Have we been able to break out of the Covid blues in the past year? What new rounds of exciting things to do have emerged? I’ve now got a regular weekly poker game with friends, and what else? Our biggest excitement was acquiring the vaccine, and that doesn’t alleviate boredom. Aside from folding laundry, most rely on TV and wine. I wrote the following in August 2020, and it still applies.
Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.
With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.
It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”
Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:
David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.
The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
There’s an old saying from Pascal that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.
With all the postmortems and reflections, there hasn’t been enough thought given to the martyrdom of Flight 93 and its passengers on that disastrous day. Paige Williams wrote hers today in The New Yorker, part of which is worth repeating here. The legacy of 9/11 has been a history of American overreach and decline, as many have reminded us. The forty passengers and crew on Flight 93 helped display the contrary.
Forty-five minutes into the flight, at around 9:30 a.m., air-traffic controllers received two radio transmissions—a frantic “Mayday!” and the sounds of violent struggle, followed by “Get out of here!” United 93 plummeted seven hundred feet, over eastern Ohio. A hijacker, one of four, was heard announcing that there was a bomb on board. Using autopilot, the hijackers pointed the jetliner toward Washington, D.C. Its transponder disabled, the flight became harder to track. The plane’s cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of a woman struggling with a hijacker; she then went silent.
The crew and passengers, herded into the back of the plane, used the onboard phones, and their personal cell phones, to call people on the ground. Learning that other hijackers had just flown jetliners into both towers of the World Trade Center, they held a vote. Unarmed civilians, unbound by duty, they included a college judo champ, a former air-traffic controller, and a retired registered nurse. In an act that has become American lore over the past twenty years, the passengers and crew members chose to attack the knife-wielding hijackers and “retake the plane.”
They rushed the first-class cabin, carrying out what the 9/11 Commission’s report called a “sustained” assault. One of the plane’s data recorders captured “loud thumps, crashes, shouts, and breaking glasses and plates.” The hijacker flying the plane, as if to throw the assaulters off balance, rocked the aircraft left and right. One hijacker asked, “Shall we finish it off?” Another said to wait. A passenger shouted, “In the cockpit. If we don’t, we’ll die!” The hijacker soon asked again, “Shall we put it down?” This time, the answer was yes. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the hijackers “judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them.”
The plane roared low across pastoral Somerset County, Pennsylvania, skimming the village of Lambertsville. The aircraft flipped, then crashed at nearly six hundred miles per hour near Shanksville. People miles away felt the ground shake.
I recently took the position with a friend that what we call tolerance has pretty much gone out the window. The political scene is simply rank with intolerance (i.e., partisanship), and most Democrats still act as if the milk of human kindness will win out. How far has tolerance gotten them with Joe Manchin? Or Mitch McConnell for that matter. In Mexico we tolerate López Obrador, who campaigned as a liberal, while some make excuses for his authoritarian behavior.
Practicing tolerance requires coming to terms with a lot of conflict: setting aside your strong moralistic opinions (or beliefs) to respect and permit other viewpoints. Morally, we are motivated by the values we’ve learned and grown up with. That’s one reason why racial bias and hatred is so hard to overcome. Turning the other cheek has continually gotten the tolerators kicked in the ass. You don’t fight wildfires with fire extinguishers.
So it seems that people are drinking a lot more since Covid. My theory is that it’s not just about the dysfunction and disorder that the disease occasioned. For years now the U.S. has been forcibly pulled apart politically—and to a large degree socially. I had dinner the other night with three of my best high-tolerant friends. We had two martinis each before the food came. Conversation was lubricated; we even got through a few disagreements. No wonder booze consumption is increasing dramatically: “In 2020, beverage alcohol consumption in the US saw the largest volume gain in nearly 20 years.”
America was supposedly built on tolerance. We should buy Joe Manchin a drink and ask him what happened to that notion.
Here’s a blog I posted on July 4 of 2020. More than a year later I’ve gotten clearer about the benefits (and the downsides) of living alone. As the insanity around us grows, I find comfort with friends. But the routines and rituals I talked about here have helped me gain equanimity if not some tolerance for the irrational behavior of our species. I might write a book about it.
The morning is easy. I have my routines after waking—breakfast, then the computer for an hour or two, checking out email and the news sites. Besides the usual Trumpcrap, there are always a few uplifting pieces like “Unemployment, isolation and depression from COVID-19 may cause more ‘deaths of despair.’”
Solitude isn’t always bleak. I’ve been living alone for years, mostly liking it, but the virus has put a new dimension on it. Instead of filling up one’s down time with friends, amusements and travels, we are for the most part confined to quarters. My life was bound by solitude before this; now there is more of it and it’s enforced.
Things got more pressing after I finished writing and publishing Moot Testimonies a couple of months ago. Searching for another writing project made me anxious and uptight. I finally gave that over for small bouts of exercise, TV, reading, a lot of sleeping, and music—none of which has proved very satisfying. I couldn’t develop or keep to the routines which are necessary to flatten time.
Occasional Zooms with family and friends didn’t do it for me. Trips to the market I eagerly looked forward to: just give me some masked human contact, for Christ’s sake! Finally I remembered Thoreau, the king of solitude, and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It wasn’t despair that I felt but a nagging need to fill time with something productive or absorbing. I think we’ve all felt that.
I picked up Octavio Paz the other day, to reread The Labyrinth of Solitude and its search for Mexican identity. The book begins this way:
Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves. . . . It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born, but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work.
We do rely on games or work. In the COVID solitude we have to create them, and that is not easy. Yet if you face the prospect of solitude with some equanimity, you will beat it. We can import or create the routines and rituals that have sustained us, and perhaps they will flourish. What we bring to solitude is what grows there.
To someone who writes there is nothing more important than a desk chair. I think Philip Roth later on wrote standing up (he had back problems), but most of us cradle our glorious glutes for long periods of time in a device that must provide comfort and proper support. Writers thereby violate every orthopedic warning about sitting too long and the need for exercise.
Well, so what? The grand truths that emerge from this exercise in non-exercise come from gluteal contentment. No one should contemplate the cost, mental and physical, of sitting in an ill-fitting chair. If your butt don’t fit, your brain will quit.
I got this old Herman Miller chair when I was working at Lexis/Nexis in Charlottesville in 2002. I was doing some editing at home and asked the maintenance man if he had a chair I could buy. He gave me one free, and it was so good I brought it with me to Mexico. I’ve had it recovered and repadded a couple times. It has become part of my life.
Seven Reasons to Make Only Short Visits to the U.S.
The cost of everything
The potency of non-vaxers
The MAGA madness
Changes in the cultural life of New York
Being associated with mindless exploits like the war in Afghanistan (though expats cannot absolve themselves from U.S. policies).
AllAboutJazz asked me to provide an excerpt from my book Mingus Speaks (2013), so I thought I’d share it with you. Mingus loved to talk about the avant-garde pretenders and how they thumbed their noses at tradition.
Mingus: Everybody’s got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they’re better than another guy. Even if a guy’s considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he’s better, if the guy’s on his own and creating, he says, “Man, I’m better than that guy.” I got a tenor player (I won’t call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can’t play. But when the people see him, he’s moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain’t played shit. And so I know that he feels, “Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don’t you hire me?”
I try to explain, “Well, I don’t move no people like that, man, that’s not what I’m here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass,” and he don’t believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that’s showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.
You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)
. . . One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmie’s band? The two-four rock [demonstrates].
Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don’t mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that’s where they are, through direction.
You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren’t just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. “Somebody’s talking something.” They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, “Well, here’s how you do that, son.”
They didn’t just say, “I’m Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I’m gonna play a little bass. Where’s Jascha Heifitz’ violin? I’ll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern’s.”
Yeah, that’s where the guys are today: “Give me a violin and I’ll play it for you. Jascha played it, I’ll play it too.”
And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don’t want to be fooled anymore: I know when I’m out of tune, and I’ve done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that’s when avant-garde has gone too far. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what’s that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.
Goodman: Only he made music.
Mingus: He could do everything, man. I don’t want to be so junglish that I can’t climb a stairway. I got to climb mountains all day long? We’re going to the moon, right? Well, I’m with the guys that wrote music that got us to the moon. Not the guys who dreamed about it. Bach built the buildings, we didn’t get there from primitive drums. In a sense we did, because primitive drums was the faith. Primitive music is the faith—like Indian music—of the man to want to find out how to get there. Bach was the intellectual pencil that figured out mathematically “does this work?” “Yes, this does, now put that aside.” And finally, “does this work with this?”
Bach put all these things together and called them chords. Well, we go with progress and call it scales, and these things have been broken down by Schillinger and a whole lot of other guys. Now if you work in that form and then go back and say, “Man, we don’t need to know this theory,” fine, then I accept that you’re a primitive. But when you come on the bandstand with a guy who may not want to play primitive for a minute, can you play with him? That’s what the question is.
Maybe I can play primitive too but for a minute I want just one chord, a C Major seventh. Now how many guys can play that—and play something on it, improvise something on it clearly? That’s what Bach could do, because that’s the foundation, and then he could put the D-Flat Major seventh against that. Now then you got a building, black and white, concrete and stone, and it can grow taller. Now that’s the way it is, man.
This was the title of a piece I published in jazzinsideandout.com in December 2013. There was some confusion about what “cool” means, both in Ishmael Reed’s article and my own comments on it. One problem is that as a personality descriptor cool means unruffled, detached; while in jazz it refers to a style of playing.
In looser, more recent terms, cool means something like fashionable, hip. That’s how Maureen Dowd used it in a recent putdown of Obama’s 60th birthday bash. She observes how this Marie Antoinette-style event included numerous celebrities but disinvited those who were responsible for his success.
Obama was a cool cat as a candidate in 2008, but after he won, he grew increasingly lofty. Now he’s so far above the ground, he doesn’t know what’s cool. You can’t be cool if you diss the people who took risks for you when you were a junior senator. . . . Many of those who helped Obama achieve the moonshot, becoming the first African American president and then becoming uber-rich, were disinvited.
Well, here’s my 2013 attempt to disentangle at least some of the musical confusion.
If you are foolish enough, as I am, to look at The New York Times every morning, today you probably saw Ishmael Reed’s op-ed, “The President of the Cool.” With Mr. Obama getting whacked in the polls and Democrats disaffecting in droves, it’s not surprising that the president’s defenders are coming on strong.
I’ve been a strong critic of Obama but I enjoyed the piece. There are two problems, one of definition and one of rhetoric. Reed says:
Democrats have more of an affinity for jazz than Republicans. Even Jimmy Carter, not everybody’s idea of a hipster, invited Dizzy Gillespie to the White House. But among the Democrats, President Obama is the one who comes closest to the style of bebop called “the Cool.”
The Cool School, as embodied in players he cites like Miles Davis and Hampton Hawes (Hawes overrated by Reed, I think) was not really a style of bebop but a reaction to it. The fiery music of Dizzy, Bird and Bud drove many people out the door. Taking after Miles, West-Coasters like Hawes and Shorty Rogers concocted a blander kind of modern jazz that stressed very different chordal and harmonic structures, slower tempos, simpler rhythms—a quieter, much more detached music. It got more popular than bebop for a while.
As a defense of Mr. Obama, Reed’s piece identifies him with the intensity and spirit of jazz. I just don’t get that. I find the president all too aloof and detached in his actions, though his words can often be inspiring. He’s just too cool—but not in the complimentary hip sense that Reed means it. One may define his style as cool, but many find his leadership lacking and without substance. He is anything but a bebop player.
As to the jazz greats, one of the commenters on the piece (Joel Parkes) put it this way: ” To compare Obama in any way to Lester Young is, in my opinion, incorrect. He’s much more like Chris Botti. Jazz in Name Only.”
People who write horoscopes are as nitwitty as those who believe in QAnon or the Big Lie. They construct vague statements that are plausible because they are made to please a reader’s ego. Here’s my horoscope for today, provided by Madame Clairevoyant, New York Mag’s resident soothsayer. Those who know me may get a laugh out of this.
Gemini Weekly Horoscope
The idea of being all things to all people is an alluring one to you. There’s a certain kind of appeal in the dream that by observing others carefully enough—their speech and their movements, the shape of their desires—and by reflecting this back to them, you could heal anybody’s sorrows, bring sunshine to even their darkest inner world. But this week, it’s necessary not to forget your own needs, your own interior life. You don’t have to give and give until you’re hollowed out. Your duty isn’t to reshape your whole being to match someone else’s wants, but to strive to become ever more yourself.
Mary Trump has a new book out and was interviewed by one of my favorite sources, The Daily Beast. She takes the Democrats to task for their appeasement. Judge them by their reactions to Biden’s refractory speech on Afghanistan.
By playing politics, by being polite, by pretending the bipartisanship still exists, by pretending that there’s a rulebook anymore—they are doing a huge disservice to the American people. . . . I think that we’re literally on the brink of the end of American democracy to the extent that it’s ever existed, but [the Democrats] are the only people who can do anything about it. So if they keep pulling punches by pretending that the filibuster is a good thing, or that the Republicans are interested in governance of any kind, then it’s over.
I’m rethinking this blog and what I consider worth writing about. The political/cultural/climatic insanity gripping the world compels me to take a break to reframe, reassess. Or maybe cop out. Meanwhile, I’ll be posting a few old numbers from my former blog, jazzinsideandout.com, plus random thoughts. Here’s a post from May 2018 called “Quiet Time.”
I’m in Puerto Escondido for two-plus weeks to try and get my head around a plan for a book on jazz. This is the height of the low season, hot and with few tourists, a good time to visit. My escape is also a retreat from all things Trump, including the constant world calamities and fiascos that our flesh seems heir to.
Time is altered here. It becomes less pressing and far less structured. One can manipulate it to serve purposes higher than clock time and scheduling. A quantum physicist tells us convincingly that time is merely “a fluid, human concept—an experience, rather than [a quality] inherent to the universe.” Time is a story we tell ourselves, basically an illusion to keep us sane and functional.
Time can become malleable and infinitely flexible, particularly so in music. Yesterday I was listening to Ahmad Jamal’s A Quiet Time which, like so much of his music, plays with oddly syncopated rhythms, congas in the background, unanticipated pauses—all devices to make time expressive and give it a voice.
Ahmad is now 87 and has never played better. I’m approaching 84 and his great (yet still rather unsung) career in jazz gives me reason to rejoice in how much we can accomplish before time stops.
I began listening to him when he was playing at the Pershing Hotel in Chicago in the late ‘50s. Along with a couple of friends from the University of Chicago I would attend his shows regularly. His most famous record, At the Pershing, with “Poinciana” became a big hit in 1958, and his influence on Miles Davis was legendary.
It is like something out of Proust for me to flash back on those gigs. They come into memory as moments of untarnished joy, time standing still for their duration. For me, only music can do this.
Along the way, Jamal began to avoid the standards and play more of his own compositions, as he does in A Quiet Time. But on occasion (Live in Paris 1992) he could just blow you away with his approach to old chestnuts like this great Jerome Kern tune from 1920, which Judy Garland and others later covered multiple times.
The sonic experience usually gets lost in translation, which is why it’s so hard to write about music. Still, nothing is more rewarding than this challenge, at least for me. Bringing such moments to life is one way to make time real.
Says the quantum physicist: “Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity.”
Maybe he’ll get another book deal. The last one reputedly brought him a $5 million advance. Or he could practice law in Florida or somewhere. New Yorkers have had enough of him. Maybe he and his brother Chris could reprise their obtuse familial stunts of last March on CNN. The network did nothing to stop them because the boys got good ratings.
Never mind that this was completely inappropriate and violated every rule of journalistic integrity. One CNN staffer, reflecting the views of many, commented: “the fact that Chris Cuomo wasn’t fired over his inappropriate conflict of interest in actively affecting a news story is not only irresponsible of CNN, but also a disgrace to journalism.” By now you should know that Chris helped write Andrew’s recent self-serving mea culpas.
Readers of this blog will perhaps recall that I put down the swaggering younger Cuomo last March:
There is no excuse for Chris Cuomo being on the air, especially after his gigs with brother Andrew and getting special treatment for Covid. His smug, brassy commentary is my nightly invitation to shut him off and, God help me, switch to Tucker Carlson for a change of ego.
Both the brothers ought to be fired from their jobs. But Andy in particular is going to have trouble finding new work after all the mishegoss over his loathsome sexual behavior. Why is it so easy to condone the misbehavior of the powerful, especially in political life? Why is it always the women who have to call this out?
And how does a guy so accustomed to power and the spotlight go out quietly? Well, it may be temperamentally impossible for him to do that.
What a family. Mario is turning over in his grave.