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

My Earliest Songs

In my last post, I mentioned songwriting. My earliest songs were little things I made up in my head as a kid. These childhood ditties were never written down or recorded, and I never even thought of them as songs; they were just thoughts I had which happened to be tuneful. There was “The Old Tin Can,” “Come Back Here, Little Kitty,” “I Wanna Get Up (Now, Now, Now),” etc. Note: I’ve only added these titles long after the fact; as I said, I never consciously composed these things, so why would they need titles?

Once I did start making attempts at actual songwriting, my earliest efforts were little piano instrumentals, carefully written down in my very first book of staff paper. The first one was called “Prelude,” in emulation of Bach. (I doubt if I had any idea what a Prelude was, only that Bach seemed to like the word.) More or less concurrently with these piano pieces, I began writing lyrics down on the pads of outdated calendar sheets I used as writing paper. (My grandpa had an office supply store which sold calendar refills—this was a few decades before iCal, Google Calendar, etc.—and we grandkids, my cousins and I, always were gifted some outdated refills that were left over at the end of the year. I know at one point I had some of these things dating back to 1964!)

The first time I put lyrics and music together in coherent form down on paper was for a song called “Space Attack.” I’m guessing I was around 12 years old. I even had big plans to record it, and tried to do my own version of multi-tracking by bouncing back and forth between two cassette recorders. Needless to say, the resulting sound quality was not great. But I had been bitten by the songwriting bug, and that bug stayed with me for many years. Between the ages of 17 and 27, which was probably my most productive period, I cranked out hundreds of songs. Many of them are still floating about here and there, but many have also been lost, and even in my memory all that remains of many are titles and fragments, if that much.

I’m hoping that someday (hopefully still a good long way off) when I am faced with death, I get one final request. My request will be that instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I get to hear some of those long-forgotten songs played for me.

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.

Lots o’ Links

What-Is-This-Thing

Nothing too exciting for you here today—just a list of links to other places where you can find me online. Really. That’s it. Just a list:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/brian.hutzell

Twitter https://twitter.com/brianhutzell

YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClMSEFXuMLAr3uJNwWgODaQ

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/hutzell

Tumblr https://voosk.tumblr.com/

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/brianhutzell/

Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/brianhutzell/boards/

I have not yet made the TikTok plunge. I’m old. I can’t keep up with all the latest trendy social media sites!

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.

 

 

The Beat Goes On

My last blog post was a bit of a downer, so this morning I am going to try to turn that around. I tend to be a glass half-empty person, so when the news bombards me with one bad thing after another, it is all too easy to succumb to depression. When I fall into that unhappy state, I find it difficult to even move, though I know movement is what I crave most. Some of the remedies available to cure my depression have disappeared with the self-quarantining and social distancing brought about by COVID-19, but if I catch myself in time, I can exercise, stretch, watch an uplifting video on YouTube, or read…anything to snap my mind away from darkness.

If I don’t catch myself in time, I can still pull myself out of the hole with even a very simple movement. A micro-movement. This is a trick that is talked about in self-help circles. When the big jobs seem too big, break them down into manageable chunks. When the road seems too overgrown to be passable, just take one step at a time. (I think of the great song “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” from the holiday special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.)

NOTE: If you suffer from depression, even just little bit, even just once in a while, do this: Find the number of a helpline and program it into your phone. Write it on a notepad to keep by your bed, by your chair, wherever you think you might need it. Do this now so it will be there and handy and waiting for you if you ever need it.

So here are a few micro-movements that can get me moving when I sink into a funk. Corny? Simplistic? Yes, that’s the point. They have to be so easy that I have no excuse to not do them.

  • Smile
  • Life my arms
  • Stretch my legs
  • Go get a glass of water
  • Make a funny face

Again: If you are in a seriously bad spot, seek help.

If you are not depressed, but just need a way to feel less hopeless and helpless in the world, try one or more of these:

  • Make a phone call
  • Write an old-fashioned pen on paper letter
  • Go online not to argue but to spread some joy. Say “hello” to someone. Like someone’s cute puppy picture. Compliment somebody.
  • If you can afford it, donate to a good charity or buy a creator’s artwork or craft.

Corny? Simplistic? Easy? Yup. But I’ll try to follow this advice next time I’m blue, and I hope you will too.

 

 

So We Beat On

To call 2020 a dumpster fire feels like a drastic understatement. It’s hard not to feel disgusted with…well, just about everybody these days. I’m disgusted with bad cops abusing their power, but I’m also disgusted with demonstrations that turn into property-destroying riots. I’m disgusted with racist politicians and the racist constituencies that keep reelecting them, but I’m also disgusted with calls for anarchy because that’s no solution at all. I’m disgusted with “open the economy now” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups, and I’m disgusted with “justice for George Floyd” protesters who gather in large COVID-19 spreading groups. I’m disgusted with a president who is more interested in protecting his own ego than with the well-being of Americans, but I’m also disgusted with “clicktivists” who Like a few select FB posts and pretend they’re done with their civic duty.

No doubt I will wind up disgusted with myself for posting this, as I historically have been every time I post anything remotely political online and find myself embroiled in an ugly comment battle. I wish I had solutions. I wish I knew how to stay informed without going absolutely f***ing bonkers. (“I wish a lot of things!” – Cinderella. Sorry for inserting a music theatre reference in the midst of all this.)

I do know something that won’t work: Doing nothing. It has become commonplace to blame God for the situation (“It’s God’s will,” “God is punishing us for [insert pet prejudice here]”) and then dump the whole mess onto God’s lap to solve (“It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God will provide”). I don’t think it’s God’s plan for us to be lazy or to abdicate our responsibility to take care of each other and the planet we live on.

So what’s the right thing to do? We make ethical calls all the time; we have to. Failure to make an informed ethical decision is just a bad decision. (“I know what my decision is, which is not to decide!” – Cinderella again.) Sometimes we’ll get it right, others times not. I’d like to end with the famous final line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” But I don’t think that’s the right message either. We’ll beat on, boats against the current, all right, but let’s not try to recreate an imagined perfect past. Let’s go forward.

(NOTE: I intended this to be a relatively short Facebook post, but it somehow expanded. Thanks for sticking with me.)

What Should We Do With This Problematic Book?

I read The Christian Century, which carries the tagline “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” In the current issue (June 3, 2020), in an article with which I largely agree, Dorothy Sanders Wells writes, “[T]here’s a difference between the Bible describing something and condoning it.” She is talking about slavery and ideas of racial purity. Her claim is that using the Bible to justify slavery and racism is a misuse of the text.

But it’s pretty clear that the Bible does condone slavery. It does condone racism. When you read opposing arguments leading up to the Civil War, both slaveholders and abolitionists tried to use the Bible to support their cause, and it’s clear that the slaveholders were on much more solid ground Biblically than the abolitionists. All the way through the Old and New Testaments, slavery is an accepted part of life, with considerable rules as to how it is to be conducted and no allowance for its abolition. Likewise with racism. The overwhelming sentiment throughout the Bible is “Judah first!” Even those passages that urge the Israelites to treat foreigners fairly do not go so far as to treat them equally.

Progressive Christians use this “describe, not condone” mentality with regards to other problematic Biblical texts as well. I have read gay and trans Christians dancing around the so-called “clobber passages”—those verses used against them—in an effort to soften the message, but to borrow an unhappy phrase from the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church, it really does seem in the Bible that “God hates fags.” No matter how we try to read our progressive viewpoint into it, the Bible remains a misgynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, racist text.

So what are we to do with this? Do we throw the whole thing out? I happen to think the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book, both in and of itself and because of the oversized roles it has played in history. I do not advocate throwing it out. But I do advocate acknowledging its shortcomings.