On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog

2B or not 2BOn Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Bob Mankoff rejects most everything he sees. He works as the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, a magazine whose sense of cartoon humor is famous, but extraordinarily difficult to define. This is not a new problem. In fact, the New Yorker has always suffered from a rough case of not being able to explain itself (the problem goes back to the 1920s when Writer’s Digest asked the New Yorker’s editors to advise writers interested in the magazine; in essence, the New Yorker editors could not).

“Well, we needed the rain.”“How About Never – Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons” is a kind of small-scale coffee table biography, half text and half cartoons. As with the New Yorker magazine, it’s difficult not to be attracted to the cartoons, but I was good: I read the whole book including all of Mankoff’s confessional text and all of his chosen cartoons. What surprised me: only a few of the cartoons made me smile or laugh. And that got me to thinking about how difficult it must be, to select from the stack of 500 cartoons from regular contributors and an equal number from wannabes. Mankoff writes, “eventually, I cull the pile down to fifty or so, which I’ll take to the Wednesday afternoon cartoon meeting…” where the stack will be winnowed down to just seventeen, maybe eighteen cartoons that will be published in the magazine. (There are, and have always been, so many rejects, Mankoff started a new venture called Cartoon Bank to give exposure to the rejects—and earn some money for himself [before he joined the magazine as cartoon editor] and for other working cartoonists.

modern_medicine
So what’s funny? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the New Yorker believe to be funny?

I just read a book about that topic and I still don’t know the answer. But I know a good New Yorker cartoon when I see one.

There are good ones on page 148.

The first shows a pair of snails with large spiral shells on their backs. They are staring at a plastic Scotch tape dispenser which resembles them. The caption: “I don’t care if she is a tape dispenser. I love her.” Very spare, right to the point, softly funny.

The second shows a man about to lose his head to a guillotine. The executioner offers a choice of two baskets to catch the head. The caption reads, “paper or plastic?”

On page 156, a cat is being instructed about litter box use by his owner: “Never, ever think outside the box.”

On page 251, under the sign, “Horse Play,” a horse is up on his hind legs shouting to a horse in the barn loft, “Stella!!”

On page (I lost count and they’re not all numbered), a croissant and tea on one side of the breakfast table and a whole lot of bacon, pancakes, sausage, eggs, juice, coffee, and the caption, “Welcome to America, bitch.”

On 284, a man has been murdered, and he is lying face down as two detectives look on. The room’s walls and floors resemble a crossword puzzle. One detective says to the other, “any clues?”

 

Internet_dog

So what have we learned? It’s no easier to write a book about cartoons than it is to select cartoons for the magazine. What’s funny is just funny—once again, there is no science to any of it. Which leads back to Mankoff on page 4, where he writes, “I’ve ignored E.B. White’s famous admonition, ‘analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

BTW: The statement about the dog that titles this article

140325-katltoon-editorial

 

 

 

Free Love and Independent Thinking

‘tain’t often that artist Marcel DuChamp, Woody Guthrie, Henry Miller, R. Crumb and Walt Whitman show up in the same book, but as I write those names on a list, the linkages are clear. They’re all artists for whom self-expression has been a defining characteristic, frustrated by lack of acceptance,  iconoclastic in ways only a mother could love.

So here’s Walt Whitman. He dropped out of school at age 11, apprenticed for a printer, got lucky because his employer subscribed to a circulating library (they were unusual at the time). He read, and read, and read some more. He wandered, too, up and down Broadway, “losing himself in the great tides of humanity…”And then, he decided to write about what he saw, in terms that captured the way he perceived the world.

And you that shall cross

from shore to shore

years hence, are more to me,

and more in my meditations,

than you might suppose.

bohemians-a-graphic-history-verso-books

In a book with so many styles of storytelling and visual presentation, one story I especially enjoyed was entitled (of course) The Frowning Prophet and the Smiling Revolutionary: Modern Art Arrives in New York. The tale begins just as the Victorian Era is ending. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz is beginning to demonstrate the value of a new visual art form, teams with with Edward Steichen, and together, they create a magazine called Camera Work. Their sensibility was shared by two painters from the emerging Ashcan School, which painter Robert Henri describes:

“We want our paint to be as real as mud, as the closes of horse shit and snow that froze on Broadway in winter.”

After opening a gallery to display new visual ideas, Stieglitz staged a huge exhibit to showcase modern art, which he described as follows:

“This exhibit is a battle cry for freedom without any soft pedal on it.”

For most Americans, the exhibit, at the New York Armory in 1913, was their first exposure to Monet’s Waterlilies, Gauguin’s island paintings, Edward Hopper, Renoir, Picasso, much more.

Of course, this was radical. And it reeks of authenticity (in a good way). Is this truly independent media?

How does this tie into Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s circle or friends, or Josephine Baker’s time in Paris, or Charley Parker’s insurmountable talent and incorrigible bad habits? Is drugs and poor financial management, or abject (but artistic) poverty the key to honest art? There are so many stories that feel similar in tone, most often because people did precisely what they believed they ought to do, regardless of what others may have thought at the time. For example, consider the excellent story of Abel Meeropol, who wrote Billie Holiday’s radical song, “Strange Fruit” and then raised the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after they were convicted of treason and executed. Is this related to the sexual freedom (and other strange stuff) that made the Harlem Renaissance fascinating (today and to the white visitors in the 1920s)? Maybe part of being a bohemian is positioning yourself outside the mainstream, hoping that someday, you might be discovered on your own terms, or, in other cases, not caring a whit about being discovered at all.

The free love story seems to begin before the U.S. Civil War as “The Free Love League. It “met in Taylor Saloon and Hotel, an elegant downtown venue often used for socialist and spiritualist meetings…” The outspoken were women who made their own choices about their own bodies, who they loved, how they loved, and how they dealt with a society bound by rigid, critical rules and expectations. Others hung-on, maybe because they were societal misfits, maybe because they were true believers, maybe because the whole idea was fresh and invigorating.

VERSO_978-1-781682616_BOHEMIANS_large_CMYKMuch as the 1960s was associated with independent thinking—and free love, for they often come together—so, too, were the 1920s. Before that, in the 1910s, Greenwich Village began to take shape as a neighborhood Bohemia. Today’s hipsters seem to be a pale counterpart, in part because they have money in one pocket and the internet in the other. A century ago, “Bohemians” (a bundle of misnomers generally not associated with the Czech region) “flocked to avant-garde exhibitions and modern dance performances, and bought paintings, lithographs, and photographs, helping the real bohemians pay the rent and get public attention…”

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

Co-editor Paul Buhle, graduate of Brown University, drawn with the kind of expressiveness than graphic novels have brought into the mainstream.

So goes the story told in a wonderful collection of graphic (comic-style) stories about a few dozen people who help to define the impossible-to-define term, “bohemian” in a book entitled “Bohemians: A Graphic History Edited by Paul Buhle and David Berger.” It may or may not be our place to challenge who is and is not included in the book, or what the precise definition of the term might be. Instead, I think it’s cool to just observe, to consider the ideas, keep what you like, discard the rest, and think about it on another day.

Stories are related, but just as the writing and graphic styles vary, so, too, do the ways the stories relate to one another. I read the book on a Saturday, and spent much of Sunday thinking about what I read, referring back to gain a more complete understanding. And then, much in the way that bohemians would have hoped, the next few days were filled with my recollections, and my suggestion that friends read the book, or, at least, explore these lesser-told-tales. It is a book that comes together quite wonderfully, but not while the book is in your hands. That comes later. After you’ve had a bit of time to think about it.

Maybe that’s a defining characteristic of independent media, too. It takes some time before the ideas form a meaningful whole. With some parts that never quite come into focus. And others with edges so sharp, they cut like a knife.

strange fruit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Second Visit to John’s Island, and Bohicket Road

In December, I wrote an article about a book about a watercolor painter named Mary Whyte. Along the way, I found out about an early book which is, in its way, even better than the first one. Here’s the link to the first article. Here’s what I think you ought to know about the earlier title, “Down Bohicket Road.” But first, here’s the cover:

Down Bohicket Road

It’s a lovely picture, posed, a local woman who became a friend after Phiadelphian watercolorist Mary Whyte moved south to, of all places, tiny John’s Island in South Carolina. It may have been the best decision the artist ever made, for there, she encountered a community whose stories needed to be told, and, apparently, she was the one chosen to do just that.

I want to show you every watercolor in the book, and I do recommend that you get a copy of the book so that you may experience them first hand, but here’s a start on the journey. The book begins with a 2011 picture—this all happened very recently—of a neglected church, old Hebron Church, located on a 12-mile stretch called Bohicket Road. There, she was, more or less, adopted by a group of local women who used the church as a community center. One, pictured ironing with a kerchief and a mighty head of steam, is Georgeanna. How Whyte manages to depict the energy and gaseous nothingness of steam in a watercolor is, for me, something of a miracle. When she painted Mariah, years earlier, in 1992, the picture called Queen depicts a woman deep in a quilting activity, fine fingers on the cloth which becomes a soft dream as the viewer approaches. Tesha is the woman on the cover, appearing in several striking setups, including one called September that shows her gathering sunflowers nearly as tall as she is. In the cover image, the horse’s name is Rosie, “a docile old mare that had been fused to teach dozens of children of all levels to ride.” The painting is called Summer Solstice because it was made on the longest day of the year.

There’s a tender picture of Georgeanna, at ninety years old, wearing one of her favorite hats, and another called Angel in which a young teenaged model stands, spreads a quilt like angel wings, closes her eyes, and dreams.

Not on the website, but as good a digital presentation as I was able to find:

Blue Bird

Friends have asked why I am so taken with Mary Whyte’s work. I can answer simply: she transports me to a different world. It’s rich with special people, a place that she has chosen to depict in ways that artists sometimes do: breathing a special kind of life into otherwise ordinary subjects.

Take a minute, watch the video, and then visit her online gallery. It’s worth the trip.

My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.

Done.

The News About The News

the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Kai Mörk

News coverage of a press conference, not a TV camera in sight. But most people still get their news from their TV sets. Attribution: Kai Mörk. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

During the past twenty years, each of the network’s evening newscasts have lost half of their viewers. These days, about 18 million Americans—that’s 18 million out of 240 million American adults—watch the nightly network news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with another 1 million watching PBS NewsHour. Still, most Americans still get their news by watching local and network television—that number hovers around 60 percent. If online is the second most popular source, it won’t be second for long, and it may have overtaken television in many peoples’ lives. Despite its convenience, radio is on a steadily decline; since 1991, it has lost about half of its role as a news provider. Its decline roughly matches the decline of newspapers, down.

For the most part, we pay for our news by watching and reading advertisements, and clicking on some, too. Advertising accounts for more than 2/3 of financial support for news. The second largest segment? Direct payments from the audience in the form of subscriptions, roughly 1/4 of the pie—the portion of your cable bill that pays for CNN, your subscription to a newspaper, your contribution to NPR or one of its member stations.

In the U.S., the news business is a very substantial: about $64 billion per year. That’s about 1/10 more than Google, which is, of course, just one company. Starbucks is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. news business, but the global video game industry is about twice the size, so maybe Americans (alone) spend as much money on videogames as they do on news.

About 1/3 of all Americans now watch news video online, and that fraction increases to 1/2 for those in the 18-49 age group, but this is still a very small part of the whole news business—less than 10 percent of revenues, in fact.

Newspapers are changing—essentially eliminating their printing presses, trucks, ink and other 19th century concepts in favor of digital distribution. Among all newspapers, 1/4 to 1/3 of readers are using a digital device regularly, and among the 15 largest newspapers, nearly 1/2 of readers are enjoying their daily or weekly editions on screens, not on paper.

In just six years, Time Magazine and The Economist have lost about half of its newsstand sales—once a common model, picking up the magazine at the newsstand, now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have lost only about 1/4 of their newsstand sales. The decline is steady, and probably inevitable, but it’s difficult to explain why certain magazines have lost so much more than others. During the same period, revenues for Fox News Channel have doubled (but both CNN and MSNBC have shown only modest gains). In case you’re curious, it costs about $800 million a year to run Fox News, and about the same amount to run CNN (MSNBC costs less than $300 million.)

Five or six years ago, many journalists panicked because their industry seemed to be disintegrating. Some decided to take action. Since 2008, more than 100 digital nonprofit news outlets have popped up all over the country (in just about every state except Utah, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Utah. The San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston have been especially well-served. Some are sponsored by universities or nonprofits, some are independent, some are foundation funded. It’s certain a significant trend, albeit a new and fragile ecosystem. Many began with the financial assistance of a startup grant, typically under $100,000, that renewed only some of the time for a second go-round. Still, foundation funding is the principal source of funds for many of these fledgling operations. They deserve our support—especially during the critical early years. Happily, most surveyed felt that they would succeed in the long run through a combination of advertising, sponsorships, live events, individual subscriptions, and other forms of economic support. This an interesting phenomenon, and you can read more about it here.

The biggest change? Digital news sites are now strong enough to hire top journalists from newspapers, and entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar) are investing in the future of news gathering and distribution. The good news: this once-doomed industry is again showing signs of life, imagination and energy. As you time permits, I encourage you to fully explore the SPECTACULAR collection of reports that comprise the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report. It’s all online. Or, download Overview PDF here.

 

 

 

 

 

Two Books About School

…but not books about reading, writing or arithmetic. Not exactly.

Both books tell surprising stories about creativity, and support the thesis that experiential learning can be far more powerful than anything that can be tested.

I really like the way elementary school John Hunter sets up his story, so I’ll recap it:

“Three children have made their way into the room, gazing silently at the Plexiglas structure that represents our planet. It’s an imposing, four-level affair—undersea, ground and sea, airspace, and outer space—covered with submarines and ships, soldiers and cities, tanks and oil wells, spy planes and satellites….There is a United Nations, a World Bank, two or three arms dealers, and a weather god or goddess, who controls the vagaries of tsunamis and hurricanes, determines the fate of the stock market, and tosses coins to determine the outcomes of battles and coups d’etat. The children are provided with national budgets, assets, stores of armaments, and portfolios outlining fifty global crises. Then they are given ten weeks to save the world.”

For a video overview, click on the picture:

World Peace Game

The game works because it is is difficult, requiring students to figure out the many things they need to know, but do not know. So they figure things out—a far better way to learn than memorization or textbooks. Hunter describes three types of thinking that improve by playing the game:

  • the development of knowledge based upon facts
  • the unexpected insights and creative solutions that result from trying and failing and trying again
  • the gradual accumulation of wisdom that comes from collaboration, cooperation, conflict, and observation

book-3d-340For thirty years, Hunter has been playing the game with his students, without much notice, mostly in Virginia and Maryland. Then came a documentary, then a TEDTalk, then, this book. He’s now quite well-known, but a cursory understanding is quite different from the deeper understanding that a few hours with a good book and a good author can provide. The book works best when he is the teacher, which, of course, means learning a great deal about himself. He tells one story of his desire to expand his own personal world view by traveling and studying eastern religions and philosophies in ancient monasteries. Feeling good about his worldliness, he (and his dreadlocks) attracted the attention of several Chinese school girls on long train ride. After trying out their English and asking questions about American life, they asked him several simple questions: “Sir, where do you belong? Who do you belong to? Who is your group?” This set off a series of questions in his own mind; he explains: “This struck me because I had been in so many different groups since I left my home community—so many spiritual and social groups—that I’d begun to feel that I had no particular allegiance anywhere, simple because I had come to have allegiance everywhere.” A short time later, woken from a  dream, he conceived of all of the mechanics of the Game in a single instant. “It came to be in a diagram, an interconnected matrix of countries aligned in opposition to one another on every possible level—vertically (undersea, ground and sea, etc.) and laterally—each country at odds with every other in every possible sphere: economic, military, social, ethnic. I would actually see the multifaceted crises floating there above my bed as I lay awake in the pre-dawn hours.”

Hunter teaches in Richmond, Virginia. Several hundred miles up the coast, just north of Philadelphia, Tracey Krause is continuing the work that her teacher, and then, her mentor, Lou Volpe began. They produce high school theater. At Harry S Truman High School, theater may be the most important thing they do. It’s the school whose test runs of Les Miserables and RENT were so good, the owners of those properties determined that these productions could, in fact, be produced in high school. In high school theater, that’s a pretty big deal. In the life of Truman, it’s a minor detail.

Drama HighWhen the author visits Lou Volpe in his home, the living room walls are covered, top to bottom, with theater posters. When he watches Volpe interact with students, the author comments, “over time, one of the things that I come to see is how deeply Volpe knows his students. How couldn’t he? They take chances on stage that reveal their inner selves. But it is also true that the very things they learn from being involved in theater—empathy, the ability to imagine lives other than their own, the actor’s gift for giving a character a backstory…allow them to know him.”

It all ties together. “The theater classes are the foundation of Truman Drama, an essential element in its success. Plays and musicals that Volpe puts into production are already familiar to his students because they have studied them in class….In Volpe’s classroom, thousands of books are piled into bookshelves and stacked so high that if you remove a volume, you have to be careful the whole tower of them does not come tumbling down. The books are a reflection of one man’s catholic tastes—works by Shakespeare and Sondheim; David Mamet and David Hare; Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Thornton Wilder, Yasmina Reza, Wallace Shawn, Horton Foote, Paul Rudnick, Athol Fugard and on and on and on. They are not for decoration; they are used. If a student is looking for a monologue to perform in a festival or for a scholarship audition, Volpe reaches into the pile, pulls out something from the stack, and says, ‘Look in here. You might find what you want.’”

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

From a terrific article in Broadway World, a look at Volpe’s production of Les Miserables. Producer Cameron Mackintosh attended the last performance, which proved that the show could be produced on a high school stage, and so, the producer made it available to high schools everywhere.

Author Michael Sokolove was inspired to write Drama High, in part, because he attended Truman (then, Woodrow Wilson). He tells the story of Truman Drama, mostly, through individual students, their personal and academic lives, their hopes and dreams, and their lives as young performers. He also allows Mr. Volpe’s successor, Tracey Krause her time in the spotlight: “Her energy level is staggering.. She teaches all day, spends endless hours with the theater program, coaches her kids’ soccer teams (she used to coach the sport at Truman), runs half marathons, has an active dating life, makes frequent visits to the tanning salon, and finds time to jet off to Las Vegas for occasional weekends to visit her best friend.”

So what are we learning? Sure, there are lots of ways to do school, some more and some less traditional. This isn’t an English class essay, so I’ll steer clear of identifying common themes, but I’ll allow myself just one. The sense of community provided by a big game, and a theater program—a sense that some student enjoy because they’re good at sports and others enjoy because they’re just plain brilliant. Here are two stories about two teachers (three, including Ms. Krause) that open doors for every student willing to enter and engage.

Thanks, Harry

My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive.

It’s a pleasure to see, it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive.

Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go,

It’s always there

It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success,

My good old desk.

My old desk never needs a rest

and I’ve never once heard it cry.

I’ve never seen it tease it’s always there to please me

From nine to five.

HarryThere was a wonderful innocence about Harry Nilsson in those days. Like Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, he was a singer-songwriter with a great appreciation for the commonplace, a love of old (1920s-1940s) music, and an iconoclastic way of telling a story. The Beatles were crazy about him. I was, too, and among those of a certain age, he was the odd musical hero. He never grew old enough to call his fans by name—as he described the slow fade of a pop star. Instead, he flamed out, but, somehow, Nilsson is not included  in most “rock stars who died too young” compendia.

The place to start is not his best known hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil song that he happened to record because he and his producer liked the tune (it became the opening theme for the film Midnight Cowboy, so it became famous). His novelty song “Coconut” was also a top ten hit, but it, too, was an aberration. “Without You” (you know: “I can’t live if living is without you…”) is better, but not on my list of his best work.

Where to start? Early, but not too early. Set your time machine to 1968, 1969 and 1970. Each year presented a very special album by an extraordinary performer, a storyteller with a wonderful sense of melody working, on two of these albums, in spectacular harmony with the ideal producer for these projects, Rick Jarrard.

I would start with the album called Harry because it contains so many of my favorite Nilsson songs—each one handsomely presented with an elaborate arrangement. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” and “Morning Glory Story”—the latter is a dignified portrait of a homeless woman, a topic nobody sang or wrote about back in 1970—make sense on an album with similar stories by Bill Martin, “Fairfax Rag” and “Rainmaker” (you know the story; he tells it especially well). And, there’s a song by Randy Newman, then no better known than Nilsson himself: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

Nilsson’s voice and style was especially well-suited to Randy Newman’s music, and so, the 1970 album was devoted entirely to his work. This is a spectacular pop music milestone, story after story, sensitively and imaginatively told: short stories, really, told with the full power of music and nostalgia. Every song is special, and, in its way, timeless.

The prelude to all of this, an album called Aerial Ballet, is filled with top-notch pop songs that set Nilsson’s bubbly, sensitive, smart style. It’s the album with more familiar songs than the others: “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “One” (a top ten hit for Three Dog Night) among them. It’s great fun, but I like Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman so much that this album takes third position. (In the early 1970s, Nilsson reworked this and an earlier album, including new mixes and some new vocals, to create Aerial Pandemonium Ballet).

If you’re interested in going further, some would claim that Nilsson Schmilson, produced by Richard Perry, is his best. It’s certainly his most commercial, most mainstream (it was produced with that specific intention, and I think it suffers for its success). Better is his salute to the music of the 1940s (mostly) in what turned out to be a career-killer (with a stupid title): A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night (the link leads to a BBC documentary about the making of the album). This is lovely work, better than most of what Rod Stewart and others have done with similar material, and it’s worth owning. At the time, it was considered wildly narcissistic, part of a larger pattern of disengagement with the realities of the music business, and, sadly, a harbinger of the musician’s disengagement with anything resembling a rational, healthy life.

Nilsson bookThe early days, and the dreadful slide into substance abuse, crappy behavior and, ultimately, death, is told with appropriate accuracy and sensitivity by biographer Alyn Shipton. The book is called Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, and it’s difficult for fans of the early days to read and comprehend. Happily, the first half of the book explores the good times: the details of the relationships and creative decisions that led to the artist’s finest work, notes from the recording sessions, a rich history of the relationship between Nilsson and masterful arranger George Tipton, stories about so many songs that are so special to long-time Nilsson fans.

I suspect we all believed that Harry’s lyrics to Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song would come true, that each successive decade would find fewer and fewer of us grooving to Nilsson’s fine work and that, in time, the cult would become smaller and perhaps more intimate with a favorite musician from our youth or college days. It didn’t go down that way. Harry became a giant problem: tremendously talented, proven, light-hearted at his best, bad company at his worst. Later albums are, as a rule, dreadful, sarcastic, and lacking in the wonderful subtlety that made his work so very special.

If you feel the need to explore this work, and to try to make sense of the life that included the early albums and the likes of “you’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearin’ it apart/so f— you” (which only began the nasty period), several options. One is to try to wrap your head around the awful Nilsson collaboration with John Lennon (who was also going through a bad period); it’s called Pussy Cats. Another is explore Knnillssonn with its strange (and sometimes lovely) production experimentation, and the return of the warmth that once characterized everything the man did. As Douglas Hofstadter might describe it, Harry was a strange loop.

Or, if you just want it all, there is a box set with just about all of his work. Click the link for a fascinating, detailed exploration of the whole 17-disc project.

Nilsson box

The Future: Cities, Not Suburbs, Not Small Towns Either

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

It makes sense to build dense cities, and use trains to move people out of them for recreation. Cities may be our greatest invention. Apparently, suburbs, are among our worst.

Two out of three Americans live in a single-unit building that is not attached to another building. It’s a standalone home. The American Dream is real for so many people, it’s difficult to conceive of a shift in the status quo.

The key concept is “density”—the number of dwelling units per acre. A nice American home is situated on about 1/4 or 1/3 of an acre, even nicer homes are part of acre lots. With that level of density, the only economically viable means of transportation is the car. (Lots of expense, pollution, etc.) To rationalize a bus, we need to up the game to 10-20 dwellings per acre: low-slung apartment buildings. Rail transportation begins to make sense at around 30-40 dwellings per acre, but it really sings when there are 100 or more. How do find enough space for 100 dwellings on a single acre? Don’t think in terms of ground area; instead, think up.

Interesting idea, but that’s not the way America works. Instead of thinking up, we think sprawl. That’s a tough philosophy for the economy and the environment.. At 25 dwellings per acre, the entire population of the world would fit inside the state of Texas.

Density only begins the discussion. Metropolitan areas—including cities and their suburbs—account for 90 percent of the US GDP and 86% of all jobs. The economic output of Chicagoland (city and suburbs) is greater than 42 of the 50 states. But that’s misleading.

coverbigAccording to the authors of Triumph of the City (Professor Edward Glaeser) and A Country of Cities (Noted Architect Vishaan Chakrabarti), dense cities (New York City) are very, very good ideas, and n0n-dense cities (Los Angeles) and the vast majority of suburbs throughout the world are very, very, very bad ideas. Why?

I like Mr. Chakrabati’s analysis of the self-sustaining economy and ecology of Hong Kong—a city-state where all resources are used for the good of the dense city, one that is surrounded by natural surroundings to be enjoyed by all. He contrasts Hong Kong with Los Angeles, which must contribute its considerable revenues to the state of California, and the U.S. government, leaving this metropolitan area with insufficient resources to, well, be all it can be. The same is true for most cities—they generate tremendous value, but they subsidize the far-less-productive suburbs and rural areas.

artbook_2273_30465543In the view of both authors, what we need to do is perfect our invention of the cities not only for our own good, and for the multitude of productive relationships that result from people living and working near one another, but also for the sake of the planet. Currently, in large part due to cars, suburbs, and inefficient systems, earth’s consumption rate is about 1/3 greater than our capacity. Shift to the American consumption rate—based, largely, upon suburban lifestyles—is over five times greater than our capacity. If When some of the developing economies reach the U.S. consumption rate, we’re more or less doomed (authors love to write this kind of stuff). We’ve all read the stories before: more commuting means less happy marriages, greater obesity rates, and (no surprise) a much higher per-capita rate of gun ownership.

Here, it’s easy to understand the growth of cities and the rest of America in terms of red and blue states.  Many of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas are located in blue states: east of the Mississippi River and north of North Carolina, and along the Pacific Ocean. But the U.S. government and the U.S. economy is not built to support cities. That’s why we spend more than twice as much on highways than air and rail travel—both far kinder to the environment, and in the long run, far more efficient. Instead, we support suburban living. We build more roads to more places, and more cars show up to take advantage of lost costly single family homes just that much farther away from the city center. What’s more, for every one taxpayer who takes advantage of the Mortgage Interest Deduction to achieve the American Dream, three do not—simply, Americans subsidize home ownership in a very significant way.

Should we? According to Mr. Chakrabati, the answer is no. Instead, he suggests that we fund a much more robust, livable, safe, easier urban lifestyle by eventually shunting those funds, and a roughly equal amount raised by a $1 increase in the Federal Excise Tax, to generate $3.5 trillion dollars to improve “economic and social prosperity, environmental sustainability, and equalizing real access to the American dream of home (but not necessarily house) ownership.

A special shout-out to Ryan Lovett who filled many pages of A Country of Cities with clear, direct illustrations, diagrams, charts, graphs, and just a few infographics. The result is an extremely appealing combination of a visual book that’s easy / fun / provocative to browse, and the well-c0nsidered arguments presented in detailed text by the author. At first, I simply enjoyed holding and paging through this elegant book. In time, I came to appreciate the reality of Mr. Chakrabati’s vision in terms I could understand: his SHoP is a top architectural firm responsible for Barclay Center, a multi-use arena that will anchor the future of downtown Brooklyn, NY with (you knew this was coming) a very high-density series of structures with massive amounts of homes, offices and retail, plus open areas that make city life that much more livable.

In fact, Barclay Center is walking distance from an earlier version of urban planning success: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the classy old apartment buildings nearby.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

Here’s a look at SHoP’s plans for a high-density development surrounding their Barclay Center area in downtown Brooklyn.

This is provocative stuff. And, happily, it’s best presented in the form of a solid $30 hardcover book from a publisher whose work impresses me more each season: ARTBOOK / D.A.P. / Metropolis Books.

In a Word, “Curious”

CuriousWhat’s the secret of life? Of course, the answer is in a book with a single word title, Curious? The back cover has nine words, 58 characters: “Embrace uncertainty. Attract love and abundance. Master your life.”

All of this makes me want to write an answer book called “Seriously?” but the author, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University deserves more than the Twtr-obessed publisher allows. His name is Todd Kashdan, and although I suspect curiosity may not be, as the subtitle promises, a way to “Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life” (shouldn’t that “to” be “in” or “for”?), there’s too much good stuff in this book for me to pass it by.

Mostly, like every creative person, I’m curious about curiosity. I seem to have it in larger doses than most people, and I think I like that about myself. My friends tend to be curious, too, and they tend to value this in themselves. In fact, I enjoyed a long telephone conversation with a friend not six months ago on this very subject—he was analyzing generational differences in the workplace, and thought our generation pursued curiosity with greater energy than the current one.

Of course, Dr. Kashdan touches  school as curiosity-killer (“Do it now, ask questions later. Stay away from strangers. Avoid controversial topics and hot-button issues”), but I think he’s better when he’s positive, and consistent with the thinking of the positive psychology movement in academia, where he plays a part. When describing how and why “Curiosity is about recognizing and reaping the rewards of the uncertain, the unknown and the new…,” he explains that there is a “simple story line for how curiosity is the engine of growth.”

By being curious, we explore.

By exploring, we discover.

When this is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

By repeating it, we develop competence and mastery.

By developing competence and mastery, our knowledge and skills grow.

As our knowledge and skills grow, we stretch who we are and what our life is about.

So “curiosity begets more curiosity.” Fair enough. But that’s just the starting place. When he offers curiosity as the opposite of certainty, and broadens the argument to society’s need for closure, specific answers, one way of looking at the world, his arguments become insights:

Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.

Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes.

Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure.

Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events.

Curiosity creates relationships; the need for certainty creates defensiveness.

Creativity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

At first, I didn’t think much of this list, but the more I worked on a new project about knowledge and understanding, the more I realized the value of Dr. Kashdan’s insights.

Photo of the author, Todd Kashdan, by Adam Auel

It’s easy to see how this material can be brought into a wider domain: curiosity results in personal fulfillment, happiness, a healthy mental outlook, a purpose to life, and so on. He encourages openness in the style of so many self-help books, and here’s where my fascination begins to wane, mostly because I’ve read it all before: “When walking outside the house, I will gently guide my attention so I can be intrigued by every bodily movement and whatever sights, sounds and smells are within my range.” I don’t understand why anybody who is taking a walk would fill their ears with music, but that’s because I enjoy listening to the natural world. Does experience open my mind to every possibility? Not sure. I think I’m listening to birdsong, looking at autumn leaves and winter branches, and taking whiffs of honeysuckle when it’s in season. That’s enough for me.

If you find self-help books useful, you might add this one to your library. There are chapters about “The Rewards of Relationships” and “The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit,” and, almost inevitably, “Discovering Meaning and Purpose in Life.”

I think curiosity is powerful on its own terms: as an antidote to the routine, a door that opens to creative and divergent thought, as a pathway to learning lots of things. Secret of life? Maybe. I’ll leave that one up to you.

Letter to Simon Garfield (Publisher, please forward.)

Dear Simon;

I trust you will allow me the informality of beginning a letter with your given name, that you will forgive me for requesting a copy of your previous book (“On the Map”) and never managing to write a review. Perhaps in another time, I would have written this letter on paper with a proper pen instead of choosing the more convenient and altogether phony letter-as-blog-post convention in place of the real thing.

Mostly, I wanted to thank you for reminding me of the special quality of a handwritten letter written, and the even more special quality of a handwritten letter received. It’s been a while.

In your most recent book (“To the Letter”), you choose the historical approach. I loved the opening story about items related to classic magic and magicians, and your interest not in the old mechanical tricks, but in the letters that revealed personality and secrets instead. I’m glad you won what you wanted at the auction.

You and I are wired differently, and I suppose that’s the reason I enjoy reading what you write. Your love of ephemeral history makes me want to spend a lazy weekend afternoon wandering London’s small museums and listening to your stories about Virginia Woolf and Henry VIII, then spending another wandering around Massachusetts to dig deeper into the stories you’ve told about Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac and their letters. And if your time permitted, maybe we’d wander over to Sagamore Hill to tour Teddy Roosevelt’s house and explore his letters as well. If we could time travel—and certainly, you’ve come as close as any author—I think I’d choose to wait outside of Oscar Wilde’s apartment waiting for him to toss a letter down to the street so that as passer-by might toss it into a letter box.

I don’t suppose I would have written quite the same book you’ve written. Mine would probably be more personal, less historical, more social, less of a museum of stories about letters and letter-writers. And, as you mention early on, email has obliterated the art, form and function of writing letters, and there’s no point in fighting that losing battle.

Perhaps, a contrary view. Letters and emails are quite different from one another. The convenience, speed, distribution and brevity of emails provide powerful reasons why they’ve won out. Letters recall another time, and it’s worth a moment to consider their unique character.

For one thing, a well-written personal letter is, of course, written in one’s own hand. As children, we devoted hours to the now forgotten term, penmanship. Excellence in cursive writing was to be admired, shown to the class as exemplar of superior art, craft and communication. As a child, an exercise in good penmanship was a true workout: intolerant of error because ink offers no delete key, no cut or paste function. As an adult, good penmanship was, and maybe still is, a reflection of good breeding, and, perhaps, an elegance of thought.

Time was spent thinking before writing. A letter was something to be composed. Cheerful, direct, succinct, emotional, candid, personal—these were among the choices, the decisions to be made before placing pen to paper and carefully writing even a single word.

Long letters were neither unusual nor undesirable. Earlier this month, I found a box of old letters in my basement. The long ones were among the most precious, especially those written by loved ones long gone. Here was a piece of their lives, offered directly to me, written in their own hand, on paper they themselves touched, placing in an envelope, posted when they could find the time. In short, the correspondent made a special effort to communicate with me: mother to son, girlfriend to boyfriend, and sometimes, young sister to older brother. Some letters, still in their envelopes, included pictures, or, sometimes, original drawings, and maybe, some doodles in the borders. Most were written a long time ago, and forgotten in a old box in a musty basement, but they surface from time to time, and when they do, I’m happy. I wish I had more of them. Apparently, I wrote a fair number of letters during my days as a college student (bored in anonymous lecture halls, I wrote letters to friends in other schools, and had my fun with silly stories along the way), and later, mostly on Tuesdays when it was my turn to sit at the receptionist’s desk when she was at lunch (which explains why my Tuesday letters were, mostly, written on steno paper). During one summer, when long-distance telephone calls were too expensive to be either long or frequent, my friend Casey and I plotted out an extensive strategy by exchanging letters; he was 400 miles away, and there was no other way to communicate with one another.

Simon, I know that this personal ephemera is not likely to capture the attention of a large audience. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this in a letter, and why you chose not to write about this in a book that provides you and your publisher with funds from the marketplace.

Then again, I suspect this is precisely why you wrote “To the Letter”—to cause at least a few of us to consider, as you mention in your subtitle, “A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing.” And, once again, I offer a personal aside. I would have added a few words to your subtitle: “and Reading Those Letters” or some such.

The day is ending. We’ve just received a text message from friends who are ready for dinner. I’m campaigning for Peruvian food, but I suspect it will be Thai-Laotian again. If we corresponded regularly, I might clip a recipe to our next correspondence, and you might respond with a take out menu from your favorite Pakistani restaurant. I suspect we won’t. We don’t know one another, so we must maintain our internet anonymity. Besides, my email inbox contains several thousand unopened emails and yours probably contains thrice as many. But it has been fun to read what you’ve written, and to think about writing and reading letters during a cold afternoon. Perhaps, when the time is right, we will correspond, and if the time is ideal, we will do so on paper, pen in hand with the most colorful postage stamps we can find to amuse one another as we open our respective envelopes.

Warmly,

HB

P.S. Writing a letter, the inclusion of links felt disruptive, so I suggest lurkers  visit your website to learn more. That way, they can see both the UK and US book covers in nifty animation (I prefer the UK version, as I often do).

P.P.S. I shall not apologize for writing a letter that runs over a thousand words. (If this a blog post, that would be unacceptably long.)

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