Monday Night

From where I sit, I can see into our kitchen. (Actually, from where I sit, I can see most of the apartment, and from almost anywhere in the apartment, I can see into the kitchen.) There is something flying in the kitchen, but I don’t feel like pursuing it. My wife and I just split a slice of cake from Whole Foods. It was delicious, but we didn’t need it, and now I’m regretting having eaten it. I’m trying to lose weight, and cake slices aren’t helpful in that project.

Earlier this evening, I went for a walk and a car whipped out of a parking lot without looking or slowing down, nearly taking me out of the game. A young guy on a motorcycle can be heard tearing up and down our street. He likes to go as fast as possible on his crotch-rocket, making an ungodly amount of noise. He thinks because he is very loud he is very cool. He is not cool; he’s just an asshole.

I shouldn’t say that. Maybe he’s not an asshole, just young. I was a jerk in a hundred ways when I was young. Boys like noise. In grade school, we put playing cards between the spokes of our bikes to make them louder. When I got my own car in my 20s, I liked to play the radio at top volume so everyone could hear how cool I was because of my fine taste in music. Now I’m still a jerk in a hundred ways, but they are different ways.

It would be great if none of us were ever jerks. I try to be one of the good folks, but don’t always succeed. I’m not a big fan of Paul of Tarsus, but I understand him when he writes, “The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.” (Rom 7:18-19, CEB)

So tonight, I’ll try not to hate the lady who nearly ran me over, the guy on his obnoxious bike, politicians on the other side of the fence, and even my grade school gym teacher, whom I have a hard time thinking about even after all these years without loathing. Maybe we could all try this.

Quiet That Niggling Doubt

For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’

– John Greenleaf Whittier (from the poem “Maud Muller”)

Regret is an unpleasant emotion. It’s that niggling doubt, that suspicion that you should have played your hand differently in a certain situation. By far the biggest regrets I have are for those times when I knew deep down what I should do but ignored that inner voice and did something else. Most often, it’s been because I chose to take the easy road. I did not what I suspected I should do, but what I thought other people—maybe family or friends—would want me to do, or because I was trying to fit in with my peer group or society as a whole. Those are the big regrets.

There are also little regrets, usually for times I held back and did NOT do something. In general, I think it is better to go for the gusto and possibly fail or look foolish than to hold back, trying to maintain a cool detachment. Far too often, I have chosen the latter course.

Here’s a story about a time I did not hold back. I was alone at a bar (always awkward) and I thought I saw a girl I knew from way back in grade school. The bar was dark, and she was on the far side of the room, so I really didn’t get a good look at her. Furthermore, I was sitting at a bar in Boston but had gone to grade school in Des Moines, Iowa. The person I was looking at would have been someone I hadn’t seen in over 10 years, and I had to mentally age the girl I knew in grade school into a young woman. In other words, there was a good deal of imagination at play on my part. Still, she looked attractive and I spent quite a while nursing my drink, wondering if I should approach her.

Eventually I worked up the courage and began making my way across the crowded room to where she and her friend sat. As I neared them, I could plainly see that she was not the person I thought she was. This was not Ellen from Woodlawn Elementary School. I felt powerless to stop myself, though, as if once in motion this body had to complete the task at hand. So I went up to her and said, “Excuse me, are you from Des Moines?” which is probably the only possible pick-up line dumber than, “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Happily, she didn’t laugh in my face or throw her drink at me. She just replied, “No.” I apologized for interrupting, forced a smile, and slunk back to my spot. I’m pretty sure I paid my tab and left as quickly as possible.

BUT…do I regret doing it? Not at all. I may have looked foolish, and I certainly gave the woman and her companion some fodder for giggles, but I am glad to this day that I didn’t pass up a chance to connect with someone, even though the someone wasn’t who I originally thought she was and the connection lasted about ten seconds. If I hadn’t gone over to her, I would still have that niggling sense of doubt. This is a small and silly example, but it’s one I need to remind myself of from time to time. Go for it!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

– apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain (https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-the-things-you-didnt-do/)

Art FOR and BY Non-Artists

Impossible-Party

In the early 2000s, I went through a spell of making all sorts of strange art. It began with simply making footprints with milkpaint, my feet, and found boards. (Really. My first creations were made using wood rescued from a discarded pallet.) I put together a collection called Art by the Foot and an accompanying exhibit called “Barefoot in the City.” As unlikely as it seems, I even sold a few pieces. From there, I did some more experimenting with milk paint, and eventually added markers on paper to my media. When I found I’d exhausted my limited drawing ability, I turned to digital art. This piece, Impossible Party, is an example. It’s a mix of marker, colored pencil, and milkpaint footprints, all collaged together on a Mac in Photoshop.

I still enjoy tinkering around with making my own art, often again in the digital realm, but now using Gimp, which is similar to Photoshop in its capabilities but FREE! (https://www.gimp.org/). More than making my own art, however, I still love art in general. My own skill as a visual artist is so minimal as to be frustrating, but I can really nerd-out on other people’s art, and getting into deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of art. What is it? How do we measure its worth? (“Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth?” Thank you, Burl Ives and Johnny Marks!)

Curator/author Sarah Urist Green is fond of saying a person should not let a lack technical skill prevent them from making art. In addition to her YouTube channel, “The Art Assignment“, she has recently published a book called You Are An Artist: Assignments To Spark Creation that offers encouragement to the inner artist of even the most inept of us. I also recommend The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. (This was apparently Keith Haring’s bible.) My favorite art-related how-to book is Paul Fata’s 101 Rules for the Starving Artist. This one might be difficult if not impossible to find, because I’m not sure if it was ever published as anything more than hand-made copies.

Podcast Recommendations

Podcasting is like radio for the 21st century, and after initial skepticism, I have become a big fan. Some podcasts I especially enjoy are:

Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns and Jared Byas discuss the Bible with open and inquiring minds. Guests have included Rachel Held Evans, Austen Hartke, Miguel de la Torre, Xavier Ramey, Wil Gafney, and dozens of other Biblical and theological scholars, writers, bloggers, preachers, and speakers. Highly recommended for anyone who is on a faith journey but who also appreciates intellectual rigor.

Queerology 

This is another religion-related podcast. The tagline is “A podcast about faith and being.” Matthias Roberts begins every episode by asking his guest(s) this question: “How would you say you identify, and how has your faith helped shape that identity?” It’s a great way to get the conversation rolling! Matthias and his guests primarily talk about faith and queerness with intelligence and compassion.

Clear+Vivid

For the past twenty or so years, Alan Alda’s focus has been on science communication, and that is the primary theme of his podcast. His guests include an array of scientists, professors, actors, communicators, and of course som appearances by his co-actors from M*A*S*H. Enjoyable, informative, and frequently quite humorous.

Dear Hank & John

This is a collaborative venture between Complexly (makers of educational YouTube content like Crash Course, SciShow, and Healthcare Triage, just to name a few) and WNYC (New York Public Radio). Brothers Hank and John Green “answer your questions, give you dubious advice, and bring you all the latest news from Mars and AFC Wimbledon.” How many others podcasts bring you all that? Mostly light-hearted and sometimes very silly. Even though entertainment is the main goal, there is a lot of genuinely good information here. Oh, and Hank likes to talk about poop.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

Another Complexly production, this one is considerably more serious than Dear Hank & John. Author John Green reviews “facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” In every episode, John brings together two different (and I mean REALLY different) things to review. Examples: Hot Dog Eating Contest and Chemotherapy, Prom and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad. Be forewarned: John can make you cry. The episode “QWERTY Keyboard and the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō” really had me in tears for both its strange beauty and its sadness.

Caring for the Muse in a Troubling Time

As a result of COVID-19, I lost my job back in March. I had a small cushion, but have now reached the point where money is going to get very tight very soon. This is, unfortunately, not a unique position to be in these days, but in this case having lots of company doesn’t make the situation any less miserable.

Ideally, I would be doing a lot of writing, making art, and composing music. After all, these are all things I love, and I have often found myself wishing I had more time in which to do them. Well, now I have the time, so why am I not doing them? Truth is, I’m having a hard time concentrating on any creative pursuits while my mind is preoccupied with worrying about trivia like rent and food.

Here are a few things I’ve been doing to try to keep the muse alive, even if it isn’t currently being very productive:

  • Reading. I have to be careful of this one, but I am a real book nerd, and I can easily find myself reading to the exclusion of all else.
  • Walking. Serves the dual purpose of providing some much-needed exercise as well as giving me a break from sitting in my apartment. Also: I sometimes get good song/story/art ideas while walking. Sometimes.
  • Trying to write a page of lyrics a day, even if they are really terrible lyrics, which most of them are. Collaborating long-distance with a friend in Canada on some new songs.
  • Free improvising on an instrument (mine happen to be piano and trombone). If anything sounds worth keeping, write it down or record it.
  • Listen to music and/or podcasts that inspire me, or at least things that I enjoy.

None of these are terribly original suggestions, and none of them has solved the bigger problem of income and lack thereof. But by tending even minimally to my inner artistis spirit, I am keeping myself back from the brink of despair.

Quantify and Publicize

On August 29, 2006, I created by first blog post (http://aladdinfoot.blogspot.com/2006/08/). It was a Tuesday. The US president was George W. Bush, the UK Prime Minister was Tony Blair, and Pope Benedict XVI was leading the Catholic Church. The entire post consisted of a picture of me from 1994-5 (thank you, Suzanne Plunkett!), and the line, “Just a pic to show you who’s responsible for this blog.” Exciting stuff.

Why do we blog? Or vlog? Why do I meticulously record every run or walk that I take on MapMyRun? Must my every move be quantified and publicized? How on earth did I ever enjoy my photos before Facebook was there to Like them? Are my own actions like the proverbial tree falling in the woods—silent and inconsequential unless witnessed?

I used to think people living monastic lives were retreating from the responsibilities of the world. Maybe, however, there is value in doing a thing for the sole purpose of doing that thing. Maybe learning and contemplation are not productive in the same way that a factory is, but I find it hard to believe that a life lived well is meaningless just because it isn’t lived in the glare of a spotlight.

Why do I blog? And vlog? And post things on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? To say that’s just the way things are now feels like a cop-out. One of my wife’s least favorite sayings is one that I hear a lot: “It is what it is.” That’s another cop-out. No sound and no fury and certainly signifying nothing.

Why does man create? Men have struggled against time, against decay, against destruction, against death. Some have cried out in torment and agony. Some have fought with arrogance and fierce pride. Some challenged the gods, matching power with power. Some have celebrated life. Some have burned with faith. Some have spoken in voices we no longer understand. Some have spoken eloquently. Some have spoken inarticulately, some haltingly; some have been almost mute.

Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection—a common mark—can be seen: that urge to look into oneself and out at the world and say, “This is what I am. I am unique. I am here. I am!”

– From the 1968 short film, Why Man Creates by Saul Bass and Mayo Simon

Prolific versus Non-Prolific

Some writers are very prolific, and some writers are very good, and these two groups are not the same. Oh sure, there is some overlap—those writers who are both very good and very prolific: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Stephen King, for example—but in writing, as in most things, quantity does not necessarily equal quality. There are other writers who are/were very good but not very prolific. John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books, is a good example. His only other known book was The Neon Bible, written when he was just 16. It’s a remarkable book for a 16-year old author, but that is its only claim to fame. The other famous example of a good-but-hardly-prolific author is Harper Lee. Like Toole, she won a Pulitzer, and like Toole, she is known for just one book: the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird. Her only other book, Go Set a Watchman is basically a first draft of Mockingbird. As such, it is interesting to read, but only as an historical oddity. It’s not very good.

As a songwriter, I have not written anything of note (See what I did there? Songwriter – “note?” Clever, huh?) in years, but during my prolific period, I was…well…prolific. I wrote a TON of songs, and most of them have one thing in common: They are very, very bad. There are a few that I’m proud of, and a few that I enjoy on a personal level for various reasons, but you won’t be hearing any of them on the radio any time soon. (Actually, does anyone hear anything other than angry right-wing chatter on the radio these days?)

As a blogger, I have been very un-prolific lately. I’ve been in a rather weird head-space, but then that describes nearly everyone in this time of COVID-Climate-Protest-Political crises, so I can’t very well use that as an excuse. I can, however, use it as the topic of a blog post on Prolific versus Non-Prolific.

This has been that post.

Shaking My Foundations

"The Shaking of the Foundations" - artwork
milkpaint art by Brian Hutzell

My intent was to blog and vlog every day, not because I think the world desperately wants to hear from me that often, but because I need the practice blogging and vlogging. It’s been hard lately, though, because I just haven’t felt like it, and when I have started to write or record, I too often have been finding myself bitching and moaning about the state of the world, or talking myself from one level of depression  down to an even lower level of depression.

I wasn’t in a great place mentally or emotionally at the start of 2020, but then COVID-19 came along and wiped out my job and two theatre shows I was playing. Then came a series of police killings and the demonstrations and occasional riots that followed in response. Throughout both crises, the lack of leadership at the top has been woefully apparent, exacerbating the situation and turning an already tense time into a disaster.

Then, warming to the task, the universe decided to give me one more smack: A spot of skin cancer was spotted on my leg. The operation to remove it took a pretty good chunk out from just above my right knee. It has been painful, and until today has prevented me from doing much walking, which has traditionally been my primary method of combating depression. In short, things have not been swell.

When I think about my own troubles, however, I recognize that they come off as the whining of a not-well-off-but-not-poor white-privileged guy living in relative comfort, who doesn’t have to worry about many of the problems that beset other groups of people. Acknowledging that doesn’t make me feel any better. It does, however, add a layer of guilt on top of everything else.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe I need a little pain and a little guilt. Make I need to have my foundation shaken a bit (maybe even stirred!) I think of a line from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: “If I get too mellow, I ripen and rot.”

So time to shake off the dust and get moving. No one except flies and worms likes rotten fruit.

 

 

Off the Wall Cinema

Off the Wall
Off the Wall Cinema, Cambridge, MA

I just did a guided meditation online. Full disclosure: I am terrible at meditating. I fidget and squirm. Every sound around me demands my attention. My focus is anything but calm. Anyway, early on in this meditation, I was asked to picture a time when I felt totally at peace with myself and the world. After several minutes of frantically searching for such a time and place, I settled on Off the Wall Cinema, circa 1984.

Off the Wall was a very small theater in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. Instead of the usual theater seating, you sat at small tables. Coffee and pastries were available to snack on during the show. I went to a lot of movies during my first few years in Boston in the early-to-mid 1980s. That was when I discovered that popcorn and apple cider are a perfect combination. Most of the theaters I remember attending are now gone. Off the Wall is one of them.

As a kid I remember being a Laurel & Hardy fan, but at Off the Wall I also discovered and fell in love with silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. At Off the Wall I became a fan of animated shorts. (Favorites include “The Big Snit,” “Sky Whales,” and “Tony de Peltrie.” Look them up.) It was where I first saw classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. (I no longer think of the latter as the feel-good movie it is supposed to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) If you are getting the impression that Off the Wall was off the wall, you are correct.

Before moving to Boston in August 1983, I already had one year of college under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was freshly out of the nest, but it was in Boston that my world truly blossomed. The next few years were a time of exploration and experimentation. If there has been any period of my life I could live over exactly the way it happened the first time, that would be it.

Off the Wall closed in 1986, near the end of what I consider my short Golden Age. In 1987 I went back to school and cut my hair. I tried desperately to be normal. That was a bad idea. I’ve since tried to recapture the wonderful sense of endless possibility I felt during the glory days when Off the Wall was flourishing and I was young. I didn’t get there during my meditation session, but I did have fun remembering those happy days.

 

The Last Man

Last Man

In 1818, Mary Shelly simultaneously set the stage for both horror and science fiction with her debut novel, Frankenstein. Then, not content to kill off a mere handful of people with a monster, in 1826 Shelley killed of EVERYBODY in The Last Man, the grim story of a global pandemic. I didn’t deliberately read it with COVID-19 in mind—Shelley’s book has been on my “to read” list for a while—but reading it now certainly makes the experience a bit creepier.

To set the stage:

In 1826, John Quincy Adams was president. Founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died that year. Charles X was King of France. Beethoven was still composing. And according to Wikipedia, “Cayetano Ripoll became the last person to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition at its last auto-da-fé, held in Valencia.” The Spanish Inquisition! Sounds like ancient history. The action of The Last Man takes place near the end of the 21st Century. In other words, not long from now.

Mary Shelly’s mother was philosopher/feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband was poet Percy Shelley, and their companion was Lord Byron. To read her is to plunge yourself into a Romantic world of overwrought passions, where no one speaks—not even in the throes of death—without delivering a flowery oration. And why write “The sky cleared,” when instead you could write, “As Sampson with tug and strain stirred from their bases the columns that supported the Philistine temple, so did the gale shake the dense vapours propped on the horizon while the massy dome of clouds fell to the south, disclosing though the scattered web the clear empyrean, and the little stars, which were set at an immeasurable distance in the crystalline fields, showered their small rays on the glittering snow.”

If I had read this book even just a year ago, I probably would have viewed it as a quaint oddity. After all, the world Shelly paints, even though it is set more or less in our own time, is very much the world of the early 19th Century. The result is a weird sense of past, present, and future all coming together to witness the end of humankind. Here in 2020, that sounds less far-fetched than it would have in 1920 or even 2019.

Yet someone reading a newspaper today could be forgiven for not knowing that we too, like Shelley’s doomed characters, are in the midst of a global pandemic. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coming on the heels of two already tense months of economic shutdown and ongoing leadership problems in DC, has touched off a firestorm big enough to sweep COVID-19 from the front pages. The incident brought decades of police brutality and centuries of racism to a head, and set off a powder keg of protests, some of them violent, across the country.

But the pandemic has not gone away. Many fear that the wave of large-scale protests may in fact be providing fertile ground for spreading the virus even faster and further.

Oh yeah, and there’s still the problem of climate change.

Strange days, indeed.