Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

American Tune

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

I am a person who bears the influences of four older siblings. I have always been happy of this influence. Profoundly happy. I’ve never been good at returning the favor, but I have selfishly sopped it up over the years. These were siblings who’s lives happened in eras that directly influenced mine. Their births span the years of the baby boom. As a result I have a strong connection to the culture and sensibilities of the boomer generation. I was born in 1964. In many accounts, that’s the last year of the post WWII baby boom. Malcom Gladwell’s new book spends some time identifying good and bad years to be born in terms of probability of success, and he cops to the fact that his own birth year, 1963, is one of the worst. I don’t like to consider myself a boomer, and although I am border-line in terms of the designation, I do draw from a cultural well that reaches into it. Bowie. Kubrick. Rauschenberg. Beckett. Groenig. Jobs. Wilson. Vonnegut. Cage. etc etc… These guys all come out of, or spoke most loudly to, that big bulge in the demographic curve that I’m surfing the edge of.

But the first of these, the voice that reached across the boundary that separated me from my older siblings, and talked directly to me, was Paul Simon. I am not entirely sure who I would be right now, if somehow a copy of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Tyme” by Simon and Garfunkel, had not ended up in the weird carpeted LP box in our house in Toyota. I listen to this album now and I wonder what exactly I thought a song like “A Simple Desultory Philippic” was about when I was ten. But I do remember listening to it and thinking it made some kind of sense. I at least knew it was cool. And in subsequent years I chased down all those references. All those allusions. If nothing else, it is perhaps the earliest seed that led to the flowering of a view of my life that can’t really imagine not being based in New York.

Funny story about that album: I remember thinking it was really neat that these hip, cool guys had recorded a children’s nursery rhyme. Of course you can scour that record and not find a children’s song… unless of course you had a sister who taught you “The 59th Street Bridge Song” at a time when you didn’t know what cobblestones were, and sang it: “Gobble-stones.” (Insert image of my sister Faith laughing because she got the three year old Leon to sing “Feeling Groovy!” Meanwhile, the three year old is simply feeling groovy.)

The reason this all comes up now, is that I just got home from tech and Hulued (that’s a new verb about the act of watching a TV show on Hulu) last night’s Colbert Report. I don’t have Comedy Central in my apartment here in Boulder, so I have to get my Stewart/Colbert fix on the interwebs. Stephen’s guest last night was the aging Paul Simon. At the very end of the show Simon sings a song. And he happens to pick perhaps the one song that he wrote that is most precious to me. It is a song that I, perhaps inadvisedly, sang in a High-School talent show in Nagoya. But even as a seventeen year old, I resonated deeply with this song. It was not just that it was from the pen of the first of many personal poet laurites of my heart. I actually felt this way. Even then. The funny thing is that hearing this, now old man, sing this song tonight, I realized that I still resonate with it. More than ever. And that he chose to sing this, now, at this point in our country’s history, is not lost on me. I realize anew that part of the flame that burns in me, was passed on from the torch that Paul Simon has born for so many years. I have fallen in and out of love with Mr. Simon over the years. And I don’t know what I thought I was singing about when I sang this at seventeen, but I do know that it still makes me cry.

The song is “American Tune.” The lyrics are:

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it’s all right, it’s all right
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it’s alright, it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

Sarah The Candidate.

Monday, October 27th, 2008

This morning, I watched a rally by the republican vice presidential candidate who I am committed to not naming on this blog. She was talking about Joe the Plumber and Cindy the Citizen and Bill the Builder etc, and I suddenly realized what she’s doing and why I have a problem with it. She’s not running for vice president of the United States. She’s running for vice president of Sesame Street!

Then the crowd started chanting “Use your brain. Vote McCain.” It wasn’t so much that they were chanting this, but they were chanting it brainlessly. I mean have these people never heard of irony?

So these rallys, which a few weeks ago were “Nuremburg-Lite”, are now “Elmo Live” events, playing to a crowd of Zombie children.

I know it’s bad form to speak ill of my fellow citizens on the other side of the alleged cultural divide. But there’s a lot of buzz about how her Veepness is now positioning herself for power plays within the RNC after a McCain defeat. If this is true (and even if it isn’t) this is not the last context in which we will have to deal with this person and the tripe that flows so bitterly from her. Although this is good for Tina Fey’s career, I think we need to keep working to wake the zombies up. These people have brains. And they are not children. This is why it’s so offensive to see them acting like the Children of the Corn.

I am beginning to actually have hope that Barak Obama may just pull this off. Like most people I’m afraid to say this cause it’s just so tempting and it seems so easy to jinx, but I’ve always said that the more the election is about the economy, the more chance Barak has. Who could have predicted this economic collapse, and how it is finally edging Obama into something like a lead that might have some traction?

I don’t have enough to lose much in the current situation, so although I know it’s short sighted and cold blooded to say so, if it takes an economic catastrophie to get Obama in the White House, then so be it.

This being said, I hear stories every day that remind me it’s not over.

So keep working! I don’t want to live on Lobotomized Sesame Street.

The pollyanna tour of Japan continues…

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Let me just say, cause it really can’t be said enough: Japan has HUGE problems. There are many angles from which you can just take this society apart.

Akiko and I went to “Jusco” to do some shopping today. Much of the expeirience is pretty straight forward but at a certain point, I notice that the music that is playing at the normal, almost ignorable, muzak level is all hard-rock versions of Christmas carols. I leave it to others to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Here’s something I think is pretty great: NHK, Japan’s national broadcast company has a lot of the kind of educational programing that one would expect from what is essentially Japan’s BBC. However, I’m noticing that there are a lot of contests and other shows in which, for example, people are asked to send in photos they’ve taken with an accompanying haiku or other short poem. There is no prize. They just show selections on a future broadcast. I saw a show in which people had sent in videos that they had shot. These were not “Japan’s Funniest home Videos” or “Jackass” episodes. It’s painfully tasteful shots of waterfalls and mountains in the mist. There are also little shows about how to use your cell phone, aimed at the middle aged, and an in depth tutorial on taking pictures with your phone.
As we’re approaching the end of the year people are beginning to make plans for their “nengajo” (a new year greeting post card). These cards are based on an image rather than information, so creativity is a key thing and the need to make cool ones has always been an important driver of desktop publishing and home printing technology. People send out literally hundreds of these thing. Anyway I must have seen at least four different shows on NHK that touched on ideas for making this year’s card.
There are of course, cooking shows, but on NHK they take the time to tell you how to tell the difference between an egg that is fresh enough to eat raw (no salmonella in Japan) and which ones you need to cook.
None of this happens with reference to brand names or in a way that promotes any corporation. The rules that require brand anonymity on NHK lead to all kinds of hilarious pieces of masking covering up the makers name on camera’s, phones and cars.

What I think is interesting about all of this is that NHK clearly has as it’s purpose the enriching of people’s lives. Giving people a place to send their videos and haiku-photos, while simultaneously offering advice on how to use the technology concerned, gets people out and active. Yes, of course there’s an aspect of this that is saying “Go buy a camera” but the emphasis is on the availability of aesthetic participation. Much of the advise for the nengajo cards was to make them by hand (a traditional calligrapher gave the advise: “Don’t bother taking a calligraphy class. You’re not going to get good at it before the end of the year. Just explore what you can do within the skill level you already have.”)

The word “Bunka” in Japanese translates to “Culture”. But it is used in the broadest sense of the word culture. In the states when we say that PBS celebrates “culture” we tend to mean that it deals with art, literature, performance and so-called “high” culture. But when NHK deals with culture it deals with that which we would refer to as “life-style”. We are quick to say things like “In Japanese culture people take their shoes off when they enter a house.” but we’re not likely to have a sense of participation in our own culture in this sense. We do tend to identify with things like holidays as forms of cultural participation, but not the way we eat, bathe or sleep.
In Japan there is a palpable sense of participation in these things. It is perhaps the result of the culture’s roots, or the people’s awareness of those roots, or it could be the synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism and Animism. But there is a deep sense in Japan that the fabric of daly life itself is a subject worthy of attention.
And NHK is the broadcast forum for this attention.

Can you tell that I’ve been watching TV? Akiko’s mother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house that sprawls all over the place with long hallways connecting cozy little rooms. During the rather cold winters here in Akita, only one room in the house is heated. This becomes dining room and living room depending on the time of day. I’ve spent most of my time here, watching TV and working on my computer. There’s a mysterious WiFi network that I can catch from time to time. Resulting in odd moments like when I was video-chatting with my brother in Tokyo and my Mother in Minnesota at the same time.

I remember one time, a long time ago in Toga. We were up there working on something in the winter and I complained about the fact that we didn’t heat the dorm more aggressively. One of the company members looked right at me and said, it’s that kind of attitude that keeps getting you guys into wars. Geeze! No kidding! I think about that every time I have to step outside this warm little room. Our place in NY is steam heated with an oil furnace. We’re on the 5th floor of 6. During the winter, we have to open window cause it gets too hot.
Like many homes in Japan, and that dorm in Toga, this place doesn’t have running hot water. If you want hot water you have to heat it. Yet, it has a bath that heats and reheats it’s own water.
It is impossible to not participate in the season here. It is winter. You taste it in the food and you feel it on your skin. And not that there aren’t places in the States where this is all true, I would argue that it is more prevalent here.

This sense of participation in daily life leads to some interesting things. For example: when I was growing up, people would often ask me if I ate bread or rice for breakfast. This was a clear marker at the time of whether or not you lived a Japanese life-style or not. The fact that I usually had corn-flakes tended to skew the equation, but the idea was that this behavior was tied to cultural identity. People were, to some degree, willing to confer on me, Japanese status if I ate a Japanese breakfast. Even now, the fact that I eat, and actually like, natto is taken as one of the most significant facts in support of my being an inner Japanese.
And there’s something going on here that is actually deeply comforting. Japanese society tends to breed attitudes that are racist and xenophobic. This is a huge problem and I don’t want to imply for one second that this is not a horrible, ugly part of people’s attitudes that must be educated out of existence. But there is some kind of mechanism that is put into play when someone looks at me differently because I eat natto. Tolerance for fermented beans is not, to my knowledge, genetic. So when someone has to question their assumption that only Japanese people can stand to eat natto they also have to question other assumptions that are related to that one about the nature of their identity as “Japanese”.
They have to begin to look at “Japanese” as something that anybody can participate in. And if these barbarians can be Japanese, maybe…

Told you it was pollyanna.

In other news: It looks like, with the help of Joel, the comments functionality on this blog is up and running again, so post comments and talk amongst yourselves.