Monday, February 28, 2011

Sort of political Monday

Here in Ottawa, the downtown people have recently lost a big fight over development of one of the upscale downtown neighbourhoods. To me what matters is not the actual battle so much as what it signifies. These people lost because they have lost their power to impress the much larger number of people who live in the suburbs.

Back when the blue versus red divide first popped up, a lot of my friends comforted themselves with the notion that blue represents growth and red represented a declining past. That made a certain sense because it had always been that way in the past. Right up through the 1980s, small-L liberalism had been winning the growing urban areas and conservatives had been fighting a rearguard action based on support from a rural backbone.

Now that has changed. The big shock here was the latest US Census data that shows that the red parts of the country are growing faster than the blue. Although though it is not often acknowledged, the great financial collapse we are still living through took place mostly in Blue America.

The hip urban type is now a class in decline. Satellite suburbs and development belts around cities are now where the real population growth and economic growth is. And the traditional power bases of the hip urban class are in decline: the media, universities and the public sector are all declining, and the universities and public sector actually have it worse than the media beacuse they have such huge spending problems.

I'm not saying liberalism is dead. What I am saying is that if liberalism is to have any future at all, it has to start winning the hearts and minds of the middle class people who live in suburbs. And that is going to be tough for liberalism because most liberals I know have spent the last few decades cultivating hatred for those people who live in suburbs.

Because I'm crazy

I've started a second blog. It's more specialized than this one being about getting better at playing the ukulele and singing. It just seemed to require its own space and look.

Because there isn't much overlap, there probably won't be much interest for readers here but here is the link anyway.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Newman on lying

Over at American Catholic there is a long excerpt from Newman about when it is okay to lie.

It's one of those things that I recommend highly to anyone in the mood for such a thing. I know, I'm equivocating. Is that a lie?

The thing about this sort of reasoning is that it ends up being a  kind of moral phenomenology. Newman walks around the thing looking at it from every angle and considering every option. And that makes us impatient. We think, why walk around the problem when you could go straight to the heart of it and just deal with it?

We can see the contrast with a  couple of examples.  First, here is Newman:
Another mode of verbal misleading is equivocation or a play upon words; and it is defended on the theory that to lie is to use words in a sense which they will not bear. But an equivocator uses them in a received sense, though there is another received sense, and therefore, according to this definition, he does not lie.
Notice that Newman doesn't tell us what he thinks or even tells us what is right. He says something more like, one kind of argument is this. And he gives us about twelve such arguments before getting down to business. And the impatient person might want to try and corner him and say, 'Stop with all this beating around the bush and get to the point: is lying right or wrong?'

Newman gives a good example of the other approach just a  paragraph or two down:
St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth.
And, if we have read the whole Newman article, we might get to this and think, "What a  relief to finally get an answer that is nice and clear and goes right to the heart of the matter.'

And the problem is not that Augustine's advice is impossible. If it were, the argument would be simple. But we can follow his strictures. If someone pulls a gun out and asks the person in front of us if they are a Christian and shoots them when they say yes and then asks us the same question, we could actually tell the truth and die. Nothing is stopping us.

As with his teachings on sex, the Augustinian approach is hard not impossible. And, again, some people will insist that is all we need to know. And who are we to argue?

I won't go on about it now/again but I think the way forward is virtue ethics.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Coloured music

Get any group of college-educated music nerds in a room and you will notice two odd things about them. (I mean listen-to-music nerds and not play-music nerds.) The first is that they are mostly or all male and the second is that they will all be under some weird impression that "race" is a musical term. Guys who couldn't identify the time signature of a piece of music with any reliability at all will be able to tell you just how "black" the music is. Believe me I know because I used to be one of them.

Every time a music nerd sits down to write a music history they have a Whiggish idea of progress in the back of their heads. They firmly believe that there has been a steady evolution of music from whiteness to blackness. Further, they firmly believe that this progress not only accompanies racial progress but somehow causes it.

Indie music, for example, tends to be very white—dense harmonies, very little syncopation. For some writers, the popularity of this music is as ominous a notion as the return of the Ku Klux Klan would be.

And there is something even weirder about that because the whole idea of "black music" is a white idea. We like to think we are well beyond the days of the Minstrel show wherein white people dressed up in cruel caricatures to present the kind of "black" music the white audience liked but we are not. If anything, all we have done is cut out the middle man: why have some white guy smear his face with cork to present cruel caricatures of black men obsessed with violence and macho sexuality when you can get 50 Cent and Kanye West to do it more "authentically".

And most black music listeners have no interest in being purists about the music they listen to. There is a very good reason why Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands were only available on record. There simply wasn't an audience for a group that played this sort of music in the clubs that black Americans went to at the time. Bands that played for paying customers couldn't afford to play just hot music; they had to play waltzes, polkas and sweet tunes to make a living. (The only people who could afford to be purist about hot jazz at the time were white upper-middle class boys who, not coincidentally, are the same people who make Hip Hop and Rap profitable today.) The same is true of Coleman Hawkins landmark recording of "Body and Soul"—hard core jazz fans might have been willing to sit around and listen to that one after hours but the paying customers on the dance floor wanted to hear the melody.

The most popular band among actual Black Americans in the 1930s, as opposed to what white Americans like to fantasize about what Black Americans are supposed to like, was this one:

The most famous, or example, or infamous example, depending on your perspective, was the Royal Canadians setting the attendance record at the Savoy Ballroom in 1930. And it wasn't just the dancers who loved Lombardo. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Don Redman were all big fans. Here is Don Redman's tribute to Little Coquette. It's such a tribute he was lucky that Lombardo wasn't the litigious type:

It's not just that Redman's  melody is a variation of Lombardo's. Compare the saxophone sections on the two records. There is a clear and powerful influence here.

Of course there is an "evolution"in between the two records and, yes, I find the second one livelier and more interesting too. But Redman's music—and it is Redman who, more than anyone else, creates swing—is heavily influenced by artists such as Lombardo and Paul Whiteman.  The music nerd version of history is a fraud.

You can make that fraud sound convincing by stopping the story at certain points. If you make Be Bop the last chapter in your book about jazz or Hip Hop the last chapter of your book about rock music, you get that result. But there is no less (or more) reason not to make Cool Jazz the last chapter of your book about jazz or New Country the last chapter of your book about rock. If anything music that tries to be very black tends to come off as an aberration in the history of American popular music. Louis Armstrong had far more in common with Bing Crosby than he did with Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry has far more in common with Taylor Swift than he does with Kanye West.

It's a racial tragedy that Amy Winehouse is praised for music that is completely and utterly derivative of R&B while there is no no black equivalent to Taylor Swift. There ought to be.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Womanly virtues Friday

People lie about what they like and don't like in bed. They lie to others and they lie to themselves. There are complicated and not complicated reasons for this.

Here is an example of an uncomplicated reason. Some studies show that one third of men get turned on at the thought of their girlfriend or wife having sex with another man. Okay, now imagine you have a group of men in a room and you ask them to raise their hands if they are turned on by this sort of thought. Not bloody likely.

For women the range of things that are not likely to be admitted in public is rather wider. I was thinking about this yesterday after I linked to a post at the Frisky and one of the teasers in the sidebar was for a post in which a woman admitted that she likes to be called a certain name in bed. It's a name she is not necessarily so fond of outside of bed.

Talking to other women, she has found she is in the minority on this. Or, perhaps more precisely, she has found they aren't willing to raise their hands when asked the question in public.

Okay, I'm going to be rather ungentlemanly here but I'll be so after the break so anyone who wants to check out can.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More coffee

I sat next to a guy at a dinner party who said he just loved coffee. He loved it so much so that he set up his programmable coffee machine so that the first thing he got out of bed in the morning he could pour a cup.

If someone told you the same story about their love for vodka we'd have no trouble figuring out what was really going on. Likewise, if you went to a bar and your friend asked for a twenty ounce serving of wine you'd have no trouble determining that you're friend was an alcoholic and not a wine lover. An awful lot of coffee culture is really about concealing the blunt fact that an awful lot of coffee drinkers are supporting a drug habit. Of course, it feels better to call yourself a coffee lover than to admit dependency.

Thus the appalling Café Americano. It has all the caffeine and more but about as much flavour as hot water stirred with a brown crayon.

Irrationality in sailboats, drinking coffee and dealing with women

The return of Manly Thor's Day
Sailing dinghies move faster when they are sailed upright; sailors say when they are "sailed flat". The odd thing is that when you let them heel over they make more noise and a bigger wake going through the water and the whole enterprise feels riskier. Sailing flat feels calm and controlled, sailing with the boat over on its ear feels exciting. As a consequence, it can be very hard to convince people who are learning to race to sail their boats flat.

And people continue to resist the lesson even in the face of strong evidence. That is, even when other boats that are being sailed flat keep passing them on the race course they will continue to allow their boats to heel. When I used to be a racing coach this was a curse. You could tell someone and show them over and over again and they would stubbornly resist.

But you can understand it because their senses, as I say, seem to be telling them different. When you are on a boat and a gust hits and it heels it feels fast. And the boat does, in fact, accelerate when this happens. But boats that are kept flat accelerate even faster. But it isn't irrational to like to sail heeled over or, rather, it is an understandable kind of irrationality.

Something that is the mirror image of that happens with coffee. People's seemingly rational sense overcomes their immediate experience. 

Over the years I've had constant compliments on my coffee. This is odd because I don't deserve any of them. My secret? Assuming it's worthy of the name secret, it is that I buy coffee I like and don't buy coffee I don't like.

The secret as any coffee aficionado in the world will unhesitatingly tell you—so you don't have to take just my word for it—is that dark roast coffee tastes better than medium or light roast. This difference is amplified because only the best beans will stand for a darker roast so any good coffee company will save the best beans for the dark roasts and use the average to mediocre beans on the lighter roasts. But even if a conscientious roaster were to use only the best beans for all types of roasts, the dark roast coffees would still taste better. That isn't all there is to it. You have to buy good quality coffee from a reliable supplier and you have to make it right but neither of these tricks are difficult.

So when people are over drink the coffee here and say things like, 'Your coffee is so good, what's your secret?' answering their question ought to be a matter of simply telling them to buy better, which is to say, darker roast, coffee. But telling them that never does any good.

The problem is they just don't see themselves as a dark roast people. They define themselves as fine, discerning people who could appreciate a milder things. To them a dark roast drinker is someone who needs a heavy hit just to notice. And their experience seems to confirm this because they tell themselves they don't like dark roast and any time they knowingly drink dark roast, their "experience" seems to confirm this. 'Tastes burnt,' they say derisively.

But when they come to my house, they are just handed a cup of they-know-not-what and they take a sip and love it. I had a dear friend who would repeat this experience every year and every time I showed her the bag, she say, "That's strange, I usually don't like dark roast."

How does this apply to a man's life?
Let me hit you with something rather incorrect: Women want you to take the lead in social interactions.  Print that out and paste it to your shaving mirror or whatever. It's irrational in both the above senses to pretend otherwise.

Again, it's so easy to let your immediate experience or your sense of self overcome this. It feels more daring to let her take the lead. It's like being in a heeled over boat; it feels slightly out of control.

But see it from her perspective.  All you are giving her is uncertainty. She knows you find her attractive. Or at least she knows that you have told her this and tried to show her this. But you haven't acted. That's the proof in the pudding.

But there is a double irrationality here because it is also like drinking mild coffee. It fits our sense of ourselves as sensitive caring guys to not take the lead. In real life this tells the woman that we have no idea how to read her. Usually, on the odd occasions when we do acknowledge our weakness, we prefer instead to describe what is happening as a fear of rejection. But rejection isn't that bad (I'll say more about this next week). It's actually quite easy to deal with. What scares the crap out of us is to realize that we can't read the signals she is sending us.

I wish I could tell you I wasn't guilty of exactly the irrationality I describe here myself. What I can tell you is that every time I've shaken myself out of it, the results have been positive.

You don't have to take just my word for it. Read this too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saint Polycarp and authenticity

It's the memorial of Saint Polycarp today. He is really important for those who seek authenticity. You see Polycarp is said to have known John in his youth and Irenaeus in his old age. For the early church that was important. For many, the claim that our Bible really is the bible rests very much on the authority of Irenaeus.

No matter how you count the years it's quite a stretch. Jesus dies around 30 AD, Polycarp is said to have been converted by John around 80 AD and Irenaeus's book Against Heresies appears around 180 AD. It's possible but just. You can see why portrayals of John with Jesus always show him as a young man, so much so that he comes across looking quite girlie. Both men have to have met their mentor when they were very young and then lived long lives.

I think the reaching for authority shows a lack of faith. Irenaeus grew up in the town of Polycarp and that should be enough.

That brings me back to the apocrypha. The canon was assembled quite late and the Christians actually had their old testament canon before the Jews settled on their Bible canon. When the Rabbis left out some books that the Christians had put in, that caused some loss of confidence. Jerome didn't exclude the books we now think of as apocryphal but he did set them aside a bit. It was Protestants who later took them right out.

That's an odd thing if you think about it: Protestants in the Renaissance decided that the authority of Rabbis who didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah should carry more weight than early Christians who did believe!

The same contradictions hold when modern Christian scholars concede the point to Jewish scholars who claim that the Gospel writers didn't understand Isaiah. The correct answer to them is that just as Kant could say he understood Plato better than Plato did himself, so too the authors of the Gospels understood Isaiah better than Isaiah did.


This is from Sirach which, for non-Catholics, is an apocryphal book. A shame really because it is one of the best things in the Bible. Sirach is discussing wisdom today.

 I've added some emphasis:
He who loves her loves life;
those who seek her will be embraced by the Lord.
He who holds her fast inherits glory;
wherever he dwells, the LORD bestows blessings.
Those who serve her serve the Holy One;
those who love her the LORD loves.
He who obeys her judges nations;
he who hearkens to her dwells in her inmost chambers.
If one trusts her, he will possess her;
his descendants too will inherit her.
She walks with him as a stranger
and at first she puts him to the test;
Fear and dread she brings upon him
and tries him with her discipline
until she try him by her laws and trust his soul.
Then she comes back to bring him happiness
and reveal her secrets to them
and she will heap upon him
treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice.
Well I would point out the sexual connotations wouldn't I?  But that isn't my main point. My main point is that the sexual metaphors are just the climaxes, if you'll pardon the expression, of the overall story here which is very much an allusion to courtly, romantic love. The winning of God's wisdom is like courting a woman of courtly stature and, as the crude boys put it, the story can have a happy ending.

I've been thinking about my Lenten reading. Anyway, today's first reading confirms me in my decision (to be revealed later).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The anti-princess movement

Update: shortified version
How dangerous is the princess movement? It is so dangerous that a book needed to be written:
Orenstein knew there was something about this she didn’t like. Frilly dresses? Waiting for Prince Charming? Isn’t that a retrograde role model? One would think—but as it turns out, it’s harder than it sounds to find the science to back up that notion. So instead, Orenstein decided to head to the front lines of this girl culture herself ....
The passing admission that "as it turns out, it’s harder than it sounds to find the science to back up" the notion that little girls wanting to be princesses is a bad thing ought to stop us dead. Pardon me, but isn't that a problem for the whole thesis? And given that serious researchers have had a hard time coming up with any evidence, why in heaven's name should we be impressed that a mere journalist who isn't an expert in anything at all went to the front lines of the "girl culture" and has written a book about it. Is there something special about journalists that requires the rest of us to take their opinions more seriously than what we can figure out for ourselves?

Much more after the jump.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Washington's second inaugural

Courtesy of The American Catholic, here is Washington's second inaugural speech in its entirety.

Fellow Citizens:
I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
That's one hundred and thirty-five words. His first inaugural, which can be found here, is 1434 words long.

Just for comparison's sake, Obama's inaugural was 2486 words. George W Bush was 1585 words the first time and 2074 words the second. That isn't progress. I pick on these two solely because they are the two most recent occupants of the office and they conveniently come from both parties and not to make any point about either party or any political ideology.

More than length it is the incidence of two particular words that really strikes me in these speeches. In Washington's second address above, the word "we" does not appear even once. In his longer first address it appears exactly once in the following context:
I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
That is, it appears in the context of a tribute to the public virtue of his country and her citizens.

Otherwise, Washington used the word "I", a choice entirely appropriate because he was about to take an oath in which he promised to uphold certain duties.

In his first inaugural, George W Bush used the word "we" 36 times (plus one more in a  quote from Jefferson) and the word "I" 11 times.

In his second inaugural, he used the word "we" 47 times and "I" 8 times.

In his inaugural, Barack Obama used the word "we" 63 times and the word "I" only 5 times.

That is not progress.

And the word "we" in these speeches is not used to praise Americans but to call them to duty. Think about that. The president is taking an oath of office to the citizens of his country and he spends much more time telling them what is expected of them than what they have a right to expect of him. This is pushing the responsibility downward onto the people.

Again, compare that with what Washington said:
... if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

My 1980s

American Catholic has a post up about a movie about the 1980s. Being a 1980s kid myself, that got me nostalgic so I went on a long cruise around You Tube last night looking for great 1980s tunes.

And the sad truth is that there aren't many. I remember the tunes fondly but that was because we danced to them not because they had much merit. The 1980s, my 1980s, were all about clubs and dancing and nostalgia.

Before I go on, an important qualification. Ten years is a long time. The Serpentine One also came of age in the 1980s but her 1980s are the last half and mine are the first half. I'm sure a good argument can be made for the second half but I'm not the one to make it.

So let's go back to the early 1980s. Let em set the scene. You are in a trendy dance club. This club had three to six months trendiness before the hungry men found it like they found all the trendy clubs and ruined it. That happened over and over again in the early 1980s. For you see, and this is really important if you are going to understand the early 1980s, the people who made it in the early 1980s didn't need to pursue sex. That was what set them apart. They danced to songs about sex but they didn't ever strain themselves in pursuit of it. They didn't have to be interested in love because love was interested in them.

The song that follows, you may not want to listen to more than a short bit of it, ought to be raunchy but it isn't. It's called "Pull up to the Bumper" and the double entendre is obvious to the point of being self parody but the delivery is so cool you might never clue into what the lyrics are about. So let's read some of them before we listen.
Pull up to my bumper baby,
In your long black limousine,
Pull up to my bumper baby,
And drive it in between.

Pull up, to it, don't drive, through it,
Back it, up twice, now that, fit's nice.
I don't have to explain that do I?

But watch the video past the jump and you'll be amazed at how antiseptic it is. This is no raunchy blues song with hints and winks. This delivery is so cool you might think it really is about driving in traffic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Overheard on the street

Two university-age guys were tossing around a baseball when I came by with the dogs.

One of them said to the other, "I finished that Chris Farley biography."

The other asked what he thought of it.

The first guy said he was disappointed. "There was no sense of closure. The story just goes on and then he dies."

Well, that isn't the biographers fault! Look, I know I am mean-spirited and heartless but really, how much closure can there be in the story of a mildly talented guy who killed himself with a drug overdose?

Has our culture gotten to the point where people feel entitled to meaning even where there isn't any. If there is a lesson to be learned from Chris Farley's life it is that it was wasted.

I bought a copy of The Atlantic

I was buying bus tickets at a little corner store and had to buy something else because they make no profit on the tickets. I thought about getting a chocolate bar but went with the magazine instead. I should have gone with the chocolate bar on account of it would have had more substance..

No one reading this issue would guess what a great magazine this used to be. There is a piece by someone named James Parker about Justin Bieber that is so astoundingly empty headed it is staggering.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


This is probably more of interest to me than anyone else but I think "criteria" is a very useful term and the right way out of the postmodernist trap.

At first glance, it might seem the same. You could just pick the criteria you want to get the result you want. And that, in a sense, is exactly what we do. The girl being bored to death by a bunch of hard core nerds discussing John Coltrane says, 'But can you dance to it?' And who can blame her?

And how is that different from M.H. Abrams' infamous suggestion* that we can use whatever strategies or vocabularies we want to make a text mean what we want it to mean? Well the difference is this, "you can dance to it," is a verifiable statement. If you really believe your claim, put your song into a dance club and see what happens on the floor. If people clear off when it starts to play then, no, you can't dance to it.

As Wittgenstein might say, criteria are public things whereas vocabularies and strategies are not necessarily. And that, I think, is the really wonderful thing about Elijah Wald's approach to popular music history. He switches around according to different criteria shared by the people who actually make popular music popular and shows why and how this produces different results from what critics might imagine or hope for.

The whole failure of certifiably clever people like Abrams, Richard Rorty and Nelson Goodman to make any real cultural impact outside of the people who already agreed with them stems from this. All they had was vocabularies and interpretive strategies and there is nothing easier than ignoring these things when you want to.

Again, as Wittgenstein kept reminding us, you can't sit in your little sandbox and invent criteria. These only grow out of shared practices. Of course Rorty et al did have have criteria in the sense that they had a shared practice but they had a shared practice in the same sense that people who all agree that it is worth arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin will have criteria or in the same sense that children making up imaginary friends together do. You cannot force others to care and we really don't care. And Rorty, perhaps more than any other modern philosopher, tried to get people to dance to his "music" and he failed utterly.

* I lost the original quote and it is perhaps possible that it isn't as bluntly damning as my paraphrase here but that is the end result of Abrams approach whether he admits it or not.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

I recently read an interesting book by Elijah Wald (another wonderful name) called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll.

Wald's thesis, in my words not his, might be summed up this way:
The big problem with most histories of pop music is that they are written by male losers who either sat in their bedrooms practicing playing guitar ten hours a day or accumulated huge collections of recorded music because they had a lot of free time on account of how girls would never talk to them, and usually for very good reasons. These guys not only had a very poor understanding of how the people who were not losers understood music—that is as background for relating to the opposite sex, most notably through dancing—they actually resented the non-losers who were most influential here because they were the very women who would have nothing to do with the aforementioned losers.
And so you can read a lot of books by ragtime purists, jazz purists, blues purists, R&B purists and Rock and Roll purists that all seek to diminish the pop music that was actually, you know, most popular at the expense of stuff that, in the view of the basement-dwelling social misfits, "really should have mattered". As Wald puts it, Popular music history was actually written by the losers not the winners.

Wald mentions Irving Berlin's brilliant Alexander's Ragtime Band and how it has been treated by critics but he does not make as much of it as he might have. And he does so for reasons that make perfect sense for him, he is telling the story of how pop music became rock and roll.

I'd like to dwell on a couple. as Wald notes, there are two lines of criticism directed at this song. The first is that it's "fake ragtime" and that it has only one phrase with syncopation. The second is that Berlin in fact swiped the melody from the greatest ragtime composer of them all, Scott Joplin. Wald does not note, that the two directly contradict one another.

Imagine I produce a painting and claim it's mine and critics say, it's a lousy painting and besides you didn't actually do that painting, it's really a Michelangelo. Well, you can see the problem: it can't be crap and really a Michelangelo at the same time. The real problem, of course, is that Berlin got famous and lots of other people did not get quite so famous.

But Wald makes another point, and makes it over and over again through his book, and it is that the really interesting thing about these judgments is the criteria used to arrive at them. If you're a ragtime purist it's going to bother you a whole lot that Alexanders Ragtime Band is not ragtime. And that is a perfectly legitimate application of one set of criteria. But, for the rest of us, who aren't ragtime purists, who cares? Does it bother anyone that the Dire Straits song "The Sultans of Swing" is not itself a swing tune? In both cases the song is about a band not an example of the music the band played.

But if we come at the song with a different set of criteria we can see something else about it. For classic ragtime is a rather repetitive trick if you think about it. It uses a steady ground rhythm, usually march time, against which a couple of melody notes are played off of where you'd expect them to land, thus the syncopation or "ragged" time. And classic ragtime does this all the time to the point that it can get quite boring.

Seen from that perspective, what Berlin does here is quite clever. He slips the syncopation into just a few bars as variety. He has given the music depth and sophistication that it never had in most ragtime songs (ragtime was getting quite long in the tooth when Berlin wrote Alexander). He opened up the door for a whole new set of possibilities.

It is not true, as some have claimed, that this makes Berlin the real father of the jazz song, but he is the father of something and that is a strain of sophisticated jazz that runs from him, through Gershwin, Carmichael, Ellington, Arlen,  through Riddle, Jenkins, Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Mel Torme, Sinatra and others. And that is nothing to sneeze at.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Valentine aftershock #2

I like that "Valentine aftershock #2". Sounds like the name to a great pick me up cocktail. The rest of this isn't nearly so easy to take.

Anyway, one of the conventional criticisms of Valentine's day is that it is just a made-up holiday meant to guilt men into spending a lot of money on frivolous things that nobody really wants or needs. I doubt that is really true or particularly true; if you think about it, Mother's Day is the real offender in this category. But it is often said and I've even said it myself in certain moods.

But if you ever want to get a grasp on what "liberty" and "liberal democracy"  really means, just read this the following:
Kuala Lumpur.  Malaysian religious authorities arrested more than 100 Muslim couples on Monday who defied a ban on any activities marking Valentine's Day.

Islamic authorities in Malaysia in 2005 issued a fatwa to warn Muslims against celebrating Valentine's Day, saying that the occasion could lead to vice activities, especially pre-marital sex. 
Suddenly this artificial, made-up holiday seems to have a lot more gravity doesn't it. That's the thing about liberty, if it means anything it means the liberty to do things that aren't necessarily all that easy to justify or perhaps seem trivial on the surface.

And again, you might want to consider the case of 14-year old Hena in Bangladesh. She was raped by her uncle but was unable to prove her case in Islamic court because it takes four male witnesses or eight female witnesses (since a woman's testimony only counts as half a man under Sharia law) to convict. Not surprisingly, Hena was unable to produce enough witnesses to secure conviction. And then the thing turned around against her because in making the rape accusation she did implicitly acknowledge that she'd had sex before marriage.

The court turned around and sentenced her to 100 lashes for this.

The 80th lash killed her.

Valentine aftershock

The first of two post St. Valentine's-day thoughts. This one inspired by Michael Novak over at First Things who has written a piece called "The Myth of Romantic Love". Novak is one of those people who is always worth reading even if the end result is to leave you thinking that there must be something wrong here.

Anyway, he has this piece up about romantic love and how it is a western invention and how that invention puts love at odds with both biological ends and God's end for us. The reason for this being simply that romantic love is all about an unrealized ideal and it leaves out actual consummation. That is both interesting and counter-intuitive. And he backs it up nicely too.
If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and—bump!—romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another. 
That's right. The sword laid between the couple is  from Tristan and Iseult and the curtain appears all sorts of places including the 1934 movie It Happened One Night.

But methinks that Novak is drawing too much conclusion on just a few examples. Yes, there certainly are examples of stories where the non-consummation of the romantic love becomes so over-blown that it leads to a  situation where death is more meaningful than sex: as happens in Wagner's version of Tristan and Isolde for example.

But there is also a much homelier explanation here and that is that couples move through courtship stages prior to sex for very good reasons and that courtship is dramatically interesting.

The other thing that it seems to me that Novak has skipped over here is that the creation of this romantic love has a lot to do with the Catholic church's discomfort with eros. Much of the sublimation that occurs with the troubadours, for example, was precisely for this reason. And in Saint Francis we have the ultimate example of a love of denial that is consumed only with death. In fact, the celibate life would seem the ultimate example of this.

In any case, I think I know where this years Lenten-reading project will come from now. Heck, it may take longer than just Lent.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More problem of evil

Today's reading has an interesting problem of evil aspect about it. Our ancestors didn't worry about evil the way we do. For us it is a pseudo problem or a logical problem at best. We posit an all-powerful, all-knowing God and then wonder how there can still be evil. It's not a real life problem at all but the sort of problem dilletantes get exercised about when they have nothing better to do.

Our ancestors had a problem of evil as opposed to the problem of evil. To put it simply, there was a lot of evil about and they needed to reconcile that with their belief in a loving God. Not because they doubted his existence but because they weren't sure he liked them as much as they'd hoped. They didn't take God's love as an entitlement.

(This it seems to me is the real challenge; not believing in God but believing he loves us. You see it in a lot of atheists—let them talk and you get the sense they believe in God very much and they hate him.)

Anyway, back to today's reading.
When the LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth,
and how no desire that his heart conceived
was ever anything but evil,
he regretted that he had made man on the earth,
and his heart was grieved.
You might say that is the problem of evil from God's perspective. This is the set up for the Noah story. The people who set this story up in the form we know it in the Bible were not reporting history. They weren't even telling a story that was original to them. They were setting up a story that everybody already knew and explaining it's moral significance. It remains a much more profound story than all the philosophical discussions of the problem of evil put together.

The Jaguar and the Thunderbird

When I was a kid and friends of my parents would come over, the men would separate from the women and talk. As  a little boy, I knew that if I sat there and played with a toy and didn't listen too obviously, I'd be allowed to stay. And that is what I did.

The conversation around the barbecue often turned to cars and there would be an inevitable split. My father was a British sports car fan, he'd been to school in England and had taken apart in racing events while there. He liked to drive fast and only really slowed down in his 80s.

But the gatherings also included my mothers friends and the men her friends had married liked Ford Thunderbirds. Every year they would all dutifully trot down to the show room to see the new Thunderbird and every year one or two in the group would buy one.

And so there was a rivalry between the two groups and it was a rivalry based on deep differences. The differences had nothing to do with the cars themselves as both varieties were pretty crappy by the early 1960s. The British sports cars is that the industry was in sharp decline and the sad truth about the Ford Thunderbird is that it was a good car for the first two years and an appalling piece of gimmicky crap ever after, and that is even before the unions destroyed Detroit.

What I remember was that the arguments were so deep they didn't even happen any more. I wanted them to happen because, in my innocence, I really believed the thing very one sided. But they never did. I remember that my father and his brother would sometimes be tempted and start but one would always head the other off by saying, "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object."

The answer, of course, is that nothing at all happens because that is a pseudo problem. It's just playing with words.

The question for the day is this, "Why isn't the problem of evil a pseudo problem?" I mean that quite seriously. It has the same set up. On the one side you have a an all-knowing, all-powerful being who is good and, on the other, you have a world he has created that always has evil in it. No matter how you formulate that problem, those are just words. It has almost nothing to do with the moral challenges of living and believing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Philadelphia Story (7)

The natural substitute for speech
Now suppose you are a young woman who does not want to be the girl standing over by the record machine as the boys look on her with lust. And yet you do want love and even marriage. How do you do it?

In a sense the girl by the record machine has it easy. She only has to make herself obviously available. But there is a price for that. When she puts herself on display she leaves herself open to judgment. The men look at her and they look away. Why did he look away? Was it merely because she made eye contact and he is timid or did he look at her and find her wanting? Is he even now thinking some disparaging thought that he will go repeat to a friend and they will both look at her and laugh?

And she knows all about other girls too. They can seem to be kind but she has also seen them make judgments and remarks and she knows how cruel they can be.

Is it really worth all that just to get a little sexual attention? And even when she gets the attention she can never really be sure the man thinks well of her. She is well aware of the contemptuous way some men sometimes speak of women who successfully attract their attention.

So some women reject all that .... All that what? What shall we call it? Human frailty?

I'm not talking about actual sex here although it may appear to be the case. What I am talking about is that transition from speech to intimacy. It can lead to sex, of course, and there is a whole literature about it. Most of that literature is meant to make the transition seem possible and there is a sense in which it is because it happens all the time. But when you can't get there it can seem impossible. And when it seems impossible for us, those people around us who do manage it can be awfully intimidating. Or they can all seem crass.

And there is the sense that there is an ideal that is sacrificed if one does get too crass.

Three daughters
We see a woman in a different light when we think of her as someone's daughter. We treat her differently and think of her differently. We can't so thoughtlessly enjoy or mock that girl over there flashing it around in a really obvious way if we care about her and her future.

There are three real-life daughters behind Tracy Samantha Lord. Here is the first one.
"When Phil told me he had written this new play, and that Katharine Hepburn would play me, I thought it was great fun, but I really didn't pay that much attention. I don't really think Tracy Lord was like me, except that she was very energetic and motivated."
That is Helen Hope Montgomery Scott who was the model for Tracy Samantha Lord. As you can see from that quote there is one sense in which the play and movie both lie to us from the outset. Hope Montgomery Scott was not adverse to publicity and really had no trouble with the sort of attention Tracy Lord despises. The resentment of Spy/Fortune magazine and its proprietor Sidney Kidd/Henry Luce was entirely Philip Barry's, or "Phil" as Hope Scott calls him. And Cagey Connor didn't have to sneak in anywhere, he was invited.

The real Hope Scott was very much what Katharine Hepburn appears to be. She stood ramrod straight even in her 90s and she was a size eight all her life. (That, by the way, is in the old sizes. Women's sizes, like college grades, have gotten a lot easier to attain over the years. Hope Scott's size 8 would be size 2 in most contemporary women's clothing.)

There is a famous story worth repeating about her. At a dinner party, one of the servants approached her to tell her that the butler had committed suicide. Hope Scott hid her emotions, made sure her guests were all comfortable, excused herself and dealt with it.

And then there is this gem from her obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
"I've had the most wonderful life," Scott marveled in April 1994, shortly before her 90th  birthday. She had lost some of her vision, though not because of age. "I hit myself in the  eye with a champagne cork last year," she said with a laugh. "Can you believe it?"
Unlike Tracy Lord, however, she had no real trouble with marriage. She dated a man a few times, they discovered they shared the same values and they married and remained married their entire lives. Edgar Scott died a mere four months after Hope did.

The second daughter is Katherine Hepburn. She was of an old family but came from poor cousins (although still better off than most of the rest of us). Barry spent time with her family and he modeled much of the language and the family interactions on what he saw there.

And that is important because that language, that magnificent language, is all Katharine Hepburn's. This is the movie that made her and it is important to note that she was never much of an actress but rather a star. She played a type that the rest of us all found attractive and that type was very close to what she really was like. At the risk of being tarred and feathered by her fans, Dorothy Parker was right, Hepburn had a very limited range and she got famous because she found the type she was good at playing and audiences liked that type (and we still like it).

First the good of that. Listen to that language and the way she speaks it. There is a joke in The Music Man about singing being "just sustained talking". Katharine Hepburn's speaking voice is like very subtle singing. Listen to any interview she ever gave and you can hear it. And she really did speak in that beautiful, refined way she does in the movie.

Speech is a crucial part of distinction in a woman. It has been said that you can tell a man is not a gentleman in a flash because he lacks certain qualities. He may have these qualities and not be a gentleman but if he doesn't have them he isn't no matter what else he is and does. For women, one of these markers is language. If she cannot speak clearly and elegantly, she doesn't have it. 

The negative aspect is is this: unlike Hope Scott, Hepburn never made a a loving relationship work. Her life is a succession of failures and tawdry affairs like her famous one with Spencer Tracy. One of these is worth lingering on because it relates to The Philadelphia Story. Howard Hughes bought the rights to The Philadelphia Story for Hepburn. He did all sorts of extravagant things for her. Most biographies cover this off by saying that he was her boyfriend.

That's sort of true but Hughes had a  series of relationships with Hollywood starlets just like the one he had with Hepburn. He was very generous to all of them and they in turn ... well, as the old joke goes, "We have already determined what you are, now we are trying to determine the degree. Keep that image in your heads because I will return to it a little further down.

The third daughter is Philip Barry's own who died at one year. People who have more patience than me and have read all his plays report that almost all of them have an idealized daughter in them.

Edith Wharton
The master of portraying society women such as Katharine Hepburn and Hope Scott was Edith Wharton and there are some interesting similarities between Hepburn and Wharton's heroines Lily Bart and Anna Leath.

Lily finds herself in a position very much like what Hepburn was in. She is of society and she is beautiful and intelligent but she does not have the financial means to cut the sort of figure she feels entitled to. Hollywood stardom not being available yet, Lily wagers everything on being able to make an advantageous marriage.

Along the way, she makes the acquaintance of a wealthy man who offers to help her with money. She trusts him with her investments, surprisingly, he always make a "profit" for her. Unlike Hepburn and Hughes, Lily doesn't quite grasp that she is being embroiled in a transaction and she is rather jolted when confronted with the quid pro quo.

The ending of Lily Bart's story is tragic as opposed to Hepburn's, which is just sad, but there are a couple of themes that are important to her story that also appear in The Philadelphia Story. The first is the magical but weightless feeling that comes in the prelude to a kiss, or to not kissing.
She had risen, and he stood facing her with his eyes on hers. The soft isolation of the falling day enveloped them: they seemed lifted into a finer air. All the the exquisite influences of the hour trembled in their veins, and drew them to each other as the loosened leaves were drawn to the earth.
Woo woo! It doesn't happen though. And that brings us to the second thing. There is something in Lily that keeps getting in the way. it isn't just that she wants to marry for money and the man the above happens with is not rich enough. There is also an odd swelling resistance within her whenever she gets close to a kiss. She, like Hepburn, cannot quite close the deal with a man except in tawdry ways.

That was a theme that haunted Wharton all her life. She returned to it later in what I think is her best novel, The Reef. A reef is a hidden obstacle below the surface and that whole book is about the hidden obstacles. In this case the heroine, Anna Leath constantly contrasts herself with other women whom she knows have successfully crossed the reef. She knows that crossing the reef is not necessarily a good thing and she knows of women who have endured scandal as a consequence but something in her feels like failure because she never does it. Rather painfully, she discovers that one of these women has had an affair with the man Anna wants to marry. Anna spends a lot of time wondering about what it is that other women have that enables them to do this thing so knowingly whereas she, Anna, always holds back on the brink.

The man she wants to marry describes the crucial moment when he and Anna's rival began their affair rather cynically:
Perhaps it was because, when her light chatter about people failed, he found she had no other fund to draw on, or perhaps simply because of the sweetness of her laugh, or of the charm of the gesture with which, one day in the woods of Marly, she had tossed off her hat and tilted back her head at the call of a cuckoo; or because, whenever he looked at her unexpectedly, he found that she was looking at him and did not want him to know it; or perhaps, in varying degrees, because of all these things, that there had come a moment when no word seemed to fly high enough or dive deep enough to utter the sense of well-being each gave to the other, and the natural substitute for speech had been a kiss.
The man, his name is Darrow,  quite obviously doesn't not respect the woman, her name is Sophy Viner, but he obviously sees that she has a knack for making that transition. And what a clause that is: "the natural substitute for speech had been a kiss".

Speech and acts can be substitutes for each other. It's odd, as André Fortin noted, that "I love you" is more loving than "I love you very much".  Language keeps a distance and it keeps a very proper distance but too much language interspersed between saying it an living it is failure. And there are ways of talking that make things happen and there are ways that do not.

There is a magnificent moment at the end of the Reef where the two principals have been moving to greater and greater intimacy in some ways while also moving closer and closer to a break up.  Anna is overcome by emotion at the door to Darrow's hotel room and he opens the door and brings her in. They have gotten their naturally but this is intimate territory where she, according to the manners of the day, should not be.
The door shut behind her and she sat down on the lounge at the foot of the bed .... Every object about her seemed to contain a particle of himself: the whole air breathed of him, steeping her in his intimate presence.
But this is broken with a recollection of the other woman:
Suddenly she thought: 'This is what Sophy Viner knew' ... and with torturing precision she pictured them alone in such a scene ... He had taken her to a hotel ...
She is both repulsed and attracted. At the end, when she is resolved to leave, she still feels a sense of failure that nothing happens.
Darrow had come forward as she rose, and she perceived that he was waiting for her to bid him good night. It was clear that no other possibility had even brushed his mind; and the fact, for some dim reason, humiliated her. 'Why not ... why not?' something whispered in her, as though his tacit recognition of her pride, were a slight on other qualities she wanted him to feel in her.
And here, I trust, I don't have to draw the parallel with Tracy's reaction on learning that Mike had not, in fact, taken advantage of her when she was drunk.

In my experience, most women know what to do when they get to sex or they can figure it out very quickly and they tend to know what they are doing when they are just talking. It is that transition from speech to kisses where all the insecurity and pain is. It's not easy for men either but it is a challenge of an altogether different order for women.  For, no matter how much liberation and feminism we try to throw at the problem, the woman wants the man to cross the threshold to get her and he wants her to respond when he does. And her fear of failure coming up to that moment is daunting. It is daunting even when a woman is firmly decided that nothing is going to happen this time. The sense that she is not really a first class woman, a first class human being, if she cannot navigate these dangerous waters is always there and will never go away. To be a good girl means to live with that recurring test most of your life.

And that, I think, is the real magic of The Philadelphia Story. One of the things that makes the movie more profound than most romantic comedies is that it recognizes that this challenge never goes away for women. Seven years into marriage it is still just as present as it is the night of the first kiss. This is  movie that reminds good girls that this reef can be crossed successfully and they are just the woman to do it.

I recommend the movie for Valentine's Day.

The Philadelphia Story (6)

A language of vague and incomplete gestures

Very little language use is about conveying information. I sometimes think of language use can be divided into information and affirmation speech.

Affirmation language is what puppies do when they meet you. A puppy has a desperate need to make it clear to you that he is your friend. They express this need so determinedly by shaking their tail so hard that their whole body wiggles as they push up against you. Labrador puppies do it so vigorously that they can hurt you.

Giving directions on how to get somewhere is a good example of information use.

Let's stick with the puppy awhile. He is interesting because he doesn't have many options. If he can't convince other dogs that he is their pal they may kill him. At the very least they won't protect him or, if he is making the appeal to his mother, she might feed the rest of the litter more than she feeds him.

Affirmation is our primary reason for using language. More than anything else we use language to connect with others and to reaffirm and maintain existing connections. Information is not of paramount importance in most conversations because what we are really looking for is to connect.

You can test this by taking your laptop and headphones to Starbucks. Put the headphones on but don't play any music and sit near a group having a conversation and note the number of actual facts exchanged in the conversation. There is so little that you can often sum up twenty minutes of conversation in two or three lines of information.

Pop culture is a good place to go to see affirmation language being used and refined. Paul McCartney and John Lennon make an interesting contrast in this case. McCartney spoke clearly and Lennon, despite his fame as a lyricist, did not. McCartney may or may have been telling the truth in interviews but he always knew what he was going to say and he said it. Lennon was always making things up to try to get others to respond to whatever need for affirmation he felt at that moment. But that need for affirmation made him rather good at it.

There is a famous story about the writing of a song called "I Saw her Standing There". McCartney began writing the song and was playing around with this opening line:
She was just seventeen
He wasn't sure what to write next. There is some dispute about whether he even had a full line in mind but everyone agrees he meant to rhyme "seventeen" with something about this girl "not being a beauty queen".

Now let's think about what we can learn from just that. She was just seventeen and she lacked the confidence that girls who are beautiful and know they are beautiful have. This is not a song written by a guy who means well. He just wants to nail her. That's important to see because the change Lennon makes does not make the song less innocent as Joshua Shenk suggests.

Lennon's suggestion, and the final version, was the following:
She was just seventeen,
You know what I mean.
What does that new line do? It most definitely does not give us any information. The whole point is to make us connect us with the singer. Listening to it, you either imagine what it is like to see her or what it is like to be her. The new line really says, "We all know what is really happening here." Depending on your inclinations in these matter, this is ether a song about a man in his twenties spotting sex and candy or it is a song about a seventeen year old girl raising the flag to see who salutes and fantasizing about what might happen. Either way, we are now "in on it" with the singer.

Sticking with the men for a moment, one thing you might not guess from the above is that Paul McCartney was the one of the pair who was most comfortable and confident around women. John Lennon was the one who was driven by deep insecurity and uncertainty with women. He was subject to periods of deep depression and helplessness on the one hand and sometimes to incredible rage on the other. More than once he beat the woman he loved.

I say that we might not guess that but it all makes sense once we know doesn't it? The mastery of affirmation language that Lennon had and McCartney did not was a product of that sense of alienation of Lennon's. You see that in a lot of pop stars. They get trapped in a state of arrested development and they get very good at the sorts of expression that go with that state of development.

So now let's ask ourselves, what about the woman who does not want to be the the one standing over by the record machine? The woman who thinks it undignified for human beings to relate that way.  How does she act and communicate?

That, I believe, is what The Philadelphia Story is really about and I think most of the other characters are almost incidental. The whole move is about Tracy Samantha Lord. People who love this movie either want to be her or meet her. We watch it to figure out how to get to be like her or how to be good enough to win her approval.

Final entry this afternoon.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A couple of ukulele videos

Both of these come courtesy of, obviously, the performing artists but also of the great ukulele site Ukulele Hunt. First we have a classic little girl sounding like a big girl performance:

I know what your thinking, Hey Jules, she's not that little. Yes, she's an adult. But she looks like a little girl and that is part of her appeal. That gathered, stretch-tube top, for example, is beyond trashy—I would think some hookers would be ashamed of wearing such a thing—it is only her aura of innocence that redeems it.

Anyway, the performance. She sings it in D, which is the key Fats Waller wrote it in (horn players must hate this number as that would be a lot of sharps for them). She has a deep voice for such seemingly little woman. Listen for the low notes. She hits a G—that's the space below the second ledger line beneath the staff.  She hits it on the word "lips" in the phrase "when I'm taking sips from your tasty lips" at 2:09. That is quite some ways down for a woman. The highest note she hits, by contrast, is a D sharp (the second line from the top of the staff sharped) and she makes it sound higher than it really is by singing it in a breathless, whispery voice that must be quite hard on the vocal chords. That is a unquestionably a high note but lots of female singers can go well past that with about as much effort as most of us need to go past a task we don't feel like doing.

All of that, perhaps needless to say, adds to the sexiness of the performance. You get the sense of a girl right on the edge of womanhood playing with her new-found sexiness like a reckless girl playing with matches.

Finally, there is the echo. Is that all coming from her room? I'd like to think so but ... . That is the big difference between modern vocal performances and the greats. When you hear depth and colour in Sarah Vaughn's voice it is because of her ability to use her body as an instrument. When you hear it in a modern pop singer, it's usually some electronic trick.

Next video:
One of the great things about the ukulele is that it tests the gravity of the song. Play Whole Lotta Love on the uke and it will sound like a joke even if you mean it seriously. A good way to test the legitimacy of any song is to play it on the ukulele and see if it starts to feel ridiculous. If it doesn't then it deserves its reputation for profundity. This one passes the test:

Yes, yes, I know, a lot of what seems like greatness here is just willful obscurity. It's typical of a lot of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and other 1960s era songwriters. The lyrics often lazily gesture in the direction of ideas or emotions the songwriters are too lazy or unskilled to really confront. And it is reasonable to suspect that some of the seeming "greatness" about Dylan songs is something that we project onto the consequent vagueness; you can't understand the lyrics so you imagine they must be profound.

And that is all true. Even on his best days, Dylan never comes withing shooting distance of the lyrics of the classic era of popular American songwriting. You'd never rate Dylan the equal of Fats Waller. never mind of Cole Porter, but, to his credit, neither would Dylan himself. And, for all that, there is a lovely Psalm-like quality about the song. Dylan has written a lament that most moderns can understand even if we have to forget that some of the lines in the song make less sense the more you think about them.

And it is a surprisingly religious song. None of this makes any sense at all if we don't at least want to believe in some sort of transcendence. Again, critics will point out that there is a half-hearted quality about it. This is a song that can be listened to in the same spirit that people do yoga or sit in candle-lit rooms and "do Buddhism" so they can feel spiritual. It is the sort of religion that appeals to those who want the feeling for a few minutes but never want to think through the full moral implications of really believing there is something that transcends our existence.

And yet I think Dylan himself really does believe and that means we don't have to be like the hordes who sit and sway and then light up a joint and feel self-satisfied about own profundity. There is a way to hear this song and be reminded of your absolute dependence on God. That's pretty rare in a pop song.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some thoughts about blogging

When I set this blog up I decided to do nothing about pursuing traffic so I have done nothing to bring eyes to this site. I also decided to eschew the two things that are most likely to pull people in to a blog: pictures of women and discussions of politics. I also did not brand myself for any niche market.

People have come in anyway and a surprising number of them.

What's brought them in? Mostly long old posts where I go into detail about Phillipa Foot and the Trolley Problem, Mad Men, Brideshead Revisited, Monstrances, Gaudete Sunday and Jane Austen. In that order, by the way. And it's not too hard to figure out what is happening. When I look at the keyword searches that pull people in, I see that people who are curious about things they've read about going looking for information. This week, for example, The Trolley Problem brought more people in than everything else I wrote; someone must have assigned a term paper on it somewhere.

I've been very gratified at the number of people who find the Brideshead Revisited thread by researching something about the book that puzzled them and decided to stay and go through the entire thread. There is a very steady number who do and every week I see evidence of one or two people going through and I can even follow their progress as they go from each consecutive Chapter in the book to the corresponding entry here by keeping track of pageviews. I have no idea who they are, of course, I just see the progress the way you can see someone walk across the bottom of the Grand Canyon from the top and not even be able to know whether you are watching a man or a woman while you follow their progress. Even more people do so with Mad Men. And a lot of curious Catholics come here looking for information about stuff that has puzzled them and they obviously don't want to ask their priest directly.

An aside: Catholicism is a lot like sex that way, you don't always want to ask someone in authority just in case they tell you to stop doing what you have been doing. And that is just fine with me so long as you don't forget two things. The first is that I have no authority so don't take my opinions as justification for anything you do or don't want to do. The second is that I really am Catholic and there are some issues where I will probably disappoint some of you by saying, "Actually, Benedict is right about this."

Anyway, I am going to focus my efforts on what I see as the quality stuff and a lot of that will have to do with novels and understanding what human virtue is along with the beauty and power of Catholicism as a religion and a culture. I will continue to put some, and perhaps sometimes even lots, of passing comment but I am vain enough that I will focus on the stuff that readers clearly find valuable enough to keep revisiting. I prefer novels that get read more than once and I will focus on producing blog material that is likely to get read more than once. That, of course, is the exact opposite of what most blogging has tended to be about.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Cover-up prosecuted

I see that some in the Catholic blogosphere are unhappy about the following:

Williams announced the grand-jury indictment of one of former Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's top aides for allegedly endangering children by shielding pedophile priests from detection and shuffling them into unsuspecting parishes where they could continue the perversions of which they are accused.

It's believed to be the first time a high-ranking Catholic official has been accused of being criminally accountable for covering up priest abuse. 
I have to say I am happy to see this and hope there are more such indictments.

Three pictures

It was visit day today so the next, and final, Philadelphia Story post will have to wait til Monday.

Meanwhile some shots of things that caught my interest walking downtown on the way to bus from my visit.

This is, don't you think, an interesting pitch for selling jeans. Once upon a time, some "cool" pastors tried to use jeans to sell religion. It didn't work. Apparently the opposite approach does. And what could "true" mean in this context? And why is he holding his T-shirt like that? Is it just me or does this ad seem like it's aimed at boys who like other boys?

The temptation is to ask when sexy went away but maybe they have a point. I mean, we keep hearing that "sex sells" but it is odd how much money and effort is spent selling sex. That applies to the first picture above too.

This is significant because it admits something that neither the people who promote porn nor the people who so desperately want to ban it never admit and that is that most porn is really boring. It seems to be the case that if you drain sex of everything that makes it human and meaningful it can sometimes be boring. Who would have guessed? (That backwards "k" is a fine example of cutting edge graphic design.)

You might not guess but The Prowlers and The Rookers and Jenny Woo are all bands and not ultimate fighting teams. I love the bit at the bottom where it says "no weapons". Punching people in the face is just fine but leave the shiv at home please.

I'm also shocked to see that there is no minority representation in this poster. Someone might almost get the impression that Oi music is all about racism and hate. Oh wait ...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Trusting the experts

Susan Sontag once said an astomishingly true thing:
Imagine the preposterous case of somebody who read only the Reader's Digest between 1950 and 1970, and somebody else who read only The Nation between 1950 and 1970. Who would be getting more truth about the nature of Communism? There's no doubt it would have been the Reader's Digest reader.
That upset a lot of people but it's true.

Looking back, I often think about sex experts. If I imagine the preposterous case of a guy who read only those awful got-game seduction manuals for the last twenty years, and another guy who read only the responsible advice from experts, I have a horrible sinking feeling about who would do better at actually relating to women. Because as Neanderthal as those guys are, and they are, stuff like this does keep turning up to vindicate them.


I got a pitch from a charity I sometimes support today. This is what the headline said:
Even a  desperate poor child deserves a little happiness
That is so weird. Even? and deserves?

How did we ever get to the point that we think this way? To thinking that charity was about others deserving what we presumably have ourselves?

The Philadelphia Story (5)

Do you want to be yare? It's spelled that way by the way. It rhymes with "are" and that is probably why most websites discussing the movie spell it incorrectly. It's been the curse of many a movie fan who has gone looking for "yar" in the dictionary and found nothing.

I guess the answer to the question would depend a lot on what we think "yare" means. Don't feel too bad, I don't think Philip Barry was entirely certain either. Here is the definition he has Tracy give in the play/movie:
"my, she was yare... it means, uh... easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot."
Here is what Oxford says:

(of a ship) moving lightly and easily, easily manageable.

I suppose it's okay to say that sort of thing about a boat and it would be a compliment but not about a woman. Or would you? The "dry rot" bit is rather harsh and vulgar really. Only a pig of man would say such a thing but perhaps it is different when a woman says it? But what of the rest of the definition, the part we might take to be a compliment? Well, it's tricky isn't it?

If we were talking about sex it would be easier but we're not talking about sex in The Philadelphia Story. Or, to be more precise about it, we're not talking only or even primarily about sex. Sex is certainly there but the thing that daunts Tracy so is not exclusive to sex but rather applies to her whole life.

It might also be acceptable to say a woman was yare on the dance floor if we were doing ballroom dancing. A woman who moves lightly and easily and responds quickly is everything a dancer should be. But you wouldn't want those qualities in a  woman running a business, conducting a research project or raising a child. And I'm absolutely certain you wouldn't want those qualities in the woman you were going to unite yourself to for the rest of your life. You'd want her to be able to do that in some situations but there are other times when you want her to be pigheaded and stubborn about how she stands up to you even to the point that you might not appreciate it so much at first.

Class boats. Very upper class.
I do hope my gentle readers will forgive me if I assume that, like Mike Connor, you don't know what a class boat is? Even most sailors will get it wrong. Ask them and they will tell you about something called a one-design class and that is not what Dexter designs, builds and owns.

Most large sailboats are raced according to a handicapping system. A bunch of parameters are put into an algorithm and a number comes out and that denotes the expected performance relative to other boats. To win you have to do better against the expected performance of your boat than the other guys do relative to the expected performance of their boats. The tortoise only has to move fast for a tortoise, he doesn't need to be faster than the hare. This way, everyone can bring the boat they want to the race. It makes sense, as yachts are terribly expensive, that you pick the type that suits you rather than buying a boat that is specifically for racing.

In class boat racing, all the boats are designed so that they have the same handicap. To win you have to be first over the finishing line and every other boat is a Cheetah. It's a no compromise approach that, generally speaking, only very rich people can afford. In fact, nowadays bigger class boats are owned by syndicates and sponsored by advertising. The day when individuals could afford to own such things is mostly over.

But here is the thing, a class boat is quick and responsive but no one would call them easy to handle. Sailing one is like riding a tiger; in a breeze they will give you a white knuckle ride you'll never forget. They are brutally unforgiving boats. "Unforgiving" meaning that if you make a mistake you are likely to end up wet and perhaps much poorer.

Which yare is the yare that we really want?
 Yare could mean different things in different contexts. Forget about boats for a while and think about cars because more people have experience with cars. You could call a sports car yare in that it responds quickly and you can feel every sway or bump in the road. But on a long trip you might not want that. It would get kind of tiring after a while. On the other hand, a car that was too easy to handle might get boring.

And which kind of yare was the True Love? We get a hint when Dexter says:
Well, I'm designing another one anyway, along more practical lines.
Except that practical doesn't quite sound like true love does it? Would you love Tracy Samantha Lord if she were altered so as to be along more practical lines? Miss Pomeroy 1926 is certainly different from the Tracy we've seen up until then but no one would call her practical and neither George nor Mike find Miss Pomeroy 1926  "easy to handle"—although Mike does get to do some "handling".

(None of which he regrets and that opens up an interesting sidebar: so it's okay to enjoy yourself a bit when a drunken woman responds to your sexual overtures but you're supposed to draw a line somewhere. So where exactly is that somewhere? Mike admits to kissing but he pressed himself up against her, which had to feel good, and he got a squeeze or two in and maybe ... well they did change into bathing suits, maybe he got a little more specific about what and where he squeezed and, gentleman that he is, he is leaving that out of his report. It's a fascinating question isn't it? And it's a different question for, say, three women discussing it while working their way through a bottle of Pinot Gris than it is for a couple of men bragging over scotch? And it would be a different question again in front of a judge and jury wouldn't it?)

I promised to say more about language today but I'm not going to get to it just yet. I started on this yare thing and it seems more important. (Someone asked me the other day, "I'll be interested to see where you go with this?" Well, so will I.)

Another thing I said yesterday is that the movie is rather easy on men. We never get any notion that men might be expected to be yare. The men in this movie win Tracy's favour by being, well, by being father figures. Even Mike, who kisses her, must be the responsible one when they are both drunk to win her deepest appreciation. At the same time, however, these men all do rather caddish things that no one holds them to account for and that is troubling. It bothers me anyway.

But it matters less than it might because this is really a movie about women. It's about a particular kind of woman, a woman who aspires to and achieves class. Difficult word class. For the most part people who have it don't use it, at least not in a positive sense. The women I know who actually have it only use the word ironically when referring to women who don't.

Class is exclusive and we don't like to be exclusive. We spend a lot of time telling ourselves not to think of ourselves as better than others and we spend a lot of time trying to be better than others. For women, it's a particularly daunting proposition. A woman who achieves the sort of virtue that would justify distinguishing her in this way is often brought down a peg by being called cold, or hard or distant or unforgiving.

She gets called that by guys who feel rejected and intimidated by her.

But here is an odd puzzle for you. Millions of people love The Philadelphia Story. For approximately 110 minutes we watch the rather hard Tracy and love her. And then, in the last two minutes, Tracy promises she will be different from now on. Is that really what we want of her? Did Mike fall in love with a woman who promised to be easy to handle? Did we?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Philadelphia Story (4)

What fresh genre is this?
If we try and place The Philadelphia Story in a genre we are faced with an embarrassment of riches. It fits into a number of likely slots.

It could, for example, be a remarriage story. These were popular at the time and both Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had hits with other movies in that genre. Grant had already starred in a wonderful movie called The Awful Truth and Hepburn would later do the good but over-rated Adam's Rib. And Tracy and Dexter do get divorced and remarried but it doesn't fit the type quite because the movie is all about one side. In a remarriage movie both the wife and the husband have to change to get back together.

An odd thing about The Philadelphia Story is how ridiculously easy it is on the men. Dexter, Seth and Mike have a lot to apologize and make up for but none of them ever do. Tracy left Dexter for very good reasons; he was an alcoholic and he beat her. And the case against her father is also rock solid. He really did have an affair with chorus girl and he never apologizes for having done so. In fact, the movie features one of the most morally insane arguments to ever make it to the big screen wherein Seth Lord tells Tracy that he is having the affair because she wasn't a good enough daughter. Fortunately, this isn't a very important plot point or else it would ruin the movie.

(Mike, meanwhile, treats Liz shoddily but never even sees that he has done so never mind apologize for it.)

The movie instead is almost entirely about its heroine and that is maybe the first hint about the genre it actually fits into.

Before going there, one more false trail. And that is the bring-the-big-people-down-to-earth genre. This stems from 1870 when one of most prominent preachers in the country, a man named Henry Ward Beecher, got messed up with another man's wife. The thing that made the Beecher-Tilton scandal fascinating to the public was not the scandal but the ongoing revelations about the real lives of the rich and famous; it was seeing the socially exalted revealed as silly and frivolous people.

Again, Hollywood made a genre out of this. The best is a probably movie called It Happened One Night in which Claudette Colbert plays a spoiled rich girl who learns about life by running into a hard-nosed reporter played by Clark Gable. "Just what she needed," we say, "to be dragged out of her cocoon and forced to deal with real-life problems. " And The Philadelphia Story starts off looking like that only Macauley Connor suddenly discovers that the rich girl is actually pretty special.

So what is it then?
I think this movie is the closest that Hollywood has ever come to producing a Jane Austen type story. And it comes so close it breaks my heart to think that Philip Barry wasted his life trying to produce capital-A "art" when he could have been doing more of these.

What makes it a Jane Austen type of story? Lots of stuff.

I'll begin with the setting. The story is set in a big house with an absent father. The big four Austen stories feature this touch. Mr. Dashwood is dead in Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Bennet is hiding from reality in his library in Pride and Prejudice, Sir Thomas Bertram is away dealing with his properties in the West Indies in Mansfield Park, and Mr. Woodhouse is off in a world of his own in Emma.

That absent father is crucial because his not being there allows the social order of the house to get out of control. Jane Austen's mothers, like Margaret Lord in The Philadelphia Story tend to be silly and ineffectual. And the female lead in these stories is always looking for something like a father figure.  They seek an emotionally stable figure who values the same sort of life project they do. One of the powerful indications that this is what is really being sought is that there is zero sexual chemistry between Dexter and Tracy in this movie.

Next, it's a story about marriage and not about falling love. Austen's novels have been described as marriageship stories and not the courtship stories they often are taken to be. The universal failing of TV and movie adaptations is that they try to make them into love and courtship stories. The lack of sexual chemistry between Hepburn and Grant here is, oddly enough, what makes it work. It isn't that they aren't capable of it, it's that the story is about something else and that something else is working out how to be married together. This is true in real life as well, by the way, it's much easier to fall in love than to work your way around to what it takes to make a marriage work.

(Again, if you don't believe me, watch the remake. Again, there is little or no sexual chemistry on screen between Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly who play the lead parts in High Society. But they were certainly capable of it because they were having a torrid affair during the filming of the movie. It's a marriage and pursuit of happiness story, not a love and sex story*.)

The next thing crucial to an Austen-type story is a Shakespearean touch (one of several). The thing that differentiates class in this story is language. Next time you watch the movie, notice how much the first time Tracy encounters Mike and Liz is like Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Tracy, like Hamlet, is pretending to be crazy and a weird sort of duel ensues in which she outmatches them completely in the use of language. I'll say more about this tomorrow, but neither Tracy nor Dexter ever fail with language. They speak an elegant, expressive and powerful language and that is what marks them as superior.

Another Shakespearean element that Austen uses is the contrasting world. In Shakespeare it is the court and the forest and Austen does that herself quite wonderfully in Mansfield Park in a scene where the characters run around the forest running into one another. She also does it with London, however, in Sense and Sensibility which serves as a contrast to the big house. The purpose of this contrasting world is that the rules and rigid social structures that hold in the first world are absent and characters keep matching up with others they normally would not.

In the movie the contrasting world is a special type like the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a land where magic potions change people and here the magic potion is alcohol. The magic forest is the land of drunkenness and Tracy and Mike enter it. And it really is a magical world like the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you don't believe me, check the times. Notice when Tracy and Mike leave the party and all the things that are supposed to happen between then and sunrise. There simply isn't enough time left for everything that does happen in the real world. It is only because everyone enters a magical world and they keep meeting up in different parts of this enchanted forest that it does happen.

And then they all return and the world goes back to normal but the people in it have changed.

The final Shakespearean touch typical of Austen is the changing partners. The couples get flipped around and, in so doing, our heroine gets an opportunity for some valuable self knowledge.

And that, of course, leads into another crucial Austen touch. The successful resolution of an Austen novel always turns on virtue gained through better self knowledge.

Tomorrow, all about Tracy Samantha Lord, the magnificent character who makes this movie work.

* The most telling example of how Hollywood just doesn't get this is The Jane Austen Book Club. In it a bunch of people join a book club that reads only Jane Austen and the movie draws a parallel between each individual character and the book she or he presents at the club gathering. It almost works right up until the end. The last scenes, however, feature people tearing their clothes off and jumping into bed together. You couldn't get Austen more wrong if you tried. Even sea monsters make more sense in the plot than that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Philadelphia Story (3)

Fires within
There is a sort of grid we bring to movies, plays and books when we put on our critic hat. And we all put on a critic hat when we try to explain a movie like The Philadelphia Story. When sitting there in the dark we don't need to explain it. It's just us and the movie and my how we love it.

Anyway, let's get back to the grid. It goes something like this. "There is a character and she has a flaw and she must overcome her flaw to have a happy ending or not overcome it and have a tragedy." And this movie encourages us to understand it that way. We are told, point blank, that Tracy Samantha Lord has a flaw and here it is in the words of CK Dexter-Haven:
You'll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty.
And one way to explain the movie is to take that at face value. It's no way to watch the movie though. No one sitting alone in the dark and forgetting themselves as this movie and its heroine washes over them sees it that way.

Because Tracy Samantha Lord is a first class woman and she is a first class human being and she is that from the beginning. And "class" is the right word here.

A great essay I read on Edith Wharton once talked about the status of words. They all seem more less equal in a list but in a  story some words acquire incredible importance and in this movie the word "class" has a whole lot of power and Tracy has it. She seems to have it in two senses: in one sense she is magnificent and we all want to be here and in another sense she is part of a class we know we can't be part of and we want to knock her out of it.

You don't believe me? Well, watch it again, and pay special attention to the drunken scene after the party where Mike and Tracy are alone together. For that is the transformational scene. It is what happens there that enables Tracy to change. It is there that she comes face to face with something about herself that is crucial to her happiness. When you watch it again, ask yourself, is the thing she needs to face her own human frailty? Because I think you will see in that clip that Tracy's real need is for something else altogether.

I don't think it is that at all. I think that what Tracy needs to face is her own womanly magnificence. And it's not just me, the movie itself has two competing lines. You can see them both in the clip linked below. Right up until about 2:44, it's all about human frailty and then everything suddenly shifts and Mike tells Tracy about something in her that is not human frailty at all. Which of the two is it that she really needs to be told? Watch it yourself and tell me.