their proper ballclub. Dave's upcoming site Instreamsports.com is dedicated to giving a voice to ex-athletes outside of the mainstream media. Instream is based in the Princeton, New Jersey area, and is currently in Beta Launch.

Recently, Dave and I virtually sat down and talked about Sabermetrics, the past, and memory.


Do you think that baseball particularly lends itself to nostalgia and sentimentality, or are they not unique to the sport? Do you hear and see football and basketball garner the same level of wistfulness among its fans?

I think baseball is a primary element of American folklore. History e-textbooks a hundred years into the future will recall the National Pastime as a major component to the American fabric in the 20th century and early 21st century. I do believe the emergence of NFL Films, the stolid, glorious voice of John Facenda, has gone a long way toward creating an early century baseball-like mystique for professional football, you know, all that "Frozen tundra" kind of stuff. For many fans, the NFL didn't exist before Vince Lombardi, and I believe the true narrative begins with the work of NFL films. Baseball is written in poetry ("Casey at the Bat"), on Broadway (Damn Yankees), the legend of Lou Gehrig, that shot of Babe Ruth at his final Old Timer's Day. There's little of that poetic imagery in Football—now college football, what with Jim Thorpe, All-American, Knute Rockne, you may have an argument there. What's there in basketball? The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh?  "TV's Mr. Kotter stars in Fast Break!" I mean sure, there's some sentimentality in hoops, but for every Willis Reed moment there's two to three Kirk Gibson-type moments. For every Michael Jordan shot to end the 1998 finals, there's two to three Joe Carter-style post-season game winners. You want to bring high school basketball and football into this, I suppose you could. Baseball was the primary spectator sport in the country by a lot until probably the 1960's, when the networks (with more than an assist by Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner) began to realize the power on football on television. That said, baseball's long-standing spot as the National Pastime gives it the lead in terms of wistfulness. All that "When It Was A Game," sort of stuff.   

I always thought that HBO should've created a final chapter on Baseball in the '70's—"When It Stopped Being a Game." It's also when I believe the wistfulness ends. When ten year-old boys stopped placing bubble gum cards into their bicycle spokes and into plastic binders is when it stopped being a game. Also, when kids stopped calling them bubble gum cards is when it stopped being a game. 

What cultural value does nostalgia have?

Well, generally speaking, when you're eight, most of us knew nothing except the social biosphere of Mom, Dad and perhaps a toolish sibling or two or three if you were lucky.  That was your complete frame of reference, outside of television or those "Easy Reader" books you ordered through Scholastic once a month in class. When that girl at day camp, 1978, that girl with the golden brown hair and olive eyes caresses your fingertips without thinking because she saw it in some bad Mark Hamill movie with her babysitter a couple days earlier, next to the knock-hockey table in the camp's open-air rec room, "Summer Lovin'" fights through feedback on your camp's crappy, third rate P.A. system. She makes this awkward attempt at arching her eyebrow in the most innocent manner, she's letting you know, you, that seemingly anonymous third grader, you exist. Your passive actions are affecting the cosmos. You're in play in this universe. That's nostalgia. That memory allows you to remind yourself, I affect things and human beings. Every time you hear the phrase, "Me, too," in reference to an event you witnessed decades ago or were a participant, it's another indication that you're not alone. The other side of this of course, is that you're one of a million-plus, the wager is loneliness vs. conformity, but that's a beer we'll have another time. Nostalgia confirms your existence in a time and place and that to me is the value.

You're a proponent of metrical evaluation of baseball players past and present. What's the value of Sabermetrics?

I believe that highly intelligent baseball fanatics in the late 1970's were getting bored with the same old "Mantle vs. Mays"-style arguments in the context of the value of players, the intentionally vague definition of the "Most Valuable Player," things like that. That's what you had, tons of barroom chatter that never really went anywhere. Bill James (influential early proponent of metrical evaluations) wanted to write about baseball, but had few connections into the only avenues of the time, newspapers and periodicals. Leagues were employing ex-players in talent-evaluation front office positions, and presumably James wanted to be part of the establishment, but was blown off. Ultimately, what Sabermetrics is supposed to do is create a benchmark for evaluating players from different eras with an equalized measurement, first James' "Runs Created" measurement. The primary measurement is now Wins Above Replacement (WAR). So now when someone pipes up "Mantle was better than Mays," you can chime in about Willie's 150 WAR vs. Mickey's 105. There's an assortment of formulas out there to determine WAR, but they are all based upon the same principle, that being the comparison of one player versus the theoretical 25th man on the roster. I also believe when fans began playing Rotisserie/Fantasy Baseball for money is the when the measurements dramatically improved. Obviously, when commerce rears its ugly head is where you'll find intellectual and technological advances. 

The side effect of all this is that greater knowledge removes a certain subjective element from the conversation. I remember a major baseball journalist wondered publicly if Johnny Damon was a Hall of Famer. I replied that if he achieved 3000 hits, he was in, end of story. The writer was highly offended by my phrasing of "end of story," like this was the worst thing a journalist could hear.  He's right about that, I suppose, because a journalist thrives in a subjective atmosphere and benchmarks like 3000 hits and 300 wins are pretty much the opposite of that. In my view, there's nothing to discuss. If you achieve 3000 hits in ten seasons, you're a God in this game.  15 seasons, you're Derek Jeter, a great player. 20 seasons, you're the most consistent .277 hitter in baseball history, or perhaps you're Craig Biggio. Lou Brock would be another example, but his average was .293, with only a .343 career On-Base Percentage (OBP). In today's baseball game, with the focus on OBP, you won't get 20 years to play 156-game seasons with an OBP less than .350, even if you're batting .277, or .280, because with the increased influence of statistical analysis, there will be voices of those analyst-types in the front office of the organization saying things like "So what if he has 165 hits a season, they're all empty singles." Faster than you could say Adam Dunn, that player will be replaced by someone batting .256 but who walks 90 times a year with 25 dingers. A guy like Daniel Murphy could hit .280 forever—if he started at age 23 and never got hurt, he could collect 3000 hits. In reality, at this rate, Murphy will be the next Dave Magadan, hitting .280 off the bench for 200 to 250 at-bats until the age of 38, the spot where that single base-hit matters. For someone in this generation to come this close, there has to be a darn good reason he's on the field, outside of "empty batting averages," as some like to say.  I will go so far as to go on record that Johnny Damon might be the last guy to get this far in terms of hits and not make the Hall of Fame.   

Omar, chugging since '89
The other aspect of this is consistency, which in my mind should be rewarded. To play this game for over two decades and consistently be out there day-in-day-out, through all the traveling, day-after-nighters, the extra inning games, the flights, the hotels, the psychological effects of being without family, wives or close friends, to play through that is an enormous accomplishment, and Sabermetrics doesn't always reward this. You wanna say even though Omar Vizquel played 16 to 17 years as a starter but his WAR comes up short and his hit total doesn't reach 3000, he's not a Hall of Famer, OK fine. You wanna say Johnny Damon plays 149 games for 18 years and somehow makes it to 3000, guess who gets to swing the flag past the finish line? Not only has he showed amazing consistency in remaining healthy through what is a grueling schedule, he achieved what 28 other men out of what , 5000-plus, could never attain. Guess what, he's great, he's a Hall of Famer, and anyone who wants to argue that comes off as a bit of a Sophist. 

I agree with the baseball writer, though; the worst words he could ever hear is "end of story." Sabermetrics, in many ways, might possibly curtail his reason for being.

It's funny imagining a fifty year-old in the future waxing nostalgic about the WAR, WHIP, or UZR stats recollected from his childhood, but of course that will happen. Do you see sabermetrics as devaluing nostalgia and memory? Undercutting it or complementing it?

Michael Weinreb, a sportswriter at Bill Simmons's Grantland, wrote a nice piece a few months ago about his love growing up for Statis Pro Baseball. I'd go so far as to say that that was the Sabermetrics of the 1980s, things like that. Whatever kids were doing at that point in life when they felt good and happy, will generate nostalgia. If that means getting an autograph, they'll wax on that. If it means playing SIM baseball with their dad at age nine fighting over Dave Kingman's worthless 37 HR season with the Mets in 1982, but spending time together and loving every minute of it, they'll wax on that, too. APBA baseball in the late '70s, Strat-O-Matic even more so—I used to have a blast with the 1981 strike season. Let me place it in these terms: no way do I believe Mookie Wilson will never see himself on a plaque in the Hall-of-Fame, but I remember Mother's Day in 1983 when I approached him for an autograph before the game and he smiled that Mookie smile as I shot off every positive statistic worth mentioning. "You know it all, dont'cha," he replied, as he wrote "Happy Mother's Day, Mookie," in my autograph book. No reminder of his lousy OBP or heavy amount of annual strikeouts will ever tarnish that.

How would you respond to someone who might see the accumulation and analysis of sabermetric stats as having a deadening effect on intuitive love of a given player?

I would say, "You never met Mookie." Seriously, this is a tough question, I think, because I don't know if kids love players the way they did back then. I'm not certain healthy, free-thinking people have such idols any longer in 2012. Going to the game is no longer the absolute 100% delight it was even 30 years ago. Think about this; the ballpark is basically the team's "store" and what they are saying to you is, "Come to my store and I will make you pay for parking to give me business." Think about how nuts that sentence reads. You have to pay for the privilege of patronizing their establishment. It's obnoxious and a leverage of your affection for the ballclub and its history. I think today kids like David Wright, they like Derek Jeter, they like players. They don't love them.

I think the accumulation and analysis of sabermetric stats in the context of your affection for a player is the same as your buddy trying to tell you that the girl in sophomore year high school you were crazy about was a terrible lab partner. Good to know, I suppose, but it doesn't really affect your overall perspective on the person. Unless of course, you found yourself in Physics class with her the following year.

Sabermetric statistics via Beyond The Batting Average, by Lee Panas. Photo of Omar Vizquel via SideLines.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hazlitt, I Hear Ya

The picturesque and dramatic do not keep pace with the useful and mechanical. The telegraphs that lately communicated the intelligence of the new revolution to all France within a few hours, are a wonderful contrivance; but they are less striking and appalling than the beacon fires (mentioned by Aeschylus,) which, lighted from hill-top to hill-top, announced the taking of Troy and the return of Agamemnon.
William Hazlitt, writing in "The Letter-Bell," likely the last essay he composed before his death in 1830. (The piece was published in 1831 by his son, in Monthly Magazine.) Typical of Hazlitt, the sentiment is grudgingly accepting and lyrically nostalgic, in this case for an era Hazlitt never experienced. That this is the last sentence in Hazlitt's last essay presses upon the mood, but it would be irresponsible, though irresistible, of me to read with too much hindsight. What strikes me in his observation is what Hazlitt elsewhere calls a connection with the universe: doesn't he sound a lot like those of us in the 21st Century grimly allowing for the Kindle while lamenting The Printed Book? Those a century before me who accepted the automobile while keening for the horse's nobility and servitude, for the preservation of tradition? I'll keep Hazlitt in mind—(I often do)—when I catch myself romanticizing and sentimentalizing the past, my one hand clutching my iPad, the other loose leaf paper. There's something comforting if vaguely embarrassing in the fact that each generation loudly protests the passing of its comforts. Hazlitt, of course, was merely repeating the mawkish gestures of earlier generations. The telegraph, or signal fires? The canvas, or the camera? The musty stacks, or Wikipedia? What's next week's precious complaint.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Friday, July 6, 2012

Marina Abramović, Giving Us Ourselves

I'm late to Marina Abramović's The Artist Is Present, a performance piece that ran at MOMA two years ago. HBO's new documentary renewed my interest in this amazing work of art, and in the artist herself who's made a lengthy, dynamic career out of testing the physical, mental, and emotional limitations of the human body. If you paid any attention to mainstream media arts coverage the last couple of years, you know what Abramović accomplished in this piece: for nearly three months, wearing alternately a blue, red, or white long gown, she sat in a hardback chair in a spacious MOMA gallery facing another chair where an individual, out of an endless stream, sat and looked at Abramović as she gazed back. You could sit for as long or as little as you wished (some sat for minutes, others for hours, as the gallery-goers looked on). The effort was monumental, and I think heroic, on Abramović's part: beyond the physical and mental stamina and commitment involved—each day she sat in the chair from the gallery's opening to its close for the duration of the piece—there was a spiritual component that, I think, surprised even Abramović in its intensity.

What was profound about The Artist Is Present was the way Abramović was both present and transparent: her sensibility drove the show, but her generosity turned the lens away from her. This was, I think, a deeply personal, maybe even private, piece for Abramović, but what's moving is to watch the effects that the piece had on the various spectators, many of whom seemed surprised, even startled, by their responses, as evidenced by this "Marina Abramović Made Me Cry" tumblr. Had I attended (let alone made it to the chair; the lines by the end of the performance's run were prohibitively lengthy) I have no idea what my response would've been, but I intuitively understand those who found themselves crying, coming undone. By gently, though through fierce will, keeping her attention on each spectator, Abramović acknowledged each, said, You matter at this moment as person, subject, emotional creature, individual. As is mentioned in the documentary, this humane, deliberate recognition of an ordinary individual's worth has greater currency now given the speed and haste of contemporary life, which spurns the contemplative. The sceptic in me wonders: is this what we need, more recognition that someone is worth something simply because he exists, because she is here? But Abramović's aim seemed less to elevate the individual to unearned status than to slow us down, to remind us of our interior, reflective lives, so often obscured or ignored in 21st Century spectacle and noise.

Who knows what private conversations spectators had with the willing, patient, loving Abramović. I was reminded of E.M. Forster: only connect. Clearly there was communication between spectator and artist, in the profound sense of that word. The quiet gallery, the deliberate lengthening of time, the intimacy of gazing, the eye-contact: in this environment Abramović gave the spectators back to themselves, connected beyond rational language, and I'm certain that many of them were changed following the exchange, perhaps permanently. Who knows what the world looked like to the affected as they turned away, but the world was surely altered. But The Artist Is Present doesn't only concern the attendees and their different engagements with the work. Look at the title of the piece: art is happening here. As I watch Abramović, I see an artist in the process of shaping, of imagining, seeing, reflecting, and being. Aramović becomes not only the artist and her art, but art itself.


Trailer for the HBO documentary

Footage of The Artist Is Present from March 9, 2010

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What We Know

I like what Nathan Englander is onto here, that the value of "what you know" depends on what end of the telescope you're looking through:
All I know from childhood is I was on my couch watching TV, so I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you, I should write a book called What’s Happening and I should write a book called Little House On The Prairie’s On At Five O’clock. That was my childhood experience, and this didn’t feel to me, when I thought of the books that I loved, and the kind of stuff I wanted to write, it felt like I’m going to be very limited by “write what I know.”… Most of the books that we truly love don’t exist because these things did not happen to the people who were writing them. But why do we love those books? Why do they change us? Why do they touch our hearts? Why do they hold so much meaning? Because they are truer than truth, because there’s a great knowing within them. I think what’s behind “write what you know” is emotion, like, Have you known happiness? Have you ever been truly sad? Have you ever longed for something? And that’s the point: if you’ve longed for an Atari 2600 as I did when I was twelve—all I wanted was that game console—if you’ve felt that deep longing, that can also be a deep longing for a lost love, or for liberation for your country, or to reach Mars. That’s the idea. If you’ve known longing, then you can write longing. And that is the “knowing” behind “write what you know.”
Englander's talking about fiction writing here, but the implications for autobiography are equally interesting. "Write what you know" is arguably the very basis of personal essaying, but, remember, Montaigne asked the question before he wrote, and he felt his way to the answer, if there was one, and it was usually an affirmation contradicted the next month, year, or decade. The search for "what I know" in an essay, not the essay's ostensible subject, however sexy or statistically abnormal it might be, is the usually the engine. The equation in autobiography is simple, yet confounding: what I know, you know, but you may not know it yet, and I didn't know until I finished. I'm not talking here about arcane pop culture knowledge or a superior intellect; I'm talking, after Englander, of knowing in the deepest sense of human experience, knowledge beyond class, race, cultural origins, gender. If there is such a place, a great essay, a great work of autobiography, will get there as fiction and film can. I think again of what Joyce Carol Oates said: the successful essay "is not place- or time-bound; it survives the occasion of its original composition."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lincoln Highway and The Beats

For many years, Amy and I lived on Lincoln Highway in DeKalb, across from campus. It took me a while before I learned the very interesting history of the road in front of my own house. DeKalb was the location of the initial seedling, concrete-bearing mile of the Midwest stretch of the Lincoln Highway, the first cross-country road in the country's history begun in 1913. Starting in Times Square and ending at the Golden Gate Bridge, the road snaked through unglamorous spots in between, many desolate, impassable stretches of mud and marsh that wrought havoc on the road's completion. But it was finished, and for a while the Lincoln Highway was the most famous road in America, many small towns across the country—DeKalb included—renaming their Main Streets after the project and spending considerable capital, political and otherwise, to beautify the road, attract motorists and tourists, and generally publicize the achievement.

Whenever I'd teach On The Road in a Novels or American Literature survey course, I'd wonder whether Kerouac et al didn't come roaring past my house on Lincoln Highway, still the principal route in the mid-and late-1940s between Chicago and points west, before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 created subsequent larger, more heavily-trafficked highways such as I-80. I contacted the Illinois Director of the Lincoln Highway Association, and, though she couldn't locate any specific references to Kerouac and the Lincoln Highway, she confirmed for me the Highway was the main road west of Chicago until the construction of I-80.  Planning and construction were initiated a short while after the 1956 highway bill; On the Road was published in 1957.

Now when I teach the novel I can point out the window of the classroom and say, There, picture them flying through DeKalb early in the morning on their way to Cedar Rapids, Omaha, Cheyenne.... I promise that I'll guard against further sentimentalizing a book about child-men who leave babies with furious mothers scattered around the nation and who glorified self-indulgence and general meanness in the name of liberation and yay-saying kicks—but I'll admit it's cool to imagine Sal gazing idly at my house as it whipped by in a blur, Neal behind the wheel leaning a beat-up car toward the West.


Among many good books about the Lincoln Highway are Brian Butko's Greetings From The Lincoln Highway: America's First Coast-To-Coast Road and Drake Hokansan's The Lincoln Highway: Main Street Across America, both informative, readable, and packed with fantastic photos. DeKalb itself has buffed its "seedling mile" credentials lately; there's a gazebo on the east side of town and murals on buildings celebrating the town's historic involvement in the highway.


Very recently Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante spent a few days covering the Lincoln Highway with his Hipstamatic. Great photos here.


Recently I visited San Francisco's Lincoln Park to find the monument to the Western end of the Lincoln Highway. Impressive it isn't, but there's something in the diminutive size—not to mention the difficulty I had finding it—that feels appropriate to the Highway's diminished place in American history and culture.

And here I am in front of Carolyn Cassady's house on Russell Street in San Francisco's North Beach area, roughly five miles east of the end of Lincoln Highway. Kerouac wrote parts of On The Road in the upstairs attic.


Out of the past and gone:

Entering DeKalb from the West, 1925

Neal Cassady...heading through DeKalb?

Official Map of the Lincoln Highway via The Lincoln Highway Association. Photo of DeKalb in 1925 via Lincoln Highway Digital Image Collection. Photo of Neal Cassady and female companion via Creative Review.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Hives 1, Irony 0

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—When Hives singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist (Per Almqvist) asked the sold-out crowd at Chicago's Vic Theatre to "make some noise," he added the option of booing. This felt like an important moment in this great, if ragged, show. The Hives' act isn't new any more—this was the second time I'd seen them, and despite some fresh stylish details (top hats and tails, a giant puppet master background), the show was nearly identical to the performance I caught at the Riviera in 2008. This isn’t a complaint as much as it's an observation: the Hives had the crowd in their collective Swedish hand, the twin-guitar riffing, maniacal stage patter, and crowd baiting igniting the venue. Mock-deigning to entertain some jeers, Almqvist seemed to be acknowledging the presence of Hives Pushback; more than once, impatient guys in the crowd yelled for the band to get it going again during the long idle stretches, and the band seemed not quite there: Almqvist's brother and Hives lead guitarist Nicholaus Arson (Niklas Almqvist) was ill, and the set was a bit marred by the several momentum-breaking pauses. At one point Almqvist muttered, "I'm tired," and before dutifully (and predictably) admitting that he was only joking, his eyes betrayed him: he seemed exhausted. 

Getting down at The Vic
But he and his mates didn't flag for long, and by the end of the hour and a half set the Hives had delivered, again. What saves the band is their twin commitment to spectacle and to requiring that their adoring crowds get down (literally) irony-free. The former celebrates the long tradition of tongue-in-cheek Rock Strutting; the latter is a great accomplishment in the 21st century. Rock and roll is more than a half-century old, and generations of kids have grown up suspicious of its buoyancy and its corny promises. The Hives say (in their remarkably good English): You will have fun, as unselfconsciously as you can, after you Check In on your iPhone. The Hives' best songs—rocking, melodic, hooky, and anthemic—and super-tight ensemble playing, and game-playing, blast through Irony, a sonic reminder that rock and roll is fun, and that spectacle and hoarse, trite, call-and-response chanting and raised fists can be enjoyed without requisite, prickly skepticism. I'm not suggesting that Almqvist parades on the stage without a sense of irony; it's just that he plays with it in such as way that acts out its oft-forgotten origins in joy. 

Two-thirds of the way though the show, Almqvist demanded that the crowd sit on the floor. I thought that maybe the folks closest to the stage would oblige; I was near the back, and to my surprise nearly everyone in the crowd around me got down. Soon, the entire venue was on its butt. We were sitting, and later kneeling, on the drink- and sweat-soaked floor of the century-old Vic Theatre, grinning and peering over each other's shoulders as Almqvist alternately baited and praised. The fun was genuine, not smirking, and even a bit surprising, given that surely this is nightly shtick on this tour. This is what I love about the Hives (and a certain other band): stubborn insistence on stupid fun, irony be dammed. Some roll their eyes, some give in. How long the Hives can maintain this effect remains to be seen. Their infrequent dashes through the U.S. will help stoke the flames for those who want to see them again and surrender, smiling, to sonic silliness.

On Belmont Avenue after the show, my ears ringing, I ran into a couple former students. One of them hadn't seen the Hives before, and he dug his first show. "There were a lot of fists in the air," he said, and I couldn't quite gauge the sarcasm-level in the comment. He's a smart guy, and knowledgeable about rock and roll, the kind of fan the Hives want to convert.


Swedish tableau vivant
I'm not crazy about the Hives' new album, LexHives, though it's growing on me. The band's older material ("Die, All Right," "Try It Again," "Main Offender," "Hate To Say I Told You So," "Tick Tick Boom," etc.) garnered the loudest cheers, and the band seemed to get it. The new songs definitely sound greater live—the band is loud and Arson's and rhythm guitarist Vigilante Carlstroem's (Mikael Karlsson) riffing add real muscle to the new songs' bottom-free sheen. (Watching Arson and Carlstroem manically handle the riffs in "Die, All Right" and "Main Offender," I nearly wept.) "Tick Tick Boom" was the highlight, the sensational riff lifting up the sweaty crowd and keeping us aloft during the band's now-patented stage freeze, a minute or so of stock-still Swedish diorama before explosion. Following the encore, the band took deep stage bows and seemed genuinely gratified with and happy for the Chicago response, the last the band will get for a while (they return in September to the West Coast). Soon it will be back to Sweden. I hope they don't take half a decade to come back.


Oh, and I don't have a 22 year-old’s neck anymore. I'm always glad that the Hives make me forget that.