Blaze (2018)

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When I was younger, I had a “type” – I dated aspiring blanks. Aspiring artists, aspiring musicians – all unconcerned with mundane, earthly questions like how to get money for rent, drinks, and drugs. Instead, they were already living with an eye on posterity, assuming every word they said was going to be quoted someday. Have you ever spoken to someone who thinks everything he says is worth quoting? Take it from me, it’s absolutely exhausting, and you’ll most likely walk away wondering, “What did we even talk about?”

This is all a roundabout way of saying Ethan Hawke’s biopic Blaze reminded me of every boy I dated in my early twenties. For those who don’t know, Blaze Foley was a Texan country singer songwriter in the 1970s. Ethan Hawke’s version is a bigger, larger than life man (played by newbie Ben Dickey who is literally a good fifty pounds heavier than the true Foley) who says he doesn’t want to be famous; he wants to be a legend. And yet we spend two hours watching him flounder on his journey to becoming a legend. The movie starts in a circular fashion, we see both Foley falling in love with his future wife, Sybil Rosen (played by the charming Alia Shawkat) and his friends wrestling with the aftermath of Foley’s death on the air in a radio interview (with radio host Ethan Hawke, no less). Rosen is Foley’s muse and biggest supporter. She blindly fangirls him and believes in him. And so, of course, he leaves her to pursue the rock star lifestyle of drinking too much with his musician friends and being yelled at by his record label. In the radio interview, Van Zandt justifies this by explaining just how much you have to be willing to give up to make it as a musician. But what Van Zandt sees as strength and discipline comes off as a succumbence to vices on Foley. Foley talks a big talk, mumbling on and on about the cosmos, energy, and inspiration, but we mostly watch him, and the movie, stumbling.

Maybe the problem with the movie is that both Hawke and Rosen have rose-colored glasses on. The movie is an adaptation of Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze”, and Rosen and Hawke wrote the screenplay together. The film makes it clear that both Hawke and Rosen truly loved Foley, but it doesn’t quite do enough to make the viewer feel the same. The best part of the movie is the music. Dickey is more musician than actor and his husky voice commands your attention. While the movie doesn’t quite convince me that Blaze Foley was indeed a legend, it’s worth watching, if only just to serve as a reminder that making art and music is hard work and requires more than big dreams and quotable nonsense.

Rating: 6.0/10.0

Additional Reading:

  • Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze on Amazon
  • Watch the trailer here

 

 

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#21.5 Starting from Paumanok, verse 7

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We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 8 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.

   7
  I am the credulous man of qualities, ages, races,
  I advance from the people in their own spirit,
  Here is what sings unrestricted faith.

  Omnes! omnes! let others ignore what they may,
  I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also,
  I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is—and I say
      there is in fact no evil,
  (Or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or
      to me, as any thing else.)

  I too, following many and follow'd by many, inaugurate a religion, I
      descend into the arena,
  (It may be I am destin'd to utter the loudest cries there, the
      winner's pealing shouts,
  Who knows? they may rise from me yet, and soar above every thing.)

  Each is not for its own sake,
  I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion's sake.

  I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
  None has ever yet adored or worship'd half enough,
  None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain
      the future is.

  I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be
      their religion,
  Otherwise there is just no real and permanent grandeur;
  (Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion,
  Nor land nor man or woman without religion.)

What better way to start the new year than with a friendly reminder from Walt Whitman to exalt in the natural wonders around us. I think this verse is about balance and the grand scale of the universe. Every January, there are so many articles about how to make new year’s resolutions and why people fail to keep their resolutions. Amidst all this talk of struggle and failure, I personally needed Walt’s reminder that we are just as much evil as we are good, and perhaps evil doesn’t really exist. We are not just the best parts of ourselves, but also our vices, fears, and struggles. They make us part of who we are, and I am going to try to retain that kind of bright-eyed optimism this year, especially when reading the news and current events. And when you are feeling completely overwhelmed, just think of how divine this earth is, how Walt thought that our United States were so full of grandeur that its potential was worth worshipping. I have been doing a lot of thinking about the U.S. Constitution and how the preamble starts with “We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union” – I’m not sure what Walt would think about the state of our Union today, but I think this verse is a reminder that there is a constant struggle to become more perfect.

Vocabulary Word of the Day: “Omnes” is Latin for “everyone”

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As always, I invite you to join me, although it’s been a while since we last spoke. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

 

 

A Pairing: Robert Rauschenberg + Edwin Morgan

 

“I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” — John Cage

Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words, Edwin Morgan

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and I am saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

 

#21.4 Starting from Paumanok, verse 6

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We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 6 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.

 6
  The soul,
  Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
      than water ebbs and flows.
  I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the
      most spiritual poems,
  And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
  For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and
      of immortality.

  I will make a song for these States that no one State may under any
      circumstances be subjected to another State,
  And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
      night between all the States, and between any two of them,
  And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of
      weapons with menacing points,
  And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
  And a song make I of the One form'd out of all,
  The fang'd and glittering One whose head is over all,
  Resolute warlike One including and over all,
  (However high the head of any else that head is over all.)

  I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
  I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously
      every city large and small,
  And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism
      upon land and sea,
  And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.

  I will sing the song of companionship,
  I will show what alone must finally compact these,
  I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love,
      indicating it in me,
  I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were
      threatening to consume me,
  I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
  I will give them complete abandonment,
  I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
  For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
  And who but I should be the poet of comrades?

I like the appearance of “song” here, because (spoiler alert) the next poem in this book is Song of Myself. I like finding the recurring themes that we’ve been seeing so far – first, Whitman writes to a “certain cantatrice“, and then we have heard America singing, and now, finally, Whitman is starting to sing himself. This entire poem so far seems like it has been a long manifesto of all the things that Whitman intends to make happen – I’m looking forward to getting this show on the road!

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Behind the Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier lincoln in the bardo.jpgthis year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)

Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:

  1. Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
  2. Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
  3. Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
  4. Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
  5. Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
  6. Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo

Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.

willie lincoln

Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)

A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.

Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Additional Reading:

#21.3 Starting from Paumanok, verse 5

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We are about 1/4 of the way through Starting from Paumanok. I read verses 3 + 4 last week and am picking up today with verse 5.

5
  Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
  Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
  Language-shapers on other shores,
  Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
  I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left
      wafted hither,
  I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
  Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more
      than it deserves,
  Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
  I stand in my place with my own day here.

  Here lands female and male,
  Here the heir-ship and heiress-ship of the world, here the flame of
      materials,
  Here spirituality the translatress, the openly-avow'd,
  The ever-tending, the finale of visible forms,
  The satisfier, after due long-waiting now advancing,
  Yes here comes my mistress the soul.

If you didn’t believe me last week that America had a weird sibling rivalry with Europe’s literary traditions during this time, do you believe me now? The first half of this verse is describing Europe’s artists, inventors, and language-shapers “on other shores.” Whitman has found it admirable, and admits that he was even a fan for a while, but he thinks “here” (which I think is the U.S.) is where the future is – the “due long-waiting now advancing”.

I am not exactly sure what to make of that last line, “yet here comes my mistress the soul.” Is he saying that the future of art and literature is going to be driven by the soul? Or is America his metaphorical soul-mistress? What are your thoughts?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

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I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

Additional resources: