Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ethics and Poetry

What brings perfection to one’s way of life is to spend each day as if it were the last.

So said the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. On the face of it, the notion is absurd. Our lives consist largely of a complicated bundle of plans and commitments that we nurse lovingly to their completion. We build a deck. We volunteer at the church. We return day after day to our place of employ. We dutifully send in our mortgage payment month after month to the men who have so obligingly financed the purchase of our house.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t have to go to work. He didn’t have to pay the bills. He was the emperor! People worked for him, paid the bills to him.

If today were the last day of my life I wouldn’t go to work. I wouldn’t pay the bills. What I would do is..... What?

When we ask ourselves this question, we begin to expose the value of the emperor’s less-than-profound but nevertheless interesting observation. Aristotle put it better. There are some things we do for the sake of other things. And there are some things that we do just for the sake of doing them. These things give us pleasure. They give us peace. They uplift our spirits. Their value is intrinsic.

It would be worthwhile for us to identify what a few of these things are, and make sure that we actually do them from time to time.

* * *

I once had a heated argument in a bar with a young man—a friend of a friend—who insisted that an ethical system could be established based solely on the individual self. I defended the position that ethics, by nature and definition, deals with the way we relate to others. I certainly would have won the debate, had we followed it to its conclusion, but at a certain point I got the feeling that my interlocutor was about the have a stroke, and since it was clear to me that the gentleman had thought long and hard about these issues (which is rather rare, don’t you think?) and was truly a sensitive fellow, I desisted, hoping that he would perhaps ponder our discussion later, and perhaps suddenly realize that his “ethics” was, in fact, more deeply rooted in interpersonal relations than he had suspected.

* * *

Yes, ethics is, by nature and definition, a matter of our relations with others. However, what we’re talking about here is not ethics. It’s poetry.

The things that we do just for the sake of doing them. The things that give us pleasure. The things that give us peace. That uplift our spirits.

You will notice that the feelings and interests of “others” do not figure prominently in this description. Am I trying to suggest that were it not for the skein of commitments we foolishly entrap ourselves in, each and every one of us would be brazenly selfish? Not at all. I will admit that the word “selfish” is an ugly one, and it usually rears its head very early in life, when some kid down the street starts playing with my toys. Mom tries to convince me that it’s wrong to challenge others who are bent on exploiting my private property. Or perhaps, taking a gentler tack, she tries to convince me that it’s a mark of virtue to share my things. I don’t think she understands what’s at stake here. My things!!!!

Yes, selfishness is both healthy and natural, in my opinion. But that isn’t exactly what I’m talking about. Selfishness may give us pleasure, but it doesn’t give us peace. It may uplift our spirits, but only momentarily, and only at the expense of others. The ones who can no longer play with my toys, because they’re MINE.

I’m talking about the life of poetry. Few philosophers give it much space in their elaborate systems. Yet poetry is an autonomous realm (as Benedetto Croce, for example, well understood). It needs to be highlighted.
When we enter that realm, we aren’t scoring or lording it over others. What we’re doing is luxuriating in experience. Things are being given to us. Life, beauty. The last day. The next day.

I saw some milkweed pods along the roadside. I never realized how fragrant they could be.

These are baby chickadees at the feeder. Their feathers look wet.

Have you considered the difference between the Argyle chardonnay from Oregon and the Louis Latour chardonnay from Macon “Les Charmes”? Same (low) price.

Spinoza smoked. That’s a very bad habit. In our day and age, perhaps unethical.

When I use the word “poetry” I suppose I am conjuring images of butterflies, flowery words, rhyme, and sentimental evasion. That would be too bad. In philosophical terms, “poetry” refers to two things simultaneously, intuition and expression. That means, genuinely seeing the world, and expressing our love of it. But the word “poetry” also refers to the act of “making,” and this would seem to imply that poetry is manufactured. If that is the case, then it is expressing something other than what it sees. In other words, it is some sort of a lie.

Those who follow this line of analysis fail to recognize that that there is an element of creativity in both intuition and expression. We describe the milkweed, or the chickadee, while telling you about ourselves. And this added element of personal glee is what gives this domain of experience its energy.

There may be times when we are struggling to reconnect with our inner glee. We pick up a book or poems (or a book of photographs, or a novel) and suddenly we are reminded of how the whole thing works. And this teaches us that the individual who is selfishly cultivating his or her individual glee, (or cultivating a very private sorrow, for that matter) is also providing a great service to humanity.

Ethics is a part of life, and so is poetry. This is what the philosophers should have told us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lee Konitz and Hiromi

It’s hard to image Lee Konitz and Hiromi performing together. Konitz is pushing eighty. Hiromi is twenty-five. More to the point, Konitz is (usually) a laid-back balladeer, Hiromi is a frenzied virtuoso. The two both happened to be in town this weekend, and I CAUGHT BOTH SHOWS.

I developed an appreciation of Konitz rather late. But there's a reason. As a teen I had a difficult time finding meaningful gifts for my parents. I knew my mother liked the feathery style of Paul Desmond, and I'd read that Konitz was a cooler and rather more intellectual version of the same. That year (1967?) Konitz won the Downbeat “record of the year” award, for a duet album, and I bought it for my mom. It was harsh and edgy and she hated it. In fact, she accused me of buying it for her, so I could HAVE IT FOR MYSELF! Gee, how was I supposed to know!! In fact, except for the opening duet with a trombone player, “Strutting with Some Barbeque,” I hated the album myself. Thus do adults heap injustice on their helpless offspring. But that’s another story...

I reconnected with Konitz only a few years ago via a brilliant album called Angel Song, which flows with beauty and intelligence and no drums. Later I found a few things in the used bins—a duet album with Michel Petrucciano, a cheezy album of Brazilian beach music, a brilliant early-fifties set of arrangements in what I think of as the “Lenny Tristano style,” called Subconscious-Lee.

So we went down to the Artist’s Quarter in Saint Paul on a recent Sunday night. Twenty bucks a seat, which is not bad to be sitting twenty feet from the “legend” who, later this month, is being honored at Carnegie Hall. A very good local rhythm section. Lee himself came across as something of a self-depreciatory goofball, which is nice to know. He asked for requests and rejected most of them as being either “too cool” or “not cool enough.” Ended up playing “Stella by Starlight” and “Cherokee.”

I was racking my brains to come up with something that would be medium cool. “Darn That Dream”? “Green Dolphin Street”? “I Can’t Get Started”? In the end I shouted out nothing. But now I know that “You Go to My Head” would have been perfect.

So Lee played. And the sidemen played. And the set was too short. And the time between sets was too long. So we left, with several nuggets of that brilliant elaboration of tunefulness which is jazz at its best. Thoughtful and romantic, tough on occasion, but above all else, KNOWING. Jazz is knowing, both musically and emotionally. At its best, it wanders in the zones of love lost and found, with no interface of words or “hooks” or anger or pretension.

There is something amazing about listening to a man who, by the age of twenty-two, had played with Lennie Tristano, Claude Thornhill, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, and Gil Evans. How many times has Konitz played “Stella by Starlight” over the decades?

Konitz’s style is “cool” as opposed to the febrile style of Charlie Parker, and Parker himself once expressed admiration that Konitz did not play like him. Be that as it may, in 1962 Konitz recorded one of the classic albums of all time, Motion, on which we find him with only bass and drums, spinning variations on a selection of standards with tireless breath and imagination. It’s like an Ornette Coleman album with more harmonic richness and depth. That is the key—understanding and working with the harmonies.

At the Artist Quarter Konitz displayed flashes of the same remarkable musicianship. (I overheard the man sitting at the bar behind me saying that he had attended every night of the three-night weekend stand.)

Jazzed up by the brilliant jazz, I decided to head down to the Dakota the following evening to hear Hiromi, the wunderkind pianist from Japan. It’s a different scene, swankier, but very nice all the same. Hiromi is classically trained, wears sparkles on her eyelids (though you can’t see them from any distance) and travels with a band featuring an electric guitar and bass. I had downloaded a few tracks from her most recent album, Sonic Boom, and I was impressed by the intelligence of the arrangements. The show itself was no less professionally coordinated—so much so that there was almost no clapping following the solos. There wasn’t time, and things were moving on. Hiromi obviously likes odd jagged rhythms. Yet her music seems to lack a lyric core of what we once called “expression.” (But perhaps all she’s trying to express is frenzied brilliance.) No one could deny that her set was full of life, and it was also plenty long—the great sin of jazz performers is short first sets. For myself, I like her album better.

be that as it may, Hiromi remains a very BIG jazz phenomenon, rather than a youth-crossover wannabe. The Japanese ambassador flew up from Chicago to see the show, for example. An elderly woman sitting in a booth in front of me was explaining to her white-haired friends why she was supporting Obama. And the black gentleman sitting at the bar next to me tried to fill me in on his favorite Hip Hop performers. (Fiasco somebody, and Slaw Daug, if I remember correctly.)

I can report that the martinis are both stronger and tastier at the Dakota than the Artist’s Quarter. They also cost twice as much. Being out is fun. Jazz is sublime. History just keeps rolls along. And honest, Mom, I did it for you.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Birds in Decline!!!

A report was issued by the National Audobon Society recently suggesting that the populations of many common backyard birds are in decline. I have read several versions of this story but none of them include a complete list of species with the data pertinent to each. Do they think the reader is too dumb to interpret such material? Or are they themselves mis-interpreting it?

It seems to me that some species are down, others are up. Red-headed woodpeckers have been way down for decades. That is not news. Prairie birds have naturally declined as more prairie habitat, and even the margins of fields, are given over to producing corn so that we fatten our cattle and can liberate outselves from oil dependency!?

On the other hand, it strikes me that pileated woodpecker are far more common than they used to be. I thought brown thrashers were a thing of the past, but I saw three on a recent trip through rural Minnesota. On the other hand, how about the black-billed cuckoo? (I haven't seen one in years.) Then again, on a recent trip to the North Shore I noticed that the woods were alive with black-throated green warblers.

Continuing my quest to get at the truth about bird populations I finally arrived at the Audubon website where the research report originated. It contained a number of very complete and complicated statistical charts in an appendix, but little interpretation. The main page of the site was dominated by a list (with pictures) of the twenty species that seem to have suffered the most precipitous decline in numbers. No where was there a list of the species that have experienced significant increases in population over the last forty years.

Bald eagles would probably be near the top of that list, at least in my region, with cardinals close behind. Bluebirds have returned in large numbers, wood ducks seem to be much more common than they used to be, and wild turkeys have become so common that the other day one greeted me on my suburban doorstep as I reached out to retrieve the paper. Kestrels have fallen into decline, though pelicans and sandhill cranes seem much more numerous than they used to be. (It may be that I'm spending more time in the areas they pass through.)

All of this is anecdotal stuff. But the point should be obvious: as habitat changes, populations wax and wane. A more accurate report from the Audubon Society would make that point clear. There is a whiff of apocalypse hanging over reports of the "sudden decline in colorful little birds." It may be an effective way to raise money, and it may also be true, as far as it goes. But we deserve a more complete picture, if not in the wire reports that appear in the newspapers, then at least from the organization that conducted the study in the first place.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Clay of Roland Garros

For those who don't really enjoy watching tennis--and that would include most of us--there is always the fascinating and curious anomaly called the French Open. It's not that the French have created something truly different. On the contrary, they have stuck to old-fashioned methods and habits, and more power to them. After all, the French invented tennis. Under the ancien regime a game known as 'Jeu de paumme' became wildly popular among the aristocracy. It was played in an enclosed court, and the rules were different, but the embryo of modern tennis is not difficult to discern. Take a look at the opening scenes of Richard Lester's very funny film The Three Musketeers and you'll see what I mean.

The game would begin when one of the contestants shouted "Tenez" (or "Play") and the rest is history.

One of the most important events of the French Revolution took place in a tennis court: the Third Estate declared itself the Nation, and good riddance to the clergy and the nobility. Yet tennis as a sport was not well-served by the decline of the French aristocracy following the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century it was revived on the country estates of rural England, however, as an outdoor activity. These Tenez contests took place on grass, and they set the stage for the diversity of surfaces that provide an angle for sportswriters even today. In the New Worlds of America and Australia tennis later became a game of hard-courts, and over time the "Grand Slams" were canonized--Wimbelton (grass), the French Open (clay) and the U.S. and Australian Opens (hard surfaces). (The Australians switched from grass to a hard surface in 1988)

Of the three hallowed surfaces it has long been recognized that clay is the odd man out, and more than a few great champions have failed to excell on that surface. Why? Because clay is slow, the ball bounces higher, and power gives way to speed at running down shots, endurance, and sheer doggedness. It's foolish to describe clay as "the great equalizer," however, as some do. It's not as if anyone can win on clay. But clay calls for different strengths, and that's why those stars who have won slams not only in England, Australia, the United States, but also on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, elevate themselves to a higher bracket. To win in France, on the other hand, is only a moderate achievement in itself. Thirteen of the last 17 French Open winners have never won a Grand Slam on another surface.

The yearly duel between the Spaniard Nadal and the Swiss Federer has taken on added dimension because of the remarkable success Feyderer has had on other surfaces. He's won four straight at Wimbledon, three straight at the US Open, and three over time at the Australian Open. Nine of the last eleven grand slams have gone his way. The French conisistently eludes him. And for the last three years, Nadal has been his nemesis.

Year after year I plan to buy some croissants and orange marmelade and watch the finals of the French Open from start to finish. That's the only way you really get the feel of what a titanic struggle it can be. (I remember Lendl coming from behind to beat McEnroe, and Chang defeating Edberg with an underhanded serve.) But in recent times it seems that something always comes up, though it often happens that I return home right as the final awards ceremony is taking place.

This year we went bicycling with my sister Nancy along the Mississippi, where the Frenchman Louis Hennepin portaged his canoe in 1680 or therabouts. I was eating a tempei sloppy-joe at the Longfellow Grill on Lake Street when I saw Nadal's face come on the screen of the TV above the bar, and I rushed over to see who had won. They'd just changed the channel, and no one at the bar seemed to know what was going on, but it was clear to me that Federer had won. Nadal looked sad and sincere and emotional, and Federer looked pleased but also gentlemanly and composed, as he usually is.

That's Great, I thought to myself. Now Federer can scratch that off his list. It was only a matter of time. Why not get it over with? And Nadal has had a great run too.

Later, when I read in the papers that Nadal had won, I was equally pleased. Three in a row! That, too, is a very unusual accomplishment.

Yet Federer's dominance of the other Slams is more impressive. In fact, it has driven some sportswriters, hungry for an angle, to throw out the query, "Federer, best of all time?" An alternative theory would be that the field of worthy opponents has simply declined. Consider that during the French Open Federer defeated Michael Russell, Thierry Ascione, Potito Staraco, Mikhail Yauzhny, Tommy Robredo, and Nikolay Davydenko. Who? Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Lendl, Courier, Ivanisovic, and others battled it out year after year. And the era of Borg, McInroe, Conners, Edberg, and Wielander was arguably even greater. Going back to the golden age of the Australians.... But I think you get my point.

Yet for all I know, the men Federer defeated on his way to the finals of the French Open are just as good as, if not better than, the colorful characters I've just mentioned. (Wielander colorful? That's going too far.) The problem is that winning a Grand Slam is what gives a ring to a player's name, and when one talented player wins all the Slams, the rest remain in relative obscurity, which (paradoxically) diminishes his achievement.

Those of us who have actually watched Federer play have no qualms about including him among the best ever. And watching Nadal play leaves us in no doubt that he is also among the best ever--on clay. The two make a truly classic match-up. Tennis needs more of them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Paris, Je T'aime

In one of the short films included in this anthology, a man is on the verge of splitting with his wife when she informs him she has terminal luekemia. He pulls back from his plan, and during the couple's final weeks together he learns to love her all over again, knowing she'll soon be gone. That's how the viewer is likely to approach these eighteen brief tales: we watch each episode with special attention and heightened appreciation, knowing that it will soon be over. The fact that they all take place in Paris adds a romantic luster to the collection, though none of the stories involves a classic boy-meets-girl scenario. An inventory of some of the plot-lines (without, I hope, giving too much away) might suggest how varied the stories are, as well as providing a challenging memory test:

A woman (Juliette Binoche) is mourning her son's death (he loved cowboys) when she hears his voice late at night. She runs out in the street and encounters Willem Dafoe on a horse.

A ramp attendant becomes friendly with a beautiful woman who's parking her car, and loses his job as a result. Things go from bad to worse for him, but she happens to be the emergency medic who arrives on the scene after he suffers an urban injury.

A couple about to be married have a spat about the importance of humor at the gravestone of Oscar Wilde.

A blind student gets a phone call from his actress-girlfriend cutting off their relationship. He relieves their time together Run-Lola-Run style.

A young man visiting a print shop feels a special affinity for a "deep" quiet man who works in the shop. We learn later that the quiet man simply doesn't speak French.

A fashion-product salesman pays a visit to a Chinese kick-boxing salon.

A single middle-aged woman from Denver describes her solo trip to Paris in stilted school-girl French.

A first-time visitor to Paris (Steve Buscemi) makes the mistake of staring at a kissing couple at a Metro station.

A wealthy, elderly couple (Ben Gazzara and Gina Roland) discuss their impending divorce with wit and style.

A young American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) makes a couple of drug deals before an evening of filming.

A young man (Elijah Wood) gets involved in a bloody vampire romance.

A young woman drops off her baby at a day-care center in the wee hours of the morning so she can spend the day caring for the baby of her wealthy employer.

The problem with short films is that there is insufficient time to develop anything. It's impossible to go very deep. And yet short films, unlike many short stories, are often suggestive, rather than merely contrived. At any rate, most of the selections assembled here stick in memory. I could do without the episode of the two mimes who meet in prison. And the short featuring Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant struck me as unsavory. In fact, I found several of the stories incomprehensible. But none were dull.

I was surprised when the final credits began to roll. What fun, and over all too soon.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Waitress

A film based on caricatures has got to be brilliant, original, or truly over-the-top to elevate itself above the level of matinee entertainment. The Waitress is mildly fun to watch, but there is nothing original or brilliant about it. In fact, the characters are thin and the plot carries few surprises. We have a waitress with unbalanced boobs and a disabled husband, a shy, nerdy waitress who's actually "beautiful," and the central character, Jenna, a sweet and attractive waitress who's married to a creep, though she's a genius at making pies and goes out of her way to come to the aid of all the people who ask her for help. As they say in the Gospel, "She saved others: herself she could not save."

The plot revolves around the fact that Jenna (played with charming ingenuousness by Kerri Russell) is pregnant, though she has no interest in having a baby. On the contrary, her goal is to win a pie-baking contest and leave her husband. She becomes involved with her gynecologist, a somewhat olfish but likable married man. Meanwhile, one of her fellow-waitresses falls in love with a man--the Stalker Dwarf--who pursues her relentlessly, against her wishes, after a dreadful first date, while the other waitress uncorks a torrid affair with the cafe's short-order cook, whose wife they've all known for years. Perhaps the most nuanced character is Joe, the owner of the cafe, whom we are told is "mean" though he doesn't act very mean. Chock up an Oscar nomination for the venerable Andy Griffith!

Yes, there are chuckles here and there, but it's all a little bit lame. The many variations on making a pie are fun to watch, but I couldn't help thinking of a far more creative film that makes use of a similar conceit, Like Water for Chocolate.The panic and confusion of an unwanted pregnancy come across clearly, and Jenna's letters to her daughter are touching, but all serious issues are avoided, and in the end the film is neither terribly funny nor particularly meaningful. What every woman needs, it appears, is a cute baby, a marketable skill, a supportive group of female friends/employees ... and a big pile of money from a dead man.