Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Guggenheim

video

No one qualifies statements like I do. No one.

Ok, no one qualifies like I do except for that statement. That was nakedly unqualified.

But in general I'm the master of sussing out qualifying conditions and parsing out exceptions to generalized statements. I'd like to think of my self as King of the Analogy, but the truth is I'm probably just King Equivocator. So let me bold here for a moment.

The music selection I chose for this, a snippet of Radiohead's Paranoid Android is simply the most beautiful section of any song in the history of rock. Period.

Without exception.

True, it helps that it's basically stolen from Mozart's Requiem, but beauty is beauty. Even stolen beauty. Which is not to say it's my favorite song; it's just the most beautiful. (In rock, not all music. Dang! I can't help but qualify.)

Now since I suffer from what one of my colleagues has described as a pathological need for confession, I will now indulge that pathology. When I hear this song, I no longer cry. But I did cry, oh, the first seventy times I heard it. There was no resisting it. Like a freakin' faucet turned on full force the waterworks came. But after listen seventy-one even the most beautiful rock music in the world begins an inevitable slow descent to "meh...."

Which is what makes Bach a miracle, but that's a point for another post.

As for the photos, well, I liked a fair number of them just fine, but none stood out for me as especially outstanding. I couldn't choose which one or two to select, so I decided to give you the whole shebang. Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

.8 mph



This was quite the traffic jam. As I remember it, we travelled about .6 miles or so in fifty minutes. I had been in worse traffic jams before, but I hadn't taken photos of traffic jams before, so hence we have this particular post.

This particular highway parking-lot experience occurred a few months ago--or as I refer to it now, during our pre-GPS days--and we were on our our way up to visit some lovely friends whom we've known for years. At various points throughout the drive the husband of the couple whom we were visiting called us to find out where we were. He has an uncanny ability to guess where we are (literally within five miles or so) based on the number of hours we've been on the road. So while we were stuck in traffic he called us and this funny emotional dynamic shifted into gear. My friend's DNA is hard-wired to kick into full-throttle help/coach/assist/advise/teach/explain mode at the drop of a hat. The truth is he's very smart, knows a lot of stuff, and he's always eager to share what he knows. He's helpful by nature and a natural-born teacher, and that part of his personality remains with him inside or outside the classroom. In contrast, my DNA is apparently wired to resist virtually all coaching, sometimes at all costs, even if the cost entails sucking in car exhaust on the highway. My friend was looking at his computer and providing us with alternative routes to his house. Sweet soul that he is, he volunteered (wanted to) stay on the phone with us throughout our travels just to guarantee we made it out of the jam. In contrast, I wanted to find my way out of the jam by intuition alone--or perhaps by sense of smell, in which I'd follow fresh air no matter where it led us. My wife is a reasonable woman and a peacemaker, and so she subtly brokered a compromise. Our friend would give us directions, which we would write down. In the meanwhile, we would go ahead and conclude our call but he'd keep his cell with him to answer any questions we might have as they would arise. As for me, I could alter the route as I saw fit once we got off the highway.

Juli's instincts were dead-on. We did call him once or twice. And I did deviate from his suggested route a bit. And it all concluded like a beautiful dream: We arrived safely and were greeted by our hosts with some absolutely killer peach daiquiris.

I think I drank two.

And then after the drinks (and hugs and many laughs) I went to bed feeling very much at peace with the world.

It was a beautiful visit.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Loyalty


This morning my wife suggested something to the effect of, "You are such a fortunate man. You have such good friends. They are amazingly loyal." And then she rattled off a healthy list of proper names, several of whom are among the blog regulars. And then she proceeded to explain, very sincerely and lovingly, how despite the fact I am unceasingly making everything all about me me me, these dear sweet loyal friends are forever indulging me in just about every way imaginable. And their patience seems boundless. They let me be me despite all the stuff about me that begs to be just a little bit less me-ish, if you catch my drift.

And beloved readers, the truth of it is that that while I knew this fact, I hadn't considered it as deeply and gratefully as I should have in a long time until Julianne reminded me of it. I was genuinely touched by both her sharing this truth with me as well as of the reality of it. I paused and realized, holy crap, I really am very lucky. My friends are incredible. I really do have sweet and interesting and brilliant and loyal friends, don't I? And I told Juli that I think I ought to take time this week to write them individual notes thanking them for their friendship.

Upon reflection, I hesitated, however. We both agreed that any such gushing note of gratitude on my part would have to be accompanied with a separate note written by Juli herself reassuring the reader that, no, I am not suicidal. Both of us know I'd be incapable of writing such a note that would not draw on the themes of the briefness of life and the reality of suffering and, well, just generally being a great big downer. So for the good of my friends, Julianne convinced me that I probably best NOT write the note. Just this once consider them, she urged.

This cuts against everything I live by, but for the sake of my friends, including many of my dear readers, I assented. So count yourself blessed this week if you don't receive a note from me. Believe me, your day will be a little brighter on account of it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Peaches



It would be utterly ridiculous if not altogether insulting to their integrity to say that these two perfectly sweet, charming, bright, funny, self-aware and highly compatible children who love each other's company will someday get married. What kind of moral monster of a parent would make such a suggestion?

Certainly not me.

Nope. Not me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The love you take is equal to the love you make



Life is too short and it’s too long. We complain without ceasing and then we weep when it’s done far too soon.

Life is not just another mystery; it’s the only mystery in town.

In the West we make sharp distinctions between sacred and ordinary, between sacred and profane. The East, in contrast, attempts to find transcendence in immanence, the divine in the ordinary. For example, rather than setting aside certain areas and consecrating them as holy, Confucianism infuses all of life with a spark of the divine.

I don’t feel the need to take a stand here as to which approach is superior. It’s beyond my pay scale, especially when I’m achy and vulnerable with tiredness as I am presently. And, tellingly, both West and East embrace both approaches to one degree or another, though each side clings to one approach more tightly than the other.

But let me be Eastern for a moment. Let me tell you of something that infuses my life with greater dimensionality. And let me assure you here that I’m speaking from the heart.

By the way, a year or two ago a student told me, “Dr. Bailey, I happened upon your blog last night.” “Oh?” I asked, non-committal. “Man, your voice is so…..strange. It’s just weird. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out.” “Oh, how’s that?” I asked. “How does it differ from my ordinary voice when I speak in conversation?” His response? “Oh, it doesn’t differ at all. It’s exactly the same.”

So I got that going for me.

Lydia's class is reading The Outsiders. I read it in high school though I have virtually no recollection of it at all. My best guess is that it was dated, and badly so, virtually the minute it went to press. Yet it must retain something timeless in it, for generation after generation of young people continue to read it. Apparently one of the rival gangs in the book prefers Elvis and another gang prefers the Beatles, but what this difference signifies—apart from superior musical discernment of the latter group-- escapes me.

Lydia's lit teacher heard through the grapevine (presumably from a grape named Lydia) that I was a Beatles nut, so she asked me to come to the class and discuss what was unique about John, Paul, George and Ringo.

She asked me to speak for about forty minutes. My talk was today.

What were my reactions to the opportunity?

Well what could have been my reaction apart from giddy delight?

Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me?! You’re actually giving me forty minutes of uninterrupted floor time to proselytize The Fab Four?

What did I do to deserve such an opportunity?

Then I began to think about the actual task at hand. Does putting on a CD, kicking back and closing my eyes in bliss count as a lecture? Somehow I doubted it. How could I bring myself to omit a single detail, all of which are spellbinding? It occurred to me that this teaching opportunity, like any other teaching opportunity, needed to be done well. So what should I do? What music should I play? How in the world could I do justice to such a big topic? I wanted to be constructive and helpful. I wanted the students to take away a sense of what made the Beatles special. And that, sadly, would not be accomplished merely by me singing along to Beatles songs, no matter how much everyone would undoubtedly love such an enterprise.

I knew that I would need to spend time in preparation. Hours of preparation. Not one or two hours. But more likley six or more. I decided I’d create a PowerPoint and show plenty of photos and video clips as well as mix in some songs and song snippets. But what would be the connecting themes? And what photos to use? And what clips? What stories should I tell? And, most importantly, what songs would I use? I found the choices one part riches and one part paralyzing.

After a ridiculous amount of time sifting through various options, I condensed my message to just a few points, and I began to work at building the lecture.

So far so good. But as I worked through these thoughts I noted that I was, time and again, working through feelings of profound emotion. As I listened to various songs and reviewed clips, from out of the blue tears would spring forth and blur my vision. I flatter myself that I’m as self-aware as the next person (and undoubtedly as self-absorbed) but I could not account for my reaction. At least not fully at first. But the more I thought about it, the obvious began to emerge. I have very special feelings deep down about the Beatles, feelings complicated and sweetened and deepened by the role the Beatles played in long-gone friendships won and lost, and in ongoing friendships (and a marriage) won and maintained. Feelings complicated by the role the Beatles played in informing my emergence into adolescence and in subtly guiding me into a more mature world of thought and emotions. The Beatles were rebels, true, but they were cheerful and joyful rebels who celebrated love in all its expressions. They were the kinds of rebels a parent would want their children to follow. And now as my own children have enthusiastically embraced the Beatles the circle of life feels a turn richer.

Here I keenly feel my weakness of expression. So the best here I can do in describing my feelings for the Beatles is to use the words love and gratitude.

Irrational love.

Irrational gratitude.

By irrational I don’t mean ridiculous or juvenile, though I leave it to others to judge me so if they desire. (How could I protest?) Nor by ridiculous do I mean inappropriate. What I mean (I suppose) is that my feelings about the Beatles are ineffable and surely disproportionate in intensity and importance to what anyone would have reason to guess. Or even what I would have reason to guess. Disproportionate to what reason alone can explain.

But, see, here’s the thing. I count The Beatles as a solid in my life.

A solid.

My life has been on balance a happy one, far from misery, and characterized by an embarrassment of undeserved riches. My complaints are largely unwarranted and serve little more purpose than to keep me entertained.

And yet….

And yet life is life.

Life is a forever and inevitably a mixture of high and low, happy and sad, thrill and disappointment, peace and anxiety, promise and heartbreak. Life is a story of healthy bodies that, on one sunny day or another, finally break down and give out. One of my favorite thinkers, the 17th century Frenchman Pascal said this: “The life of man: inconstancy; boredom; anxiety.” I don't know how to improve upon that.

So all of us find coping mechanisms to divert our thought from darkness. Many of us simply refuse to think about what surrounds us and confronts us, either now or later. Others lose themselves in pleasure or in other distractions. Most of these diversions are perfectly innocent, and some are even productive. All of us use many such coping mechanisms, and we hardly think of them as mechanisms. We just think of them as living—and that’s fair, I think. At the end of the day life is as life does.

As for me, I have always known that with the Beatles I could dip into a deep deep well and draw forth satisfying and wonderfully refreshing water.

Just time after time after time, year after year after year.

In my own narrative they are an unbroken thread of joy and depth and exploration.

A solid.

So if this isn’t already alien enough for you, or if not just plain wacky, let me continue. In a non-metaphorical sense that I don’t pretend to integrate into a more traditional theology, the Beatles have played a spiritual component in my life. They helped me grow into adulthood. They helped give me expression to words and feelings I could not otherwise express. They made me feel happy and smart and hip. They made me feel more in love and more alive. The Beatles have been a sanctuary for me, a refuge.

This is simply irrational. But it’s certainly normal, too. People go to familiar parks or to beaches or to or this place and that to recenter themselves. We may feel more ourselves in art museums. Or while shopping. Or in church. Or reading books. Or taking walks. The Beatles were not the only such refuge for me, but they're one of the strongest and most satisfying. And now that I’ve rediscovered them through the eyes and ears of my children, I’m amazed all over again at how they continue to satisfy.

A solid.

And so here with this assignment I had an opportunity to discuss this source of joy and exploration and creativity that has meant so much to me. I was more than excited. I was more than desirous to do a good job. I began to think of the talk in spiritual terms.

Spiritual not in any strict theological sense but in the sense (for lack of a better word) of karma—that what goes around comes around. I came to sense strongly that this occasion was more than accidental. It was an opportunity to pay back to the Great Karmic Bank in the Sky, if only in the smallest measure, a tiny portion of the good I had been given. The truth is, I feel deeply indebted to The Beatles. My life is richer and more thoughtful and more joyful because of them. Just unambiguously so.

A solid.

I do not want to start a theological argument with anyone, but in my gut, just deep down, I believe that if a thirty-year thread of an unambiguous good isn't sacred, then I don't know what is.

Now, I’m certainly foolish but I’m not simply a fool. Of course I know that I cannot pay back the Beatles themselves. Of course. But that’s not my intent. Instead I felt that by introducing their music to young people in a way that conveys my own excitement about it, I am paying forward a gift that was given to me. If nothing else, hopefully I could invite these young adults to explore a new room of emotion and thought and creativity in their own lives.

I confess that with such high expectations, the reality of the experience today did not live up to my highest hopes. Though I had a lovely time, I felt as though ultimately I failed. And that’s okay. I am at peace about the experience. I felt failed but far from discouraged because the story of these students cannot be mine. All I can do is pray that these precious young people will discover their own version of The Beatles—their own special refuge that helps make their lives more vividly felt, more thrilling, richer and deeper. I pray that they too will find their own joys so that, to quote another great musical artist, at the end of the day they will smile with the knowledge that, yes, the going up is worth the coming down.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Of intimacy, sneezing and heaven




My daughter and I took a walk the other night, and our conversation turned to questions such as whether I’d rather lose my hands or my nose in an accident. And to this: if forced to make a choice, whether I’d prefer to shave one side of my head or whether I'd choose to dye my hair hot pink and keep it that way for a year.

The conversational showstopper turned on the question of whether I’d rather be the man who killed Abraham Lincoln or the man who shot Martin Luther King, Jr. I refused to answer the question and said instead that the question could be posed in a far more interesting and less offensive way. I encouraged Lydia to consider this question as an alternative: Whose assassination shaped history more? She concurred that this was indeed less objectionable, but it also eliminated her interest in the question.

This is payback on a cosmic and multigenerational scale. I am now paying for all the questions I once posed to my mother.

At some point in the conversation the question came to what made an action good or right—i.e. ethical. I immediately seized the opportunity with gusto to break into lecture mode, and I took her on a brief and delightful journey of ethical thought from Plato through Aristotle and St. Augustine up through to Kant. I should qualify that statement. I personally considered it a brief and delightful journey. Lydia may not have characterized it that way at all. Out of mercy, I decided to stop before I reached the utilitarians, who linked good behavior with maximizing happiness for a group of people. And happiness they defined as pleasure.

Utilitarianism is a ludicrous approach to ethics from the vantage points of both snobs and Christians, though for entirely different reasons. But for both groups, the idea of grounding ethics in pleasure is crass and simplistic. But these critics are wrong at least in this respect--pleasure is not simple, and it need not be crass. Pleasure, as many utilitarians immediately pointed out, can take a variety of forms, and bodily pleasures are by no means the sole or even most powerful or satisfying of our pleasures. Indeed, some utilitarians quickly confess that attempting to maximize happiness by maximizing bodily pleasures is a recipe for surefire disaster, though, as Woody Allen might suggest, perhaps at least it's worth the old college try.

The more I began to think of the varieties of pleasure, the more I was struck by how so many “ordinary” bodily sensations, even of the wholly G-rated variety, can be ecstatically pleasurable.

A few examples.

--Taking off one’s work shoes at the end of the day.

--A warm shower on a cold winter morning.

--A plunge into a cool pool on a hot summer day.

--Crawling into bed at the end of a long day, especially when the sheets are fresh and crisp and clean. Oh, sweet bliss.

--Stretching after a long spell of driving in the car--the kind of stretch that elicits involuntary moans.

-- Vigorously washing one's hands when they are grimy and gritty.

-- Cleaning one's ears with a q-tip. This pleasure is shockingly and embarrassingly knee-knockingly intense, as well as, apparently, the single worst thing one can do to the human body if we are to accept the word of doctors.

--Scrubbing one's face with a warm washcloth.

--Scratching a bad itch. I hesitate to note this pleasure because there’s something unseemly about the thought (for reasons I don't understand and can’t articulate), but the truth is the truth. If the itch is intense enough, relieving the itch can unleash a pleasure unmatched by *anything,* if you get my drift. And you know it’s true.

Admit it.

There are plenty of other physical pleasures as well. Obviously. Eating for one. Exercise for another. My point isn’t to be exhaustive in noting every pleasure but to merely hint at the variety of pleasures open to the body. Bodies are good. I'm glad I have one.

I doubt each these pleasures can be reduced to a single encompassing primary pleasure. Some pleasures may belong to the same family, but surely there are a variety of distinct pleasures. Pleasure is complicated.

Noting this led me to reflect upon how even a “single” pleasure can, in fact, be compound and remarkably complex. For consideration: Shift now from the G-rated pleasures to the pleasures associated with that activity I once read described as “the mutual exchange of tender affections.”

Which, I must say, is probably the most singularly misleading, moralizing, and shockingly boring definition of the activity I’ve ever read. It seems to me that if this definition lines up with your own experience of this activity, y’all just might be doing something wrong. Maybe missing a step or two. Just a thought.

But I digress.

Back to the complications of this pleasure.

It’s a commonplace that Ravel’s Bolero was intended to be a kind of musical analogue to the act.

Okay fine. I can see it up to a point. The most obvious corollary is the laughably unsubtle crescendo, but as I’ll suggest in a moment even this element is not quite right. But in addition to the crescendo, Bolero draws out a blend of musical delicacy, swells and swoons, circular exploration, as well as rhythmic drive---and surely these facets are also fittingly and effectively suggestive.

But the conclusion to the piece somehow seems to me off the mark. The music swells and surges at the end with the introduction of cymbals and trombones (I think), and then it tumbles into a sudden end, a collapse.

Well...maybe. But to be candid, I want more. The ending to Bolero makes me want to ask, "Is that it? Is that all there is?"

In contrast to the music, the finale of the act itself is not so simple; it is multifaceted. Nor is the crescendo of that which leads to the finale simply gradual and steady rise. The lengthy prelude to the conclusion of the act--in other words, that part which constitutes the vast majority of the act's development--somehow simultaneously pleases while pointing beyond itself. It’s a purposeful and directional pleasure. It is not the pleasure of, say, eating chocolate. When one eats chocolate, each bite is perfectly sufficient and does not point beyond itself to a greater pleasure. (I mean, how could it? It's chocolate.) One may want to eat more of the stuff (and one does), but that’s because one wants to repeat the pleasure of the first bite. Indeed, every additional bite of chocolate is likely to bring marginally diminished pleasure as we become full. In this sense, the pleasures of chocolate and the pleasure associated with the subject of our discussion are diametrically opposed in form.

(The answer to which of which of these pleasures is ultimately more satisfying, however, is best keep to yourself.)

Every couple who has had to put their bizness on hold due to an outside interruption (say, due to the sound of a child vomiting in the hall bathroom) knows that the suddenly halted experience is less like putting down a bowl of chocolate ice cream and is more akin to the experience of watching a riveting movie when the power goes out. A good movie points ahead to its ongoing continuation, and it has a logical terminus. To have it interrupted is unsatisfying.

This suggests why Bolero doesn’t quite get it right. The act isn’t just a process of more and more, gradually increasing. The experience of the act is one of simultaneous satisfaction and of promise—a uniquely complicated sensation that, as experienced, entails satisfaction together with dissatisfaction--or, at the minimum, of increasingly felt need. The ongoing pleasure is rewarding but the promise is not of just more of the same but of something quite different.

In other words, intimacy is not like a scale of single notes that concludes with the pitch an octave higher than the first note. It’s more like a scale of single notes that concludes with a chord. The conclusion isn’t merely an amplification of the prelude. While it is tightly connected to what precedes it, it introduces a new and fittingly culminating element.

After having reflected upon this, and in wonderment of the near-miraculous complexity of it all, I brought my thoughts to my wife’s attention. Consider it, I said. Think of an activity that is simultaneously pleasurable and yet leads to greater need and which terminates in something seamlessly linked but altogether different to all the activity that preceded it. An act that entails careful attentiveness to the now while also virtually imploring for its own conclusion.

How utterly unique this is in the human experience, I exclaimed, and what an appropriate metaphor for mystical union with god. In the Christian view and in the view of many religions, this present life directs persons to an ineffable something beyond our lives that yet remains mysteriously connected with this life—say, a continuation of one’s personality and identity.

Which is why, perhaps, mystics such as St. Teresa often described their mystical experiences in explicitly erotic terms. The mystical union was an ecstatic one. See here (not my photo):



Now in response to my observations, my wife said with distressing rapidity the following.

“What about sneezes?”

“I’m sorry?”

"Well, a sneeze is like that. You first get an itchy feeling that tells you something big is going to happen. That’s anticipatory. Then the sneeze itself is different from the itchy pre-sneeze feeling. And then you're all done. That seems the same to me.”

Umm…..yes, well, you’re right. But…ok.

I’ll spare you an account of the downward spiral of self-doubt I experienced on account of my wife’s very easy-breezy and casual (and, please trust me, absolutely 100% unwarranted) association between the mundane act of sneezing and the incomparable ecstasy of “the mutual exchange of tender affections.”

I can say at least this much. The afterlife will be either the eternal ecstasy of intimacy or an eternity of anticipating a sneeze.

Maybe both.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Sunday, September 05, 2010

umbrella over bubbles



So what can I say?

I was bored.

No no, that's not it.

Because I can.

Yes, that's better. Still, that's not it.

Cuz why not?

Yep, that's it.

Empty seats at the ballpark

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Shard of clouds



I've punched up the colors and cropped the photo, reducing its scope by about 15%. But the image is essentially unchanged--a small section of sky as seen through some negative space in a building.

What can I say?

I was bored.

(My new motto, courtesy of Steven Taylor.)

rusty nails and some jaggedy glass