Friday, July 04, 2003

Today's fireworks are over at soul of Star Trek with a July 4 essay on the movie, "Independence Day."

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Some weekends C-Span's Book TV has nothing I'm interested in, and some weekends---like the past one-there were several hours of stuff which I tape and check out through the following week. I just watched an hour's interview with Steven Wolfram about his book, A New Science.

The interviewer, whose name I forget, was a a TV reporter who got his rep by being able to communicate fairly complex ideas in a creative, clever and ironic way. He wasn't bad, but he kept coming back to this idea of Wolfram's ambition and ego in claiming to be creating a new science. That's the conventional wisdom on Wolfram and his book. (His web site is full of hype, so there's some basis I suppose.) But unfortunately for the interviewer, this was entirely undercut by Wolfram, not just his appearance and demeanor, but by what he had to say. He made a discovery, a very simple one (that complex phenomena, and randomness as well, can be generated over time by a few simple rules applied to the behavior of very simple phenomena), that he came to believe can account for complexity in many of the realms in which science tries to explain why things are they way they are.

I can't even begin to judge his theories (though what he said about how his ideas affect the theories of biological evolution made good sense to me), but I was able to get a feel for the theorist, and it seems to me that his ideas should be judged and debated on the merits, and not on whether or not he developed them in a prestigious university or think tank, or circulated a peer-reviewed manuscript, or even that his claims are large and his ad campaign is obnoxious.

I've read an article that accuses him of misrepresenting the work of others, and taking a lot of credit he isn't due. This is troubling and does damage his credibility. The evaluation of his theories, and whether he makes claims for them that are much too large, is underway, and that's a good thing.

He may turn out to be a genius of the age, or he may not. But doubts about his credibility have to be stated and confronted, not turned into fashionable snideness and follow-the-leader image-making. Evaluate his theories on the merits. Maybe he has hogged the limelight by his ability to buy exposure. But that means that his part of the debate gets stated, and others can answer him, and put these issues of randomness, complexity, and the nature of time, into the public discussion. Considering that relativity and quantum theory began in the early twentieth century, it's about time.
The NBA free agent season has begun. The Lakers are looking at a number of them, though they can dangle less money than championship potential in front of those available. Karl Malone was the first to visit L.A. He would add a third scorer when he played power forward, and even at 40 he can still play. But how much would he play? He can't play Laker defense, and the Lakers defense is crucial in the playoffs. Now that Robert Horry's option hasn't been picked up, they don't have a gifted defender at that position. And I wonder how Malone would fit in with this team, and whether he's coachable anymore.

The Lakers apparently want Gary Payton the most, for their starting point guard presumably. The b-ball savants say they probably won't get him--that somebody will offer him too much more money so the prospect of winning a ring won't override it. I hope so. I don't think Payton would fit into this team. He's always seemed to me to be kind of a jerk.

So Scotty Pippen is beginning to look better and better---a scoring forward who can play intense defense. But the word is that the Chicago Bulls, of all the teams in the universe, are trying hard to get him, and may offer a front office job when he retires as part of the package.

There are a couple of younger mature players---P.J. Brown and Juwan Howard among them---the Lakers would like to look at, but it will depend on the bucks other teams offer. San Antonio has so much room under the salary cap that they can pursue a big name, like Jason Kidd, and still have the bucks to buy off somebody just so the Lakers won't get him. If they get Kidd the question for next year will be how well that team jells---I think it's fifty-fifty that it will improve that much. Sacramento may have peaked as well. I think (and Phil, I know you're waiting for my words of wisdom here) that with the pretty cool draft picks they got, if they get Ty Lue as a free agent, make Medvedenko a starter and re-sign Mark Madsen and Byron Scott, they may not need one of these name free agents. They need a steadying veteran like Scott or Horace Grant, and they could sure use another scorer, but they mostly need the speed and enthusiasm that Lue, Medvedenko, Madsen and the draft picks (including the young Walton) might supply.

Though I still think, Phil, you ought to give Michael a call. One more championship together. Could be irresistable. And he's always made more on endorsements than salary anyway. The league would be ecstatic. Ratings will not be a problem.

But no reason to listen to me. Just because I predicted that San Antonio would win games 5 and 6 and the championship.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

We are about half way into the latest Harry Potter. Margaret and I read chapters to each other in the evenings, as we did the first four books several years ago when friends introduced us to this practice.

As advertised, this novel is darker, and Harry is more angry and emotional. He is fifteen in this book, and Rowling has brilliantly matched the story to the kind of challenge an adolescent is more likely to see, and more able to respond to. The younger Harry had to deal with threats from outside the Hogwarts school, and though he had some troubled times within it, with several teachers and with some other students, basically he found comfort and support there. Now he is confronted with official authority that is despotic and insidious, and yet has absolute control over his school life. Some of this actually reminds me of my own adolescence, in Catholic junior high and high school. But what's also interesting is that this presents challenge that might have been overwhelming for the younger Harry. Along with emotional turmoil, Harry shows signs of moving towards awareness of his strengths. It takes a wise writer to see this, and a skillful one to make it feel real.
There's an interesting and ambitious long essay in the July issue of Harper's by Jack Hitt, a contributing editor of that magazine. Perhaps I'm projecting (or on the other hand perhaps it's always been true) but it seems that more and more of the magazine reads as if written by Lewis Lapham, its editor. This is not the most exact example, though it does have the Lapham tone.

Called "A Gospel According to the Earth," it is clever and learned, has many provocative things to say about religion in history and the contemporary world, and there are passages of great insight and elegance. But I find I can't agree with his apparent conclusion, that the spiritual realm once claimed by established religions is now being displaced into such endeavors as environmentalism but without real spiritual content. Or at least that's what I take as the meaning of one of his concluding strophes, "We live in end time, all right. But it's not the end of the world that's coming; it's the declining power of the sacred word to reach our hearts as something other than shibboleth."

I might agree that traditional religious forms, such as Christianity, are perched on the edge of irrelevance. But Hitt ignores the the nature-based religions that flourished in Europe well before the Greeks, and in Asia and other parts of the world, particularly evident in the last indigenous cultures of Africa, Australia and the Americas. (His references to pagan religions are more learned than I could manage but still historically limited.) The Native traditions I know something about provide a spiritual context for contemporary ecology. The survival of these cultures, and their sacred places, is closely linked to the survival of natural environments. But beyond this, there is a spiritual quality to quite a bit of ecological consciousness and just plain tree-hugging. There is more to the environmental movement than rationalism, and displaced guilt and pale projections of resurrection. The whole concept of resurrection comes not from Christianity but from the natural world, from the cycles of plants, the mysteries of gestation and birth and death in childbirth, and the emergence of the bear from a winter's deadness.

I don't think that spirituality depends on belief in a superhuman creator and guardian figure, or a priesthood of authorities, their angels and their saints. Spirituality to me can simply be acknowledging greater mysteries, and the sacredness of what we are given, what sustains us in our life, which is our planet and our universe and its life and mysteries. We are not limited by our understanding of it all, yet we must be responsible to what we do understand, which right now has led us to realize the effects we are having on the fabric of our planet's life, as well as the violence we do to each other, often from a great distance and without direct knowledge. We must be responsible as well to our best understanding of ourselves, and what we do to each other and why.

Perhaps as Hitt cleverly suggests the act of recycling is our equivalent of an act of contrition. But I don't believe that recycling as a form of prayer is necessarily empty, and I think that in their hearts people know it is not empty, and that it is a prayer.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Bring on the Night

Over the past couple of days I've watched (in pieces) one of my favorite movies, "Bring on the Night," directed by Michael Apted. It follows the construction of the band and first album of Sting when he first went solo in the late 80s. It's a great band, made up of mostly jazz musicians, all of them non-white:Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland (who has since passed on) on keyboards, Omar Hakim on drums, the definitive backup singers of Dolette MacDonald and Janet Pendaris.

It's a skillingfully done movie, made especially enjoyable by the locations (all in and around Paris), the musicianship and personalities of the band members, and how articulate they are, which of course also extends to Sting, the star of the show. (There's also the post-Don't Look Back required scenes of the semi-slimy manager, in this case castigating the designers for the bland clothes the band is wearing, while he is wearing exactly the same colors and style.)

It also means a lot that this album constitute Sting's best in merging political/historical content with great songwriting. So two scenes near the end of the movie, the only ones in which Sting is near tears, occur one after the other. The second is the on-camera birth of his son, with him in the delivery room with his wife, Judie Styler (very brave to appear pregnant in the whole film; what she looks like normally can be seen in one of Sting's best song videos, and perhaps one of the best anyone made in the early, most creative days of such videos, for "We'll Be Together" from his next album, "Nothing Like the Sun," which is pretty much an extension of this one, "Song of the Blue Turtles.") It's done with great potency to Sting's song on this album and in this show, "Russians." It is so simple that at times it is simplistic, but at times it is the poetic essence of the reality. "We share the same biology/regardless of ideology..."

(There's probably not a more complex yet powerful political song than "We Work the Black Seam," also on this album and in this film.)

The first is his sit-down interview answer to the question, was there a moment when you knew your dreams were going to come true? Yes, it was when he was waking up after a gig (with the Police presumably) in a hotel room in northern England and he heard the man washing the windows singing his song, "Roxanne." (This moment is referenced in his video for "Every Breath You Take.") He said he nearly wept, and nearly did as he said it. To have someone sing a song you wrote is, as he says quite precisely, "a great privilege."

It is a dream that I share. It sort of happened to me at least once, though I still dream of hearing children I don't know sing a song I made up. I guess the meaning of it is hard to explain to someone who doesn't share it so intensely. But I agree, it is akin to something holy and can't be really sought after. It is a great privilege.
On those days, in those moments I am conscious of living on the far edge of my life, I do things realizing they may be my last opportunity. In these very close to desperate times, what I thought I was doing was completion. Finishing and getting it out there. But there were also things I was starting, things I am in the middle of; there were and are things I've held onto.

I suppose there still are things I will hold onto for awhile, a few ideas, for instance, like the concept I have for a new image for the arts. But I now realize that what I am doing is giving away. Holding on or holding back is itself a kind of death. Give it the chance of life, even if that means giving it away.

So I will give away more. I will send my ideas out there, freely, but also without fear or favor.

I will give what I have to give. Partly this is because I believe you make your best contribution by doing what you do best, especially if it is markedly different from what else is available. Partly it is like that conversation between the Woody Allen character and the space aliens in "Stardust Memories." Woody (playing a comedian who makes arty movies) asks them if he should devote his life to doing charitable works with the poor, or something like that. They tell him something like: You're not the type, you'd never last. If you want to help humanity, tell funnier jokes.

Maybe it's just that we give what we have to give, because we cannot give what we do not have.
As much as I disparage the obsession, the addiction, the insidious tyranny of consumerism, I don't follow any party line. For example, I like some designer label clothes. There is something to be said for them. If I could afford it, I would wear a lot of Armani. Perhaps this comes from being the grandson of a tailor (an Italian one at that), because what I like and value about Armani clothes is their style, and that they are well made.

Of course there are certain names that are pure bull and marketing, that are no better and may be worse than non-name clothes. But some do mean something.

And many people, it seems, wear designer label clothes for the label, not the clothes or the designer. But to refuse to wear these clothes because of these people is to play their game.

In fact, my suits, shirts and some of my ties (none of which I have the opportunity to wear much these days) are designer label, although without exception I bought them either on deep discount or more typically in thrift stores. But even second-hand, they are in better shape than a lot of full price clothes. They are made in France, England and Italy, of good fabric. They are probably not as well made as the more expensive designers, and may even be as well made as the suits my grandfather tailored for his customers, in the small American town where he had his shop.