March 7, 2017

March 7: TOWNES VAN ZANDT - Waitin' Around To Die

TOWNES VAN ZANDT: March 7, 1944 – January 1, 1997

Originally published March 7, 2014.

I remember reading a 'zine review of a Townes Van Zandt show that lasted less than three minutes. Van Zandt arrived at a small bar/restaurant late, and in front of a crowd of maybe two dozen, with no soundcheck and just an acoustic guitar, Townes plugged in, stared at the ground, dropped the guitar from his lap and began weeping. In the review, nobody moved to help him. The moment was awkward, and Van Zandt was a bad drunk and drug abuser with some clear signs of mental illness and for a small group of fans, nobody quite knew what to do. So one of the people in the crowd offered him some pizza. In a moment of great emotional upheaval, sometimes all you can do is offer a token of kindness, and let a person know that you recognize their pain. Van Zandt eventually apologized a number of times, and then left. Normally, this is the kind of life-defining moment in an artist's career, the moment where the emotions are too great and the feelings too raw and the emotional collapse comes in the most open and vulnerable moments. These are the moments went artists either find their strength, or wither in die. Except in Townes Van Zandt's case, it was a fairly standard show from the late 80s. I've heard a number of similar stories, and the time I saw Townes lives was anything but enthralling. He was drunk and seemed fairly uninterested in what he was doing. Not uncaring, just preoccupied. I'd discovered Townes in high school after hearing Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's recording of his song "Pancho & Lefty", and something grabbed me in his lyrics. This was odd, considering I was a high school kid in a respectably-middle class suburban Chicago neighborhood in the '80s, long before country music was considered hip or cool. And yet, Townes Van Zandt's songs spoke to me at a very early age. Songs of drunkenness and spousal abuse and heartbreak and robbery and drug abuse somehow resonated with a kid who -from the outside - had no worries bigger than which car he would drive to the junior prom. But the dark parts of Townes lyrics spoke to the part of me that had already given up my belief in humanity. For years, Townes music would act as part of the soundtrack to my own self-destruction. As I would fall deeper and deeper into loneliness and depression and isolation and self-destruction, Townes songs made more and more sense, and gave credence to the degradation I was feeling. Like the narrators of Townes' song, the actions of my life may have been sad and stupid and self-destructive, but as he said in the first song he ever wrote, "Sometimes, it's easier than just waitin' around to die."

March 6, 2017

March 6: THE BIG LEBOWSKI - The Laughter of Togetherness

The Big Lebowski: Premiered March 6, 1998

Originally published March 6, 2014.

A primatology study published in 2009 proved that all of the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans - laugh. It sounds simple enough, since apes share so much DNA with humans. But prior to the study, it was unsure if they actually laughed, and so a team of researchers took to tickling great apes, and checking their response. Sure enough, apes laugh when tickled. Some apes laugh on both the inhalation and the exhalation (think Horshack in Welcome Back, Kotter) while others laugh only on exhalation, like typical humans. Once the researchers determined that the breathing pattern and throat contractions were the same between humans and great apes, they began to question why. What evolutionary advantages do we achieve by laughing? Many researchers came to the same conclusion. Before we had words to soothe each other, we had laughter to tell each other that things were okay, and that we were safe as a group. Even now, when we've developed words, we trust them less than laughter. Here's a simple test. Ask two teenage girls a difficult question, and watch their response. Inevitably, they will start to laugh. Not because anything is funny, but to assuage each other and remind each other that - despite the tension - all is well. People will laugh before they will tell each other that things are safe, and the results are the same, if not better. It's also the reason women regularly list "sense of humor" as the most important quality in a man; they're not looking for a comedian, they're looking for a man to feel safe around. Which is why art that makes us laugh is so important, particularly art designed to bring people together. One of my all-time favorite pieces of art created for this purpose was the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski.

March 5, 2017

March 5: PIER PAOLO PASOLINI - The Danger of Being Too Broad

PIER PAOLO PASOLINI: March 5, 1922 - November 2, 1975

Originally published March 5, 2014.

I don't post on Facebook very often, but every time I do, I have a moment before I hit the "Post" button where I have to stop and think about the intended audience for the post. If the post is aimed at my biker friends, will it confuse my progressive liberal friends? If it is aimed at my religious friends, will it confuse my secular or atheist friends? If it is about art, will it bother people who know me as a down-to-earth guy? Will something work-related confuse everyone else who doesn't understand what I do, or what goes into my job? All of us play different roles, but in many cases, we're the same person working multiple roles. Many people are the same person in their role as "son" as they are in their role as "co-worker". Move between roles with some people, and there will be no surprises. I am not one of those people. In my life, I am more of a chameleon, moving between groups and roles and changing to accommodate each role. And blending or overlapping those roles is difficult, because the person I am in each role is very different from the person I am in other roles. This is not to say I'm wishy-washy or simply wearing a costume. My adoption of my roles is not haphazard or surface-level. But they are wildly different roles with dramatically different types of people - people who would not normally get along. At all. And there are people who can manage this kind of "broad spectrum" of living without changing themself a bit. But it's a difficult road to manage, because it's easy to alienate people. Which is what happened when an devout Catholic, Marxist, openly homosexual leftist who sided with working-class police over progressive students threw himself into art.

March 4, 2017

March 4: WARD KIMBALL - Breathing Life into The Line

WARD KIMBALL: March 4, 1914 - July 8, 2002

Originally published March 4, 2014.

Tonight at band practice, I pulled out a joke that always gets a laugh. In the middle of songs, I sing in cartoon voices. The band will be in full swing, and the vocals suddenly get hijacked by Homer Simpson or King Julian from "Madagascar". I don't make up new lyrics or even draw extra attention to it. It gets a laugh only because of the silliness of it; the contrast of regular lyrics with the over-exaggeration of a cartoon voice. In an instant, the expectation of a specific pitch and tone and emotion gets expanded and blown out of proportion. The voice remains in pitch, but at a wilder frequency. The tone changes from level to loopy. And any emotions are suddenly replaced with the muted zaniness of a cartoon, the type that threatens to blow the lid off itself at any second, for no apparent reason. It's a familiar laugh, one I can get from my bandmates or my kids. It's the laugh that comes from taking the expected and bending it into a new version of the same old shape. We confound expectations without fundamentally changing the source material, and the audience is delighted. Visual artists have done this for years. Picasso changed the female form into a mixture of perspectives and mask-like features. Animators have the opportunity to create visual art as realistically or as stylistically as they choose. The animator who best embodies the "bending of the expected into a new version of the same old shape" was legendary Disney animator Ward Kimball.

February 23, 2017

February 23: JIM HENSON’S THE CUBE - The Truth Behind the Mask

JIM HENSON’S THE CUBE: aired February 23, 1969

Originally published February 23, 2016.

I live with a strange philosophical contradiction.. It’s one of the things that has led me to this project. I’m by nature a strange paradox that I live with. My natural, programmed reactions in the split-second between stimulus and response - when decisions are cast that will either make my responses happier and healthier or more confused and distant – is to generally choose the latter. My natural reactions tend towards self-doubt, guilt, and shame. And yet, in the midst of all of that, I’m always struck with the belief that things can be better. That they should be better. More importantly, that I could make them better, if I just knew how. I don’t always have evidence to support this belief; it’s just something I feel, deep-down. So this project (and much of what I’ve been trying to figure out in recent years) is an attempt to understand how to create that better life that I can’t prove, and that I can’t necessarily define. A quote from Dr. Cornel West provides a good description of this process:
“I believe that critical energy, applied to any body of information, can unearth some truth. But for every unearthing, you don’t find absolute truth – you find another fallible truth, and then still another. That’s because each revelation is tied to another concealment. You reveal what’s been concealed, only to repeat the process into infinity. Enlightenment has no end. The paradoxes are never resolved.” 
It’s not necessarily the easiest concept to swallow, particularly when seeking answers. The idea that truth – all aspects of truth, forever – are products of concealment. That any truth is clarifying some things, but intentionally not addressing others. And if we search for the truth behind the part being concealed, we find more truth and more concealment. And Cornel West is claiming that the process is never-ending; that we can never reach a final, ultimate truth. Taken at face value, that’s not very comforting. Humans aren’t really wired for that kind of reality. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns and to constantly attempt to organize the world around us. So, the idea of absolute truth is important to us. We’re wired for it, and we look for it. We look for it in science, we look for it in religion, we look for it in mathematics. We can even convince ourselves that we have the right answers, and it’s the rest of the world who doesn’t know something that we do. We play a game with truth – with reality itself – and convince ourselves that we’ve figured things out. But Cornel West – and many, many others – would argue that truth and reality don’t work that way.

February 22, 2017

February 22: CHUCK JONES – Creative Work is Never Competitive

CHUCK JONES: September 21, 1912 – February 22, 2002

Originally published February 22, 2016.

I think every parent attempts to introduce their children to the things they loved as a child, with the hope that their children would have a similar positive reaction. It also seems to me that these introductions fall flat about 80% of the time. I got lucky with Sesame Street and certain Jim Henson shows. I missed with The Doors and Willie Nelson and The Dukes of Hazzard. But I remember the excitement I felt when Chuck Jones cartoons became available on iTunes years ago, and I was able to purchase Duck Amuck for my iPod. I had hoped my kids would love it as much as I did, and as luck would have it, they did. They would regularly watch it while we were driving somewhere, laughing at all the same gags people had laughed at for 55 years.

February 21, 2017

February 21: MALCOLM X / EL-HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ – A Rare and Difficult Change

MALCOLM X / EL-HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ: May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965

Originally published February 21, 2016.

I have made a lot of changes in my life in recent years. There is still plenty of opportunity for me to improve my life, but I’ve done a fairly decent job of making some improvements. And so it catches me by surprise when old patterns arise and around me, and I find myself slipping into patterns I thought I had eradicated. Something happens at work or something happens at home that re-ignites old patterns without my awareness, and suddenly I’m thinking in ways I’m not aware of, and behaving in ways I thought I had eradicated. Change is frustrating, because we never truly now when we have truly evolved into a different state of being, or if our new behaviors are just a temporary, untested state. We want to believe that we’re a different person, and it’s a slap in the face to find out that we were just different because we hadn’t been tested. My high school football coach used to say, “In times of stress, men revert to their original form.” I’ve experienced that recently. Changes I was sure I’d made for the better turned out to be fairly shallow and untested changes. As soon as I ran into some triggering stressors, I reverted right back to the way I used to be. It’s difficult to change our beliefs and behaviors. Hell, it’s hard to stop smoking or to lose ten pounds. And so when I see someone who can fundamentally change themselves, I have to take notice. When they fundamentally change themselves twice, it’s almost miraculous. The fact that one of the most politically divisive figures of the 20th century was one of the few to be able to accomplish this makes it even more interesting.

February 20, 2017

February 20: HUNTER S. THOMPSON – Too Exhausted To Live, Too Curious To Die

HUNTER S. THOMPSON: July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005

Originally published February 20, 2015.

When Hunter S. Thompson shot himself ten years ago, I was saddened but not necessarily surprised. I rarely consider how people I admire are going to leave this world, but Thompson was one who seemed destined to leave this world the way he lived within it – completely on his own terms. It was the kind of life that couldn’t help but attract controversy, and so for Thompson to slowly face away and be laid to rest gently in a quiet Aspen cemetery was inconceivable. It would have been a travesty. And so as sad as I was to see him go, I was relieved that he got to leave in a manner that felt appropriate to me. It feels odd to say that an unexpected gunshot to the temple is an “appropriate” way to end a life, but if you don’t understand that statement, you likely don’t understand Hunter S. Thompson.

February 19, 2017

February 19: thirtysomething - You’re Never Truly Prepared

thirtysomething: “Second Look” airs, February 19, 1991

Originally published February 19, 2015.

I was just shy of my 21st birthday and a college dropout who couldn’t hold a job but who could hold onto unhealthy relationships. I spent my days watching TV and movies and regularly wondering if things in life were going to be okay. My favorite show at the time was thirtysomething, which was surprising. Most nights, I either slept in my car or on a friend’s couch – not necessarily “homeless”, but certainly “unrooted”. thirtysomething, on the other hand, was all about roots. Baby boomers with spouses and children and careers and mortgages. They were vulnerable and filled with angst, and viewers either loved them or hated them. I loved them. It was cinematic TV: brilliant characters, realistic mise-en-scene, angular cinematography worthy of Citizen Kane-era Orson Welles, great acting. It was a cinephile’s dream, and despite not being able to relate to the characters on any appreciable level, I really grew to care for the characters. In the show’s final season, one of the female characters was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the season undergoing chemotherapy and contemplating her own mortality. It was a theme through the season until midway through the season, when Nancy had her final cancer surgery and after an episode of worry and consideration about life and death, she was pronounced cancer-free. The characters gathered at the hospital to celebrate. As friends arrived and the celebration increased, they found out that the one missing friend – Gary, the whimsical college buddy turned English professor who had finally married and had a child – had been killed in a car accident. I remember watching the show in disbelief. I’d experienced the unexpected death of characters I liked before, but this felt different. Unexpected is one thing; this was a complete sucker punch. Because the entire episode had been about how people deal with looming mortality. Cancer diagnoses, by their nature, cause this kind of thinking. But it’s a “cause and effect” thinking. There was no “cause” for Gary’s death; he died as a result of living an everyday life. Gary’s death was a testament to the cruelest part of life – that sometimes, no matter how hard we fight it, we can never be prepared enough for the cruelty that life brings.

February 18, 2017

February 18: HARRY CARAY – The Metric that Matters

HARRY CARAY: March 1, 1914 – February 18, 1998

Originally published February 18, 2016.

I spent most of my youth in Chicago, despite being born in Ohio and descending from generations of Ohioans. Being born in 1970, I was the perfect age to discover baseball right as The Big Red Machine, the dominant Cincinnati Reds teams of the mid-1970s, began to dominate baseball. My parents and grandparents were all baseball fans, and I was hooked. I was a fan of Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. I tried to always wear Johnny Bench’s #5 or Davey Concepcion’s #13 when I picked a Little League uniform. My grandfather eventually retied after selling his company to then-minority owner (now majority owner) Bob Castellini, and we would regularly go to Riverfront Stadium and sit in Castellini’s personal seats, just down he row from Marge Schott and her St. Bernard, Schottsie. I remain a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, despite spending 17 formative years in Chicago. Living on the north side of Chicago, it seemed like everyone I knew was a Cubs fan. Even my parents, who were born and raised in Ohio by Reds fans, eventually shifted their allegiance to the Cubs. But I could never get onboard with the Cubs worship. Yes, I appreciated the fact that Wrigley Field was still nestled snugly in an actual neighborhood. And yes, I appreciated the ease of getting to the park on the el. But Cubs fans, on the whole, were annoying. They partied like amateurs, made too much noise, treated the neighborhood they claimed to love like a garbage can, they invaded cool bars like locusts and acted like they owned the place… More disturbingly, they had a very strange relationship with losing. They seemed to enjoy it. The Big Red Machine (and later the “Nasty Boys”-era Reds of the early ‘90s) had trained me to enjoy winning big. They were dominating teams. Cubs fans seemed to enjoy the cellar, and never seemed to mind the century-plus without a championship. They clung to a weird shabby nobility, girded with nachos and Old Style and trips to the Cubby Bear after. To this day, I don’t understand Cubs fans. But there is one thing about the Cubs that I always loved, and always will. The Cubs had one thing that will always be legendary: Harry Caray.