All posts by gregzeck

About gregzeck

Greg taught college English many years in 4-year and 2-year colleges throughout the Midwest and abroad. At the same time, he enjoyed a career in freelance business communications, acting as writer and producer of major projects including corporate capability brochures and websites. Semi-retired in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Greg is more active than ever — tutoring, reading, writing, hiking, biking, and — with his lovely wife Jennifer of many years — wining, dining, and entertaining.

Americans abroad

ice cream vendor
Jen on malecon, with ice cream vendor.

Last month, during Jen’s and my visit to Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico, we ate at the highly rated Angelina’s Latin Kitchen. All around us were gringos, almost only gringos, the only ones able to afford the food. A lumpy and unlovely lot we were, we over-60s, feeding our faces, drowning our livers. And then a 15-16 year old girl, dragging her toddler, comes among us selling roses. No one buys. Everybody too busy biting, imbibing. The girl and her kid shuffle out.

Oh my countrymen, my lumpy countrymen, if I were (more) righteous I’d say that before the girl spread her sheets, she should have opened a spreadsheet and planned her future. But I am mad at our privilege, while enjoying it, and mad at the Mexican government, ruled by elites, for not doing anything to help its people, especially with education. Sure, it’s warm down there, and everybody’s outside, swarming, like flies, in the informal economy, trying to figure out, on the spur of the moment, what it’s all about and how to live another day hand to mouth.

red roses
Red red roses, the kind you’d like to give to your lady love …

My gringo friend, who with his wife owns a B &B  in Mazatlan, says that this is the way the Mexicans like it. We can’t look at things totally through our own over-sympathetic, or socialist, lenses, I acknowledge. Or through rose-colored lenses, either. “These people,” as my friend put it, like to be outdoors, like not to be tied to a desk, like to do what their forbears have done for generations before them. So let them wander at 10 pm or midnight, brats in tow, among the indifferent and guzzling gringos, no skin off our behinds.

The Mexicans merely do what their family has done, my friend says, for a long time. It’s not that the government doesn’t support them. It’s that they don’t want to be in school. It’s that they have the short-term, not long-term, view of things. (Kind of like American corporate shareholders.)

God knows many of us suffer from this same disposition — our plan is for the hour at hand, for what we enjoy now, for what’s to be had. Yes, we might have an education. And then have jobs. And money in the bank. But where are we today, and tomorrow, and then the day after? Maybe not on the beach selling knick-knacks or bric-a-brac, but, could be, neither here nor there, wondering where am I, what am I doing, where is all of this going?

The normal impulse is to look away when approached by vendors. We don’t need their stuff, gods know, and don’t want it, however much we feel their need.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

trump, lapierre
Trump and Lapierre, the faces of  ignorant bloodthirstiness.

Have a right-wing friend, let’s say acquaintance, at the gym I  attend. We get along fine, laughing and japing, until we get into politics.

I’ve made clear to Tommy, let’s call him, that I abhor the NRA and its bloody gun-promotion at any cost policies, but he counters that statistics prove having a gun at home protects people from intruders. (What did Mark Twain say about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”?)

I suggest that paranoia has intruded into his brain, that his fears are “projections,” much like bullets projected from a gun, which he attributes to others but which come from within. His own fears, that is, represent his fears of the unknown alien or other. (Yes, he makes many racist remarks about Latinos and blacks.)

The other day, we got into it in the locker room, both Tommy and I and a big dumb pal of his, about 6’4″, 300 lbs., a former Razorback basketball player who, at the age of 50, works as a clerk at a liquor store and for pleasure keeps a deer stand on which many guns are mounted. I suggested to Mr Razorback that I would give him a fine book of poetry which he could read in his stand, and he’d forget all about his guns. You will merge and commune with nature, I suggested, and your violent impulses will disappear.

But Tommy, entering the room, heard me inveigh against gun violence and the NRA, and shouted, “I’m an NRA member!”

Bad cess for you, Tommy.

Somehow, the argument escalated, and Tom spit out, When the food shelves run out at Walmart, you damned liberals will have nothing to eat.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo! I intoned, for one and all to hear in the sweaty locker room.

You just wait! Tom roared. You’ll starve to death!

Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Apparently, it’s the “elite” who foist such cultural products as clear, logical, intelligent writing on the masses. Therefor, of course, Tom and Razorbelly will not read such stuff, especially if it comes from political pundits of the center and left. How dare others have gifts and insights that we lack? they seem to suggest. Simply because these elitists have a gift, have studied many years, learned a discipline, including logic. The smug superior bastards!

Cuckoo!

 

 

Story vs. anti-story

Bandidos
The Badass Bandidos (not to be confused with Frito-Lay Banditos).

Why do we tell stories? Why do we read stories? Why do they enthrall us still?

For sure, they’re entertainment; they help dispel the dullness and the lack of action in our regimented daily lives.

They help us while away the time around the campfire and the dark, and scare away the wild animals out there — or in here, in our breasts, where the wildest animals of all cavort and claw, including the sneaking suspicion that our lives mean nothing at all.

Last night, about 11:00, I got a call from an old buddy from long ago in graduate school days, in Austin, Texas, which he calls “Critterville.” Tom regaled me, and bored me, for a half hour with a long-winded story about the time he was confronted, and damn near killed, so he said, by the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang, somewhere behind a strip club. Ah, yes, these critters sucker-punched him, surrounded and cocked their guns at him, all but put a salvo of bullets through his brain, blah blah blah blah blah.

And yet, can you believe it, he lived to tell about it!

It still gets the adrenaline going, I guess, at least his adrenaline, though he now weighs about 400 pounds, I swear, and lies abed all day with multiple afflictions, including now prostate cancer.

I tried to interrupt Tom and direct the conversation to his cancer, something I have experience with, but he said, “Wait, let me finish this story.” So, yes, he finished the bullshit story, which showed among other things his grace under pressure, his luck, his wit, his quick thinking, his involvement in real action at a real point in his perhaps pointless life.

And isn’t that the point of narrative, as I say? To give point to that which is otherwise pretty pointless? To push back the curtain of night and despair, and suggest a myth by which all of us cavemen and critters can live?

And if these are all motives for storytelling, then isn’t storytelling, whether personal or artistic, a lie? Isn’t there a strong motive, in other words, not to tell stories, which seek to memorialize, to justify, to raise up out of the dust, but to tell anti-stories?

In modernist, or postmodernist, fiction, antinarrative is a movement and technique in itself:

Challenging the traditional conventions surrounding the concept of a narrative, an antinarrative makes use of those conventions to call attention to itself and the practices and modes being used to convey meaning to an audience. Many times ironic, antinarratives implicitly question the validity of conventional narrative logic and the structural aspects and strategies of a narrative in general.

To use an example from real life, as we call it, James Holmes, the Joker of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings, wrote his own antinarrative in a notebook that he, like many other mass murderers, kept. Besides doodling and scratching out maddeningly repetitive pages full of “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?,” trying to make sense of his “broken brain,” Holmes pinpointed the motive of his story:

Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message.

If you were telling Holmes’ story, how would you do it? Whether a conventional murder mystery, a detective story, a thriller, or a literary effort, you’d use the events of his story but not necessarily put them in conventional chronological order. If your message included Holmes’ own nihilism (“there is no message”) you’d probably shake things up in many ways.

Dad and Barbara

The dear dead ones

What kind of Christmas theme is this? The dear dead ones!

But isn’t it precisely this time of year we think of them when we’re gathered around the giving tree and seated at the groaning board?

Oh, we think, just one more chance to see them, hear them, touch them as gifts are exchanged and platters passed around the table. Just to listen, quietly, to what they might say at such a momentous time as this, the time of sharing and forgiving, when past wrongs and slights, real or imagined, are forgotten and forgiven, when the family coheres.

I think of James Joyce’s great story “The Dead,” in which the protagonist, Gabriel, presides over a Christmas gathering of family and friends, proud of his oratorical abilities. He makes a sentimental speech to great applause but, once back home, sees his wife, Greta, whom he desires, despondent and apart. Stirred by a song she heard at the party, she is thinking of a young boy she used to love, who died when he was just seventeen. Gabriel tries to be ironic with his wife, but his egotism is deflated. Then this final glorious paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A time now, this holiday season, to be unironic in our relations, to look each other in the eye, listen eagerly to what the others say, and offer a toast to the living and the dead. What would they be saying, the dear dead ones, if they could? What would we say? Na zdrowie! my Polish father might say. To your health, brothers and sisters, and ours, as long as this enterprise shall last.

Holiday letter to the world

Reflections (through a mirror darkly)

This last year has offered many lessons, or opportunities for same, on the civic virtues. Or, more basically, the virtues of civilization, if they still exist.

Without getting into the unseemly mess of American politics, and no doubt annoying the conservative brethren among us, I’ll just say that rowing the boat together seems to me not a bad idea, since we’re in it together and it’s leaking. We might try pulling together in the same direction more than we have, and arguing less over who’s working too hard and who hasn’t worked a lick, and who’s to blame and who gets to steer the craft.

Emily Dickinson
Poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who wrote lots of letters to the world but didn’t get many back.

Off by ourselves in a reflective corner, we might, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, begin to dwell a bit less on our own misery, real or imagined, and more on that of people who don’t have nearly what we do, or have lost what they had. We might think of Syria, for example, which has seen untold suffering lately, and Iraq, and any number of other places on the globe where our action, or inaction, might have contributed to suffering.

Thankful for our comfort, ease, and affluence, we hold up a holiday candle to the world and send bright thoughts and a bit of money, if we can, to those near and far who suffer privation, want, cold, and hunger. (International Rescue Committee is one good choice. Doctors without Borders is another.) Jennifer gives to Bridge of Peace Syria, a charity headquartered in our home city, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and working even now inside that wartorn, miserable country.

And charity is the greatest of these

And we think of St Paul, could be, who, though no merry old soul like King Cole, was a droll boy in his own right. That line about better marry than burn, for example! Was the gent never married? Did he never marry AND burn? (Jen and I have been married, and burning, 45 years as of this Dec. 19!)

And what about his Paul’s riff on faith, hope, and charity?

For if faith is lacking in this idol-worshipping world (consider Baal and Mammon, to name just two, and throw in Beelzebub for good measure)  … and hope is a speck in the farthest starling’s eye … then charity, it could be, is all we have left and what we have, and need most, to give each other.

Is it possible, brothers and sisters, that the charity that begins at home and flies through the world like the truest arrow, will make a luminous mark where it alights? And that it alights on and in us?

In this year of upcoming elections and crazy national politics, we could use a bit of charity, couldn’t we? More light, less heat? More embraces, fewer pointed fingers.

In this season of cheer and plenty, it’s not just about stringing out Christmas lights and planting Santa and reindeer on the lawn.

Or pouring eggnog into our neighbor’s cups, spiked or not.

But looking around and contemplating, for the time being, which is all we have, what our relation is to our fellow man.

God rest ye, merry gentlemen and -women, and nothing you dismay! This is our fondest, most peaceful, and most charitable hope for the New Year.

Exemplars & examples

Every year at this time, I have cause to think of my wife Jennifer’s marvelous generosity, which began in her home and then began to define ours when we married 45 years ago. My own family, like hers, had two parents and seven kids, but Jen’s parents were, frankly, more generous and giving than mine could be, with their background and temperament. I don’t mean merely in material terms, for I think my father Bob the lawyer (RIP) and Mary the housewife (RIP) made more than Jen’s father Max the pastor and Vi the secretary (RIP). It’s just that whatever they had, Max and Vi were willing to share, on every occasion, with the family, and even if family grew to include (if not comprehend) such dubious and unbelieving outsiders like me the charity extended that far and beyond.

Baa baa, black sheep, Max and Vi might say, we too had wool.

And the greatest of these woolly virtues was, and is, charity.

So here’s to Jennifer, and the generous souls in her family and circle of friends! Let’s lift a glass of eggnog (spiked or not) and celebrate the flowing from these welling sources onward and outward into the desert world.

Lindo Mexico, here we come again

gate of the lake
This mural depicts a real gate that opens to “the heart of Ajijic,” namely, its lively restaurants and shops.

Jen and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Mexico this October and November, for 2 1/2 weeks, the first visit in four years. We flew to Guadalajara, the country’s second biggest city, with a metro population of maybe six million, but spent most of our time in the much quieter retreat of Ajijic, a cobblestoned village of about 10,000 on the shores of Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala.

We met a few old friends, both gringo and Mexican, including Randall Lankford, a North Carolinian hippie in Tlaquepaque, an artsy enclave of Guadalajara, and Claudia Nery, a miraculous painter who lives on the lake and whose website I keep. (See www.claudianery.com. I also keep a site for Pepé Orozco, a tour and shopping guide whom we saw, at www.guideworksorozco.com.)

Bitten anew by the Mexico bug, we are returning, in January, this time to Mazatlan, the northernmost commercial port city. Mazatlan is special because it is such a working city (a fleet of about 600 shrimping boats, for example, the largest in North America) and yet a typically charming Mexican city too.

The commerce includes fishing, brewing (Mazatlan is home to the Pacifico brewery), and tourism (largely located in the new hotel strip or Golden Zone). All this business means that Mazatlan is pretty prosperous, and there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums, and other sources of fun and reflection for tourists as well as paying jobs for the locals.

Charm? It’s not mostly in the commercial part of Mazatlan. Look rather to the old city, its churches, squares, restaurants, and unfranchised amusements like

  • The malecon, or ocean walk, which features, as one reviewer says on TripAdvisor, “Great walk, ocean breezes, sunsets, people, bikes, roller blades — it’s all here. Plus you can stop for lunch or a refreshment!”
  • The Plaza Machada, or square, of the old historical section, with cathedral on one side, plus plenty of shops, restaurants, and outdoor seating.
  • The El Faro lighthouse and the view from the top of the entire harbor and beyond.
  • The Olas Altas beach (High Waves), which was once the only beach, and act, in town.

The return of the prodigal son et al.

ruby and cream
Ruby, on Thanksgiving Day, enjoying a cup of cream. (Photo courtesy of Robert Brubaker.)

In July, this year, our son Gabe and his family returned to Fayetteville, after an exile of two years in the frozen tundra of Minneapolis–St. Paul.

Gabe is working from home, as a computer programmer, for a New York City firm, and Heidi is once more working as an adolescent psych nurse. Ruby, we’re proud to say, is now eight years old and enjoying second grade at the local Happy Hollow School. It was hard for her at first, as she left behind many friends in St. Paul, where the kids were living, but they all seem to have adapted well once more to the Ozarks. (They moved down here originally in 2010, and are the reason Jen and I retired here the following year.)

Like his mom, Gabe is a good cook, the principal chef in the family. Like his dad, he bought a new bike this year, and has done some biking with him on the wonderful Razorback Greenway, which goes north from Fayetteville almost to the Missouri border, about 40 miles. (I’ve done 60+ miles at a time and am aiming, next year, for 100 miles.)

Moderation in all things (or Facebook anyway)

At the tail-end of the year, I took a break from Facebook for a while, checking into the FAC (Facebook Addiction Clinic), where I stayed for observation and therapy. Most of this, understand, was self-induced, and I could recommend it to you heartily.

You simply lie about and watch yourself, out of the corner of your eye, noting shifty and desperate shifts toward the keyboard and monitor … or extra time peeking at your smartphone or tablet. You observe the desperate longing and the panting, yet somehow they pass, a bit, with each passing day, and you find yourself busy with more important things, it could be, or more outward things.

A novel event

In my case, most of the action, this coming year, may take the form of a novel I’m researching — on gun violence, of all the Yuletide themes. I’m learning fascinating things that psychologists and sociologists, among others, have discovered about mass murderers, of whom we have had way too many recently.

The novelist, of course, is more than the sum of his personal prejudices, but he can turn them to fictional account. He can invent characters inflamed with passions, sadness, violence, benevolence, you name it, and cover the whole panoply of human emotions and ideals. And still, to some degree, stand back, as if from a cosmic and comic distance and watch the human ants build and destroy.

Whether you sling a gun or hash, whether you’re wholly sane or certifiable, we wish you here from the heart of the Ozarks a merry holiday season and, oh yes, hugs, kisses & big bags of charity, which is the greatest of these and, like sugar, sweetens the cookies.

Greg & Jen Zeck

 

 

 

Hello, Facebook, and goodby

Made my final direct entry in Facebook for a while: “Checking into a Facebook Addiction Clinic for observation and therapy. See you later.”

Facebook addiction
It appears that you’ve been infected by the Facebook bug.

So I’m checking in to this clinic (in the skies, in my mind) and hanging out there a week or two. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? And do without me for a bit? Thanks for understanding. I have to shake my head clear, that’s all, of the fog of argument and inanity that Facebook has become for me.

Because most of Facebook is inanity — urgent and infantile pleas to “like” my latest dog or baby picture, or agree with a political or cultural position that’s self-evident to the poster and should be to everyone who reads it — I tend to take the opposite tack — and attack what I see as superficial and sentimental positions. As a provocateur, I’ll make statements that even I don’t necessarily believe in or subscribe to. Anything to get people’s goat, really — and they’ll generally let me know where they’re keeping the beast.

In my last issue-oriented post, I poked and prodded and trolled, you might say, for snapping fish, writing simply or not so simply (ha ha):

So I see that “Gun Rights” has become “Gun Pride,” under the aegis of the NRA and its allies. Oh what a laugh. LOL. Laugh silently. Co-opting political slogans like “Gay Rights” doesn’t hide the fact — just the opposite, in fact — that these brave bucks and bravos go out into the woods with their rifles in order to jerk each other off and slaughter Bambis.

And soon I got a response from a friend, not a good friend but a friend, that I might have anticipated but, with my lack of emotional IQ, did not:

Greg you have always been quite an edgy person with your comments but as a hunter myself you have crossed the line with this comment.

I do so enjoy crossing the line! It’s not the same line that George H.W. (Papa) Bush drew for Muammar Gaddafi, I know. Or even the line that Barack Obama drew, with less point and success, for Bashar al-Assad. Comments like my friend’s are not bombs, after all. They don’t take me out for good or behind the shed for a beating. I’m still here, you see, fat and sassy and ready to put up my dukes, aren’t you? For sticks and stones, and bombs and guns, can break our bones, but words will not dispatch us.

We all define lines and edges differently, could be. My friend, if not good friend, has always drawn back from provocative statements I make in person. I see him shrink back, physically, and frown, for he’s a good Methodist boy and bible believer, far as I can see, and would like us, evidently, to stay within the bounds of proper deportment and conversation, as John Wesley and brethren might have defined them.

In fact, I don’t care if he’s a hunter. I certainly knew that  Facebook harbors hunters, among others, with or without secret blood and lust for deer, turkey, bobcat, wild boar, you name it. I know that not all Facebook readers have my literary education, and are not trained, or tainted, in rhetoric that’s hyperbolical, in your face, smack up against your gob. I was out for blood, could be, if only literary or literate blood. I wanted to taunt and dare the comfy hunters among us, the gunslingers, to question why they used guns and how they enjoyed them.

(Someone even reported me, for this post, to Facebook as being in violation of its standards — lax and pliable as they may be. In its message to me, Facebook cited a complaint about references to “nudity” but followed up with a second message, shortly afterward, judging me not guilty of inciting prurient interest. After all, I didn’t describe and linger deliciously over sexual organs or a particular sexual  act. If I had, how scary would that be in America, land of the free and the home of the NRA? We know what’s right, after all, and what’s too filthy for words!)

No, I don’t literally believe, of course, that hunters are jerking each other off in the woods. But I certainly strongly feel that among male hunters out in the woods, without women and domesticating restraints, with booze and bullets and London Bridge and boundaries falling down, there’s a homoerotic impulse. (As there is in football, or boxing, or just slamming down a few brews at the bar.) And I wonder if this impulse is part of the desire to kill. In other words, if lusting for the blood of an animal and lusting, at whatever level of consciousness, for another male aren’t intertwined.

I’m no psychologist, or psychoanalyst, though I have dabbled in the literature. I have also read scores of sophisticated literary works that take up, and consider, extreme positions on social and cultural problems. If artists don’t do this, who will? Without shooting, I mean? Without enforcing their ideas with lethal weapons? Words are simply words, with no power to kill, or maim, but some power, it could be, to challenge and change.

You’d hope so, anyway, though here and now in America we seem to be convinced of the rightness, and righteousness, and inviolability of our own positions. No one will tell us what to think, or what to do. We know, by god, what we know. So we go to Facebook, among other places, armed with conviction in our position, our a priori rightness. And if someone challenges this cherished position, we lash out, bellow, jump up and down and stomp on the questioners and nay-sayers.

So, friends, Romans, countrymen, I’m checking into the Facebook Addiction Clinic for a while. You won’t hear from me anymore for a bit, boo hoo. You won’t have to “like” or hate my comments. You won’t have to challenge me not to cross your lines or violate your boundaries. I’m outta here for the time being. I’m grabbing a beer, and communing with the better, and worser, angels of my nature; I’m continuing to research, and reflect on, a novel on the problem of mass murderers and the guns they use. And if I can achieve this, devoting myself to the craft, I will have saved both you and me a lot of grief and a lot of wasted time.

 

 

There’s lyrics — and then there’s lyrics

james taylor metal of honor
James Taylor receiving Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

With the announcement of the awarding of the Medal of Freedom to James Taylor, among others, we think of the difference between song lyrics and, well, lyrics. The difference, that is, between pop song lyrics and lyrical poetry.

From “Something in the Way She Moves,” for example, we have:

It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been.
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.
I like to hear them best that way, it doesn’t much matter what they mean.
She says them mostly just to calm me down.

No, it doesn’t much matter what these words say, it’s Taylor’s mellifluous baritone that calms us down and that we appreciate. He could be humming diddly-piddly, and we’d still like the results.

It’s unfair, of course, to judge a pop singer mostly by the quality of his lyrics. And in truth, Taylor’s lyrics are not always piffle and not always bad. But what passes for poetry, or song, in the popular mind is not what poetry, and song, are capable of.

I was thinking of this theme the other day, humming a Gershwin love song (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”):

Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I’m hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world.

Again, it’s not mainly the lyrics we are hooked by, though gods know Ira Gershwin could spin out some very clever words (the old classical New York jazz standards that Woody Allen loves). It’s George Gershwin’s music, as sung by greats like Ella Fitzgerald, that mesmerizes us and brings us back, again and again, to tunes that summarize and transcend their era.

And then, while I was humming the Gershwins, Keats’ song popped into my head — the corresponding and concluding lines about discovery in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” And he’s talking here about discovering Homer through an English translation!

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Written in 1816, this poem is the first fully mature poem by Keats, who hoped to “be among the English poets when I die,” and who, by virtue of his astonishing achievement by age 25, when he died of tuberculosis, has in fact ascended into this pantheon.
Imagine writing about reading as if it were an act of heroic discovery, not pain, not drudgery, the way too many kids today, in the pop-music-saturated world, think about reading. To approach a text, for gods’ sakes, “with a wild surmise”! To look each other in the eyes, not like lovers in a pop song but like conquistadores, who before they arrived here, at the summit of discovery, had no idea in the world that such a world existed.

 

Jazz vs. football

anat cohen
Anat Cohen, of the Anat Cohen Quartet.

Last night my wife Jennifer and I went to a jazz concert at the Walton Arts Center. As host Robert Ginsburg pointed out, we could tell everyone afterwards that we had been onstage with the Anat Cohen Quartet: during the remodeling of the intimate Starr Theater, concerts are being held on the stage of the main auditorium. The band plays at the front of the stage, and the audience is seated behind them, stage rear, both on risers and at cabaret tables.

Jen and I had one of these tables, and were just a few feet in front of the band leader, Anat Cohen, an Israeli woman who played jazz clarinet with a verve and vivacity that drove away any blues we might’ve come with in our baggage. Pretty soon Jen and I, and most of the crowd, I think, were bopping in our seats as the group banged out — no, make that explored — one theme and then another. She was particularly impressive, swaying and hopping, calling out to her band, on a Brazilian number called “The Roses Do Not Speak,” about a lost or dead love, delving into dark notes and then essaying high and breaking wails as if, no, the clarinet could not speak, either, but Cohen would try, damn it, and then the trying burst into flame, as it were, and transcendence came, the joy and understanding beyond words.

Cohen’s pianist Jason Lindner was especially impressive, playing, often simultaneously, the hall’s Steinway grand piano and his Rhodes keyboard. This multi-tasking produced a delicious effect, the bass played on the piano and a drumming, insistent, repetitive melody, or rhythm, on the electronic keyboard. Lindner also reached into the Steinway, at times, and stopped the strings with one hand while he played a muted, or dulled, tune with the other.

Cohen played about 90 minutes, a good energetic first set, in front of this on-stage audience maybe 60% of capacity. Then she sold CDs and signed autographs, and readied herself for the second set.

After the first set Jen and I went across the street to the Cork & Keg, a wine / beer bar that also serves a few snacks. We enjoyed a few Naked Porters, by Bentonville Brewing, and watched the end of the Razorbacks’ game. When we came in, the Hogs were up 42-31, but they ended up losing, as you might know, by one lousy point, 51-50, when a last minute field goal, a chip shot really, was blocked.

The stadium was full to capacity, unlike the music hall — 80,000 fans screaming, moaning, and turning away, most of them, in depression and defeat. We had lost! We, who derive our identity from these athlete mercenaries awarded scholarships to play for us and represent us in our smallness, insignificance, anonymity. We, who have delegated the task of identity to these athletes, gifted athletes if not scholars, delegated the task of representing the body, anyway, never mind the intellect or soul.

The body, we know, in this sedentary society, this office-based economy, is alienated. It sits there, eight or ten hours a day, at a desk, at a computer, typing away — so much for exercise! Chained to the desk, shackled to necessity! And then, turned loose at the end of the day, it plops on the couch and watches TV! It parties on the weekends, drinking beer and wine, smoking dope! It twitches and feels its afferents and efferents trying to get it together!

(Some of us, it’s true, may use the weekends, even the weekdays if we’re retired as I am, to exercise, to bike, or hike, or swim, you name it, to go to the gym, to do push-ups and chin-ups, to run, to skate, to fly! And, oh sure, let’s not forget, to drink beer!)

Hey, I was rooting with the rest of the Hog fans. A damn shame they lost. There was just no stopping Mississippi State, it appears, which ran up and down the field at will behind a strong-armed and strong-running quarterback. There was, however, stopping Arkansas’s last-minute field goal attempt, as one of our offensive linemen was turned inside out by a State defender, who leaped and blocked the field goal.

Alas, we lost. They say we lost.

I say, rather, we all enjoyed a good tight game, and if footballs don’t talk any more than roses, can you blame them? You might want to try, instead, a jazz clarinet, an inspired piano, crashing drums, twanging bass. Man, Ms. Cohen’s group was humming last night, and she wasn’t playing anyone but her audience. We were all in the same lineup, and we won just as much as she did.

 

Creative talent

Alban Denuit

Today the Washington Post is running portraits of the victims of the massacre last weekend in Paris. Beside each name, usually matched with a photo, is a stifled litany of these young people’s accomplishments and promise (the big majority of victims were in their 20s and 30s):

  • Alban Denuit, 32, a French sculptor and Ph.D.
  • Amine Ibnolmobarak, 32, an architect and teacher of architecture, “the quintessential young Muslim intellectual”
  • Anna Liefrig, 24, a graphic designer, “a cheerful and brilliant young woman”
  • Djamila Houd, 41, who worked in the fashion industry
  • Elodie Breuil, 23, a design student who’d marched in the Charlie Hebdo rallies last January
  • Fanny Minot, 29, an editor at a TV show who “just loved life”
  • Kheireddine Sahbi, 29, an Algerian-born “virtuoso violinist … involved in all forms of traditional music”

And the list, like others lists before it, goes on and on.

So many young lives snuffed out, so inexplicably.

Unless we accept as an explanation the fear and hatred of a paranoid religious ideology that can not tolerate any deviance whatsoever.

Deviance from its own deviance, that is.

No love of the things of this earth, its earthly pleasures, its wine (swirled in the bowl), women (uncovered), song (uncensored).

How easy, then, to pick up a gun and fire indiscriminately into a crowd?

An AK-47, say, which is takes how long to learn to play, compared with the violin that Ms Sahbi mastered?

With Mr Denuit’s sculptor’s chisel and hammer?

With the years of study and dedication that the big majority of victims had put into their careers and contributed to society?

Never mind all that, the terrorists would say. You infidels. You dogs. Now you shall die.

If ISIS is in fact looking for an end-time game, an apocalyptic battle in Syria, they may soon have their hands full, as the Western powers gather for a showdown. And if this battle doesn’t materialize, so what? The ignorant and violent will have their day again, shedding blood, which is so much easier to do that learning sculpture, or design, or words, or loving your fellow man despite all differences.

 

 

 

The mind of the mass murderer

James Holmes
James Holmes, the Batman killer of the Colorado theater.

We’ve all been attuned to mass killings in the US lately. The names James Eagan Holmes, Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, Dylann Storm Roof,  Aaron Alexis, John Zawahri, and Adam Lanza may not exactly roll off the tongue. In fact, we may prefer to entomb them in oblivion and not resurrect them at all. But whether we remember them or not, they are there, in oblivion and latency also.

The mass killings in Paris this weekend only serve to remind us that terror exists on many fronts, geographical, psychological, and ideological.

Terror begins at home, in the minds of each of us individually, and the more we tolerate violence and promote it in our own lives the more we promote it everywhere, consciously or not.

I’ve been researching the mind of the mass murderer and finding all sorts of fascinating things. From Psychology Today to Freudian treatises, students of this problem have tried to descry what makes a mass murderer a mass murderer.

One illuminating article, by James L Knoll IV, MD, suggests that the mass murderer, or “pseudocommando[,] is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback. Some mass murderers take special steps to send a final communication to the public or news media….”

These communications may be among the most interesting phenomena in connection with the commandos, for they reveal their unreal sense of grievance and despair. The world has wronged them — them and their narcissistic egos. And now comes payback time, when they will be revealed in their full glory and true potency.

Isn’t this same thing happening, on a larger, ideological scale in the Middle East? Islamists, who have been told from birth that Islam is the one true religion, the only way of making sense of the world, are assaulted on all sides by signs of the progress of the West. The vaunted West with our material superiority, our secular values, our libidinal and other pleasures on full display in the media. (Our women, our whiskey, our song.)

Adam Gopnik, in a piece in The New Yorker, attributes the attack on Paris especially to radical Islamists’ desire to attack our capital of pleasure. An ISIS communique boasts, “Targeting the capital of prostitution and obscenity . . . Paris shook under [the attackers’] feet, and its streets were tight upon them.”

How dare they enjoy themselves, these white young men and women while we sit back in the shadows of our ideology and stew? We don’t exist, in comparison. We are nothing. Nothing if not nihilists. We kill, and only then and therefore, in the potency of destruction, we are.

To return to Dr. Knoll, the mass murderer experiences “revenge fantasies … inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed sustenance to his self-esteem. He is able to feel better by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance….. fantasies may lead the avenger to ‘experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.’”

Yes, he who in the face of Western pleasure willy-nilly suffers anhedonia is able to achieve pleasure — indeed, a kind of orgasm of meaning and potency — only in the death of those he kills and, since he too is likely to perish, in his own death.

Individual and ideological mass murderers merge in this portrait. Whether a failure by personal fault or ideology, or both, the murderer is impotent … until, he thinks, he kills.