Tough Tenor: On the Waterfront

by Christopher Bacas

ImageThe last place I saw Mike was a joint facing the water in Fell's Point. Taking up first floor of a Civil War-era structure, you enter to a rectangular bar opposite a raised stage with chest-high sides. Tall stools scatter from front windows and along the wooden bar to the back room. Tagged, splintery walls surround everything.

In the 70's, a minor, flush with inheritance, bought the building. Unable to manage it legally, he asked a former teacher to act as surrogate.The two tough guys ran a drinking establishment on a stagnant waterfront in blue-collar Baltimore. It attracted men who didn't fear a closing time stagger to their vehicle through dim streets.

The younger guy, once he could actively manage his establishment, encouraged members of a local motorcycle club to hangout. They policed the space and kept order, until a back-room stomping brought the enterprise to the brink. The new liquor license expressly forbade the club's colors. Not chastened, the junior partner grew into his responsibilities and made alliances with the IRA. Their agents used the building as safe house. His barkeeps kept secrets under the kegs.

H, a New Orleans Jew, Navy medic in Vietnam. Possibly the most fearless man I have ever seen. A bit over five feet and pudgy, he stood up to drunken, belligerent giants. Waiting for their swing, then dropping them with a single upward jolt of his thick hand. We'd help him drag the bums outside afterwards.

T, a scrawny jabberwocky, nose powdered to oblivion, blithely ignored new customers while he gabbed inanely at regulars. In deep to dealers and bookies, he took cash advances from the register until the boss banished him, keeping cops out of it while expecting timely repayments.

J, an erudite lush, who, when he heard patrons discuss philosophy, profanely offered free drinks as long as they agreed to eschew weighty topics. After hours, he held mobile Bacchanals; his battle cry: “Vodka tonic, no fruit!” After an early demise, neighbors inaugurated a festival in his name and wore shirts with VTNF printed on the back.

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The World Can Have Peace and Prosperity, If It Wants

Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_2472 Dec. 25 19.34Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” One hears this phrase in the United States this time of year, but prospects for peace and goodwill abroad, not to mention at home, appear to be evaporating before our eyes. Staving off a gradual downward spiral of foreign and domestic politics into violence and rancor requires some serious reflection on what’s gone wrong, and a willingness to rethink our present approach.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a column explaining why international peace was in the U.S. national interest. Yet none of the presidential candidates — not even Bernie Sanders — made it a key theme of their campaign. We heard a lot about strength and resolve and “greatness” and leadership, along with repeated warnings about alleged threats and “enemies,” but hardly a word was said about the virtues of peace or the policies that the United States should follow in order to preserve it. Indeed, one of the candidates kept making bizarre and bellicose statements of various kinds, including not-so-veiled threats of violence against his political opponents. And guess what? That guy eventually won.

Looking beyond the recent U.S. election offers little reason for optimism. There are a few bright spots — such as the renewal of the peace deal in Colombia — but encouraging episodes like that are few and far between. The European Union used to be a shining symbol of its member states’ commitment to transcend their conflict-ridden history; today the EU seems to be in a slow-motion process of disintegration. Syria is a demolished wasteland, and Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, and Libya remained mired in violence with no end in sight. The political landscape in Asia is beginning to shift as well, and the U.S. president-elect has already questioned the “One China” policy and repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A neat trick: He’s managed to provoke China and undermine the U.S. position in Asia simultaneously, and he’s not even in office yet. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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Christmas Poem

Half a Christmas Tree
by Brooks Riley
I go
I go there
I go there now
I go there now and
I go there now and see
I go there now and see trees
I go there now and see trees swaying
I go there now and see trees swaying slightly
I go there now and see trees swaying slightly, unaware
I go there now and see trees swaying slightly, unaware they
I go there now and see trees swaying slightly, unaware they might
I go there now and see trees swaying slightly, unaware they might somehow
Be uprooted
By the wind
Or Santa Claus.

Lewis Lapham Reads “Christmas Carol”

From Lapham's Quaterly:

In a December 1995 Harper’s Magazine essay, Lewis Lapham wrote that Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale had become obsolete: “The plot line of A Christmas Carol didn’t fit the bracing spirit of the times, and neither did its irresponsible moral lesson. Here was old Scrooge, an exemplary Republican, troubled in his sleep by ghostly dreams of human kindness, changed into a gibbering liberal at the sight of a crippled child. Hardly an inspiring tale of triumphant profit taking.” He proposes an update to the story. Listen to him read his essay:

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Jesus Christ: Jewish radical or bathrobe Republican? The “reason for the season” remains an enigma after 2,000 years

Andrew O'Hehir in Salon:

Jesus-paintings-620x412We know very little about the real Jesus — although most historians are inclined to agree there was such a person — and virtually all of it is open to interpretation. No one is likely to agree in total with anyone else’s take on Jesus, who has been variously depicted as an egalitarian Jewish radical, an apocalyptic cult leader, a puritanical scold and a proto-Republican who left the house in his bathrobe. (Plenty of modern-day Christians will tell you Jesus didn’t really mean to say that a rich man couldn’t easily enter the Kingdom of Heaven; surely Donald Trump could find a way to get that camel through that needle.)

…It’s outrageous that Donald Trump is permitted to depict himself, in some nominal way, as a follower of Jesus Christ without provoking widespread howling and vomiting. It’s an outrage that a majority of white Americans who consider themselves followers of Jesus Christ twisted themselves into voting for a man who has promised to persecute the powerless, shun the strangers, drive away the hungry and the vulnerable. None of this is anything new, of course. Ever since the real Jesus, whoever he was, disappeared behind his symbolic death, his messianic promise of the Kingdom of Heaven has been used to build kingdoms here on earth. Christmas is barely even an allusion to Jesus Christ. It’s a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, presided over by a red-suited elf-god. At some point it got reverse-engineered into a birthday party for a half-mythological baby whose more important accomplishment was his death. If the church asks us to keep Christ in Christmas, we might respond that he was never there in the first place. But as I stood looking at the empty cradle in the St. Patrick’s crèche, I reflected that the incoherent innocence of the Christmas story — the way it gives us Jesus as an infant, stripped of history and his tangled and contradictory afterlife — is the source of its power.

In the Christmas season we seek reassurance, repetition and ritual; we watch movies we’ve seen dozens of times before, and football teams we don’t care about. We embrace that strange sense of “Christmas Carol” suspended time that makes childhood and adulthood, past and future, seem to merge. If Christmas has nothing to do with the real Jesus, it allows us to connect, briefly and vaguely, to the idea of Jesus and to the possibility of human redemption he seemed to embody. It’s only a moment, a shared shimmering dream, and then it’s gone. But it’s a gift.

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‘Against Everything’ by Mark Greif

9781101871157Karl Whitney at The Guardian:

The unflinching intelligence of his writing can be exhilarating, but intimidating. Yet there are many moments of levity: a doctor is described as “a mechanic who wears the white robe of an angel and is as arrogant as a boss”. Of the hipster movement he writes: “It did not yield a great literature, but made good use of fonts”.

As the book progresses, the style becomes looser and more expansive. The cool, stern tone of the earlier essays gives way to a more playful approach, typified by the essay “Learning to Rap”, in which, yes, Greif decides to teach himself how to rap along to hip-hop records. His rationale is that, as a music fan in the early 90s, he chose to devote himself to American post-punk, such as Sonic Youth and Fugazi, rather than hip-hop. This was a mistake, he now thinks, as hip-hop was the birth of a “new world-historical form” while rock “had been basically exhausted by 1972”.

It’s quite the essay. By wrestling with the specifics of learning to rap, Grief plays on the white liberal’s guilt at cultural appropriation while demonstrating the complexity, difficulty and brilliance of the form. He discusses the practical challenges: trying to decipher the lyrics of Nas, Snoop Dogg and the Notorious BIG; rapping along in a low voice with the music on his headphones as he waits for the next subway.

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on ‘The Moravian Night’ By Peter Handke

Moravian-night-199x300Scott Abbott at Open Letters Monthly:

The disintegration of Yugoslavia (as Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks pursued their nationalist interests in what had been a multicultural country) was a turning point. In a series of long essays Handke argued that Serbia was being portrayed as the sole aggressor in the civil wars and that the language of journalism was itself a tool of aggression. He traveled in Serbia and described it in language he thought more conducive to peace. (A Journey to the Rivers orJustice for Serbia is the only one of these essays in English translation; the German title, Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Sava, Morawa, und Drina, suggests a geographical connection with The Moravian Night.) Critics were merciless, attacking him with the same either/or language he was determined to replace with thinking marked by the conjunction “and.” Literary prizes were withdrawn and when a French writer published an essay interpreting Handke’s Yugoslavia work (and his attendance at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic) in the worst possible light, Handke’s The Play of Questioning was withdrawn from a planned production in Paris. Defenders of Handke, of which I was one, pointed out that the critics were inventing the supposed transgressions and that a reading of the essays revealed a thoughtful dialectic rather than a single-minded denial of Serbian guilt.

When Handke received the Norwegian International Ibsen Prize for Drama in 2014, there were protests. Karl Ove Knausgaard responded to the protests in an essay called “Handke and Singularity”, arguing that Handke’s Yugoslavia works are “another form of history-writing, about what goes on outside of public attention, the entire political-historical and generalizing system of concepts that has filled ‘Serbia’ with a whole bunch of fixed notions, unalterable and unshakable.” As it meanders through possibilities of narration beyond fixed notions and forms, The Moravian Night continues to call the unalterable and unshakable into question.

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Invisibility-cloakLucas Klein at The Quarterly Conversation:

Ge Fei’s significance as an author is his ability to bring commentary on contemporary Chinese society into fiction aware of theories about fictional unreliability. As a child Cui’s friend Jiang Songping is described as “a natural politician,” able to convince everyone “that Antonioni was posing as a movie director in order to infiltrate our country’s borders and assassinate the Great Leader, Chairman Mao,” and also “that every pomegranate contained the same number of seeds . . . three hundred and sixty five”; Cui’s sister confirms her distrust of Jiang by counting a pomegranate and finding three hundred and seventy-one, but Antonioni was indeed denounced during the Cultural Revolution for his 1972 documentaryChung Kuo, Cina (likely as part of the Gang of Four’s campaign to undermine Premier Zhou Enlai’s engagements with the outside world). The plot of The Invisibility Cloak hinges on Cui’s plan to buy an apartment with money earned selling his prized Tannoy Autograph speakers—only in production from 1954 to ’74—which he bought at auction at a low price (and which were his only demand in the divorce); explaining the name, though, he writes, “Of course, the English word ‘autograph’ has plenty of direct equivalents in Chinese, but for whatever reason, someone in the hi-fi community translated it as ‘autobiography,’ and the mistake has been accepted as the norm.” China’s tortuous representations of the West and Western fiction’s self-aware blending of fact and factitiousness merge in Ge Fei’s depictions.

The “invisibility cloak” of the title is only mentioned in passing: detailing the mythology surrounding the previous owner of the Autograph speakers, Cui says, “The wildest story I heard was that he could show up at any event unseen because he wore an invisibility cloak.” Perhaps the shady buyer of Cui’s Autographs puts on such a cloak of his own, but if so it only earns the subtlest of suggestions; Cui does not make this connection himself. Or perhaps our external selves and dishonest interactions with others are cloaking our own inner lives and making them invisible.

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Merriam-Webster sums up 2016 in one word: ‘Surreal’

Leanne Itale in The Independent:

Meriam-webster-dictionary-gettyWas 2016 a dream or a nightmare? Try something in between: “surreal,” which is US dictionary Merriam-Webster's word of the year. Meaning “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,” or “unbelievable, fantastic,” the word joins Oxford's “post-truth” and's “xenophobia” as the year's top choices. “It just seems like one of those years,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large. The company tracks year-over-year growth and spikes in lookups of words on its website to come up with the top choice. This time around, there were many periods of interest in “surreal” throughout the year, often in the aftermath of tragedy, Sokolowski said. Major spikes came after the Brussels attack in March and again in July, after the Bastille Day massacre in Nice and the attempted coup in Turkey. All three received huge attention around the globe and had many in the media reaching for “surreal” to describe both the physical scenes and the “mental landscapes,” Sokolowski said.

The single biggest spike in lookups came in November, he said, specifically November 9, the day Donald Trump went from candidate to president-elect. There were also smaller spikes, including after the death of Prince in April at age 57 and after the June shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Irony mixed with the surreal for yet another bump after the March death of Garry Shandling. His first sitcom, It's Garry Shandling's Show, premiered on Showtime in 1986 and had him busting through the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience and mimicking his real life as a standup comedian, but one who knew he was starring in a TV show. “It was surreal and it's connected to the actual original meaning of surreal, which is to say it comes from Surrealism, the artistic movement of the early 20th century,” Sokolowski said. Which is to say that “surreal” didn't exist as a word until around 1924, after a group of European poets, painters and filmmakers founded a movement they called Surrealism. They sought to access the truths of the unconscious mind by breaking down rational thought. It wasn't until 1937 that “surreal” began to exist on its own, said Sokolowski, who is a lexicographer.

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Lawrence Hughes in McSweeney's:

ScreenHunter_2471 Dec. 24 13.52At Santa’s Workshop, your privacy is important to us. What follows is an explanation of how we collect and safeguard your personal information; the kind of information we collect; and your choices regarding our use and disclosure of this information.

Why Do We Need This Information?
Santa Claus requires your information in order to compile his annual list of Who is Naughty and Who is Nice, and to ensure accuracy when he checks it twice. Your information is also used in connection with delivering the kinds of goods and services you’ve come to expect from Santa, including but not limited to toys, games, good cheer, merriment, Christmas spirit, seasonal joy, and holly jollyness.

What Information Do We Collect?
We obtain information from a variety of sources. Much of it comes from unsolicited letters sent to Santa by children all over the world listing specific items they would like to receive for Christmas. Often these letters convey additional information as well, such as the child’s hopes and dreams, how much they love Santa, and which of their siblings are doodyheads.

The letters also provide another important piece of information—fingerprints. We run these through databases maintained by the FBI, CIA, NSA, Interpol, MI6, and the Mossad.

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A Brainless Slime That Shares Memories by Fusing

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Sometimes, Audrey Dussutour enters her lab in Toulouse to find that one of the creatures within it has escaped. They tend to do so when they’re hungry. One will lift the lid of its container and just crawl out. These creatures aren’t octopuses, which are known for their escape artistry. They’re not rats, mice, flies, or any of the other standard laboratory animals. In fact, they’re not animals at all.

They are slime molds —yellow, oozing, amoeba-like organisms found on decaying logs and other moist areas. They have no brains. They have no neurons. Each consists of just a single, giant cell. And yet, they’re capable of surprisingly complicated and almost intelligent behaviors. The species that Dussutour studies, Physarum polycephalum, can make decisions, escape from traps, and break out of Petri dishes. “It’s a unicellular organism but it looks smart,” she says.

At its smallest, Physarum can exist as microscopic cells, which actively swim about. These cells are attracted to each other, and when they swarm together, they can merge. The result is a single giant cell called a plasmodium, which can extend for meters.

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