Sunday, July 10, 2016
Fame is a national preoccupation. We chase after recognition like it's the last train out of Camden. Playing the game isn't enough―you've got to dunk on ESPN. Getting elected to office requires raising at least as much image as money or ideas. Even inanimate objects get famous: when Hostess stopped making Twinkies, the public reacted as if we'd lost a legend.
As pack animals, it's natural to want some form of social embrace, an identity within the group. Clearly, I strive to be noticed or you wouldn't be reading this; joining act and audience is emotionally nourishing and completes the creative cycle.
Ego is a potent element, though, and becomes quickly poisonous like as much chlorine. Self-confidence might drive a ballplayer to the majors, but the team loses when he comes to value homeruns and sponsorships over the pennant. Some of our representatives enter public service with service at heart, only to have years of self-branding so thoroughly convince them of their own campaign slogans that they lose track of their policies' greater impact.
A measure of humility must balance self-worth, or else competition exceeds cooperation, and the ship sinks as everyone fights to be captain.
That said, as a high school teacher, I want my students to be proud and determined, to innovate, to lead. Of course. At the same time they should be aware that, however brightly their individual interest burns, it's a pixel in a larger screen that affects everyone's picture, and there are times when the integrity of a task is more important than taking credit for the result. Furthermore, if attention is what they're after, posting shirtless selfies or skateboarding off a clock tower is a counterproductive way to get it.
Periodically, we need a break from ourselves as much as the greater good needs respite from our ambition. It's an act of liberation, really, to relinquish title and be no one in particular.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
At ten, his family moved to a bigger row house in Northeast Philly. No longer rooming with his older brother, he was free to investigate the radio without quarrel. Near the end of the dial he found a classical station. His interest piqued, he began tuning in regularly, often listening through the night, until the fourth of Beethoven's Fifth took hold of his soul and ushered him into a sustained passion for the great composers. He started taking the subway to free monthly concerts at The Philadelphia Academy of Music. There, keen in his seat with the orchestra before him, he was a sonic adventurer in pursuit of the next grand crescendo, the next earthshaking finale.
As a teenager, his curiosity expanded from sound to the solar system. An introductory astronomy text called Stars found its way into his hands, and the information on celestial bodies sent his imagination into orbit. Soon, secondhand descriptions weren't enough, so he saved money from odd jobs for a telescope through which he could verify Jupiter's four moons and Saturn's many rings with his own two eyes.
Around the same time, he happened upon a second book, the one that would most decisively focus his inquiring temperament: Lemkin's Chemistry. Its pages described the visual magic of certain chemical reactions, which quickly converted him from armchair tourist to young, experimental chemist. He was in the basement precipitating colors or heating ammonium chloride to see it smoke like crazy. Or out on the front sidewalk igniting test tubes packed with flammable powder and attached to train-set wheels to make mini-rockets (that left major potholes when the mixture proved too flammable).
Because there was so much knowledge available, organic chemistry was the perfect subject to satiate an intellectual appetite, so he continued digesting it into adulthood with a fellowship at Penn, a Ph.D., and a career in research and development. There were also personal experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide along the way, some internal chemical exploration (an inquisitive mind is a gateway drug).
Music, science, psychedelics―their unifying allure was the charged anticipation of what awaited in the next moment, the rush of dramatic unfolding, the promise of new and evermore curving pathways of experience.
I hope that his journey through fatherhood was as formative and affecting.
Like it is being his son.
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Friday, May 6, 2016
Every single thing begins d/evolving the instant it comes into being.
Leaves turn color as our skin freckles and loosens, as great restaurants become mediocre, as performers lose their touch, as the rind of industry surpasses the pulp, as civil wars percolate, as the stars dim.
Eventually, an endpoint is reached, and what was is no longer what is.
Leaves fall until the tree itself succumbs. Flesh dies. That restaurant goes out of business at last. Careers retire. Landfills replace landscapes. Empires implode. The largest, brightest star you can imagine becomes a light-swallowing void.
It's easier to accept mankind's inevitable destination than our collective hurry to get there.
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Friday, April 15, 2016
As a child of the late seventies and early eighties, I grew up with the second wave of home videogame systems. One Christmas morning, I entered our family room to discover a fully hooked-up Atari 2600. My parents had left the television on late the night before so that I would walk in on Space Invaders cycling silently through its demonstration mode as the screen changed endless, hideous color combinations.
Technically, the machine was a moron with a 1.19 MHz CPU, 8-bit microprocessor, and a paltry 128 bytes of RAM that rendered entire cityscapes as featureless, rectilinear clusters, and titanic dragons as goofy, upright ducks. The music and sound effects were equally primitive in their sine-wave melodies, sample-and-hold atmospheres, sawtooth alerts, and white-noise collisions. Ironically, each game came with realistic cover art and an elaborate storyline. The box for Super Breakout showed a stoic astronaut in a jet-propelled suit swinging some kind of space baton to valiantly beat a path through an encroaching force field. When you loaded the game itself, it was pong with a beeping rainbow at one end.
But these digital rudiments tripped the imaginations of all the neighborhood kids. Those plastic, wallet-sized cartridges opened worlds for us to run, jump, and fly around in, and in some cases compelled us to become obsessive virtuosos in the art of the joystick. I may have embarrassed myself in gym class, but I earned back respect at the console. I recall playing Missile Command for so long without getting killed that I had to quit before my legs permanently fused Indian-style. I went the distance with Megamania: I was in the midst of the flying-hamburgers board when my score hit 999,999 and the program simply froze. Completed the entire Pitfall course―backwards―against the direction of the alligators' chomping jaws.
Since those years, the technology of play has exploded into a virtual cockpit of buttons and functions to learn, so it takes five minutes just to figure out how to make your character stop walking around in a corner, let alone advance through the level. Compared to the droid-like dexterity of today's gamers, I'm entirely inept. Ataritarded. What's more, graphics have become so vivid that there's nothing left for the mind's eye to do. Too much for the hands and too little for the psyche. A taxing, empty investment.
I retired my controller ages ago to play piano and draw.
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Thursday, March 17, 2016
One striking difference between the dirt-poor and super-rich is that people in the gutter wear their agony in plain view―keeping up appearances is a distant abstraction when your teeth are loose and your kids are hungry―whereas those falling apart on yachts scramble urgently to shroud their pain in silk. Anything to avoid the humiliation of hardship.
But anguish is an amorphous cloud, a wriggling snake: hard to contain; bound to escape.
The uncloakable scandal of the human condition.
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Friday, February 12, 2016
People form strange tribes. No matter how intense or esoteric the interest, there's an established fraternity, sorority, or secret society of its aberrant connoisseurs and practitioners.
Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactors. Plushie fetishists. Freemasons. Nazis. The Mid-Atlantic Conference of Albino Born-Again Vegan Weavers.
Each organization has a recorder, someone whose role is to be present, document, and distribute information to the group. When a club's charter is ethically questionable, or markedly vile, one wonders how its secretary can so passively bear witness. These recruits deserve our contempt and appreciation: they don't try to stop it, but they amass indefensible evidence making it harder for inhumanity to repeat itself.
Those un-swatted flies on the walls of history.
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