Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Life is a Cabaret

I've been a fan of Brendan Nash's blog and I've been following him on Twitter since this past summer. When I was in Berlin in October, I was able to take his Christopher Isherwood walking tour, which was excellent and enjoyable. He recently published a short ebook about cabaret life in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. I'm looking forward to reading it this next week. How about you buy a copy and read it with me?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tears for Auschwitz

From October 1995 to February 1996 I lived in Poland. I was conducting research on representations of the Holocaust, both historical as well as artistic, for my master's thesis. Concurrently, I was enrolled in the Polish program at the Catholic University of Lublin in order to advance my research language skills.

Lublin is in the southeast corner of Poland, and it was the site of Majdanek, a Nazi work, concentration, and death camp. I did most of my research at Majdanek, though I spent probably too much time traveling to visit other camps, other sites of the Holocaust.

I spent one full day traveling by rickety bus to Bełżec  for example, only to wander down a snowy country road to find a sign basically saying, Death camp closed. Even if I would've managed to enter the grounds, so little of Bełżec was standing that the trip would've still been classified an absurdity. I have a couple of photos I took of the all-too-representational sculpture of its victims. Horrible art, horrible site, horrible day.

Despite the months of traipsing around death camps in what was then referred to as one of the worst winters in Poland in 50 years, I managed to visit Auschwitz for the first time shortly after New Years Day after a brief–and much needed–vacation in Prague and in Zakopane, a Polish village high in the Tatra Mountains. The "50 years" reference–such a horrible chronology–was not lost on me. Thankfully, I went with my partner and another guy who we had befriended at the hostel in Krakow. After walking through the exhibits, we drank coffee from a vending machine in the visitor center's lobby before catching the Lux Bus back into Krakow.

The second time I visited Auschwitz was a few weeks later in February. I was by myself. It was after an all-night train ride from Budapest where I had spent a mere 46 hours. Part vacation/part research trip. Full tilt absurdity. I decided to forgo the main camp and instead visit Birkenau. The cab fare was, in my opinion, too high, and I was used to walking everywhere, so I took off in the direction that seemed most logical. After about half an hour I found myself facing the main gate with its veins of railways running directly to the heart of evil.

Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, was a monster that gnawed at my weakened, exhausted soul. It went on and on. In the back fields, where mass graves had once been dug, I saw a deer at the edge of the woods. I walked in a circle around the memorial sculpture. And again. The snow and sleet froze to my face. My tears froze to my face. My tears wouldn't stop.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Texas: A Story of Two Boys

I
A certain Texas university announced today that it would free 100 employees from the shackles of employment by the end of next month.

II
Years ago there were two boys who attended the same rural school in East Texas. One was the smartest boy in his class if not the entire town. The other played football. One went off to college and eventually completed the PhD. The other played football in college. One lived abroad for a handful of years, moved and shook with the greatest minds of his time, wrote quite a bit (and even got some of it published), studied/learned/developed fluency in two handfuls of languages, composed music, volunteered his time to the community, and taught more than a 1000 students to think, to write, and to read more critically. The other got a job out of college coaching football.

III
One of the boys is currently (for all intents and purposes) unemployed because of systemic flaws–both cultural and economic–down the many career paths he has followed, both in and out of academia. The other spent 16 years as a high school coach, winning a pair of state championships. Congratulations!

IV
One officially earned $250 in 2014. The other was recently hired to be the head football coach and "will receive about $2 million a year." From a certain Texas university.

V
Both boys are certain: the $2 million does not include perks. One of those perks: job security.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Chatter

There's a voice continually narrating in my mind. At no point is it louder than when I'm still, attempting to meditate. Sometimes I have to turn that voice against itself by having it narrate the most mundane, un-narratable events. Such as, "I'm inhaling. I'm exhaling. I'm breathing, lying on the floor."

I've been meditating for years. What began as spontaneous therapy to counter social anxiety and existential dread is now as much a part of my life as running, writing, and yes, breathing. Mostly I still find myself resisting taking time to meditate. The ideological part of my brain insists on plowing through another project, reading one more article, writing one more paragraph. Even though I always know that this rest, pause, caesura benefits my reading, my writing, thinking. To be honest, I ended up "writing" this post in my head while I was meditating. It's not always so easy to take a break.

I've been listening to music lately while I meditate. Before–and for several years–I listened to guided meditations, mostly from the Meditation Podcast. But such guidance becomes another story, another voice, yet one more narrative. Today I listened to my Philip Glass playlist. It contains 142 tracks. I guess you can say I'm a fan. One of the reasons I like Glass's music is because it typically resists narrative. Nothing irritates my intellect more than a work of music trying to paint a picture. I detest naturalism in music.
By naturalism in music we mean quite simply the imitation of sounds that occur in nature. This imitation may also be thought of as representation…the direct imitation or representation in musical compositions of sounds that are easily recognized as occurring in nature. (from Norman Cazden's "Towards a Theory of Realism in Music," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (Dec., 1951), 135.)
This proclivity is perhaps one of the many reasons I'm drawn to the abstract, minimal, surreal, symbolic. It's as if my entire aesthetics is a response to the voice in my head constantly yammering away with ceaseless stories. Art becomes a distraction, a disruption of the narrative as such.

Sometimes during meditation I listen to John Cage's prepared piano pieces. Sometimes, it's Native American flute, shakuhachi, chant, ambient electronica, or some kind of asymmetrical world fusion. And yes, I am aware of the problematic resonances of "world" music.
In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life. It's a way of relegating this "thing" into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that's why I hate the term. It groups everything and anything that isn't "us" into "them." This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It's a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn't fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this year. … It's a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world's music. A bold and audacious move, White Man! (from David Byrne's "I Hate World Music," The New York Times, October 3, 1999.)
I assure you, however, that I feel myself fully ensconced within this world and duly affected, inspired, transformed by such music. Music, in general, but especially my music has a direct impact on my being. At least that's the story I tell myself.