Sunday, June 29, 2014

We Like to Kick the Poor and Lick the Rich

My friend Peter Clough put it well. “We can be such terrible fools,” he said.
“Wealthy people present such luxurious homes and lovely clothes and hair and self-satisfaction — it is difficult to think of these things as often paid for through the denial and toil of others less fortunate.
“In a class-based society, the winners are not questioned about their circumstances, their exhibitions of extravagance, their gated lives, their disregard for those who struggle to have even minimal lives — however, those who live in the margins must account for their desperation and need. It is a hallmark of hyper-individualism that our fates are viewed entirely as self-made (wealthy) or self-inflicted (poverty).”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Science of Mindfulness

Harvard researchers Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert wanted to find out if the premises underlying the philosophy of mindfulness were true.
“Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all,” they wrote. “Indeed, ‘stimulus-independent thought’ or ‘mind wandering’ appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and ‘to be here now.’ These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?”
The answer, according to their research, is yes.
They learned three things: that people’s minds wander frequently no matter what they are doing, that people are unhappier when their minds are wandering than when they are not, and — most importantly — that what people are thinking is a better predictor of their happiness than what they are doing.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Supervillainy Under the Big Top

You wouldn't think that it would be that difficult to catch something as ponderous as a “Circus of Crime.” It's not easy moving elephants after you’ve hypnotically cleaned out a whole town, after all.
Nevertheless, circuses of crime have a long history in the Marvel Comics universe, starting with Captain America in the 1940s (Nazis were running the show then).
But even that wasn’t “really” the start, for we learned in the 1960s that the heroic outlaw Kid Colt had fought a circus of crime in, what, the 1880s?
The Circus of Crime ran afoul of the Incredible Hulk in September 1962, Spider-Man and Daredevil in September 1962 and the Mighty Thor in November 1967.
Falling on hard times, like other circuses, I understand they were eventually taken down by Howard the Duck.
However, don’t get your circuses of crime confused with your legitimate circuses that serve as hideouts for disguised monsters. That’s a whole other thing.
The Circus of Crime captured and exhibited the Incredible Hulk.
That did not end well for them.

The X-Men had to tackle the carnival super villain the Blob...
...And his giraffe pals...
...And his elephant pals.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Getting Around Creative Obstacles

You’re writing, composing or painting — doing any work that employs your creative intelligence — and you run into a wall. You can’t see how to proceed. What to do?
“When I hit a wall, I usually stop and do something else,” noted the singer-songwriter Carole King. “This effectively turns the problem over to my subconscious mind, which keeps working on it under the radar. When I return to the task, my subconscious has often solved the problem before my ego has time to assert control.”
King is describing a technique I‘ve used successfully throughout my writing career, and so did my friend and mentor Elleston Trevor, the British novelist who wrote “The Quiller Memorandum” and “The Flight of the Phoenix.”
Elleston advised that you forget about the project entirely and let your already-programmed unconscious mind work on the problem without flogging it.
To that end, he recommended any semi-automatic activity that would keep you busy without absorbing your attention — driving, shaving, mowing the lawn, that kind of thing. The old saying about “sleeping on the problem” taps into the same wisdom.
And then, sooner than you’d think, without conscious effort, the detour around to your creative roadblock simply appears before you.

How to Blow Up Reality

David Hemmings confronts an ontological problem in Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up"

The climax of the 1966 film Blow-Up is an eloquent statement about consensus reality.
The London fashion photographer played by David Hemmings has discovered a murder. But because no one else will believe him, his discovery has no weight and no point. The murder never happened.
At the film’s finish, the photographer sees a crowd of rowdy young people dressed as mimes. Two of them play tennis with an invisible ball, while the others watch raptly, their heads moving from side to side. The photographer watches too. When the “ball” sails over the fence, one of the players gestures for him to throw it back. He does, and as the camera moves in on his face, we hear the sounds of a tennis ball being hit back and forth. The tennis game becomes real because everyone seems to believe it is.
Not so far-fetched, really. We’ve seen that very process at work. In 2003, for example, despite thin or nonexistent evidence, the emotionally overwrought American public chose to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda, and to go to war on that basis. The fact that both those claims have subsequently and definitively been proven false has not changed the minds of many people. They still believe those lies, merely because they and others like them want to.
For many people, sadly, factual evidence is nothing more than something to which you pay lip service.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Neither Here Nor There

A photo that captures the most common psychosis of our times. Most of us can see this as perfectly ordinary, a person supposedly enjoying the natural world who is completely cut off from it. That's what's chilling.
"Never be bored again." As if no one can now dare face life without the drug of constant digital stimulation, flitting from topic to topic with the attention span of a gnat.

"Stress is caused by being 'here' but wanting to be 'there'."
— Eckhart Tolle

Friday, June 20, 2014

She Had an Invisible Friend

Carole King

Hypnagogic Active Imagination, a technique developed by the psychologist Carl Jung, makes use of the twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, between the realms of the conscious and unconscious minds, as a means of tapping the wisdom of the integrated self.
The singer-songwriter Carole King apparently had a spontaneous experience of something like that at a moment of crisis in her relationship with her abusive husband Rick.
Isolated and indecisive, her interest in music diminished, fearful of physical and emotional attack, she needed help. And that night in a rainy LA during the recording of her Welcome Home album, some mysterious other part of herself provided it.
“At 2:02 a.m., I awoke and saw Rick sleeping next to me,” she recalled. “I turned my head and registered the time on the clock. Then I turned my face up toward the ceiling and lay on my back, motionless. I knew who Rick was, but I couldn’t remember who I was. At that moment, if someone had asked me my name, I would have drawn a blank. Suddenly I heard someone ask a question. It might have been I, but I hadn’t spoken. It was as if I were outside myself hearing the question asked in my own mind.
“’Who am I?’
“I sat up slowly, attentively, the way people do at night when they think they’ve just heard something but aren’t sure… I stepped quietly down from the bed, and started to go … where? Where was I going? I couldn’t remember why I had gotten up.
“Suddenly my perception shifted and I was regarding myself as if through someone else’s eyes. I watched myself walk over to the window and look out. Then I saw myself turn from the window and, with a movement like that of a silk scarf slipping off a mannequin, the woman I was watching slipped down and collapsed on the rug at the foot of the bed. At that moment, she — I — curled into a fetal position and disappeared. I had no thoughts. I had nothing, and I was no one.
“Then I heard another question in my mind as clearly as if I had spoken it aloud.
“’Where’s me?’
“An answer grew out of the nothingness and shaped itself around the person I was experiencing as not-me. It wasn’t sudden, like a thunderbolt. It was an unguent, a healing sense of possibility that slowly permeated my consciousness, a balm that soothed my soul, reanimated my body, and infused my mind with a renewed sense of identity and purpose.”
She recalled her success as a songwriter, her joy as a mother and the financial independence she had won for herself. She determined, if not to leave Rick, then to seek professional help to improve their unhealthy relationship.
“With clarity and resolve, I stood up, walked to the bed, climbed in, and immediately fell asleep,” she wrote.
And that was the beginning of the end of Carole King’s abuse.
Source: “A Natural Woman” by Carole King

Now and Zen

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Ethics of Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
“You talkin’ to me?”
And yes, Yoko Ono was talking to her, here in the women’s restroom of a cinema screening “Taxi Driver” in 1976 — “her” being singer-songwriter Carole King.
The two women hit it off, and Ono invited King and her boyfriend over after the movie, which they discovered they would therefore have to leave early.
“You’re not going to stay for the end of the movie?” King asked.
“No, we never do,” Ono replied.
The quartet slipped out of the theatre to a waiting station wagon, and — with the help of two bodyguards and John Lennon lying prone in the back — were away in less than a minute.
Relaxing in a minimalist apartment somewhere on the several floors of the Dakota owned by Lennon and Ono, King and her boyfriend had green tea and Japanese appetizers in white dishes while observing that Lennon seemed “radiantly happy.”
King’s boyfriend would ultimately prove to be abusive and possessive, and surprised King that night by explaining his survivalist plans to Lennon, something he hadn’t bothered to tell King about.
As American society collapsed, the boyfriend explained, he and King would be on their self-sufficient place somewhere deep in the woods, ready to start building a new world when the time came.
King said Lennon “…listened respectfully. When Rick finished laying out his vision for our future, John’s response revealed the innate compassion of this man who had already influenced the lives of so many people.
“’Well, now,’ John said. ‘I couldn’t do that. I’d have me bag of rice, but what about everyone else?’”
“John’s remark not only mitigated my apprehension, but touched me so deeply that for a few minutes I stopped thinking on a conscious level,” King recalled. “I remember only the purity of his compassion and how I felt it envelop me like a warm blanket. Sitting in the glow of his happiness and inner peace, I realized that if John Lennon could ignore what others were saying and live his life exactly as he wanted to with love and compassion, then so could I.”
Source: “A Natural Woman” by Carole King

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Huckleberry Friend

Andrew Kruep as Huckleberry Finn and Gilbert Domally as Jim. News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart.
Well, you dad gum guv'ment
You sorry so and so's
You got your damn hands in every pocket
Of my clothes
Well you dad gum, dad gum, dad gum, guv'ment
Oh, don’t I, you know
Oh, don’t you love 'em sometimes
— “Guv’ment” from “Big River”

By Dan Hagen
Big River” is a show with big heart that delivers big entertainment.
What could be more natural — and trickier — than marrying the American popular art form of the musical with what a considerable number of people have called the greatest American novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”
Mark Twain’s 1884 novel became a successful Broadway musical precisely 100 years later, running for more than a thousand performances. The Little Theatre’s production, directed and choreographed by Kelly Shook, succeeds on the strength of its exemplary cast.
But the mood is set before the cast arrives by Alex M. Gaines’ set, a multi-level, riparian thing that gives the effect of rough-hewn, weathered wood, with a tattered back curtain that opens to reveal a river scene. Part of the set detaches to become a raft that moves smoothly from picaresque adventure to moral crisis.
The show isn’t overburdened with songs the way some are, and packs a considerable dramatic punch thanks to Twain’s genius. The Roger Miller songs — stylized bluegrass, country and gospel tunes — are all effective, some soaringly so.
Highlights include:
• Huck Finn (Equity actor Andrew Kruep), Tom Sawyer (Mike Danovich) and others singing “The Boys,” a high-spirited evocation of the good-natured bloodthirstiness of young men. “If the bunch of us all stick together, and we all go down as one,” they sing. “We could be highway robbers. We could be killers just out to have fun.”
• Michael Weaver as Huck’s sociopathic, alcoholic father Pap. Weaver exploits the best role he’s had at the Little Theatre in a while, sliding slyly from poignance to menace, and ranting musically about the guv’ment’s designs on the money he hasn’t got. I’m surprised the song isn’t a Tea Party anthem.
• Equity Actor Martin C. Hurt as the Duke and John McAvaney as the King, two who chew their scenery with relish. The conmen shine in “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” drawing Huck into their dance, and again in “The Royal Nonesuch,” drawing the rubes into a faked transgender freak show.
It’s fun, although a little disheartening in a way, to see how much of Twain’s social satire still hits home on American culture — the self-righteous evildoers, the gullible lowbrows who’ll swallow any nonsense that’s dished up for them, the American eagerness to grovel for “royalty,” whatever that is. They’re all still too much with us.
• The powerful voices of Chrissy Harmon as Alice’s Daughter and Gilbert Domally as the runaway slave Jim. Harmon’s gospel star turn is in “How Blest We Are,” and Domally has four or five strong numbers. Perhaps my favorite is “Worlds Apart,” the song in which he and Huck confront the deep wonder of their friendship. Domally and Kruep elevate the moment to a genuine frisson for the audience.
Kruep as Huck and as Mike Danovich as Tom Sawyer
• Best of all, Andrew Kruep as Huckleberry. It can’t be easy for an adult to play a young teenager, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Kruep, whose boyish charisma and mischievous energy radiate from the stage.
Kruep is a sly wink, a happy step, a sudden smile, and he’s Twain’s great moral hero, made all the greater because he doesn’t know it. Huck has been told by the churchgoing slave owners that abolitionists are Satan’s henchmen and slavery is good, and he believes it. So when he decides that what the hell, he’ll help his friend Jim escape anyway, he thinks he’s condemning himself to hell. Consider the moral power of the fate Huck is willing to accept with a shrug.
Why? Huck explains, as best he can, in a song that reminds us of another brave American sailor. “Oh, I, Huckleberry, me,” he sings. “Hereby declare myself to be. Nothin' ever other than … Exactly what I am.”
And that’s more than enough for an evening of great enjoyment.
Incidental intelligence: “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a musical with a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller, runs through June 29 at the Little Theatre.
The show has lighting design by Greg Solomon, costume design by Malia Andrus, sound design by Patrick Burks, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The cast includes Josh Houghton (as Mark Twain), Connie Mulligan, Emily Rhein, John Cardenas, Brady Miller, Andy Hudson, Andy Frank, Sidney Davis, Niko Pagsisihan, Haley Jane Schafer, Hanah Rose Nardone, Emily Bacino Althaus, Megan E. Farley and Gabriel Alonzo Smith.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

War of the Worlds Series

Sports and comic books didn't always mix well, but they did at DC for a while in the Silver Age of the 1960s. The art for "Strange Sports Stories" is by Carmine Infantino and is from Arlen Schumer's "Art of the Silver Age" book.

Fox News Feeds the Fascists

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TV Welcomes Liars, As Long as Their Lies Pay

In 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I wrote a newspaper column saying that the dubiously justified military overthrow of that nation was wrong and would bring not years but decades of major trouble for the United States and the world. 
I was right where all the Bush administration officials were wrong. Yet those same dead-wrong former officials, who got thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqs killed for nothing, are now on television once again, showering us with their sage advice about the crisis they caused.
Why? Because the American corporate media isn’t interested in pundits whose opinions are right. They’re interested in pundits whose opinions lead to a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary citizens into corporate coffers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How O'Reilly Lies: A Case History

“Case in point: In summer 2011, a story surfaced on the right-wing blogs that an auditor for the Justice Department had found out some DOJ employees attending a meeting at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC, had been served refreshments, including muffins for which the hotel charged sixteen dollars apiece.
“It’s no surprise that the story spread like wildfire on the blogs and was soon picked up by cable news. It was a great story for the right, reinforcing preexisting notions of government excess and willingness to waste taxpayer money, the incompetence of the Obama Justice Department, etc.
“One problem: It wasn’t true.”
That did not deter O’Reilly when he was confronted with the facts.
…“’I don’t give a shit what the guy said,’ Bill interrupted, suddenly angry. ‘It’s the same old thing. They come out and deny it, but the story is there. We know it’s true. We have the proof.’
Steiner tried gamely one more time to convince Bill to drop the story, explaining that he didn’t have the proof, but O’Reilly was adamant. He’d latched on to the story, and pesky things like ‘facts’ weren’t going to convince him otherwise.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

We've Had This Date From the Beginning

It’s official. Iraq has devolved into civil war and chaos, just as anyone honest who was paying attention said it would a decade ago.
I wrote a newspaper column about Bush and Cheney’s invasion at the time called “History Will Judge Us,” saying the invasion was a terrible mistake and questioning the WMD rationale.
I was called a commie and a traitor by dozens of readers whose goddamn mouths seem to be shut now. I hope they warm themselves by the fire of how they cheered for thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to be killed for lies, for nothing but lies the fools wanted to believe.

When Genius Is Usefully Masked

I used to identify with James Bond 007. Now, I identify with Miss Marple.
Oddly enough, I liked Joan Hickson's Miss Marple for the same reason I liked Columbo. Both are justice-dispensing predatory genuises smart enough to hide their abilities behind protective coloring until it's time to strike.
Superheroes, now that I mention it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When Freedom Runs Red

Access to guns everywhere at all times now gives Americans the freedom to murder each other over political crack-pottery, childhood curiosity, getting too many drinks at the bar, getting the wrong hamburger, not liking your teacher, not getting laid enough and not getting the last parking space. The color of freedom is innocent red, and you can see it swirling down the street gutters.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Little Twilight Music in Baltimore

A Baltimore street scene on June 19, 1948

Incapacitated by a cerebral hemorrhage in the late 1940s, H. L. Mencken found himself denied the two vocations and avocations that had chiefly sustained him through the previous 68 years — reading and writing.
That was a hellish cosmic irony for an author and critic, but Mencken finally countered it with stoic, quotidian compensations — hearing the gossipy crime items from that day’s Baltimore Sun, breakfasting on fruit juice and soft boiled eggs with bread while watching neighborhood children walk and run to school, listening to “the clear, yellow sunshine” of Schubert.
“What remained to him of his old days was music; many mornings he told me how he had listened for a couple of hours before and how superb it had been,” recalled Robert Allen Durr. “Yet in truth he had left in him something the average man never acquires — the capacity to enjoy the commonplace activities of life. Though these, of course, could not make up for his inability to work, they helped. One lovely autumn morning, Mr. Mencken sat over in the sun so that it fell on his back. ‘Well, this is very nice. This is fine. This ought to make us feel good. … You know, I always enjoyed life in all its forms. I’ve always taken a great pleasure in getting up in the morning, having breakfast and settling down to work. I had a good time while it lasted.’”
Wisely, Mencken foresaw the final importance of unimportant things.
Source: “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken” by Terry Teachout

Monday, June 9, 2014

If It's Rotten, Fox Is For It

When the Mummy Speaks, Beware!

George Will is just a corrupt and smug old mummy, his ethics as dead and dry as his dusty Brooks Brothers wrappings.

Go Ahead and Tread on Them. Please.

Tea Baggers fresh off the Fox-worshipped Cliven Bundy ranchmarched into a Las Vegas Walmart, murdered two police officers and covered their bodies with a “Don’t Tread on Me’ flag.
As the lid comes off the boiling pot of science-hating, greed-worshipping, ammosexual America, thanks to all the policies Fox News has lied to endorse, the Fox propagandists are going to have to be working overtime to deflect the blame
I hope it gives them all heart attacks.

H.L. Mencken, Avuncular A-hole

 “Legend: A lie that has attained the dignity of age.”
— H. L. Mencken

The fabled Baltimore journalist Henry Louis Mencken was soft on Herr Hitler, loathed Mr. Roosevelt and sneered at the working poor — in short, he was an a-hole.
Oh, I know he was complex and had his good points, but his reluctance to criticize German militarism was palpable, and his indifference to the sufferings of ordinary people in the Depression was frankly brutal.
H.L. Mencken
The astute biographer Terry Teachout makes numerous special pleadings for the man. But you can only read so many sentences like "As fantastic as his point of view now sounds, it was well within the boundaries of normal political in the mid-thirties” before you conclude, “Okay, he was an asshole.”
“I knew Mencken's friend Huntington Cairns, although I was a small child at the time,” my friend Merri Ferrell recalled. “I remember the general ideology of his circle (my parents among them) that loathed FDR and their reactionary politics. Among other things, they embraced some version of Darwin that put them at the top of the heap, when in fact, they had none of the survival skills of laborers, but rather were born into privilege.”
I have admired Mencken’s quotes for decades, and am surprised to find how little taste I have for the smug little man himself. In his defense, I will say that great artists turning out to be assholes is not a rare thing.
Christopher Hitchens — who was oddly like Mencken in several ways — remarked, “In the celebrated confrontation with William Jennings Bryan, for example, where the superstitious old populist feared that scientific Darwinism would open the door to social Darwinism, Mencken shared the same opinion but with more gusto. He truly believed that it was a waste of time and energy for the fit to succor the unfit.”
Mencken's loathing for FDR went beyond the political into pure personal enmity, by the way. After Mencken denounced FDR in a speech before a press club, he was shocked to hear FDR slap him down handily in a talk before the same group later that same afternoon.
In a perfect riposte to his “friend” Mencken, FDR launched into an eloquent, high-flown dissertation on what fools and mountebanks American journalists — and by extension the men in the room — were. “A hush fell over the room,” Teachout writes. "Only one man knew at once that FDR's remarks had been lifted verbatim from 'Journalism in America,' the first chapter of Mencken's Own 'Prejudices: Sixth Series.'"
“Mencken was notoriously wrong in many of his opinions and judgments,’ noted Robert Schmuhl in the Chicago Tribune. “As far as he was concerned, the Depression was no big deal, Adolf Hitler was ignorant rather than evil and Franklin Roosevelt was the embodiment of American politics at its worst. But in dramatizing his views, Mencken always injected humor ‘full of slapstick vigor’ and distinctive phrasing that often made what he thought less compelling than how he presented his myriad prejudices. He endlessly ridiculed the ‘booboisie’ (a term he coined) and never missed a chance to expose the ‘buncombe,’ ‘balderdash’ or ‘numskullery’ of this ‘land of abounding quackeries.’”
Yes, Mencken did not suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, he not infrequently made one of himself. Yes, Mencken could write beguiling memoirs about his childhood and young manhood in Baltimore, but the “Sage of Baltimore” spent most of his time as a political writer who was wrong in just about every political prediction he made (he claimed that FDR was a dictator who was worse than Hitler, and would terminate U.S. elections).
In other words, Mencken would have fit right into today’s American corporate media, where a pundit who is consistently wrong remains gainfully employed and is in fact handsomely rewarded as long as his erroneous copy kisses up to capital and backhands labor. Mencken could have fit snugly into that snotty Club of Davids (Brooks, Gregory and Broder). Of course, unlike those three, Mencken actually had to bear the burden of some talent.
“All men are frauds,” Mencken said. “The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”
Source: “The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken” by Terry Teachout