Category Archives: cultcha

Wanderlust, distraction, quiet

I’m reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines now. I’ll spare you the several things that give me pause about his whole enterprise, but this is a passage worth reading, and I think it holds up well even without context.


“I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a résumé of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.

Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.

Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?

Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.

One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was distraction (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.

Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?

All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.

My two most recent notebooks were crammed with jottings taken in South Africa, where I had examined, at first hand, certain evidence on the origin of our species. What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us – from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe – for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.”

-Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, 1987, p. 161-2.

I started doing zazen the final semester of my senior year in college. It was a pretty rough patch in my life, and it helped me get past the general the noise in my head around the terror-of-the-future. (Aside: I think my life would have been a whole lot better if I’d have kept up with it.)

I came to a lot of the same conclusions that Chatwin attributes to Pascal above, about our inability to sit quietly in a room (in fact, maybe I somehow encountered that quote along the line, because those were exactly the words I used in my own head about the subject).  And it led me to the belief that I had to at least temporarily separate myself from the people around me who not only had more trouble sitting quietly alone than I did but who were hell bent on turning up the volume knobs.

There’s something to the idea of doing journeys on foot that I find appealing too, which is something to take up later.

Giant proportions

Here’s a random thought for graduate work in some discipline that probably doesn’t exist (some combination of art history, literature, sociology, psychology, folklore, maybe comparative religions, but hey, let’s just say History because that’s what I did my undergraduate degree in because I couldn’t pick any single one of the above (or because I think most of those fields are flawed or have too many limiting assumptions to be fields of serious study)).

Many if not most cultures have stories and artistic depictions of giants. Most of the depictions of giants I can think of have humans coming up to right below the knee. Is that true? Are the sizes of the giants in proportion to average human height constant over time and cuture? If they vary does that tell us something about the culture or time? Where do giants come from? Is it because we all viscerally remember being children and having to navigate a world of terrifying giants, whose strange rules you need to learn to survive?

In the days when you were hopelessly poor, I just liked you more (part 2)

[part 1 was here]

This phrase still pops into my mind uninvited all the time.

It’s not that you were a better person. It’s not that you’re a bad person now that you’re comfortable-to-well-off. It’s not that the person you were then didn’t show a hint of the person you became, would fatalistically make the same series of choices that ended up turning you into the person that you became.

It’s that I just liked you more.

All the people we used to know are just illusions to me now

I saw this clip— I’m not sure what it’s from; maybe the Rolling Thunder tour in 1975?— when I was 13 or 14 and there was some “20 years of Rolling Stone” special on ABC, and something about it burrowed into my consciousness. I think what got me most then was the weirdly applied white makeup, to be honest. My parents hadn’t been into Dylan in the day, and so I guess I had this vague idea he was some kind of earnest folk singer. But the white makeup and the funny hat: so stagey, so… fake.

That’s what got me at 14. What gets me about this song now is the last verse:

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Long pop songs

A confluence of events allowed me to listen to long pop songs today.

I had few meetings scheduled. I had a lot of work that required focus. Everybody else in the office was in a chatty mood.

I put on the headphones, cranked up iTunes, set up a smart list that included only songs longer than 10 minutes.

I got:

Sister Ray — Velvet Underground
Pass the Hatchet, I’m Goodkind — Yo La Tengo
Stone Free (Live, Albert Hall) — Jimi Hendrix
Jenny Ondioline — Stereolab
A Very Cellular Song — The Incredible String Band
Cosmia — Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band
Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord — Pharoah Sanders
I Dream A Highway — Gillian Welch
Desolation Row — Bob Dylan

… and many others showed up that I didn’t actualy listen to.

Stupid technology, happy Valentine’s day, overmediation

So, I fix my blog late Friday night, am getting a little of a yen to restart blogging, and then early Saturday morning, I hit an immediate roadblock. My Apple Time Capsule— which has functioned wonderfully as a router and no-brains-required backup device for about 18 months— suddenly stopped being able to route to,, and It took 1 support ticket to my hosting service, and a support call to my home ISP (RCN) to figure this out.  The RCN support rep had  hook a computer up directly to the cable modem to rule out the router. I rolled my eyes when she told me to do this— why would the router be the problem? So of course, when I take the router out of the equation, I can get to the site without an issue.  Why the router is doing this is beyond me– it’s an Apple home router, not exactly some esoteric Cisco thing meant for huge companies, there aren’t a lot of ways that you could even put some kind of rule in there to filter out websites if you wanted to. I spent more of my time than I’d care to admit trying to figure out how to debug the stupid thing before I finally decided that there was no good explanation for what it was doing, no good way to debug it, and probably no way to fix it even if I could debug it.

Luckily, I have a spare cheapo Linksys home router at work, so I figured that I’d grab it first thing this morning because I’d already hatched a plan to go out early and get some Valentines’ day flowers for Terri. So, Rainey woke up at 7, I changed him, we played a little, read a few books, and then I bundled him up and we trekked into town to my office. Thanks to your tax dollars and mine, the Big Dig has made this a 10 minute drive on a weekend morning when there’s no traffic. There was no parking on Pearl St, where I usually park when I make these quick jaunts. I remembered that there’s an alley behind the building, so I looped around the block and turned down it. A homeless guy who lives in the neighborhood was dumpster diving in the alley, and there were maybe two dozen huge seagulls, all squacking and waddling toward him. They were thrilled that he’d opened the lid on the dumpsters. Of course, when I turned down the alley, neither the seagulls nor the guy seemed too thriled that I turned down their alley.  I wasn’t exactly happy to be disturbing them either, and all for naught, as it turned out; the loading dock where I’d hoped to park is full with two pickup trucks. So I found a place on the street not too far off. The jaunt up to the office and retrieve the router was quick and uneventful, as was the drive back to Somerville. We stopped at Whole Foods and got some black velvetty looking roses that I figured (correctly) that Terri would like, and we came back and I helped Rainey make his mom a valentine (which Terri also indeed liked).

Guinness & NYT crosswordOnce Terri woke up and found her valentines treats and we got our act together, we walked into Davis Square to the Burren for what has become our Sunday morning — er, afternoon— ritual of reading the NY Times and nursing a few Guinness and letting Rainer flirt outrageously with women 20 – 40 times his age. We had the same waitress as last week. She remembered Rainer’s name (last time we discussed Rainer Maria Rilke (and how he was only one of many factors which led us to Rainey’s name)). This time we discussed how one of the great things about the Burren is that there are no TVs.

Seriously, you can’t go into a place and have it actually be that place anymore. There have to be at least 2 TVs playing at least 2 different channels. Part of the wonderful conversation that Terri and I had during our 5 hours (!) there this afternoon concerned how we’ve really appreciated going to the Burren because it’s somewhere where there are no distractions. This in contrast to our home, which has become a bit overmediated. I definitely feel like we spend a ton of time physically there without really being there. And we have the dirty kitchen of a heavy traveller to prove it. And I realize that driving 5 miles into Boston and 5 miles back before 8am just so that I can get a router that lets me blog is precisely part of the problem. But I am also giving myself some slack; blogging is at least requiring me to sustain some thoughts for more than 140 characters. Blogging is realtime like Twitter, but in high-definition!

“people who don’t work with their hands are parasites”

This “Shop Class as Soulcraft” book that has been getting a lot of attention lately bugs me for a lot of reasons. So it’s nice to see that someone has written a far more lucid essay than I could have, hitting all of my main gripes.

I mean, I get where the motorcycle repair guy is coming from. For the last 10 years I’ve either been a software developer or, abstracted one more level, a manager of software developers, or, abstracted one more level, a director of software development— the latter being so abstracted even I’m not really sure what it means most of the time. I spend most of the day communicating mostly electronically with often remote colleagues to build symbolic representations of things which are themselves symbolic representations of other things. So sometimes it all gets a little hairy, and when it does, I come home from the office, turn off the computer and do some gardening: I touch dirt, and cultivate living things that enjoy the sun. Or I mess around with my 3/4 ton cast iron letterpress built in 1925,  making physical things on actual paper using real ink that stains my hands, setting the type by hand, metal letter by metal letter. There is a definite satisfaction to manipulating things in the physical world for a change.

And when I talk about these things with people who don’t know me well, they often assume these are my true passions, what I’d spend 100% of my time doing if only I could throw off the golden handcuffs of my day job. They seem a little surprised when I tell them that I’d go totally crazy if I had to do either of those things full time, and that I find my real job far more stimulating. But it’s true. If I really wanted to grow things for a living, I’d have stayed on my parents’ farm, and if I wanted to do letterpress full-time I’d do it— I know many people who have thriving letterpress businesses.

But my job is sort of endlessly interesting: it’s basically to learn how a part of the world works and then to model it as software. When something becomes rote, you just write a program to do it for you. Or, as Alan Turing said:

Instruction tables will have to be made up by mathematicians with computing experiences and perhaps a certain puzzle-solving ability. There will probably be a great deal of work to be done, for every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form at some stage.

The process of constructing instruction tables should be very fascinating. There need be no real danger of it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may be turned over to the machine itself.

In the process, I have gotten to work closely with people from China, all parts of India, Ireland, Korea, France, Bangladesh via Saudi Arabia, England, Russia, and every conceiveable part of the US. While I do sympathize with the movement toward more local economies like the movement toward eating fresh locally grown food, and while I do get concerned at times at the really dramatic extent to which US manufacturing has moved overseas, I do know that my life has been enriched by developing personal relationships with people from all over the world. I have a hard time believing that this kind of international exchange of labor is a bad thing.

Back to the New Yorker piece: one of the things that irks me to no end about the “Shop Class” guy (whose book I have not read, but whose NYT Magazine article I did read) is his kind of shocking lack of historical perspective. The insight that mechanized or abstract work can be kind of alienating is not exactly new. While he does cite some influences (like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), he writes as if he never heard of, oh, the arts and crafts movement. The New Yorker piece does a decent survey of a history of this idea, all the way back to Adam Smith himself.

I guess, finally, what also bugs me is that I do agree with his basic premise: that “manual” labor actually requires creativity and can be a satisfying, valuable, and worthwhile way to spend your life. I just dislike that he seems to rule out the possibility that others mileage may vary, and would not find it so. But it seems like bashing white collar work seems to have struck a nerve with enough white collar workers to sell quite a few books.

[PS: To save you the trouble of looking it up, the title of this post is a Jenny Holzer Truism]

Driving in Massachusetts with the… with the… radio on!

We drove to the Petsmart in Everett to get some wet food and some litter. The radio we heard there and back could have been taken from my casette collection in 8th grade. On the way we heard the end of “Aqualung” and then we switched stations to some kind of jazz thing on 91.5, which I think is Tufts University radio, but weren’t really paying attention. In Petsmart the woman with the purple fingernails so incredibly long they curve into themselves — I don’t know she bags heavy containers of pet food all day– made small talk with Terri about when her due date was and if we know if it’s a boy or a girl. When we got back to the car, Tufts University radio is no longer playing jazz, they’re playing “Thick as a Brick”. It’s not every day you hear the Jethro Tull on two different radio stations within 15 minutes of each other, and you pretty much never hear them on college radio– maybe all the music snobs have gone home for the summer? Anyway, we headed back toward home, and they cut off “Thick as a Brick” abruptly partway through and kick into “Nights in White Satin”. Now, the clouds were kind of thick and grey, but as we came over the crest of a hill on Route 16, the Moody Blues coming to a crashing, overblown symphonic crescendo, a huge break in the heavens opens up and beams of sunset light are shining down on us, and we both just started laughing because the moment could not have been more perfectly synchronized if we were in a car commercial. We decided to grab dinner at Cambridge Common, so we got to hear “Tuesday Afternoon” and the beginning of “Locomotive Breath”.

After dinner, back in the car, I’m the DJ because I had beer and so Terri is driving. Fresh Air with Terri Gross is on NPR, and she’s interviewing some guy who is talking some crap about relationships and the new song on his album and the guy is all “don’” this and “singin’” that (I admit that I tunred to Terri and said “sounds like this guy forgot to bring his G’s to the interview”) and talking about how insensitivity creeps into relationships and I assume it’s some folksy pretentious faux man of the people NPR darling like Steve Earle or some such, so I flip stations, but nothing else is on, so I flip back, and I swear to god, the words out Terri Gross’s mouth are “ok, so, Iggy Pop, now we’re going to listen to your cover of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” from your new album”.


And, during the clip, I’m thinking, while I’m not rushing out to buy this, it’s also not as bad as Rod Stewart’s standards album or the Billy Idol christmas album. At the end she asks him if he’s going to be doing cabaret anytime soon, and he says that he admits that pretentions of the Cafe Carlyle or the Rainbow Room are creeping in. She asks if the Cafe Carlyle called tonight would he do it, he says “you know, I might be tempted but I’ve done stuff like that before and I just hate singin’ with my shirt on”.

Musical comfort food

Since John asked. Stuff that didn’t change my life but that I can turn on and instantly get immersed in a certain place or time.

  • 69 Love Songs — The Magnetic Fields.  (speaking of trying way, way too hard, but occasionally pulling it off in spite of yourself)
  • Greatest Hits — Biz Markie
  • anything — The Carter Family (ok, this is in my “change my life” list too, but it’s OK. If you ever need a vacation from the modern world, nothing can snap you into a world of pre-media-saturation faster than a trip to the Appalachians with AP, Sara, and Maybelle.)
  • Turn on the Bright Lights — Interpol (yes, sometimes I listen to this even when Terri isn’t around)
  • Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy — Brian Eno
  • Another Green World — Brian Eno
  • The Sunset Tree — The Mountain Goats
  • A Radical Recital — Rasputina
  • Thanks for the Ether — Rasputina
  • Eye — Robyn Hitchcock
  • Moss Elixer — Robyn Hitchcock
  • Luxor — Robyn Hitchcock
  • Funeral — Arcade Fire
  • Satanic Panic in the Attic — Of Montreal
  • The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society — The Kinks
  • The Sunlandic Twins — Of Montreal
  • Muswell Hilbillies — The Kinks
  • The Singles (1960-1975) — Ike & Tina Turner
  • Speaking in Tongues — The Talking Heads
  • Red Roses for Me — The Pogues
  • If I Should Fall From Grace With God — The Pogues
  • Rum Sodomy and the Lash — The Pogues
  • Hell’s Ditch — The Pogues
  • Trans Europe Express — Kraftwerk
  • Highway 61 Revisited — Bob Dylan
  • Bone Machine — Tom Waits
  • Rain Dogs — Tom Waits
  • Discography — The Pet Shop Boys
  • Germ Free Adolescents — X Ray Spex
  • Nixon — Lambchop
  • The Modern Lovers — The Modern Lovers
  • various, ranging from the sublime to the painful — Jonathan Richman
  • The Pleasure Principle — Gary Numan
  • IV — Faust
  • Switched On, vols 1-2 — Sterolab
  • I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One — Yo La Tengo
  • Snap! — The Jam
  • Blacknuss — Rashaan Roland Kirk
  • The Inflated Tear — Rashaan Roland Kirk
  • Weather Systems — Andrew Bird
  • Thrills — Andrew Bird
  • Tender Buttons — Broadcast
  • Let’s Get Out Of This Country — Camera Obscura
  • The Dresden Dolls — The Dresden Dolls
  • In The Reins — Iron and Wine / Calexico
  • Hot Rail — Calexico
  • Vauxhall and I — Morrissey
  • Louder than Bombs — The Smiths
  • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — Neutral Milk Hotel
  • We Shall All Be Healed — The Mountain Goats
  • Upstairs at Eric’s — Yaz

Strange Geometry

So I recently did the whole “15 albums that changed your life” meme on Facebook, but there are a lot of things I listen to again and again — Terri would say compulsively, no, she doesn’t say that, she asks “are you going to ruin this one for me, too?”. Anyway, there are a whole slew of albums that didn’t and won’t change my life, but that I return to again and again like a favorite sweater or a musical blanket.

“Strange Geometry” by the Clientele is like that. It’s not going to stretch your horizons. It didn’t change the shape of music. It’s derivitave, and like all Clientele records, it borders on being a precious affected 60′s period piece. But like all the Clientele’s best stuff, there’s a kind of surreal and dark and almost mystical undercurrent.

You can listen to this record and dismiss it, thinking “this is a little pretentious, and they’re trying too hard”. And it’s kind of true. While really great albums just do it and don’t sound so strained, this album manages to both try too hard and pull it off. A good example is “Losing Haringey“: it’s a spoken word thingy where the narrator finds himself in a photograph, and right when I’m thinking “oh, please”, a little turn of phrase will just twist the right way (“as if none of the intervening disasters and wrong turns had happened yet” always gets me), and it just works.

And “Since K Got Over Me” and “My Own Face In The Trees” are just great pop songs.