Purveyor. Not of goods, but of good ideas

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why Now is Worse Than WWII

A major reason for the difficulty we're having fighting the war against Islamism is our inability to fully accept how bad things really are. It's natural, of course, to want to live among the comforting sands of denial, retreat and self-blame, but until we understand and appreciate the unprecedented enormity of the threat against us, our policies and plans will almost certainly fall short or far of the mark.

This, of course, makes all of us more vulnerable to being mass murdered.

How bad are things now? MUCH worse than the years preceding World War II.

Here are three reasons why:

1. There are MANY more Islamofacists intent on destroying Western Judeo-Christian civilization (not to mention fighting Hindus, Buddists, Sikhs, Kurds...) than there ever were Nazis or Nazi allies.

2. The Nazis were so clearly evil that they remain the primary (and, very unfortunately for too many, the sole) clarifying exemplar that human evil exists. Yet the Nazis still had enough of a conception of right and wrong to HIDE their efforts to exterminate millions of Jews and other innocents. Islamists have no such compunction. They openly declare their overt intentions to kill, destroy and wipe out entire nations and promote nearly every abomination of human destruction, sacrifice and murder as a virtue in the eyes of Allah. They broadcast their efforts and their evil loudly, and have no fear that doing so will hinder their efforts. In fact, the opposite. Current efforts to sanitize their murderous, fascist, barabaric behaviors (for example, "jihad is merely a term of self-struggle") can only be seen by thinking people as a transparent joke--or perhaps not such a joke since "my struggle" is also the translation of Mein Kampf.

3. The Nazis wanted to win at their enemies' expense. They were willing to fight for their evil cause, but the goal was to survive and kill more of us than we killed of them. Islamists, in contrast, are dedicated to the spread of chaos and destruction while self-survival plays, at best, a secondary role. They are murdering their own children, CELEBRATING as long as the bombs they tie to their kids succeed in murdering others with the added benefit of enhancing their aggrieved status as victims ("Look, our children are dying!"). In this morally insane, upside down worldview, the "bad" child is the one who chooses not to detonate. Winning at the enemy's expense, therefore, is not their top priorty, "winning" (ie. destroying what they hate) at their OWN expense and self-destruction is perfectly acceptable.

It doesn't get much worse than this, folks.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cultural Learnings of America

John Marks, a music commentator for Stereophile magazine, has thrown down a challenge:

What I am trying to do, and would now like your assistance with, is put together a short list of musical works or recordings that people should have heard at least once or twice to satisfy the most basic requirements of cultural literacy in music for contemporary Americans...pieces of music that tell us what it means to be American.
Other requirements: Not primarily intellectual, no silly music (Ish Kabibble, Tiny Tim), not just "serious" music, not just merely popular, no one hit wonders.

Here's what I sent in:

Dear Mr. Marks,

I’m going to try to answer your challenge of compiling a list of music that tells us what it means to be an American, but first I need to ask: What makes us all Americans?

Here’s one answer: We're all the people, or the descendents of the people, who got off their asses and MOVED. I wish I could remember who said that, but unfortunately it wasn't me. Still, it speaks to our national sense of purpose and optimism and it brings to mind other unique qualities of Americans, including naiveté, rebelliousness, inventiveness and a sense of wonder and possibility, that have found articulate and moving expression in our music.

Lest you think I'm violating your directive to avoid intellectual justifications for this list, just listen. All of these pieces transcend cogitation and tap directly into the heart and gut. Just try not to be moved. I dare you.

1. Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
A single trumpet, behind the audience, repeats a simple phrase that rises in pitch at the end. That is the question. After each repetition, the orchestra responds with increasing dissonance. The screechy final "answer" is close to pure noise, but this is no amateur game show. Beneath it all is an achingly, profoundly beautiful string progression that allegedly represents infinity or silence.

What? Using sound to represent the absence of sound? That's either going to be a pretentious and crashing failure, or something altogether original and transcendent. To me, it's mind-bending and soul stirring. The piece ends precisely where it begins, suggesting that it can be looped infinitely (making it perhaps the original "Music for Airports?"--see #2 below).

Other Ives pieces are more straightforwardly "American" (Central Park in the Dark, Three Places in New England...), but this one, written in 1908, is more deeply representative of what is possible here in America due to its sheer innovativeness and audacity. It may be that Ives, who composed alone while pursuing a very successful career in insurance, single-handedly invented every major musical innovation of the 20th Century—atonality, bitonality, polyrhythms—prior to Stravinsky and Schoenberg and all the others who traditionally have been credited with them. Or it may be that he impishly post-dated his manuscripts to create the impression of his own transcendent genius. Either way, what isn't open to debate is that he was a true American original.

2. Brian Eno: Music for Films
"As interesting as it is ignorable" is how Brian Eno described his Ambient Music, intended to “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” (Sounds pretty democratic.) His most famous example is Music for Airports but I slightly prefer this album, perhaps because its title prompts me to imagine a richer visual world than a mere transportation hub.

Not everyone "gets" this music, but it has held its own for thirty years now and with good reason. As a reaction to pervasive and insipid Muzak, Ambient Music embodies the spirit of freedom and revolution, throwing off the shackles of imposed sonic tyranny and offering the listener a choice to ignore or engage. For those who choose to involve themselves, the rewards are enriching and ennobling.

As you listen, contemplate what such truly calming art offers us freedom from.

3. Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Minimalism is an appropriate term in some ways, but not others. It too easily suggests that there is less than meets the ear—shallow arpeggios and rhythmic patterns repeated ad infinitum. But such a dismissal is itself often shallow, a failure to recognize that what is being minimized is our own perception of what is supposed to be happening over time. For example, when all 18 musicians shift simultaneously at 31:24 into this nearly hour-long piece (ECM 1129-2), it feels like a major physical EVENT.

What’s new isn't necessarily good because it's new, but the American ability to shed the past and reinvent the world occasionally has its benefits. This music shows us how.

4. Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson
John Lennon's favorite singer/songwriter, with a multi-octave vocal range and a stylistic range that included pop, rock, folk, r&b, tv and movie themes and soundtracks. He was a supremely talented but troubled one-man American music encyclopedia. He's gone now, but ever green.

5. James Horner: Soundtrack to Sneakers
The soundtrack genre rides the cultural coattails of American film’s enormous influence, but on the occasions when it is able to step out of the visual shadows and stand on its own, its rewards rival those of other musical forms. Out of many available candidates, I chose this sleeper: Obscure movie. Ugly album art. Magical music. This could not possibly be anything other than American. Buy it immediately. Start with track 1, 3, 6, 8 or 10 to get hooked. Then go back and listen to the whole thing. Come to understand that American-style enchantment has its uses.

6. The Monkees: Re-Focus
How can we cover American music without touching on the influence of music written for television? The Monkees were aping of the Beatles, of course, but the music isn’t just slavishly imitative; this is high-quality pop penned by some very talented people. Earworm alert: If you haven’t listened to I’m a Believer or Last Train to Clarksville in a while, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.

7. John Adams: Shaker Loops
Another minimalist. You’ll stop using that term once you’re swept up in the relentless rhythmic sweep of the third movement of this juggernaut, which references the dances and spare but elegant aesthetics of the Shakers. Its power may surprise you.

8. John Adams: Hoodoo Zephyr
No album ever, anywhere, had cover art that visually expressed the feel of the music better than this one. If you want to hear the sound of a quintessentially American landscape of obscure, rusting industrial machines lying abandoned in the deserts of Utah or Arizona, listen to this. Of course, you may wonder why would you want to hear that. Listen anyway.

9. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense

10. Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic

11. Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring

12. Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Museum tricks

I spent the day today at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, wondering why such places have yellowish lighting. Is it to protect something? Or are the curators colorblind?

I also noticed myself doing something I've done habitually and subconsciously in museums for years; why I suddenly became aware of it now I have no idea.

While stepping up to a sizable painting to examine one of its faces more closely, I moved my head in slightly, then back again. Due to the difference in how the light struck the surface of the canvas from different angles, I was able to alternate my view of the painting between seeing the image the artist intended, and seeing the brush stroke texture underlying (overlaying?) the image. While seeing one, the other was completely obscured. It was like switching between the positive and the negative, the technique and the result. It was also a lot like those prizes I used to find in boxes of Cracker Jacks. Let's just call it a lenticular moment. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Here's what I do not and never have understood: Why aren't foreign words based in non-Roman alphabets simply spelled in English as they would be pronounced in English?

For example, the country whose name is spelled Qatar in English is pronounced either as "ke TAR" or "Cutter" depending on the prevailing winds.

So why isn't it just spelled Ktar or Cutter?

This tends not to happen with Japanese for some reason; Tokyo, if you can imagine, is pronounced Tokyo. But in Chinese the city of Xi'an is allegedly pronounced (try to guess) shi-ahn. What genius thought of that?

The only explanation I can imagine is that this is an affectation, a desire to make the word appear more exotic and difficult in transliteration than it otherwise needs to be. This leaves those of us not knowledgeable about the language not only helpless to know what things mean, but also sounding hopelessly foolish in our attempts to better ourselves.

If this is the case, it reminds me of the bureaucrat's office whose occupant uses a high and straight chair for himself but a low and slouchy one for his subjects and guests, ensuring their discomfort and inferiority.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Dignified or Pathetic?

Here's what I've been doing for the past two days: Writing about two hundred paragraphs like this one:

Now let's move on to our #4-ranked district manager in the nation with a terrific score of 96.25%… a man who has been with the company for 8 1/2 years. He is responsible for the Peducah, Kentucky district that led the nation in the Aciphex Stretch Kicker contest for 2005 and in Duragesic growth and retention. He's celebrating tonight with his wife, Melanie, and we're glad she's here. Please join me in congratulating Fred Rockford.

Yes, it's chimp work but it pays well.

As I write these award intros, my feelings swing wildly. On the one hand, I'm genuinely touched at the expressions of accomplishment, recognition and valuation that are understandably important to these people, as they would be for any of us in our careers.

On the other hand, I'm struck by the utter absurdity of touting someone's crowning achievement as winning the "Aciphex Stretch Kicker contest," among other accolades.

Who the hell thought a GI drug that sounds like "ass effects" was a good name? And putting the words "stretch" and "kicker" anywhere near it is either some kind of crime or evidence of award-winning comic genius in the Freudian Psychosexual Category.

Can something be both dignified and pathetic at the same time?

Friday, March 24, 2006

At Last!

"Throughout time...workplaces and homes have been the scene of breaches of modesty and good taste..."

Finally, we now have a solution to the eternal problem of plumber's butt.

Isn't internet commerce wonderful?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Entertainment is news. News is entertainment.

Jessica Simpson (no relation to Lisa or Bart—although they are all, I suppose, cartoons) has snubbed President Bush and that's enough to make headline news this week on The Drudge Report and elsewhere.

What? She's a political king maker?

Also in the This-Is-Important? category is the story of Tom Cruise and Isaac Hayes protesting an episode of the South Park cartoon show mocking both Cruise and Scientology (providing the answer—or punchline—to the query, in case anyone was asking: What's the similarity between radical Islam and Scientology?)

We are not just witnessing the blurring of entertainment and news, we're seeing the blurring of CARTOONS and REALITY.

Parker and Stone are my new heroes for releasing this statement in response:

So, Scientology, you have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun...

Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!
That's the most appropriate response I've yet heard to the lunacy that is now our society's mainstream conversation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A List of Annoyances, as told by a James Bond Villain

I didn't write this and don't know who did. I was just rummaging through some very old files on my hard drive, found this, and had to laugh...and share it with you. Best read with a Czechoslovakian accent:

Having an eye made completely out of gold annoys me.

It annoys me that I have to invite the freaks I hire as assassins and henchman when I have a Christmas party. Do you know how many fried shrimp a giant with metal teeth can eat? A lot. And try buying a sweater for a 500 pound Korean. How about doing a seating arrangement that doesn't make someone feel left out and start slashing the other guests with a knife.

I'll tell you what is annoying. When I say "take care of the situation" people always think I mean kill everybody. Then my own people shoot my corrupt Swiss banker who took me forever to find. It's a lot of wasted energy.

If someone wants to search an underwater city, any underwater city, for nuclear weapons, they should have a warrant. End of story.

It annoys me when my workers in different colored jump suits start fighting soldiers like they've all been trained in hand to hand combat. It's not easy to build a fortress in a volcano, you know. You need lots of people. Engineers, welders, geologists, architects, not to mention chefs and plumbers and people to clean and feed the snakes in the pit. The whole point of different jump suits is to separate my soldiers from my drones. I don't need some twenty dollar an hour dental hygienist getting in the way of a trained and qualified mercenary.

I also really hate electronic theme music they use on TV shows these days. That's music?

Oh yeah, it annoys me when you yell "Everybody CONGA!" and nobody does.

Am I right? Or am I right? Hello? Is this thing on?

My Best Smeller List: Addendum

Laurie Anderson interviewed in WIRED magazine in 1994:

A few years ago, Brian [Eno] began collecting little perfume bottles, just because he liked them. Then he began mixing the scents, making these incredible combinations. Now occasionally he goes to a big factory to do it. So when we did our last record, rather than sitting around afterwards talking about how we mix that, or who played bass, he took us all to a perfume factory, where we made a perfume. The secret of a really good perfume, Brian taught us, is that at its very core is something very, very stinky—civet—because the purpose of the nose is danger, to alert you. After that happens, then you can put on the pleasant smells. But first—wake up! So that’s one of the things we’ve paid attention to in making this record, that at its core is something that’s repellent, because those are the things that interest me.
Now that's interesting: the smell of perfume, the substance we use to evoke sexual attraction, is based on a substance—from a wild cat—that signals what might possibly kill us.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Your hole comes out here...


Monday, March 06, 2006

Is That Me Over There?

Sometimes, while lying on the couch for example, I will look down at my foot and realize, That's me over there. And then I wonder, How can I be here and there at the same time?

Where do "I" reside? Am "I" in my foot? Probably not. It's almost as distinct from "me" as any object across the room, except that I can control it, and it can communicate with me through sensation or pain.

It's funny to consider a body part as something like a puppet.

But if I loose control or sensation in my foot, is it even less a part of "me" than before? I might still be able to walk on it, but is it any different then from a peg leg, for instance? Is my foot more a part of me merely because I feel it? Or is it me just because it goes with me everywhere?

If it's a matter of feeling, what happens when it goes numb?

If it's a matter of attachment, is my foot any different from, say, a briefcase, or a teddy bear?

This is making my head hurt. (Is it really my head?)

Stayed tuned! Next up: Why can't tickle myself?

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On Being Offended

It's commonly accepted in politically correct circles that the worst state a person can find himself in is to be offended.

The words "I'm offended" seem to have acquired a power beyond all reason, to the point where legislative action is often invoked to prevent it from ever happening to anyone.

That's just extreme and silly. Let's lighten up, eh? It's just too easy to be offended by someone who spits or litters in broad daylight, draws a cartoon, uses racial epithets, or chews with his mouth open. It's seldom something they're doing to us; it's much more indicative of what's going on inside them, and has little to do with us.

A friend of mine found herself highly offended by a dog owner who lives in her neighborhood. This guy habitually and deliberately (my friend surmisses) cleans up precisely half of his pooch's poo. Oh, he puts on a good show of it, but is careful to leave a good sample behind for others to easily see, smell, and step in. Ah, city life...

"Do you know why he does that?" I asked her.

"No. Why do you think?" she responded.

I leaned in and whispered to her, "Because it's all he's got."

That perked her up.

There is, however, one word commonly used to describe each of us that does offend me. It's consumer.

Now that's offensive.

Huh? you ask. Think of it this way: Form a picture in your mind of what you would reduce a person to if you were to refer to him or her as a consumer.

For me, there's really only one image that comes to mind, in two variations:

A giant, dumb, ugly mouth, something that exists only to use, to take, to devour everything in its path. It has no other purpose, no other meaning but to acquire and destroy for its own purposes, to satisfy its own deep appetites.

The second variation begins with the mouth and ends with an anus. There's a colon in between, of course, but that's about it.

Is that all we are?

Why do we put up with it?

Monday, February 20, 2006

POLITICS: What Lies Beneath MUNICH

This might be illuminating.

A while back, I slugged it out in the pages of American Theatre magazine with Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America and Steven Speilberg’s screenwriter on the film Munich.

Mr. Kushner and five other playwrights had written a series of short essays grouped together into a feature entitled On the Road to Palestine. I wrote a counter essay published a short time later in the same magazine. The essay had the pungent title of How to Eat Yourself, a reference to the blind and ultimately self-destructive impulse I find in those whose mantra, when it comes to assessing global conflict, always seems to be Blame the West First. The editor of the magazine informed the six playwrights of my effort, and published Tony Kushner's rebuttal to my essay on the same pages.

I bring this up now, two and half years later, because I think it might clarify some of the controversy now swirling around Munich. As Oscar night approaches, I can’t improve on Gabriel Schoenfeld’s thorough skewering of the movie in the pages of this month’s Commentary, but I can make my own supplementary contribution.

I thought it might be instructional to take another look at Kushner’s response to my essay, apply some long-needed Fisking to it, and reveal the true thinking that lies at the heart of what’s in Munich, or at least, in the head of its writer.

Tony Kushner wrote:

Russell Reich’s article proceeds from a peculiar assumption—namely, that because we are playwrights, what we wrote should have been guided by the principles he feels should govern good plays.

Mr. Kushner found it odd that I might judge him according to the standards of his art. But he and the others were writing as playwrights in a magazine about theatre. What would he have preferred? To be judged as a journalist? An historian? A diplomat? He is clearly none of those things, and if I or anyone else were to have judged him by sound principles of those professions, he would have failed them as well.

But we weren’t writing plays. We wrote short essays. They weren’t complete. They were short.

I wasn't evaluating the essays as plays, I was evaluating them for the insight they provided into the thinking patterns of Leftist artists.

Mr. Kushner's statement sounds to me a lot like, “I would have liked to have been honest, but I didn’t have the space or time.”

We wanted to focus on the injustices done to the Palestinians because this is a far less familiar, less universally acknowledged situation among Americans than the deaths of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings.

Equal time for murderers then? Terrorists have rights, too?

What should be familiar and universally acknowledged by now (as well as two and a half years ago) is that Palestinian society is completely dysfunctional in nearly every area one can name, but none more so than in the area of morality. Yet that is one standard to which Palestinian apologists like Mr. Kushner refuse to hold them, as if morality is irrelevant if one has a claim to any kind of victimhood.

The other standard made irrelevant by Mr. Kushner is personal responsibility. Mr. Kushner seems congenitally disabled from actually considering, let alone stating, that the so-called “injustices done to the Palestinians” might often be self-inflicted. It’s much easier—and beneficial to the self-promotion-minded—to infantilize the Palestinians than to deal with the complexity of a morally, politically, educationally, economically, and judicially corrupt and broken society.

Blaming the "parent," in this case Israel and the U.S., is the modus operandi of the adolescent mind.

Everyone except monsters grieves over these Israeli civilian deaths, and to argue that the suicide bombings go underreported in the press would be insane.

He can call it insane if he likes, but if Mr. Kushner takes a look at sites like camera.org and honestreporting.com, he will find clear and frequent evidence that, in fact, there is often bias in favor of the Palestinians. He should know; he's generating some of it.

More to the point, though, is the horrifying sense of, “Yea, yea, we know a lot of innocent Israelis have been killed, but let’s look at what’s really happening, what’s really important. And I’m just the one to show that to you…”

The deaths of Palestinians, the suffering they endure, are far less thoroughly represented in this country’s reportage.

So balance is important to Mr. Kushner? Then why, as I asked in the original essay, did he make no attempt to examine any viewpoints contrary to his own preconceptions? Later, we'll see him criticize balance as a legitimate value in seeking out the truth.

We all read a lot of books and magazines and so we formed opinions, as intelligent people will, and we traveled with our opinions.

Opinions, in this case, mean prejudices: Palestinians are just underappreciated victims. Israelis are like oppressive Nazis. Those are the “opinions” he, a self-proclaimed intelligent person, traveled with.

If you’ve done your homework you will probably arrive at sound opinions.

The dog must have eaten Mr. Kushner’s homework since important historic facts were nowhere to be found in his highly unsound opinions. Missing in action were the bombs tied by Palestinians to Palestinian children for use as human missiles against Israeli children, the hate-filled and historically revisionist textbooks from which Palestinian children learn, the propaganda to which the children are exposed, and the murderous "heroes" and "martyrs" they're taught to emulate. Moreover, Mr. Kushner was apparently deaf to the decades of declarations by Arab officials that their opposition to Israel will not end until every Jew is gone from the land, the repeated Arab rejections of offers for statehood, the hateful portrayal of Jews in Arab public life, the historic efforts to "drive the Jews into the sea," the blood libels…

I could go on. All of these facts I pointed out in the original article, yet even on the same page, Mr. Kushner could not bring himself to acknowledge their existence.

Regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Mr. Kushner maintained his “opinions” such that his conclusions matched his hypotheses perfectly: Palestinians GOOD, Israelis BAD. As social science, that stinks. As art, that stinks. As a demonstration of honest inquiry, it’s a total failure. He left nothing to be discovered, no reason to change his mind, no possibility for correction. This is what he calls “traveling with his opinions.” I can’t decide what I would call it. Willful ignorance? Or is it not so innocent as to be mere ignorance?

Keep your eyes open, but don’t be a relativist.

I agree, as in the case of moral relativism, where there are no absolutes of right of wrong. We must keep our eyes open and we must choose.

Relativism is always a way of manufacturing paralysis for the sake of maintaining an oppressive system.

Is that the ghost of Marx or Lenin speaking? Sounds like a manifesto of some sort. Is that what leads someone like Mr. Kushner to make a non-relativist moral choice of murderers over victims? Fascism over democracy? Death over life?

His assertion that Israel, relative to Palestinian society, is an “oppressive system” is downright strange. Does Mr. Kushner—a Jew, an American, a homosexual—think he would be allowed to live for one minute amongst radical Palestinians were he not such a useful propaganda tool to those who would otherwise gleefully slit his throat? What, exactly, is Mr. Kushner's definition of oppression if not that?

“Balance” isn’t the heart of drama. Does Stanley get stage time to justify raping Blanche? Does Willy Loman’s boss explain why it was necessary to use up and then downsize the guy?

My original essay had over 1600 words. “Balance” was precisely one of them. It was mentioned—and easily dismissed—as a possible value animating the playwrights’ advocacy of Palestinians. Clearly, true balance was not their priority.

This was an interesting polemical gambit on Mr. Kushner’s part: If you don’t like the argument posed to you, misrepresent it as the argument you can more easily respond to.

My plea was not for equal time, but for responsibility, for telling the truth, for exercising true morality by saying who is actually trying to annihilate whom.

I would argue the heart of drama has more to do with a strenuous attempt to grasp the truth, which has to do with asking after the origins of things, and sometimes to do with assigning blame.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the absurd implication that Mr. Kushner was strenuously attempting to grasp at the truth. It’s strenuous, all right, but that’s all I’ll grant him.

“Asking after the origins of things” is the same as the old “root causes” approach, which goes like this: “Yes, blowing up innocent civilians is horrible, but let’s have a look at the root causes.”

Inevitably, the search for root causes lands us at an economic model (the ghosts of Marx and Lenin again), which goes like this: Poverty, oppression, lack of education, opportunity and political power are, of course, the real reasons for terrorism. Address those and especially our responsibility for causing them, the thinking goes, and the problem of terrorism will evaporate.

Except it won’t: The majority of the 9/11 terrorists was middle-class and well educated. There are many words we can use to describe those monsters, but poor, oppressed, uneducated or lacking in opportunity are not among them.

Less often discussed is the moral problem with looking for root causes. The moment you find one, you’re in the awkward position of asserting that it is actually worse than the effect: poverty is worse than murder, occupation is worse than blowing up school buses.

Except they aren’t. There are poor, oppressed people in a lot of places but they are not tying bombs to their children. That’s a Palestinian invention. The response of, “Well they must really be angry, then” is the response of someone who is morally blind in the extreme and would stand up to nothing that is truly evil. Since when does anger justify anything?

Nothing—not poverty, not occupation, not anger—can replace personal responsibility and choice as true “root causes” of terrorism.

As for assigning blame, Mr. Kushner has made his choice: The Palestinians are not responsible for their actions in any way. All the blame lies with the Israelis.

I’d like to see Mr. Kushner explain that to the Jewish mothers who have buried the remaining body parts of their blown up children.

Nor, I think, is “balance” a particularly honest plea from Mr. Reich. His tone is Socratic and professorial; but self-promoting, knee-jerk inconoclast theatre-wrecking barbarians and dupes is what he’s calling us (I’ve been called worse), and Palestinians don’t come off much better.

I associated Mr. Kushner with “those who seek to destroy our society and its foundational values.” I accused him of “unquestioning alignment” with those who danced and handed out candy in celebration of 9/11.

He would have preferred something less genteel? Would that have been the price I had to pay to be considered by him an honest man?

Here’s a good principle of drama: Appearances are often deceiving! Look at the map again, the one Mr. Reich mentions. Leaving aside his rather chilly fantasy that Arab countries are “empty…”

That little “chilly” element clearly implies that I wished Arab countries to be emptied of their inhabitants. That’s a convenient demonization of my position, but it’s completely untrue. My meaning in pointing to the map was that Israelis have little inhabitable land available to them. Arabs have a lot. There are a lot of places for Palestinians to go, yet Israel remains the target of Arab conquest, not the reverse.

…the tiny sliver of land called Israel is also a nuclear power with the most powerful army in the region, and, oh, lest we forget, it also has the absolute support of the world’s only superpower.

I don’t think Mr. Kushner is suggesting that the root cause of the conflict in the Middle East is the imbalance of nuclear weapons between adversaries. He wouldn’t promote the idea that Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya and others should acquire and deploy nuclear missiles as a method of establishing equilibrium in the region. He isn’t suggesting that would be some kind of solution.

He’s just not saying that.

Is he saying that?

Somebody please tell me he’s not saying that.

Size ain’t everything. And a state for the Palestinians will not bring about the death of Israel. The state of Israel is menaced by nothing so much as the hopeless statelessness of the Palestinians.

And yet, now that Israel has given the Palestinians the Gaza Strip and everyone agrees in a two-state solution—including President Bush and the Israeli leadership—Israel is indeed menaced by those who are (still) interested in the total destruction of the Jewish State.

Anyone who wants to know more about this situation from what I consider a genuinely “balanced” point of view should go to the website of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom / Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace… In the fall, a book I’ve edited with Alisa Solomon, Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish American Responses to the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, will be published by Grove Atlantic Press.

Public Relations 101: There are no bad controversies. Use every opportunity to hawk your own wares. There is no shame in self-endorsement or in turning human tragedy into personal gain, especially for those who are critical of capitalist systems that do the same. (Their reputation will protect them from claims of hypocrisy.) Call and order your copy my book TODAY!

The hand-wringing over the menace we present to the art of the theatre is silly. Theatre will survive us.

Perhaps Mr. Kushner, unlike me, has never heard the words “theatre” and “dying art form” in the same sentence. Artists can blame philistine politicians, producers, and audiences all they like, but wouldn’t it be refreshing to see artists turn some of the self-critical vitriol they so quickly pour onto our entire society onto themselves once in a while?

Behind the sophistry (Wait! “Palestinian” is derived from “Philistine,” a Roman insult? You mean these “Palestinians” have merely lived there since the 17th century? Well, in that case, nuts to them, whoever they are, and their bomb-wielding children!)…

No. Not nuts to them. The Israelis have offered them land and deals and accommodations on multiple occasions. What has been the reliable Palestinian and wider Arab response every time? Kill the Jews. Now, for years, they have been arming their children with bombs. Presumably, there is a point at which one realizes that dealing with another has its limits and that it may not be possible to negotiate or accommodate them in any reasonable way. If tying bombs to their own children does not represent that limit, what would? How bad would it have to get before we say, This is not something we are doing or responsible for; it is something they are doing and responsible for? Does Mr. Kushner have such a limit, or is all permissible, even mass murder, for the “oppressed?”

…is an elegantly written apology for brutality.

No. It’s an argument for responsibility. Hold the Palestinians responsible for their actions. Hold them to the standards of civilized society. Do not tell them their terrorism is justified. Do not enable and encourage their sense of victimhood. Tell them that while they have legitimate rights, they risk forfeiting those rights if they do not adhere to basic rules of humanity.

That’s not brutality. Brutality is what too-often results from those who are kind to the cruel, which can almost serve as a definition for extreme Leftism.

Suicide bombings are repugnant.

The next word is going to be “but.” It is always “but,” an indication that there is, apparently, something worse that blowing up innocent people. The only question is, what will the “but” be that elevates some lesser crime beyond the horror of terror and mass murder?

But Palestinian deaths and injuries still outnumber Israeli deaths three-to-one.

So for Mr. Kushner, even though the Israeli deaths are of innocents by muderous bombers, the fact that there are more Palestinian deaths is somehow proof that the crimes are imbalanced and the Palestinians are the more aggrieved than Israelis. Never mind that suicide bombers/murders themselves might be counted in those casualty numbers. Never mind that the Palestinian deaths are largely combatants, not civilians. Never mind that the civilians who are killed accidentally by Israelis were often used as human shields by Palestinians who attack Israelis from within Palestinian civilian areas, in violation of every accepted rule of war. None of this matters to someone who has “traveled with his opinions” about where the truth really lies.

Poverty in the West Bank is 47 percent.

So for Mr. Kushner, terror is trumped on the immorality scale by poverty. Never mind that such poverty is largely the result of an astoundingly corrupt Palestinian Authority as well as the necessity to control passage of Palestinians into Israel who might otherwise blow up innocent people. To acknowledge these facts would be inconvenient to his opinions.

Fifty percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 15.

While this may be true, what bearing does it have if a 15 year old is wearing a bomb vest into a pizza place? It’s as if Mr. Kushner is effectively saying, “These are children! Can’t you just allow them to kill you and stop making me feel uncomfortable about the difficulty and horrible implications of all this?”

It’s the world’s oldest and largest refugee population.

The Palestinians are the “worlds oldest and largest refugee problem” only if one applies the U.N.’s highly politicized multigenerational definition of “refugee” that is applied to no one else on the planet, thereby assuring the Palestinians of perpetual victim status that no one else can claim. Mr. Kushner readily promotes this absurdity despite the fact that he is no doubt aware of the equivalent number of Jewish refugees who were expelled from their own homes in Arab lands at the same time—with no offers for compensation or return.

Mr. Reich wants to know what principle united the six of us. I can’t speak for my friends, but here’s one possible answer: Horror. Have a heart already.

My heart is intact, but Mr. Kushner conceives that the actions taken to protect innocent civilians are more worthy of denunciation than the murderousness that necessitates those actions.

He arrives at his stance on the basis of some pretty questionable assumptions. Among them: that the strong are always evil; that the voice of protest is always and forever virtuous; that anger is more than an emotion—it’s a legitimizing principle; and, finally, that it is acceptable to promote the sincerity and legitimacy of those who are blowing up innocents.

All this was in service of showing the rest of us how big his heart is.

In Munich, Tony Kushner shows us that he is still traveling with the same abhorrent and self-promoting opinions.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


What do you do when you have done a good bit of work on a creation—a book, a script, an invention, it doesn't really matter what—and then you learn that someone else sort of got there first?

Do you give up? Throw in the towel? Re-jigger your concept? Move ahead as if nothing happened?

That's what I'm dealing with today. Yesterday, I saw a new book sitting pretty at Rizzoli with a subject AND title that were annoyingly familiar to me—practically identical to my own. I've been working on this book for several years and now I need to make a choice: Keep going with it or move on.

Damn me for delaying.

Okay, calm down. The packaging and the general approach already tell me that while the two books are similar, there are also a few key differences. My book, for example, would be smaller, shorter, less theoretical, more personal, less journalistic, more beautiful, and less expensive.

Is the world big enough for the both of us?

More important: Am I prepared to take on the inevitable carping and disdain from those who will assume my book is a mere copycat, the offspring of a lesser, plagairistic mind?

I tell myself that what I've lost since yesterday is not any true originality or value. The material I've already written is as valuable and valid today as it was yesterday. What I've lost is some unique claim to it and the perception of origination.

Is the perception of others—especially critics—the primary determinant of value? Is "what people might say" something to pay much mind to at all?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Thought

Saw a sign that said "Watch Your Head."

How, exactly, do you do that?

MUSIC: Classical essentials

When purchasing classical music, how do you know which recording to buy? You can check with critics, but they often disagree. Worse, I find that the most consistently praised recordings are rarely those I find most satisfying, musically or sonically. There was once a wonderful compendium of classical music reviews called the Stevenson's Guide, but that's been defunct for around a decade. It had a terrific Honor Roll section that comprised recordings that got the highest rating from at least four major critics with no bad reviews from anyone else. Those were pretty safe bets. Short of that, it's hit or miss when choosing what to buy, and that can mean a lot of wasted money and frustrated musical aspirations.

Here, then, in no particular order, are some rare and neglected recordings that I think, as they say in London, are toppers!

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas. Ivan Moravec 1962-70 VAI Audio VAIA 1069
Whoa boy, is this one magical CD. Nearly all of Beethoven's best-known piano pieces—Appassionata, Pathetique, Moonlight, Les Adieux—played to perfection. Evidence that newer recordings aren't necessarily better.

VERDI Requiem. Robert Shaw and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. 1987 Telarc CD-80152
Others are touted but this is the one that melts my butter. Captures the full, rare power of this piece. If you're not an opera fan but appreciate full-on symphonic music, start here. You will not be dissappointed.

ALBINONI Adagio. Gary Karr 1983 King Record Company KICC 41

A 1611 Amati doublebass (formerly Koussevitzky's) backed only by pipe organ (played by Harmon Lewis). This is a crazy arrangement, but it works. Really, it's an emotional mess...and better for it. His instrument is slightly out of tune (I think), and a ratty t-shirt apparently the best he can muster for his own cover art, but Gary Karr hits one WAY out of the park on this one. You've heard this music many times, but never so personal, so heart rending, so...closely miked. You'll have to wipe the resin from around the speakers when it's over. I mean that in a good way.

BEETHOVEN Symphony #7 Vladimir Ashkenazy and Philharmonia Orchestra. London 411 941-2

Kleiber Kleiber Kleiber all the critics say in lock step (Deutsche Grammophon 447 400-2). I went out and bought it. They're wrong; Ashkenazy is the one to beat. The first movement takes an eternity, but that's it on the minuses. I've trotted this one out at ultra-high end audio shows and it never failes to elicit, "Geez! What recording is this? It's amazing!" Yup.

CORELLI Concerto grosso op. 6 No. 8 Von Karajan & Berliner Philharmoniker 1979 Deutsche Grammophon 419 046-2
The critic's favorite is Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Harmonia Mundi 3957015, but listen to these two side by side. Yes, the McGegan is well-played and has better sound, but so what? Karajan captures the MUSIC to a degree that makes McGegan sound artistically deaf. I'm not kidding; it's hard to believe it's the same piece of music. One sounds good, the other SINGS with emotion, like flipping a switch on the piece's true meaning. I literally can't "hear" it played by anyone else—only Karajan illuminates it for me.

VIVALDI The Four Seasons Richard Kapp and Philharmonia Virtuosi, Paul Peabody, soloist. 1988 ESS.A.Y C-1001
With more choices of recording than any other piece, how do you know which one to get? Don't sweat it. Get this one.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

POLITICS: We regret to inform you...

You are Jewish and so you are marked for death.

You are Christian and so you are marked for death.

You are Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, or otherwise an infidel and so you are marked for death.

You are an atheist and so you are marked for death.

You are American and so you are marked for death.

You are Western European and so you are marked for death.

You are Australian and so you are marked for death.

You are a homosexual and so you are marked for death.

You are Salman Rushdie and so you are marked for death.

You are a Danish cartoonist and so you are marked for death.

You are a member of the European press who has reproduced offensive Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and so (you guessed it) you are marked for death.

You are the rare and brave Muslim who has vocalized serious reservations about coreligionists who demonize Jews and the West, derogate other religions, praise anger as the noblest of all emotions, position victimhood as the ultimate dignity, choose violence as the tactic of first resort, and blame others for all the ills of society, and so you, too, are marked for death.

The good news?

You are a non-Western Muslim woman, so you’re really lucky.

Friday, February 03, 2006

My Best Smeller List

I was walking down Madison Avenue years ago and passed a stranger, a woman. I caught a whiff of her perfume. The scent, apparently, was the same worn by my old high school girlfriend. It was she who popped instantly to mind. I really hadn't thought of her in a long time, but with this olfactory trigger... BAM! I was catapulted back to feelings I hadn't had since I was a teenager. Like temporary insanity, but it was wonderful, a real rush. Scent as drug. It didn't last long and if memory serves me, there was some kind of immediate, semi-muscular counter-trigger that kicked in as if to protect me: "No, no!" it said, "you don't want to go back there!" And in a moment, the transporting emotion evaporated. It never happened again, I never did find out what that perfume was, and I don't know that if I did, it would still have the same affect on me. I may just be too scared to seek it out.

All this is leading me to consider what smells good. Not in a "that's nice" kind of way, but something more powerful, like the taste of a great wine (like Shirvington Cabernet 2001 from McLaren Vale, South Australia—not the best, but certainly the most complex I've ever tasted) or the emotion evoked by a piece of music (Somei Satoh's "Toward the Night," New Albion Records NA056CD) that just puts everything else, just for a moment, in a lesser, simply ordinary category.

Here are some of the best-smelling things I know:

L'Occitane's CADE products
Why does this smell so real and everything else so chemical, hyped, or artificial by comparison? Along with the Molton Brown Black Pepper stuff, below, these are the best masculine scents I know. Curiously, CADE is not offered in any form that's meant to stay or linger, making it wonderful...but elusive.

Molton Brown's Re-charge Black Pepper body wash. Not to be missed.

LUSH's Soaps:
-Honey, I Washed the Kids. Believe me, you wouldn't mind having your mouth washed out with this one
-Sea Vegetable Soap. "Intellectually superior to all other soaps."

Gasoline. C'mon admit it: it's one of your favorite secret smells.

Zirh's CLEAN facial wash

A smell I'd describe as Fruit Loops for Grownups. Completely clear with a syrupy consistency that when you put on your face feels like you're doing something you normally shouldn't. You'd just as likely stick your foot in pudding. This is a good thing.

Disney's invisible ink

Want to know the smell of paradise when you're eight? At the end of a glorious day in The Magic Kingdom, you once had the option of getting your hand stamped with invisible ink, readable only under ultraviolet light, that would permit you to re-enter the park on the same day. Even when there was no chance the rest of your exhausted family would ever agree to returning, you couldn't resist keeping your options open, just in case. The slightly chemical scent of that ink, which aimed at something vaguely lemony-lime, was IT! Perhaps predictably, Disney no longer uses this method for re-entry. But even a few years ago, when they did, the scent had been excised. A victim, no doubt, of potential litigation by some super-sensitive urchin with an overprotective mother. Ruined for us all. If anyone out there knows this scent and where I can smell it again, I'll pay you like you're my dealer.

That's my list...for now. Make up your own, and tell me.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Thought

Why do people pierce themselves, but not their pets?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

MUSIC: Recommendation

I was reluctant to buy due to carping reviews, but I'm glad I ignored them and recently purchased Peter Gabriel's OVO: THE MILLENNIUM SHOW (REALWORLD RWPG01 2000—this is the British version, with superior packaging and, I think, song lineup).

Although this was music created to "The Story of OVO," a massive parable staged for London's Millennium Dome, this is not easy pop or show music; it's rich, layered and detailed and rewards repeated listening. There's both intellect and visceral joy in music making here. The sound is terrific, too.

Not to be missed: Tracks 1,2,3,9 and 12.

If you like Elisabeth Fraser's voice on Track 9, DOWNSIDE UP, don't miss her on Massive Attack's MEZZANINE album (CIRCA RECORDS 724384559922 1998), particularly the songs DISSOLVED GIRL and TEARDROP.

Don't listen to any of this music distractedly. Be brave: Sit and listen.


Terry Teachout, the great and eclectic arts critic, today posted on his blog a poignant portrait of unfamiliar idleness entitled Call me Bartleby.

His musings on the joys of saying no to obligation and doggedly pursued experience put me in mind of an observation shared with me about ten years ago by the photographer Fred Eberstadt. I was talking to him about my dream house and I mentioned the importance of a semi-sheltered place, half inside and half outside, from which to observe the passing world. Otherwise known as a porch.

"The most important component of a successful porch," he said, "is not the view. It's the ability to turn both your chair and back away from the view, if you choose."

Why would anyone want to do that? I thought at the time. Now I better know the power and importance of such a choice. Apparently, so does Terry.

Why We Distrust Journalists II

From a letter I sent to National Public Radio this morning:

It's 8:15 am in New York, I'm listening to WNYC, and a story just finished about the surprising win of Hamas over Fatah in the Palestinian elections.

The fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization was NOT ONCE mentioned in the story. The word terror was not mentioned ONCE. The implications for democratic systems that cannibalize themselves through the legitimate election of terrorists were likewise never mentioned.

Do NPR and its reporters not find these elements of the story important?

Instead, the election was reported as if it were a vote for a county freeholder in Iowa.

How do you explain this? How do you claim, as you do in your marketing efforts, that NPR is providing "deep contextual reporting" when the glaring omissions of this story, it seems to me, form a pretty incriminating Exhibit A?

Why We Distrust Journalists I

From today's CNN.com, this enticingly named link: "Watch as news of the [childrens'] deaths proved to be unbearable."

Monday, January 23, 2006


I just came from one of those common New York society occasions: The Fund Raising Get-Together at The Apartment of a Rich Person. I'm not a donor; I was there as a creative consultant to the organization.

After the formal presentation, the group of 50 or so was invited into a lavish living room where we chatted and mingled and chomped hors d’oeuvres. After about 15 minutes, our attention was called. A thin woman dressed in a black jumpsuit-type outfit, in her early forties, I'd guess, stood with the organization's founder in the middle of the room and pronounced she was going in full bore: she would donate $500,000 then and there. Who was committed enough, she asked, to join her in the cause?

I was standing in the next room, right at the doorway when this happened, on the outer ring of the gathering. Just ahead of me, on the inside, was a well groomed man in a blue blazer and striped pants. He leaned in conspiratorially toward his wife, both of them oblivious to my being within earshot.

"Next time you go anywhere without me...", he whispered to her, "don't do that."

Sunday, January 22, 2006

ARCHITECTURE: Bigger isn't better, or even bigger

Take a look at this building...

It's 6 Times Square at 1466 Broadway. Do you see the magnificent structure I do—timeless, majestic, dignified...and big? This is a powerful structure aesthetically and physically.

But here's another, more contextual view of the same building...

This is how I first noticed it, across a temporary opening created by the new construction in the foreground. What is striking is how the newer buildings surrounding and towering over it seem bigger in only one way: physical size. They're just large. In every other way—aesthetically, spiritually, emotionally—they are diminutive in comparison, like out-of-scale toy models placed next to a real object. Bigger certainly isn't better, but what's suprising is that bigger also isn't necessarily...bigger.

Here's even more of the context. I would have thought that perception of size is relative, that we get used to "large" in one context until something bigger comes along, but that's not what's apparent to me here. Take another look at the first photograph. Can it really be described as "small?" Large for its own sake is not enough to create the sense of size that communicates true power, beauty, majesty and dignity. Big just isn't enough. Apparently, it also isn't much.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

ARTS: How to Write a Script

About three years ago, I coauthored a book about directing. Every once in a while, people looking for guidance and advice seek me out on the Internet. When and if I have the time, I try to be helpful.

I recently received a note from a young student who was stuck on an assignment:

I'm supposed to write a script but I can't think of anything at all. The characters have to be two people doing something, like action. Do you understand what I mean?

Here was my answer:
Sure. I understand.

There's a very important lesson that can help you come up with something to write about: Every scene is a chase scene. One person wants something from the other person, and the other one doesn't want to give it. If he did, the scene would be over. So write a script with two people. One person wants something. The other person resists, or puts up obstacles.

Here's an exercise. I'll describe, in just one word, the first of who those two people in your script might be. Based on who that first person is, you should, if you use your imagination, be able to come up with 1) what they probably want and 2) what another person might do to try to prevent them from getting it. For example, if I say Teacher, a teacher would probably want a student to learn. But the Student might resist for any number of reasons. The Teacher is chasing the Student. And that suggests dialog, or a script...

Teacher: This assignment is due on Thursday.

Student: I'm going to be out sick on Thursday.

Teacher: How can you know that in advance?

Student: I know because assignments make me sick.

And so on. The Teacher will keep chasing. He or she will try charm, force, diplomacy, bribery...all sorts of things to get the Student to do the assignment. And the Student will keep avoiding. Or the Teacher might give up and the Student will start a new chase in reverse because he or she wants the attention. That's a scene. It ends when the chase ends.

So here's the list:

Taxi passenger
Stewardess/Flight attendant

For each one, you should be able to come up with what that person might want, the type of person or crowd they might be interacting with, and the kind of resistance that second person or group might apply to what the first person wants. Pick the combination that amuses you most, and write your script around that.

ARCHITECTURE: The Slippery Slope of Fake

I'm thinking of building a house. I needed to do some research, so I packed myself up and traveled to Orlando, Florida, where I attended the International Builder's Show last week.

I was struck by how many home building products were sold not on the basis of how they might benefit the people living in the house, but on how the products would benefit the builder. The primary concerns of a homeowner like me are, "Is it good?" and "Can I afford it?", but a builder's concerns are different: 1) Is it easy to install? 2) Will it create problems that might lead to costly callbacks later? and 3) Can I make a profit on it?

Sometimes, these priorities work well together. Problem is, when the builder's concerns, not the homeowner's, are primary, it can lead to some particularly distressing results.

This was frequently in evidence at the show as I came to realize it's possible to build a completely fake house. One vendor summed up this trend nicely with its jaunty slogan: "Inspired by the appearance of actual wood." Recycled cardboard, discarded plastics, sawdust and who knows what else are now molded into dimensional forms and embossed with artificial grain. You can nail the stuff, bend it, cut it, you name it and it won't rot, peel, or otherwise raise an objection. For the "wood look," there's the old standby, vinyl siding, of course, and fake wood flooring and crown molding and exterior trim. There's also the trend toward gas burning fireplaces with ceramic "logs." Because gas burns cleanly, no chimney is necessary to channel smoke, but I can't discern which bothers me more, a conventional-looking fireplace with fake logs and no chimney (a headless horseman in my living room), or a completely unnecessary chimney built for appearance with no function at all.

Clearly, these materials and methods have many advantages. I'm no technology luddite, I'm just baffled and concerned by why we let these inauthentic expressions become a pervasive part of our everyday lives. Nothing wrong with plastic. Let it be plastic. But this fake stuff unfailingly brings to mind the old Monty Python phrase, "Look, you're not fooling anybody." The real conundrum is why we seem to prefer what's fake, or at least, why we let it happen with so little pushback. Do we even recognize the difference between what's real and what isn't?

• • •

I wish I could recall where I first heard this story, but a suburban boy was at a friend's house and stayed for a sleepover. In the morning, the friend's mother served them fresh squeezed orange juice at breakfast.

The visting boy made a face.

"What wrong?" the friend's mother asked.

"This doesn't taste like the frozen stuff my Mom makes," he said.

Friday, January 20, 2006

DESIGN: The Odd Collection or Two

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to house-sit in a high-rise luxury condominium in Manhattan. I got to stay there for over two years, virtually rent free (a story for another time). Guests frequently fawned over the accomodations (while no doubt also harboring secret resentments). But my friend Joe had a different reaction...

As we sat on the balcony on a pleasant Spring evening, overlooking Damrosch Park and the Metropolitan Opera from the 31st floor, he said, "I feel sorry for you that you have to stay here."

"What? I think I've got it pretty good. Why would you say that?" I asked.

"Because it's not your space. You get to stay here, but it's not yours. It's like living in a hotel room. You can't express yourself. You can't even hang a picture on the wall. You can't collect anything."

I hadn't collected anything since bubble gum and baseball cards, but Joe had planted a seed and when I later moved out, that seed had grown into a full-blown impulse to collect, to make my space my own and surround myself with objects of my own desire.

I started with black and white landscape photography because it's an interest my father exposed me to. I've also developed more recently a small collection of electric train locomotives, specifically Old Time American Steam Engines in a 4-4-0 wheel configuration, since I had one from childhood that got the collection started. And I've begun an unusual collection of mortars and pestles; a strange thing to collect maybe, but they can be beautiful and simple tools that second as inexpensive art objects. And they're slightly naughty. See for yourself.

Perhaps oddest, though, is my collection of over-the-counter pharmaceutical products. Many people have a fetish for hardware or stationary stores and I understand those, but I also have one for old pharmacies and the unguents, salves, and sundries sold there. Something comforting to me about them.

My collection is comprised of three types of product:

1) More beautiful than they have any right to be. Examples: an enormous oval container of Borotalco, imported Italian baby powder; The Good Home Co.'s Linden Flower Body Moisturizer with an old fashioned rubber stop seal; and a bottle of Arran Apothecary's Aloe Vera lotion.

2) Undesign. This is what I call products whose packaging or conception is so naive, so completely lacking in skill, taste, or talent, that they're either unintentionally humorous or utterly compelling, making you wonder out loud, "Who the hell would BUY this?" or "What in the world were they thinking?" Examples: Day Use No-Crack (catchy name!), a Super Hand Cream; D.R. Harris & Co. Ltd.'s Original Pick-Me-Up ("...a splendid reviver in the morning...also serves as an excellent aperitif.") containing, among other ingredients, camphor and ammonia spirit. A reviver for all the wrong reasons. There's also "Arabian Scratches and Gall Salve, manufactured and sold by Our Husband's Company," which apparently also manufactured Cow's Relief, Calves' Cordial, and Cow Tone. It says so right there on the package. (Sorry no pic.)

One product straddles both of the first two categories: Tres Flores (Three Flowers) Brilliantine, colored and scented mineral oil, is intended for anyone still psychologically stuck in the 1950's. It is used for slicking back one's hair, with a nice slime finish to boot. This stuff is still available at a very reasonable (as a collectable) or unreasonable (considering its components) three or four dollars. The bottle is a bit special, though, like a little flower itself but not overly feminine or frou-frou-y. Caringly crafted.

The color of the liquid inside, however, is completely baffling. It's yellow. Well, "yellow" is generous. If it was the name of a paint chip in a car brochure, it would be "Urine Sunrise." It really is the color of pee. I have to wonder: What, oh what color came in SECOND to that? Someone, somewhere once said, "That's not the color we want for this product. This is."

And finally,

3) Products with historical, cultural, or emotional resonance. I have, for instance, a jar of Barbicide. No it's not for killing barbers, it's the blue liquid barbers use to kill germs on scissors and combs. I also have an unopened box of Mr. Bubble, and a metal tin of Pinaud Clubman Talc which preserves for me the glorious smell of my first haircut.

I don't USE these products. I collect them because they delight me. They are odd and comforting and funny and beautiful. If a box of Mr. Bubble doesn't make you smile, what would?

What do you collect? Why?


Hello and welcome to my new blog.

I'm Russell Reich, a writer and creative director with a background in theatre and business communications and a passion for the 10% of things and thinking that aren't crud...the glorious, heightened, wonderful 10% that rises above the confused, the mediocre, the badly intended. In every realm, there is always that 10% worth seeking, and I intend to find it wherever I can.

My purpose here is to share my thinking and discoveries in areas of life that are of significant concern, passion, or interest to me. These include musings on art, design, music, architecture, religion, politics, business, and personal growth. Broad-based, yes, but perhaps some common threads or themes will emerge. I anticipate the common thread will be the search for standards that we might agree are worth raising over our impulses. In any case, my hope is that others will find themselves reflected and amplified here, their secret thoughts recognized and valued, their prejudices challenged, their perspectives widened, their synapses fired, their spark of recognition frequently ignited, their aspirations and search for connection to a like-minded soul satisfied.

Elia Kazan once wrote (I'm paraphrasing here) that all we really have, especially as artists, is the hope that others will see and value things as we do. And, I would add the hope that we are able to similarly receive from others as we wish them to receive from us.

Join in. Participate. Comment. Question. Argue. Be passionate.

Monday, March 28, 2005

LITERATURE: A Castle in Sontagland

Terry Castle, in her mini memoir of Susan Sontag, presents both the fawning actions and the sniping sentiment that are common to celebrity factotums. What is sad is the skewed priority of intellect and education over kindness in the world of the cognoscenti. I don't think Terry Castle was ready to fully deal with that conflict directly, nor her complicity in it, nor was she ready to accept that maybe those priorities cost her more than they've gained her. But I see some realization percolating below the surface and that make me happy.

While reading the article, I imagined myself with the opportunity to confront Sontag: "Why do you think erudition is more important than behavior?" but I also imagined her throwing a pot at my head if I did.