The Death of an Indestructible Dog: What Quinzy Taught Me (Revisited)

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Portrait of the artist as a young pup.

Wait, did I say artist? I meant barbarian.

No, that’s neither fair nor accurate. It’s difficult with Quinzy– he was many things, frequently at the same time: tameless beast, gentle soul, abominably-behaved, adorable, impish, awe-inspiring (of which more shortly), incorrigible and, above all, utterly unique.

Check it out: I have three separate, visible scars on my right hand. All of them are from Quinzy’s teeth. The largest scar is from a bite he gave me, while I was petting him.

I feel quite confident in saying there has never been another dog that was anything like this Shih Tzu, who I am proud to have liberated from a rather disconsolate puppy mill almost exactly 15 years ago. But I am not the hero in this story; not even close. That person would be the woman who became his mother (and shortly thereafter, her husband, who became his father), who “inherited” him because the woman who was my mother could not handle him. At the time I was surprised and more than a little disappointed that the same woman who had already raised two human puppies decided, in a moment of anxiety-induced weakness, that she was not up to the task. The woman who insisted she wanted a “grand-puppy” (based on her love of Otis, the first Shih Tzu in the family) and, at that time without a human grand-puppy, was looking for somewhere to direct that abundance of love and affection she had in reserve. Fortunately, my sister was on the case and within a year my mother was able to dedicate herself to the proposition of spoiling my (human) niece.

I would have taken Quinzy myself but the complex I lived in at the time did not allow pets. I contemplated rolling the dice but realized (wisely) that it would be devastating for all involved if the little guy got settled in and attached, only to find himself (and/or myself) ejected from the apartment. And so it was that the woman who at one time had been my fiancee was now, abruptly, the mother of the puppy my mother owned for less than 24 hours. And just like that, Otis (himself only two years old) found himself a rather reluctant older brother.

Quinzy? My mother had picked out the name long before we picked up the pup. Growing up just outside of Boston she could attest that one way to sniff out transplants and fake New Englanders was the way they pronounce the town of Quincy: If anyone says it the way it looks (kwin-see) they are suspect; everyone else knows it is actually –and correctly– pronounced kwin-zee. She felt that was a great name for a little dog, and I tended to agree. I especially liked the added touch of spelling it with a Z, as it reminded me of the fact that Led Zeppelin did not spell their name the correct way (Lead) because they knew (correctly) that Americans would invariably pronounce it Leed Zeppelin. To see a two pound, eight-week old Shih Tzu named Quinzy is difficult to describe or surpass, even if he had the all-but obligatory (and quite noisome) case of puppy-worms. Little did any of us know what we were in store for…

Long after he was house-trained Quinzy still had accidents. As a person whose carpets and floors bore the brunt of too many of these incidents to count, I used to call them “on purposes”. Quinzy was a character. Theories abound, from the lazy to the elaborate: he had a screw loose; he was mildly retarded; he was the utter distillation of pure Id; he was the inevitable result of a very irresponsible and poorly run breeding factory (“puppy mill” is at once an appropriate and completely inadequate euphemism for the conditions in which so many of our best friends are bred: when I first took my mom to inspect the pack, I made the mistake of sitting down on the carpet while scores of Shih Tzus –literally– bound hither and thither, and ended up with a urine stain on my shorts that I could never fully eradicate). Like recalcitrant literary figures before him including Whitman, Thoreau and Kerouac, Quinzy marched to his own funky drummer and sucked the marrow out of life –and he wasn’t afraid to kill something in order to get that marrow (of which more shortly).

Quinzy’s “condition” was mostly innocuous (says the man with the scars) and often cute: there was undeniably some type of faulty wiring, or he was part feline, or he was the first of an evolutionary leap forward –even though he often acted like the opposite. When he was being pet his tail would wag, indicating happiness, but he would growl, indicating displeasure. After a while it became clear that it was his way of purring (part cat? based on his hunting prowess and the environment he was born into, this possibility is not totally far-fetched). When he was young he had a freakish ability to jump: his hang-time was more impressive than most adult white males. He was a born predator and while he was seldom without some type of stuffed animal lodged in his snout (see above), he much preferred actual game. His success rate was astonishing considering he did not live on a farm. In his prime (and his prime was pretty much his first year through his thirteenth when he finally began to slow down a tad) he was able to capture and kill several birds. Let me repeat that: he was able to capture and kill several birds. I know leopards with less-impressive track records. His mother, ever sensitive and not supportive of these feral proclivities, felt obliged to tie a bell around his collar so that the birds in the backyard had half a chance. Please keep in mind: we are not talking about a retriever or what some people may unkindly (if not inaccurately) call a real dog: this was a twelve pound Shih Tzu. You know, Shih Tzu; that is Chinese for Sissy Dog.

That picture is cute and all, but it more than half-resembles an alligator lying in the weeds, waiting for an unsuspecting fish or fowl (or human) to amble along. One of my favorite Quinzy stories (and I have dozens: buy me some beers and I’ll keep you laughing for hours) is the brawl he got in with the opossum that had the temerity to live in the wood-pile behind the townhouse. His mother recalls him coming in from a late-night tinkle and laying down beside her. It wasn’t until she saw (or smelled?) the blood that she realized he was injured. Inspecting him, she saw a substantial cut under his throat; he hadn’t barked or cried, he just came back in as if nothing had happened. Naturally a trip to the vet was necessary and it was later discovered that a family of opossums had set up shop behind the wood-pile. Opossums are pretty big, and have rather sharp teeth. They are also kind of nasty, especially if they are protecting their brood. Needless to say, the next time Quinzy stepped into the backyard (and every time for a long time afterward) he ran directly to the wood-pile and frantically looked for his foe so he could finish what he started. Fearless, idiotic and inimitable.

Quinzy bit people. He pissed and pooped with impunity. Another favorite of mine is the electric blanket story. I was taking care of him (and Otis) one weekend during the middle of winter. It was frigid outside and while I was snug inside my bed (and electric blanket) I realized the two poor pups, although snuggled together in their “nest” in the living room, probably would welcome a little extra warmth. I brought them into my room and in short order they were wrapped around me and, presumably, grateful. A few minutes later, just as I was drifting off, I felt what seemed like liquid on and around my legs. Impossible, I thought. And then I remembered the Quinzy factor. I threw the cover off and flicked on the light. Sure enough, this contemptible swine had taken an enormous piss, soaking my sheets, blanket, comforter and himself. It made me recall the old trick we used to always play (unsuccessfully) where during slumber parties we waited until someone fell asleep and put their fingers in warm water. Leave it to Quinzy to perfect that adolescent scenario, much to my chagrin. Yet, as always, when you looked down at him he did not betray the least bit of guilt or even comprehension that he’d done anything wrong. And I sincerely believe it never occurred to him that he had. That was the difference; he was never bad, he just was.

Years and at least one scar later, I would tell people, watching his growl/purr in disbelief that I was almost entirely certain he was expressing deep joy and gratification. Except he still might bite you. Many years later, I’ve had enough experience with dogs (my own and others) that there is no canine I can’t trust and not a single one I won’t snuggle. But with Quinzy, even after a decade and a half, there was always, always the awareness that you didn’t want to get your face too close to his, just in case…

You could not help but love him.

I used to say (and I was more than half-serious) that while I did not believe he could ever die, if and when he did, the medical community needed to study him and find the cure for cancer. I’ve never seen a dog that simply did not show any signs of weakness or age for so long. He was not hyper, he just went at the world in a way that Auggie March would fully endorse. So with apologies to Saul Bellow, I’ll take the liberty of embellishing that famous first paragraph from his masterful novel: “I am an American, (puppy-mill)-born—…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a (dog)’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles (or muzzling the snout).”

Quinzy treated the world like his bitch and while I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) necessarily emulate that approach, it’s hard not to admire and respect it. I’ve never met a human –much less an animal– that slurped so much ecstasy out of every second he was allowed to enjoy. Quinzy got his eyes, ears, snout and occasionally his teeth on anything and everyone within his reach and he never hesitated and he never slowed down. Until he slowed down.

But we never thought he would die. We actually thought he would live forever. Or at least shatter some canine records. I still reckon that scientific minds should study his DNA and come up with the antitode for illness, aging and depression. He was the most alive dog I’ve ever known and I’ve known a lot of dogs. Dogs, if nothing else, are very alive and adept at living (they are dogs, after all).

I won’t get carried away and claim that the scars on my hand, which I can see right now as I write these words, are the ironic gifts Quinzy left me. But in a way I could not appreciate until this very second, perhaps he was giving me something I could not fully fathom, since I’m a human. Did he understood and appreciate that he had been rescued from abandonment or a premature appointment with the veterinarian’s least-loved needle? Who knows. Who cares? What was he supposed to do, thank me? He did more than that anyway, and he did it without guile or the expectation of gratitude, since he was a dog. He showed me how to live a less contrived, more memorable life. He left me with a part of him that I can easily keep in my head and my heart. Finally, in his own incomparable fashion he ensured I had a visible reminder or three I’ll carry with me until the day I finally slow down myself.

*This piece is included in the recently-released collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two.

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The Weeklings: Final Popped Culture

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In this much-beloved feature launched for the very final time, our editors and contributors each respond to a single cultural question.

As always, please, no wagering.

 

Five years later, what Weeklings essay has stuck with you the most?

 

Ashley Perez
My introduction to The Weeklings came about when then-editor Antonia Crane introduced a feature called Welcome Kink, an essay series that featured the good, bad, and amazing on kinky sex and kink culture. She worked with me for six months to get my essay ready for the series, as well as a lot of other talented writers. One of my favorite essays from that series is Seth Fischer’s essay, “The Skinner Box”, which brings together kinky sex, bisexuality, masturbating, and psychology. What more could you ask for? I think this is what The Weeklings can be most proud of; fearlessly bringing the best writing on every topic to a wide audience.

Janet Steen
I don’t know how to pick the Weeklings essay that has stayed with me the most from these past four years. So many still spark in my brain: pieces by Jennifer Kabat, Lawrence Benner, Sean Beaudoin, Henry Cherry, Jana Martin, Greg Olear, Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Sean Murphy, Derek Bardowell, Barbara Mansfield, Deirdre Day, Robert Burke Warren, and others. But I will complete my assignment by choosing one that resonates with me especially in these days of catastrophic news and foreboding election coverage: Nathaniel Missildine’s essay “Catching Us at a Bad Time.”  It’s a perfect example of the sort of essay I wanted to see at The Weeklings: nimble, questioning, unpredictable, baffled. Missildine tries to parse the strange, nonsensical texts his young daughter is sending him while also absorbing the horrible news of the day: beheadings of journalists and aid workers, murderous cops who escape indictment, school shooting rampages. And all of this from his bucolic expat life in France. It’s a piece that has questions but no easy answers, and that captures the feeling that this world is fucked up beyond understanding right now. “I don’t know where we go from here,” Missildine writes at one point. That line sticks with me in these strange days.

Kurt Baumeister
Top GOP Excuses for Romney Being a Loser,” by Elissa Schappell. The qualities I most admire about Elissa Schappell’s writing are her style and wit. From her short stories and journalism to her Facebook posts and Twitter tweets Schappell’s work embodies something I like to call “savage urbanity”, an acid wit (barely) contained by her eloquence. This rare quality is fully on display in Schappell’s short post mortem on the 2012 election. From “Lord Mittens” to “panda jerky” and “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Who Doesn’t Want the Government in her Vagina” this piece shows Elissa at her best. And it points to one of the greatest attributes of The Weeklings as an endeavor: Freedom. People on the outside may not realize it but there was a lot of freedom in the content The Weeklings produced, a lot of room for individualism. There are other sites and magazines where this exists, to be sure; but in a sense The Weeklings was a little like an asylum run by the inmates, something any lunatic in his right mind can appreciate, something that will be missed. Beyond its content, this piece is memorable for me because Elissa is one of the first new (to me, at least) writers I admired when I began to pursue publication a few years ago. The fact that she was one of The Weeklings original contributors is, more or less, why I wanted to write for The Weeklings in the first place. And I’m very happy I did.

Hank Cherry
Rather than pick one essay, I offer one each by the four founders of The Weeklings. I’ve been reading Sean Beaudoin’s written work since we sat next to each other in Philosophy class back in college, me the younger student, him the wizened bulb ready to enter society and bend it to his will. Check out his excellent meditation on the Newtown school shootings, “Going Home.” Jennifer Kabat always directed light and diligent intelligence with particular concern for the arts, from her pieces came conversations that lasted long after reading. Read her brilliant “My Favorite Marxist” essay. Greg Olear presented a firm grasp of word-smithing but always with a particular zest, daring anyone to rob him of his love for Billy Joel while still remaining remarkably credible. And of course, Janet Steen offered real clarity of concept in her pieces while cloaking each essay with incisive poetry. Her offering, “The Gravity of the Situation,” will make you a better, smarter person. From them, others sprouted: Joe Daly, Sean Murphy, Michael Gonzalez, my friend Antonia Crane, along with many others (Bob Devine!!!). But if you’re here reading, it’s because of Janet, Greg, Jen and Sean. So l thank them now for giving us all the room to move. I, for one, am much, much better for the opportunity. And if you need something else, check out Hank Cherry’s sublime “Soul Seduction – The Bar-Kays” for an indelibly raw and vibrant commitment to musical appreciation. It should have been a contender! The Weeklings are dead! Long live the Weeklings!

 

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Litsa Dremousis
Choosing my favorite Weeklings essay is like choosing my favorite Top Pot donut or picking the cutest kitten in the box: damned near impossible. That said, I’m particularly drawn to Janine Canty’s “Don’t Blame Yourself”: A beautiful, blunt, bloody look at grief and the ways in which life seemingly targets each of us again and again. So vivid that reading it is like watching a film. And while, from a technical standpoint, Canty’s sentences occasionally need polishing, that’s one of the things I love about her work: she’s not precious and she’s true to her voice. Sometimes publishing feels like a round-robin, circle jerk, echo chamber where all of us know all of us know all of us. Canty, a nurse in northern Maine, knocked down the damned door with the weight of her talent and we’re each the better for it. She’s not one more MFA darling spending a paragraph describing a tree. (Seriously, guys: call it “a maple” and then move on. You’re not writing for Martians: we know what a fucking tree looks like.) I’ve never met Canty in person, but when I read her essays, I feel like I’m reading a supremely gifted friend. As for the end of The Weeklings, I guessed it was coming because all of us on the masthead and all the regular contributors are fortunate and tenacious enough to be supremely busy. Which doesn’t mean I won’t miss it. Writing for The Weeklings has been one of the favorite parts of my career. To a person, the aforementioned are not only superb writers, but kind and trustworthy. Goodbye, Weeklings. You were the meal AND the dessert and I always licked my plate clean.

Jamie Blaine
It’s difficult to pick from all the fifty greatest band names and drug-addled albums, from riffs on Bowie, Prince and GNR but I have to give it to Robert Burke Warren’s coming-of-age tale of lazy eyes, metal groups named Ickee Phudj and forming a punk-funk band with RuPaul called Wee Wee Pole. Sweet and nostalgic with a lot of soul — everything I love in good writing. For example, this line, when a reluctantly-grown-up Burke found himself playing songs at his son’s preschool. “And I always told them, to their astonishment, that skin, bones, and hearts are stronger when they heal.” Also that time Questlove played his song “Elephant in the Room” on Jimmy Fallon was pretty darn cool.

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Jen Kabat
I have four essays, not one, and death is truly what unites them. The first is Judy Juanita— a former Black Panther’s take on guns today. The Panthers took up arms; they armed others. They believed in their right to bear arms. And, Judy carried a gun in her purse. In a world where black men were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and doing-anything-while-black could be called a crime (to this day), the Panthers armed for defense and offense. Here she writes about her own gun and the power of guns, their poetic and psychic strength as well as their sheer horror. Her essay is as lyrical as it is nuanced and angry. To say I am proud of it isn’t nearly enough. It begins and ends with Trayvon Martin. The week I write this that essay seems ever more timely and urgent. And, then there is Sean Beaudoin’s essay also on guns and the inane/insane shooting at Newtown, CT where he went to elementary school and how to make sense of loss.  I still don’t know how to make sense of it, or any other. Finally as meditations on death that also try to comprehend loss and the unaccountable calculous violence leaves there is Nelly Reifler’s “Blue Spark.” Janet Steen always manages to circle around ideas in ways that slip in something unexpected— loss, family, hope, but death too… 

Sean Beaudoin
Well, if I were to get technical about it, the essay that has “stuck with me” the most is one that I still get regular hate mail about, even four years later. Who knew Beach Boys fans were so sensitive? Or I could pick all two years worth of Hank Cherry’s classic “Sunday Light & Word.” I’ll admit to being enamored with Vince Navy’s take on the moral legislation against having an opinion about Caitlyn Jenner that fails to be cloyingly positive. I also loved Jamie Blaine’s elgiac “Tuesday’s Gone, Ride On,” but in terms of most affecting as a piece of prose, I’m going to go with Bob Devine’s “Delmark Records 1965.” I solicited it, as Bob was college professor of mine and in-between lectures would sometimes tell cryptic little tales about his years interacting with iconic blues personalities, some of whom were my heroes, both then and now. It’s a great piece that sets you firmly in a very specific time and place that can never and will never come again. But it’s also a document, a story that might not have been told. If nothing else, in five years at The Weeklings I’m proud to have been a part of something whose greatest purpose might have been to give a platform to obscure voices, and archive stories that might otherwise have just disappeared.

 

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Greg Olear
We’ve run a staggering 1,320 pieces (!) since April of 2012. I just now scrolled through the list of titles, which runs to 64 pages, and it’s amazing to me how much good stuff we published. I wish Diana Spechler wrote more. I wish James Greer wrote more. I wish Whitney Collins wrote more. I wish I wrote less. I wish Big Ron Dantomine had taken off. I wish I knew why some pieces got a lot of hits, even if they didn’t deserve it, while other really great ones died on the vine. I wish we’d had a real budget, so we could have paid everybody and/or promoted the site more. As for which post has stuck with me, I’ll go with Lawrence Benner’s “The Island of Apples.” One of my favorite writers, Larry tends to write about weird, obscure stuff, or else come at current events at a particularly peculiar angle. But this post is about something so real, and so inherently sad, that I didn’t take it at face value until I was several paragraphs in. Just a sublime piece of writing.

Sean Murphy
When I first met Sean Beaudoin, which is to say when I first met his writing, it was love at first sight. I suspect I’m not alone in this, but as a writer it makes my love, well, complicated. We read, often without reward, hoping to encounter that rare piece that will both inspire us and reinvigorate our passion for why we do what we do in the first place, despite the rejection, obscurity and annoying groupies (okay, mostly the first two). So it’s a tad awkward when you find yourself hating a writer a little bit because they are so good at what you try to do. Yes, it’s useful and refreshing and all that crap, but it’s also a reminder that we ultimately must measure ourselves not by clicks and likes but by our peers. However, all of these mixed emotions are forever redeemed by the first piece of his I read, “Ronald Reagan, The Greatest President Who Ever Lived.” It contains all the elements that make Sean’s writing so memorable and satisfying: humor, erudition, just the right amount of cynicism (easy to attempt, near impossible to pull off in an essay) and, most importantly, he did heavy lifting for those of us who wanted, no needed to write an essay exactly like this. Thank you, Brother Beaudoin, for writing this so I didn’t have to. On a personal note, the essay that will stick to me is this one, since it led to a note from Julie Newmar, and what guy doesn’t have a message from Catwoman on his bucket list?

 

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Oliver Sacks, RIP

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I am deeply saddened to see this American treasure pass, but also profoundly inspired by his example. It’s easy to derive joy from good fortune and find meaning in fortunate times; to examine the inexplicable and even search for opportunities within personal suffering seems, to me, the height of human achievement.

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The Brown Sisters: Forty Portraits That Tell us Nothing, and Everything

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Life and Art combine to create something that is representative of the best both are capable of achieving.

I have little I can, or want to, add to the pictures themselves, part of a series undertaken by Nicholas Nixon.

This remarkable sequence of photographs contains essays, poems, short stories, even a novel. But it is more than those things; it’s better: it’s real, and the subject is at once obvious and elusive. Totally human.

And the accompanying story (by Susan Minot) is quite satisfactory, with this paragraph summing up so much:

These subjects are not after attention, a rare quality in this age when everyone is not only a photographer but often his own favorite subject. In this, Nixon has pulled off a paradox: The creation of photographs in which privacy is also the subject. The sisters’ privacy has remained of utmost concern to the artist, and it shows in the work. Year after year, up to the last stunning shot with its triumphant shadowy mood, their faces and stances say, Yes, we will give you our image, but nothing else.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine, Redux (Revisited)

Talk about better living through chemistry!

Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented/discovered LSD, has passed away at the dignified, enviable age of 102.

On April 16, 1943, he made history.

On April 19, 1943 he described it.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

More on his life HERE and HERE.

Debate did, and does, rage about the benefits and risks (intelligent and honest debate considers both) of psychedelics in general and LSD in particular. Being a chemical, and being demonstrably more intense, LSD is a bit easier to defame (and criminalize), whereas psilocybin (magic mushrooms) grow in the earth and, like marijuana, resist easy condemnation. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, the mushrooms and green plants that grow in the ground are, quite literally, natural.

Here’s Bill Hicks, perhaps the most articulate (and convincing) proponent of the possibilities of hallucinogens:

And more:

How many well-meaning, but unwatchable scenes have attempted to capture some aspect of a psychedelic experience? Here’s one of the more powerful ones, from one of the better movies:

Easy to romanticize, easy to ridicule, in reality very complicated, the potential triumph and terror of use/abuse of LSD can be summed up in two words: Syd Barrett (much more on him HERE). A snippet:

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

Put another way, here is Barrett, pre-and-post disintegration, a stunning example of the ways he expanded his mind and art, and a horrifying illumination of the damage he did:

His bandmates carried on without him and went on to make history. Along the way they made one of the best sonic explorations of all-things psychedlic, the soundrack to the film More (more on that, and them, HERE and HERE). The single best song concerning what one may see/hear/feel during a trip is, in my opinion, the surreal, shimmering “Quicksilver”. (The unavailable studio version is best, but this is a nice YouTube rarity.)

I’ve always been intrigued (and more than a little haunted) by the sounds and images (the band and especially the crowd) of Country Joe and the Fish playing “Section 43” at Monterey. Definitely some happy hippies caught on film:

For me, the entire story could –and perhaps should– be synthesized (see what I did there?) in a single one-minute scene:

To be cont’d…

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Technology and Privacy, Cont’d…

The ongoing controversy surrounding Edward Snowden has reminded me that the issues of privacy are not recent. Indeed, the notion of “other people” knowing what you are doing at all times was very much a 20th Century concern, albeit a mostly analog one. Certainly the advent of the Internet and sites like Facebook have made “big data” a complicated issue: we tend to embrace innovation when it suits us and resist—or fear—it when we see potential threats.

It obliges questions like, what is Big Data and how is it used? Is it mostly good or entirely bad? What, for that matter, is privacy as it relates to our personal lives in the new millennium? It is also imperative to recognize that technology is never a static phenomenon; by the time we grapple with one aspect of a particular product or progression, it often has already mutated, improved or become something else altogether. I spent the summer of 2010 puzzling over the facts, figures and opinions in a piece for our annual Five Technology Trends To Watch.

One thing is certain: the intersection between the private and the public when it comes to data collection is never simple and at best is always uneasy. The debate about privacy—collective and individual—is ultimately an issue of control. The reality, which is good, bad and ugly (or all three depending upon your perspective) is that we reside in an odd era where we at once have as much and as little autonomy as any time in history. How you process this ostensible contradiction will likely determine how troubled, or not, you are by recent events.

The concept of privacy and technology is nothing if not complicated, intriguing and, importantly, ever-changing. As is always the case, before we can predict with any hope of accuracy what the future will look like, we need to adequately understand both the present and the past. Any conversation about Big Brother running roughshod over our privacy rights needs to acknowledge that this is not remotely a new phenomenon. For an artistic meditation on the paranoia the Watergate scandal begat, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is essential viewing. For a more contemporary take on professional surveillance, David Simon—creator of The Wire—has an enlightening and provocative piece available on his blog.

To be certain, the idea of the most powerful government in the world snooping on a citizen’s online activity is something out of an Orwell novel. Indeed, the entire notion of online activity would be something even Orwell could never have conceived. As always, there is a flip side to every innovation: as the Internet has empowered individuals to write, speak, and shop, it also extends the possibility of these endeavors being overseen. What is undeniable is that when it comes to privacy (online or otherwise) it’s very often only the occasional abuses or oversights that catch our attention.

For instance, consider the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. Less than a decade ago a tragedy of this magnitude might have left us paralyzed: with fear, misinformation and false leads. Of course, with technology and the expertise with which everyday Americans utilize it, pictures, social media and cooperation by diverse communities enabled the perpetrators to be identified—and captured—in remarkably short order. It always raises eyebrows and elicits skepticism, but it’s difficult to deny that the government has used techniques—however controversial—to foil terror attacks and yes, keep us safe. Accepting and/or endorsing this does not require providing an apathetic blank check to the powers that be.

We need to keep our public officials as accountable, and ensure that incompetence—or worse—does not occur on our watch, in our names. On the other hand, we have to be cognizant that a million spies with a million hours could scarcely begin to keep track of all the correspondence occurring every minute via email, Facebook and Twitter. Privacy itself may seem a quaint or antiquated notion, but the truth is, we live in a very different, very digital world. What we do know might unnerve us, but what we do not know is capable of damage that extends beyond privacy concerns.

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Creativity vs. Cancer

Humanity, creativity and compassion in the face of suffering: that’s where I find my faith.

More on this story, HERE.

It reminds me of THIS and THIS and THIS (more, below):

I’m trying to think of something I don’t love about this. I’m not having much luck.

Overhearing a conversation between the boy’s mother and his teachers about his love for comics and superheros, Somchai rushed back to the fire station to change into a Spiderman costume before swinging into action.

“I told him Spiderman is here to save you. No monster will hurt you now,” Somchai said. “Then I told him to walk slowly toward me. I was very nervous that he might have slipped if he got too excited and ran.”

Somchai, who keeps costume of Spiderman and a Japanese superhero Ultraman to liven up fire drills at schools, said the teary-eyed boy broke into a smile and started walking into his arms.

With all proper respect to the (late, great) Mikey Dread, I hereby declare Somchai Yoosabai a legit Jumping Master!

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Albert Hofmann, R.I.P.

Talk about better living through chemistry!

Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented/discovered LSD, has passed away at the dignified, enviable age of 102.

On April 16, 1943, he made history.

On April 19, 1943 he described it.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

More on his life HERE and HERE.

Debate did, and does, rage about the benefits and risks (intelligent and honest debate considers both) of psychedelics in general and LSD in particular. Being a chemical, and being demonstrably more intense, LSD is a bit easier to defame (and criminalize), whereas psilocybin (magic mushrooms) grow in the earth and, like marijuana, resist easy condemnation. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, the mushrooms and green plants that grow in the ground are, quite literally, natural.

Here’s Bill Hicks, perhaps the most articulate (and convincing) proponent of the possibilities of hallucinogens:

And more:

How many well-meaning, but unwatchable scenes have attempted to capture some aspect of a psychedelic experience? Here’s one of the more powerful ones, from one of the better movies:

Easy to romanticize, easy to ridicule, in reality very complicated, the potential triumph and terror of use/abuse of LSD can be summed up in two words: Syd Barrett (much more on him HERE). A snippet:

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

Put another way, here is Barrett, pre-and-post disintegration, a stunning example of the ways he expanded his mind and art, and a horrifying illumination of the damage he did:

His bandmates carried on without him and went on to make history. Along the way they made one of the best sonic explorations of all-things psychedlic, the soundrack to the film More (more on that, and them, HERE and HERE). The single best song concerning what one may see/hear/feel during a trip is, in my opinion, the surreal, shimmering “Quicksilver”.

I’ve always been intrigued (and more than a little haunted) by the sounds and images (the band and especially the crowd) of Country Joe and the Fish playing “Section 43” at Monterey. Definitely some happy hippies caught on film:

For me, the entire story could –and perhaps should– be synthesized (see what I did there?) in a single one-minute scene:

To be cont’d…

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The Truth About Cats & Dogs

Let’s go to the videotape.

Dogs:

Cats:

Any further questions?

(Two disclaimers: the cat with the door stopper is genius, and all kittens are cute and can therefore be forgiven for their antics.)

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End of Summer (Camp) with a Bat, a Cat and a Clown (Revisited)

It is an inexorable, if lamentable rite of passage to revisit cultural mementos from one’s childhood and discover that, to an adult’s eyes, they are lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is one of the ways we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose and sophomoric metaphysics still seem eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her pulp for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry my bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand; now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s better.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

It probably has been a while because, apparently, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix or even to purchase. (Wow, this has been a controversial dilemma for some time apparently; there is a whole section of the Wikipedia page dedicated to it…one shudders to think of all the hardcore comic book collectors who are –and have been– incensed about this.) The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I am here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.

There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest (bordering on infatuation?) can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The “O.J.” (as in, Original Joker).

Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any lingering memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the maniacal, unhinged hilarity that managed to be hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how iredeemably, magnificently campy the show was. I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities (holy shit, did anyone know George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were (by turns) funnier, darker and more human.

Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the first movie). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black (though still sardonic) take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out, courtesy of YouTube:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older, and of Cuban/Italian descent that gave him that subtly exotic, almost indescribably outre edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for –as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache (his decades-old trademark) is so genius I can scarcely convey my joy and admiration. How perfect is that? The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. (And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode.) Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And let’s do a quick sidebar for how great the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t sleep on Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. That is an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. (For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat –skip to the three minute mark for the most epic fight scene that ever includes the words “Bon voyage Pussy”):

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether (in clip above, from film) and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar.

 

 

 

 

 

While I offer serious props to the benevolent citizen who put the Joker clips together, I’m incredibly disappointed that some turbo nerd has not compiled a Catwoman montage: get on that Internets!

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

So in addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, below: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by season three the producers/writers seemed to understand that what may have worked in 1965 was not registering in 1967. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most campy (and sublime) few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. In shark-infested waters, obviously. With real surfers cheering from shore. With bathing suits over their costumes. This is a line in the sand: you are either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Wow, one never knows what is available on the Internet. Check this out! (Yes, he raises his hand and says “Peace” at the end. Thank you Mr. West.)

Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.

Peace.

Bonus footage (to make up for the YouTube removal of the epic Joker montage, above):

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