Category: Culture

Read More
A stylized, red-lit photo of Elliott Smith performing at the Lit Lounge in New York City in January 2003, shortly before his death.

On Elliott Smith: Nickolas Rossi’s “Heaven Adores You” (2014)

I imagine many might wish to believe that our lives are marred by tragedy. That some sort of sadness exists as nothing other than to shape us, wherein we are then forced to grow as result. For the artist, too often this sadness looms underneath—and even with talent and some modicum of success, the artist remains mired in loneliness. (If not emotional, then intellectual.) This, I feel, represents the singer and songwriter Elliott Smith, as showcased in Nickolas Rossi’s 2014 documentary, Heaven Adores You. ‘I don’t feel so different on the inside,’ Smith notes, in an interview. ‘People just started asking me different questions. I am the wrong sort of person to be famous.’

The documentary, while offering a nostalgic view of the mid-1990s and early 2000s in Portland, Oregon, aimlessly offers little narrative into Elliott Smith’s character. To contrast, in Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary on the ‘lost’ pop artist Sixto Rodriguez, the narrative is stronger in how it unfolds. After all, the film begins with the question of what happened to this mysterious singer, believing that he might have committed suicide, to audiences learning that he is very much alive. However, in the case of Elliott Smith, those who know of his work are aware of his death at age 34 that, despite the cause still being deemed ‘inconclusive,’ has all the indications of a suicide. […]

Read More
A stylized depiction of four Soviet and Russian bards: Vladimir Vysotsky - Владимир Высоцкий - Oleg Gazmanov - Олег Газманов - Ada Yukasheva - Ада Якушева - Yuri Vizbor - Юрий Визбор.

Russian Bard, Soviet Poet: Inverting A Century Of Tradition

Of all the art-objects I had consumed as a child, only a few made it with me into adulthood. At 4, I was given a tape-player, a pair of headphones, and several cassettes of Soviet music—luxury items, by any metric, in the Belarusian summer of 1991, just as they would be for the kids I’d soon meet in New York. The tapes were of varying quality, often veering into bad pop and propaganda, though even these had a level of craftiness and fun missing from most pop. Sometimes, however, I’d come across an artist or a song I’d (much later) recognize as great. This would usually happen as I sat on a park bench alone with my music and a loaf of keks. Because I was rarely at school or had my time accounted for by anyone, there were opportunities to wander, all on my own schedule. My life of absenteeism—that is, my wish to be in my own little corner, of my own construct—probably arose in this period. In retrospect, it helped that the music I was unwittingly feeding my tape-player so often celebrated a rich inner life. This might surprise Western readers, but the advent of Russian bard music brought forth a level of creative disobedience not seen in decades. The effect of musical agitprop—most obvious via Alexander Alexandrov’s “The Sacred War”—was, on the one hand, something for the state to tap, but on the other, would inevitably find its way into the grip of ordinary people. That guitars and voice lessons were hard to come by proved not only irrelevant, but downright supportive of the new art. If this sounds counterintuitive, a deeper understanding of the Soviet bard tradition can help explain some broader principles of art, so that today’s bards (almost always a posthumous honorific) can be better recognized. […]

Read More
A stylized photo of a young and smiling Elton John.

Growing Up With Elton John

My experience with Elton John includes a 1970 concert at Northrup Hall in Minneapolis MN. The show was mostly a solo act with Elton at the piano although Bernie Taupin did make an appearance. One detail I did notice is that John had a 16 ounce glass with a clear liquid in it that he sipped as though it might have been vodka or gin. By the end of the show the glass was empty, and John was feeling no pain.

It was how I knew the artist back then, his exuberance. He was truly the Rocket Man. Known for his outlandish costumes and partying behavior he clearly tried to court the image of height. His lyrics from his song “Rocket Man” described his life, his public life anyway, fully if not understated. This was from a time when many artists expressed joy; before you heard complaints of the work involved to create the art. You wonder if it can ever be that way again. What happened? The world at the time had its tragedies, but if you judged by Elton John’s art you would have never known it. […]

Read More
An example of nostalgia in graffiti: "I'll trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday."

Apricot Days: Nostalgia Is A Good Thing, Sort Of

Any good Zen Buddhist will tell you that “mindfulness” is the key to a healthy, peaceful, mellow life. Being in the moment means claiming and expanding the present moment instead of reaching back to the past to learn lessons and then projecting into a hypothetical future to apply those lessons. It is an interesting, if difficult, thing to contemplate—let alone accomplish, but it leaves no room some important human (all too human) characteristics: daydreaming, memories—nostalgia.

The definition and significance of nostalgia have changed since the original Greek roots of “homecoming” and “pain.” For centuries, it was considered a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing extreme homesickness. But the modern view (there is always “the modern view”) is that nostalgia is a good thing, for it provides important psychological functions, such as to improve mood, increase social connectedness, enhance self-regard, and provide existential awareness. There are numerous studies which attest to the benefits of nostalgia, but I would prefer to spend a moment on apricots. […]

Read More
A stylized picture of brain chips, as designed by Elon Musk and Neuralink

Brain Chips & Elon Musk

It’s either a fringe fad for the very wealthy, just a fancier, but inevitable, next stage of the tech revolution, a boon for the betterment of humankind, or a dangerous first step into a nightmare: the neurochip.

Basically, a neurochip is an integrated circuit chip (such as a microprocessor) that is designed for interaction with neuronal cells. And there is no going back. We all can thank Pakastani-born Canadian scientist Naweed Sayed, of the University of Calgary, and his team for proving it was possible to cultivate a network of brain cells that reconnect on a silicon chip—or the brain on a microchip. We know what Elon Musk thinks, what he wants to do, but a microchip, by itself, is not horrific science fiction. Microchips are part of everyone’s daily life and—so far, at least—no noticeable deleterious effects have materialized. Well, not many.

NBC had predicted that by 2017, all Americans would start to be tagged with microchips, but as Big Brother-ish as that might sound, we are already surrounded and inundated by them. These baby-step chips are embedded under the skin in a cheap and simple procedure and it carries all your ID: credit card info, license, bus pass, library card—all the info normally carried in a purse or wallet, all stored in an RFID chip under one’s skin. Of course, there are benefits to this technology. For instance, no more baby mix-ups. Every year, 28,000 babies end up going home with the wrong parents. A chip implant at birth would forestall this tragic kind of event—not to mention (at the other end of the life’s line) it would prevent that occasional funeral home misidentification and perhaps accidental burial or cremation of the wrong body. Chipping your child is obvious. From abduction to runaways to kids just getting lost, having the ability to track and find them is priceless. RFID chips are everywhere—in clothes, shoes, pets, livestock, passports, and of course, your trusty cell phone. But these are merely a few chips off the ol’ block. Skin-deep is just a foretaste of The Next Step. […]

Read More
A cancellation sign on a shelf of books, for censorship of ideas.

Are Ideas Going Extinct?

Eliminating books by burning or banning them isn’t just about getting rid of the physical objects, and not just the ideas, either. It’s also about what state of mind and heart the people and society who do the banning are in. Setting fire to the Qur’an or Huckleberry Finn tells us more about the people than the pages.

Turning books to ash or hiding them from sight is ongoing. And it is not a new phenomenon. In the 15th century, Mayan sacred texts were burned by Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa. He wrote that they were full of “superstition and lies of the devil…We burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.”

The early 20th century saw U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, hot on the trail of vice, immorality, and obscenity. In 1873 he lobbied Congress to pass an anti-obscenity law titled “An Act for the Suppression in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” He is credited (if that’s the correct word) with the burning of fifteen tons of books. These included Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, anatomy texts for medical students, and especially anything related to providing women information on contraception. “Books are feeders for brothels,” he declared. One cannot, of course, overlook the Nazi contribution. As soon as they came to power in Germany, books began turning from paper and ink to flames and smoke. On May 10, 1933, there was a nation-wide event which took place across 34 university towns. Nazi-led student groups burned books which propaganda minister Joseph Geobbels deemed “un-German”, including works by Helen Keller, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of Jewish writers, not the least of which was Heinrich Heine, who wrote, presciently, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” […]

Read More
A stylized illustration depicting the flag of Cuba and an injured brain, for Havana syndrome

The Ghost in the Machine: From Havana (Syndrome), With Love

Imagine suffering tinnitus, visual problems, vibrations inside your skull, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, fatigue, and dizziness. You are understandably alarmed and immediately visit your doctor, who pronounces you fit and well. You get a referral to a more specialized physician, who runs quite a few very sophisticated examinations. She finally pronounces that you are in peak condition—fit and well. But the symptoms persist—excruciatingly so—to the point where you go to a renowned, top-of-the-line expert (you have excellent insurance!) and you are put through a battery of tests and procedure involving machinery you’ve only seen n sci-fi movies. After three days of expert investigation, the doctor gives you the results: You are fit and quite well, and he suggests a visit with a psychiatrist. Puzzling, frustrating and very worrying, right?

The symptoms were first reported in 2016, by U.S. and Canadian embassy staff in Havana, Cuba—thus the sexy “Havana Syndrome” moniker the media so adores. By 2017, more people, including U.S.  intelligence and military personnel, reported pain and tingling in the ears in other places, like China, New Delhi, Europe, and Washington, DC. The people in the Cuban embassy reported these debilitating neurological attacks and the Trump Administration called them “targeted attacks.” Those evil Cubans or Russians or Somebody had a secret, powerful “sonic weapon” to harm the Good Guys. Panic ensued. Fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington, and most of the U.S. staff was withdrawn from the embassy in Havana. Five years later, more than 200 U.S. Government officials were claiming the effects of what came to be known as the “Havana Syndrome.” President Biden signed a bill which compensated the victims.  The victims of an affliction which, up to now, has no known cause, but has generated a wide variety of theory and pearl-clutching speculation about not just targeted attacks, but targeted attacks by a microwave weapon wielded by hostile foreign powers—Russia, in particular. In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study of the 21 diplomats, led by Douglas H. Smith, Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith and his team found signs of brain damage but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls—a condition they called “immaculate concussion.” […]

Read More
A picture of the universal "toxic" sign against yellow, with the "male" sign sticking out.

Masculinity And Its Discontents

The Romans had a word for it: virtus, derived from vir, “man.” A constellation of attributes, of virtues, which were perceived to be masculine strengths—originally, in the early days of the Roman Empire, the term indicated martial courage. Eventually, this idea of manliness morphed into a wider, deeper idea of what masculinity meant, such as prudence, justice, self-control, and courage; virtus came to describe a good man, one who did the right thing. During the time of the fading of the Roman elite, the upper class no longer thought themselves unmanly if they had not served in the military.

Virtus, and all it implied, was generally not applied to women, to whom the term pudicitia, “modesty” or “chastity” was given. Cicero, that redoubtable polymath (eventually beheaded by order of Marc Antony), used the term to describe his daughter as being “brave” during his absence. So, these attributes, these virtues, could be held by women—although derived from the basic masculine model. Our term “virile” and “virility” come from this root. […]