in defense of concrete


We have a special prejudice about materials. The Japanese have Zen words to describe the beautiful way in which stone, wood and other natural materials age and patinate, acquiring charm and character as they deteriorate. We lack that. No one has yet coined a term, at least not a favourable one, to describe the way man-made materials grow old. There are no haikus about plastic. There is not much Zen in an old Ford Mondeo. There is even less Zen in an old housing estate.

This is specially so if it is made of concrete, the fashionable hate material of today. The only words that concrete attracts are ‘grimy’, ‘stained’ and the ones they tag with aerosol paint. Right now culture minister Margaret Hodge has taken very badly against concrete. The particular object of her vengeful, twin-set loathing is Robin Hood Gardens, a failing social housing megastructure near the north end of London’s Blackwall Tunnel that was completed in 1972. Mrs Hodge does not have council household taste. She wants it demolished. It does rather remind us that nothing dates quite so quickly as visions of the future.

more from The Observer Review here.

doig’s ghost world


Peter Doig painted Echo Lake in 1998. A man stands on the far side of a stretch of dark water. He is quite a way off, but you can see that he wears a white shirt and a dark tie. His hands are raised to his face. Is it to keep the light out of his eyes as he looks at you? Or is it to project his voice as he shouts? A police car, lights on, is parked behind him. Beyond the car the black-green of a band of trees is broken by a few bright spots; they could be streetlights or house lights half-obscured by foliage. It must be night time. Are they crime-scene floodlights that shine across the lake, on the man, grass, rocks and car?

Although the scenes shown in this painting and others by Peter Doig (the retrospective of his work runs until 27 April) seem to imply that curious things have gone before, and that others will follow, there is no reason to think you will ever know what the pictures signify. Like ghost stories, they draw on the potency of matters unresolved; it hangs about them like an unearthed static charge.

more from the LRB here.

The Most Wanted List: International Terrorism

Noam Chomsky in AlterNet:

Noam_chomsky_human_rights_2 On February 13, Imad Moughniyeh, a senior commander of Hizbollah, was assassinated in Damascus. “The world is a better place without this man in it,” State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said: “one way or the other he was brought to justice.” Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell added that Moughniyeh has been “responsible for more deaths of Americans and Israelis than any other terrorist with the exception of Osama bin Laden.”

Joy was unconstrained in Israel too, as “one of the U.S. and Israel’s most wanted men” was brought to justice, the London Financial Times reported. Under the heading, “A militant wanted the world over,” an accompanying story reported that he was “superseded on the most-wanted list by Osama bin Laden” after 9/11 and so ranked only second among “the most wanted militants in the world.”

The terminology is accurate enough, according to the rules of Anglo-American discourse, which defines “the world” as the political class in Washington and London (and whoever happens to agree with them on specific matters). It is common, for example, to read that “the world” fully supported George Bush when he ordered the bombing of Afghanistan. That may be true of “the world,” but hardly of the world, as revealed in an international Gallup Poll after the bombing was announced. Global support was slight.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Sughra Raza and Nargis Raza).

Sociable, and Smart

From The New York Times:

Hyenas For the past two decades, Kay E. Holekamp has been chronicling the lives of spotted hyenas on the savannas of southern Kenya. She has watched cubs emerge from their dens and take their place in the hyena hierarchy; she has seen alliances form and collapse. She has observed clan wars, in which dozens of hyenas have joined together to defend their hunting grounds against invaders. Throughout her career, Dr. Holekamp has remained vigilant against anthropocentrism. She does not think of the hyenas as long-eared people running around on all fours. But the lives of spotted hyenas, she has concluded, share some profound similarities with our own. In both species, a complex social world has driven the evolution of a big, complex brain.

Scientists have long puzzled over the enormous size of the human brain. It is seven times larger than one would predict for an average mammal of our size. Many of our extra neurons are in a region called the frontal cortex, where much of the most sophisticated thought takes place. To understand how we ended up with such a strange organ, many scientists have turned to our fellow primates. They also have large brains, although not as large as our own. It turns out that primates with a big frontal cortex tend to live in large groups.

More here.

Riding Toward Everywhere

Scott Bryan Wilson in The Quarterly Conversation:

William_vollmannRiding Toward Everywhere, this year’s new book from the prolific William T. Vollmann, is a nonfiction account of his adventures hopping freight trains and trying out the hobo lifestyle as a person lurking “literally and figuratively in the shadows.” His traveling companion is a late middle-aged man named Steve who seems to have been riding the trains for “sport” (Vollmann’s term) since college. Steve is the “traincar-finder and [Vollmann] the people-pleaser.”

If you’re at all familiar with Vollmann’s work you know that he can talk to anyone about anything, and Steve usually opts to run to the liquor store while Vollmann stays behind and hangs out drinking with bums, of whom they only meet a few, treating them with his usual compassion and non-judgmental attitude. We get little information about Steve himself, though. Whether this was at Steve’s request is unclear, but what is clear is that he’s married, has kids, is an expert at the sport (or as close to an expert as one can be; Vollmann insists that no one is ever an expert at riding the rails), and often flies out of cities he’s found himself stuck in, and that he’s respectful of the boxcars and the trains, never urinating in them or leaving trash behind.

More here.  [Photo shows Vollman.]

Obama Bests Clinton At Craft of Writing

Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun:

Screenhunter_01_mar_04_0831When Democratic primary voters go to the polls tomorrow in Ohio and Texas, it’s a safe bet that few will be casting their votes based on senators Clinton‘s and Obama‘s merits as writers. To judge a candidate based on his or her literary ability would be as irrelevant, most people agree, as voting for the better ballroom dancer. It may be a nice talent to have, but it has nothing to do with being president. It even seems a little naïve to judge a politician as the author of a book bearing his or her name. Today, just about every candidate with national ambitions feels the need to publish a book — a memoir, a polemic, a 10-point program — but such books are not really written; they are issued, such as press releases or position papers. A senator is no more the author of his books than of his bills. In both cases, he just accepts responsibility for a document drafted by a team of experts.

Against this cynicism, however, stands the fact that the greatest statesmen — the ones who occupy the most cherished places in our historical memory — are the ones who were great writers. President Lincoln and Prime Minister Churchill, to take the most familiar examples, occupy a higher plane than the average president or prime minister, partly because of the events they participated in, but also because of the way they interpreted those events in their speeches and writings. Politics and language, they proved, do not have to be sullen strangers — or sworn enemies, as they are in the realm of propaganda that George Orwell wrote about. On the contrary, reading Lincoln’s second inaugural or Churchill’s 1940 speeches, it becomes clear that the political and the literary converge at the highest levels. In both fields, the ability to imagine and to communicate what you imagine is essential; and both of those tasks depend entirely on language. As long as politics is an expression of human creativity, not just a matter of administering populations, there will be a profound connection between language and leadership.

More here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Uninsured Patient

Shiban Ganju

PagerMy pager beeped while I was standing in line in Starbucks. I checked the message – it was the telephone number of the ICU. I ordered my coffee and stepped aside to call. The nurse informed me, that I was asked to consult on a 33-year-old patient who had been admitted the night before. He had uncontrolled diabetes and had vomited blood.

What is the hemoglobin?


Not bad. Is he on any anticoagulants?


Any history of alcohol?


Any aspirin or ibuprofen?


I grabbed my grande and rushed to the hospital. In my mind, I rearranged my schedule for the day and decided to start with this patient in the ICU. I figured it will take me a few minutes, but I was not prepared for what I saw.

An oversize man lay sprawled on the bed from one side-rail to the other. He looked bigger than his stated weight of 367 Lbs. His gullet rattled behind the oxygen mask, as it croaked with each breath; beads of sweat glistened on his balding scalp; his huge flaccid limbs lay motionless. His pale face announced impending death. I glanced at the monitor: his heart galloped at 120 beats and his blood oxygen level touched a critically low number.

“Get me a blood gas and call respiratory.”

I sensed the danger. In a few minutes, the blood gas result showed that his oxygen level and pH (blood acid level) were incompatible with life.  The respiratory team showed up and we inserted a tube into his trachea and connected him to a ventilator.

We injected sodium bicarbonate to neutralize excess acid in the blood and rushed in more intravenous fluids. The numbers on the monitor showed improvement. We sighed relief.

Now we had a small hiatus to recapitulate. JD was a truck driver on a long haul and had become nauseous and dizzy driving on the highway, six hundred miles away from his home. On seeing a hospital sign, he had got off the highway and staggered into the emergency room. JD’s life was succumbing to diabetic keto-acidosis, also called diabetic coma. An untreated bronchitis had progressed to pneumonia, which had triggered this disaster.

He was now temporarily stable for me to inspect his stomach for bleeding. I slipped a fiber-optic endoscope into his esophagus and advanced it into his stomach and duodenum. Flecks of blackish curdled blood covered the stomach lining. I searched every corner but could not find any fresh bleeding, which was good news, but it also made me uncomfortable because I did not know why he had bled.  I had expected to see small ulcers, but he had none. I stopped the procedure and pulled out the ensdoscope.

I called the primary physician and updated her about JD and advised her to request pulmonary, endocrine and infectious disease specialists to see this patient. We needed more help.

Before leaving, I enquired if JD had is family around.

I walked up to the waiting room. Two ladies, with fear on their faces, approached me and introduced themselves as the mother and wife. I explained to them in simple language about his serious condition. This was the time to know his story.

How long did he have diabetes?

Two years.

What medicines was he on?

He was trying to control it by diet.

Is that what his family doctor had recommended?

No, he had prescribed some pills but he never followed up.

Why not?

He had no insurance – we have no insurance.

JD was a hard working honest man who was teetering at the edge of life because he could not afford health care insurance. About eighty percent of all uninsured people belong to such working families. Even middle class families find health insurance beyond their reach; about 40 percent of uninsured have a household income of $50,00 or more.

His employer had dropped health insurance because he could not afford exorbitant insurance premiums.

I looked at my watch: we had been there for two hours, which meant I would spend rest of the day trying to catch up. The accusative looks of the patients waiting in my office haunted me especially. I decided to go to my outpatient office first and postpone my hospital rounds for the evening and I would just apologize for being tardy.

Close to the end of my office hours, I received a call from JD’s nurse. JD had again vomited blood and he had produced no urine since the morning; his hemoglobin had dropped to 8 grams suggesting serious blood loss and his kidneys were failing. I asked the nurse to transfuse two units of blood, get a kidney specialist to see JD and get ready for a repeat endoscopy. I hurried my last patients out of the office and rushed back to the ICU.

I reinserted the endoscope into JD’s stomach. It looked completely different. Dark red blood had filled the stomach. Again, I searched for the bleeding spot and could not find it. In frustration, I decided to pull the endoscope out, when a slightly brighter shade of red caught my eye; the blood in the upper part of the stomach looked fresher than the rest of the stomach.  This was my last chance. I pumped in more air to distend the stomach and we tilted JD to move the blood out of the upper stomach. And there it was: a miniscule of a nipple, one millimeter of a blood vessel squirting fresh blood with each heart beat. I had to stop the bleeder or JD would bleed to death.

Give me epinephrine.

I injected epinephrine into the bleeder. It still squirted.

Give me a clip.

I attempted to staple the bleeder with a metal clip but my clip missed the constantly moving target. Give me one more clip.

Second try failed.

Give me one more.

Bingo! I got it! The clip strangled the nipple in its jaws. The bleeding halted instantly.

I checked his chart; all the consultants had seen JD and initiated intensive management. I talked to the family again and finally went to complete my hospital rounds, about ten hours late. I would again be apologetic to the waiting patients.

If JD could have afforded it, he would have seen a primary care doctor and controlled his diabetes. If JD had cared, he would have not grown to a mammoth size; his callous eating behavior and the inefficient health system had landed him in this intensive expensive care, which could have been avoided by spending much less on prevention.

Between 2000 and 2005 the average annual increase in insurance premiums for small companies was 12 percent compared to 2.5 percent inflation rate.  About 266,000 companies, mostly with less than 25 employees, cancelled their health insurance between 2000-2005. Even when employers offer insurance, high deductible and co-payments become prohibitive for some employees. The percentage of employed people with insurance has decreased from 70 percent in 1987to 59.5 percent in 2005.

JD and unfortunate people like him cost $100 billon annually to the health care system, out of which hospitals provide $34 billon worth in inpatient care for which they are not compensated. They shift the costs to paying patients to stay solvent.

Uninsured people spend about $ 26 billion out of pocket and rely on emergency departments. The uninsured have up to 50% more chance of being hospitalized and have higher chances of dying early. Experts have estimated that the number of excess deaths among uninsured between the ages of 25-64 is about 18,000 a year.

Unfortunately, the political debate in health care hovers around one question: how do we provide health insurance to all?  This politically popular question misses the point. The correct question should be: how can we make health care affordable? Unless we ask the right question we will not get the right answer. As long as health care is expensive, health insurance will be unaffordable. Various studies tell us that 164,000 to 300,000 people loose employer paid health insurance if the premium increases just by 1%. The right reform will have to answer the question of cost or the reform is unlikely to succeed.

Spending more money is not the answer. Health care expenditure increased from $ 1.4 trillion in 2000 to $ 2.1 trillion dollars in 2007, yet in the same time about 8 million more people lost their health insurance. A universal health care coverage without cost control is unlikely to succeed. Recent failure to provide universal coverage in California proves this point. We are in a crisis, but we do not want to debate the costs because the answers will be unpopular.

Yet, amidst all its inefficiency the American health system does succeed. JD recovered almost completely in three weeks and went home – exhausted and a few pounds less. Studies have shown that among the industrialized nations, the US health care is the most expensive but also most likely to deliver the ‘right care’.  The US health care triumphs, when it delivers.

Epilogue: About six months later I received a card from JD and his wife. The hand written cursive note in blue ink thanked me for my services. JD was unable to work for five months but had been rehired a month back. His wife had picked a second job in housekeeping in an office building. They had applied for Medicaid but the state had rejected the application; they were not poor enough.

Judith Warner Is in My Head

Justin E. H. Smith

Photo_warnerJudith Warner is in my head, and she won’t leave. She’s been in there for three weeks. Now I don’t mean I’ve been thinking intensely about Judith Warner for three weeks. I mean she is actually in there, perceiving the world through my eyes, seeing everything I see, peeing standing up when I pee standing up. Seeing it all.

Let me explain. This is not like Being John Malkovich, where the parasitic consciousness takes over control of the host body. I need to make this clear: Judith Warner has no control whatsoever over my sensorimotor system. She has to sense whatever I sense, and do whatever I do, whether she wants to or not. She doesn’t like Ravioli-O’s? Tough.

How did this come to pass?  Those who know me will know that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive symptoms, including the irrepressible desire to swallow whenever I see the letter ‘A’ and to feign a sort of half-spitting, half-vomiting motion whenever I spot an ‘F’.  I’m out of my gourd, but we knew that already. The question now is: How did Judith Warner get into my gourd?

One obsession I seldom discuss is this game I’ve played with myself for as long as I can remember, wherein I envision someone –someone famous or familiar, someone I admire or despise, a man or a woman, but usually a woman– seeing the world through my eyes, and I pass my time imagining what that person would think about the situation they find me in. Thus for example when I am in an airplane I might imagine Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin suddenly popping into my head and thinking to themselves: Why, ’tis a carriage that flies through the air!

I think I do this to compensate for the absence of religion in my life. There’s no God, sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely. So I summon up former middle-school teachers, or Roxie Roker or Enver Hoxha, and they concentrate intensely on the world as I am experiencing it, and this accompanying psychical investment in my world is something I find very comforting.

They generally stay anywhere between 10 seconds and 5 minutes. Usually, if something else requires my concentration, as when I enter into conversation with a real, physical person, the spirit of Nia Peeples or the evil Dr. Goebbels will quickly exit my body, leaving me free to take care of my real-world affairs.  If I find myself doing or seeing something that I wouldn’t want my guest consciousness to do or see –when I lived in New York the sight of a New Jersey license plate was enough to spoil everything–, then I quickly annul the visitation, and Imelda Marcos or Paul Harvey or whoever it happens to be obligingly floats right out through my ear.

Somehow, Judith Warner just got stuck.

It all started when I was reading her “Domestic Disturbances” column in the New York Times of February 7. Now it can at least be said that the column has an apt title. Warner tells of disturbance, but the disturbance never proves to be untamable. Nothing entirely savage and foreign and incomprehensible in the terms of familiar domestic order may be mentioned. Things get a little crazy, but not too crazy. Thus she describes the seemingly anarchic gesture of throwing away the New Age coffee-cessation kit that had been given to her by some well-meaning sap, before informing us that in any case the “coffee” she drinks is decaf.  She tells us that husband Max used to smoke, but of course no longer does. And she recounts the time she accidentally threw daughter Emilie’s favorite chocolates from Paris in the trash, an apparent confession of weakness in which all that really comes across is that the girl’s name is not Emily but “Emilie,” and my, what cultivated taste the little one has.

Warner doses out morsels of disturbance, but will never let more than a sentence or two go by before restoring the perfect domesticity for which she is no doubt the envy of countless American women who still drink real coffee, whose husbands still smoke or have already died of lung cancer, whose daughters would prefer a wholesaler’s crate full of Little Debbies. If I may be permitted to sound like Perry Anderson, hers are disturbances that leave the underlying structure rigidly in place. This structure is the bourgeois family, whose ideology would have it not just that those who manage to arrive at such a level of comfort and security as she boasts are fortunate, but that they are better, morally better.

This conviction came out all too clearly in the column that set in motion the chain of events I’ve been describing, where she writes of the disappointment she feels upon learning that her middle-aged “guy friends,” just like any common proles, have sexual fantasies about nubile young women: “I spent the following days nursing a sputtering sort of rage,” she confides. “The conversation marked the end of an illusion, you see. I’d thought that in our little bubble, a bubble, it should be said, that was defined not by class or money or education, but rather by goodness and decency and values and realness (even I am laughing now), the men were somehow different from the men Out There who dated women multiple decades younger than themselves, prized them for their looks and their fecundity and fell in love with the magical rejuvenating mirrors they found in the women’s adoring young eyes.”

I take this as a rare moment in Judith Warner’s oeuvre, in which she gains a modicum of class consciousness, and recoils in horror. Of course her social bubble had always been constituted not on the basis of moral excellence, but on the basis of shared class identity, and of course all of the members of her class are also, simultaneously, homo sapiens. Now I am not an evolutionary reductionist, but it seems fair enough to say that when Judith Warner’s friends violated her sense of propriety by simply speaking honestly, millions of years of evolutionary pressure –pressure to spread your seed as far and wide as possible, in the most fertile vessels to be found– came weighing down in favor of their desire, and the fragile niceties of that class that she had previously mistaken for the eternal moral order of things could simply constitute no argument in response. Judith Warner’s bubble got pricked.

But none of this helps us to answer the question urgently at hand: What is Judith Warner doing in my head? I can recall the exact moment it happened. There I was on February 7, reading her column, and I was so annoyed, and I wanted so much for her to see how annoyed I was, to know how strongly I disapprove of her entire Weltbild. And all of a sudden, pop, there she was, looking at her own “Domestic Disturbances” column on my computer screen and shaking her head.  Well, she was not shaking her head exactly. I was shaking my head, and she was now being shaken along with it. It must be understood that, unlike all the countless thousands of visitations I’d experienced before Judith Warner, this time I had no choice in the matter. I did not will her to appear; she just appeared.

In the beginning, I resented this uninvited visit tremendously. I wanted to let her know that she was not welcome, not in my head. Whereas with earlier visitors I had always tried to put my best foot forward, with Judith Warner my initial instinct was to do precisely what I imagined she would find most unappealing: eating over the sink, drinking cheap wine out of my favorite coffee mug as I watched other people’s pets doing the silliest things on YouTube, listening to Spank Rock as I did the dishes, instead of, say, Vivaldi.

Oh, to recall those early days of futile resistance! Around the beginning of week 2, something started to shift in me. I can’t say what it was exactly; it came through in my behavior even before I became conscious of it. For instance, I had known that Judith Warner spoke French, as she had been a special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. That after all is how Emilie came to love her chocolates.  One morning –it must have been day 9 or so– I was searching for something really vulgar and juvenile on the iPod, something to flush out that squatter once and for all, that damned Ms. Bartleby of my brain, and my thumb just happened to stop on an album from the one-named chanteuse Barbara, whom I hate, and whom I had only downloaded in the first place because someone unreliable told me she was “like a female Jacques Brel.” I pressed play.

Soon enough, I was missing no opportunity to sing c’est une chanson/ qui nous ressemble… as I rode my bike along the canal, or to casually slide a volume of Mallarmé off the shelf of an evening, and to thumb through the pages, mouthing the lines of verse in what I took to be a fairly good accent. At the end of week 2 I even took her out to dinner, which is to say I took myself out to dinner, ordering dishes I thought she would appreciate, like shrimp scampi, and all sorts of bitter greens. By the middle of week 3 I was downloading Nana Mouskouri.

You must understand I had every intention of keeping up my resistance right through to the bitter end. But as I said my behavior changed quite apart from any decisions I’d made, just as Judith Warner appeared in the first place quite apart from my will. No, this is no game I’m playing with myself, not this time. And perhaps I was being dishonest when I claimed complete control of my body. Every day, it grows harder to say who’s calling the shots.

I don’t know how she got there, or why she didn’t float out like Lance Bass and Ralph Cudworth and all the others after just a few minutes. Maybe she just likes it in there. Maybe it’s not that she’s trapped, but that she actually decided to stay of her own free will. Perhaps the domestic disturbances she’s fleeing are greater than she lets on in that anodyne column of hers.

What’s clear is that, as time goes by, the host and the parasite are beginning to work out the terms of a peaceful co-existence. Sure I hate her Weltbild, but how much do Weltbilder really matter at the human level? She makes me want to be a better man, and I like to think I’m showing her things she never would have stopped to notice on her own. Would she ever have chosen to read Witold Gombrowicz? I doubt it. I’m still calling some of the shots. It’s all about balance, you see, her needs and my needs.  It’s all about taking the time to spend time together, just Judith Warner and me. And Ferdydurke, and “The Four Seasons,” and a nice hot cup of decaf.


(NOTE: Fearing a libel suit, my lawyers have advised me to reveal to you that Judith Warner is not, in fact, in my head. I made it all up. It’s nothing but a satire, you see. A send-up. A canard. Judith Warner is safe at home with Max and the girls, and will be returning to her regular column at the New York Times after a two-month book leave. Now, if I could just get Joyce Maynard dislodged from my colon…)

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit

Fireworks Display Exhaustion Syndrome

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

Once upon a time Sydneysiders were content with a modest fireworks display which, it was agreed, enhanced the beautiful environs of Sydney Harbour, ushering in the new year with suitable éclat. Then two fireworks displays were thought more generous, one for the kids earlier in the evening and one for the kidults at midnight. The Harbour Bridge was discovered to be the perfect setting for all manner of fireographics. These displays began to be broadcast overseas whereupon fascinated backpackers from all over the world, and fleeing the northern winter tempests, disported themselves under the Southern Cross along with several hundreds of thousands of locals. Next it was decided that just two fireworks extravaganzas were just too ho-hum. Why not have, for the midnight show, three concurrent fireworks displays at different points along the harbour. This would be the spectacle to outdo them all and make, say, the tepid fireworks in To Catch A Thief as Grant and Kelly smooched, look truly pitiful (sexual metaphor or not). Now these events have further catapulted themselves into a ginormous extravaganza wherein, it seems, millions of people formicate along the shoreline and one wouldn’t be surprised if Juvenal put in an appearance to tell everyone they didn’t need their bread and circuses. Not that he would be heard above the din. The fruit bats might scatter, dogs whimper and cats lose some of their nine lives: Sydney’s citizens are getting what they have come to expect. But this year I was in no mood for this visual delight and had to be pushed into taking the usual spellbound visitors to a suitable vantage point. I was suffering from a previously undiagnosed psychiatric condition—fireworks display exhaustion syndrome.   

Which I think might just stand as an image for a cultural malaise at the present moment. Excess is all. One cannot look carefully at a few paintings or prints by the artist. You have to have the entire oeuvre thrust upon you—the blockbuster. What happened to the good old Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver tennis matches, a glass of lemonade to hand. Now the poor things often sound like they are being tortured on court as the 200 kph balls whizz towards them (‘bruised ribs’, ‘withdrew with a groin injury’, ‘knee surgery needed’) and gross advertising gets in the way of everything. I was pleasantly surprised recently when I saw No Country For Old Men and was able to listen to quiet on the screen for considerable stretches of time, not have my ears assailed by some caterwauling sound track. The psychopath Anton Chigurh does his killing in relative silence.

But wherever you turn these days there is an unconvincing oversupply of product, whether from various ‘experts’ with their prognostications, who all seem close friends of Megal O’Mania, from politicians who have learned the art of spin, saying at length what they think a majority of the public want to hear, or by the omnivorous eye of the television screen with its teeming banalities. Then there’s Blogolopolis with its strange combinations of the gladsome and the hamstrung.

Perhaps I’m wrong and we have never had it so good. After all, this is democracy in full swing. Do all eras have similar excesses—Victoriana, Baroque church decorations? Maybe this abundance is beneficial, and the sick feeling in my stomach is just sour grapes. It could be that capitalism needs to recycle money to get the engines of increase well oiled, and that the excess of cultural product of all kinds about now is just an efficient way of doing just that. Or it could be that we have reached a decadent phase from which the only way out is a certain steadfastness and modesty. Sobriety. Self-criticism. A renewal of thought and feeling, purged of the garish cyclorama we have taken to be our present due, an abandonment of the idea that we can know everything, or even anything, in comprehensive detail.

‘A major, unmissable theatrical event’; ‘Nothing short of miraculous’; ‘Should be required viewing’. Well, maybe. And then again, maybe not. It always sounds try-hard to me, and the moment I read such over-the-top blurbs my antennae bristle. God knows, I’ve seen the canoes filled with oil, the woeful video installations, the theatre written up that made the thighs ache with boredom, begun the books spruiked, then abandoned them. We all have.

Books I should not have written. Music I should not have composed (I’m not Bach). Paintings I should have put in the compactor. I am not a fount of universal wisdom on culture even though I often imply I am. Director’s cut of favourite film is shorter than the original!

That might seem a fantasy of fulfilment in our present era of hypedom, but how much better would culture be with some rigorous self-appraisal, some denial. Henri Duparc composed a handful of songs. Ravel and Debussy were fastidious composers, not a note too many between them. As paintings grow ever larger, think of Goyas’s etchings. If you’re Tolstoy, OK, write War and Peace, but if you’re not, slash your ‘masterpiece’ to ribbons. Blue pencil those adjectives. Does your article need those extra paragraphs? What is the point (a cheque?) of having millions of people reading your work or listening to your songs if what you have done is sell the human condition short or put out content that is not equal to my depth or to your depth?

Bilious from overexposure, the mind reels with surfeit, febrile, then cloying, finally clotted. Release your own inner Anton Chigurh. Purge yourself of overwriting, overpainting, overproduction. No more three hour plus films. No more compositions for string quartet and helicopters. No more reinforced floors needed to support your towering sculptures.

You may yet realise that you are causing the equivalent of fireworks display exhaustion syndrome and do something to atone for your sinfulness.

Monday Poem

Rags to Richness
Jim Culleny

Sitting with a coffee in the morning sun
seeing the high ledges a mile off

We go up there to perch on edges
and peer down into the bowl
that cups our town’s tiny sprawl
into the creases and pleats between
the treed knobs of old mountains
—a serene sprawl
except when cars come full of pilgrims
with a taste for the quaint.
Then I can’t find a place to park.
Then there goes quaint.
Then it’s more like New York.

I glance down into my coffee’s dark-browness
into it’s french-roastedness, and think of Maxwell House.

How far I’ve come from
my mother’s ordinary
perked Maxwell’s
to free-market gourmet,
dark-roasted Dean’s Beans,
expressed, french-pressed,
or dripped.

How far up the food chain
from being the son
of a honey-dipper’s son
and bluecollar squirt, to being one
within easy reach of lattes
and cappucinos fizzed from pots
in our town’s surfeit of java huts.

Lattes and cappucino for the world of one,
cake and Maxwell House for the rest.


Sandlines: Franco, King of African Rumba

Edward B. Rackley

Africa has produced many musical giants. Some, like Fela Kuti and Cesaria Evora, achieve international renown; others influence a wide swathe of musicians but remain relatively unknown to a wider public. François Luambo Makiadi (6 July 1938 – 12 Oct. 1989), the Congolese bandleader and guitarist, is definitely in the latter category. Considered the father of the modern Congolese sound, he is a towering figure even in death, and certainly the greatest the DR Congo (formerly Zaire) has ever produced.

Nicknamed “the Sorcerer ” for his fluid, seemingly effortless guitar playing, François or ‘Franco’ founded the seminal group Orchestre Kinshasa Jazz, shortened to ‘O.K. Jazz’, in 1955. Franco led O.K. Jazz—later dubbed ‘T.P.’ or ‘Tout Puissant (almighty) O.K. Jazz’ by his fans—until his death, a total of 33 years.

In 1989 after his premature passing to AIDS at 51, the Zairian government declared four days of national mourning. The national radio service, Voix du Zaire, played only Franco songs, twenty-four hours a day. In the countryside where I was living at the time, daily life stopped entirely, out of solidarity and respect for a man many felt they knew personally. Neighbors sat under palm trees listening to radios, farmers and schoolchildren stayed home, the palm wine flowed. Although I didn’t know Franco’s music well at the time, I recall noticing an absence of repetition in the DJ’s playlist. No wonder—with over 100 albums in thirty years, the O.K. Jazz discography far exceeds that of Elvis and the Beatles combined.
Franco achieved iconic status not for his guitar wizardry, his talents as a composer or vocalist. His greatness lay with his abilities as a bandleader, organizer and recruiter of new talent. In O.K. Jazz Franco offered a launching pad for many artists, including Sam Mangwana, Verckys Kiamuangana, Mose Fan Fan, Youlou Mabiala, Papa Noel, Dizzy Mandjeku, Josky Kiambukuta and Madilu ‘Système’ Bialu. All of these and more floated in and out of O.K. Jazz, many with important international careers of their own. Ultimately, though, Franco had the vision to push the music forward, to form line-ups that could master develop the rumba style with it various offshoots, including the speedy Soukous, which blossomed in the late 1960s.

Here’s an early 1960s rendition of ‘Toyeba Yo’ (‘We know you’), with a young but already large Franco in the back:

Roots of African Rumba and Soukous

Franco’s family moved to Congo’s capital as a Belgian colony, Leopoldville, when he was a child. By the age of ten he had mastered his homemade guitar, listening to European music via colonials and missionaries, and to Cuban ballads playing on local radio. After his recording debut as a studio musician, he formed a band at 15, which debuted at the OK Bar in 1955. He took this name a year later for the new band, calling it ‘O.K. Jazz’. Within a year they were challenging the established stars, Dr. Nico’s ‘African Jazz’, as Congo’s top group.

Like African Jazz, O.K. Jazz started out playing their versions of Cuban music, whose rhythms had bounced from West Africa across the Atlantic and back. But while African Jazz continued to look to outside influences, Franco and O.K. Jazz turned to Congolese traditions. He shaped the Cuban rumba into the ‘rumba odemba’, named after an aphrodisiac tree bark still popular in bars and nightclubs today. As guitarist, singer, songwriter and showman, the Franco stage persona seemed to draw as much from rock ‘n’ roll as from rumba, while remaining firmly grounded in local tradition.

Congolese independence in 1960 was followed by instability and violence. Franco and O.K. Jazz, with its constantly changing personnel, headed off to Belgium to record. By 1965, with President Mobutu Sese Seko firmly in power, the band returned and began its climb to the heights of national popularity, headlining the Festival of African Arts in Kinshasa the following year.

Here, Franco and Sam Mangwana collaborate again on Cooperation. No video, alas.

From the sixties forward, Franco began to replace Cuban-style melodies with longer, curvier vocal lines closer to the speech-melodies of Lingala. Drumming patterns progressed into greater complexity while achieving a hypnotic, background effect. Guitar lines multiplied, evolving into the “limpid, gleaming tone” (Jon Pareles) that went on to cover West Africa and the French-speaking Caribbean. By the mid-1960’s, a new name has arise for Zairian pop—Soukous, a hybrid of the French ‘secouer’ and Lingala ‘sukisa’, both meaning ‘to shake’.

As African Jazz fell apart and other bands emerged, O.K. Jazz expanded to a dozen members or more. Its audience grew exponentially, transcending national and regional borders. In that period when African countries were all gaining independence, new relations were forged with neighboring countries. Records, radios and tours were spreading Congolese music throughout the continent, O.K. Jazz quickly came to embody the modern African band, and Franco one of the first pan-African stars.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Franco and the band toured and recorded constantly. O.K. Jazz played three-chord dance music that gently carried listeners into motion—a glistening web of guitar lines, horn-section riffs, vocal harmonies and drumming, complex but transparent and irresistibly lilting. Initiated with ten members in the mid-1950s, its size had tripled by the time Franco first played in the United States in 1983.

By the late 1970s the line-up on stage and in the studio included at least two drummers, a bass player, four guitarists, four trumpeters, four saxophonists, and as many as six singers switching between the chorus and the lead. Franco stood in the center or towards the rear of the stage, guitar slung across his wide girth, holding the sprawling ensemble together. He sang solos and duets in a husky baritone, but more often would feature other singers, sometimes confining his vocals to commentary or narrative spoken in the margins of the music. Above all he played his guitar, starting most numbers with a rumba flourish or odemba riff and leading the band from one section to the next and finally into an instrumental climax, weaving his signature fretwork among other guitar parts while the drums pounded and the horns wailed away, tout puissant like no other band of its day.

Here’s ‘Bimasha’: very tight, powerful horn section, from the late 70s/early 80s. Worth a look for the period costumes and stage personas alone…

Authenticity’s lapdog?

The rise of O.K. Jazz coincided with the restructuring of an independent Congo by Mobutu Sese Seko. In the early 1970s, besides the disastrous decision to ‘Zairianize’ (nationalize) private businesses held by colonial families, Mobutu also launched a coercive cultural-political reform initiative known as ‘authenticité’. The influences of Senghor, Fanon and Sartre on this program are direct and constitute a fascinating tale in their own right, one too lengthy to recount here. The ostensible aim of authenticité was to reclaim African traditions and to ‘decolonize the mind’ by breaking clean from colonial influences. While Franco’s music was played on Western instruments, by the late 1960s it was already unmistakably African.

In practice, authenticité meant that Congo became Zaire; Leopoldville became Kinshasa. All across the country, the names of towns, rivers, lakes and districts lost their European names for traditional or invented African names. Western suits and ties were banned in favor of the ‘Abacos’, short for ‘A bas les costumes’ (‘no more suits’). Zairians were required to abandon their christened, European names in favor of African ones. In professional settings, the formal address ‘Citoyen/ne’ (‘citizen’) replaced Monsieur/Madame. To comply with the new authenticity laws, Franco became L’Okanga La Ndju Pene Luambo Makiadi. Like the dictator who would become his political patron, President Mobutu, exuberance and immodesty were never in short supply with Franco.
In 1980, the Zairian government bestowed on Franco the title of ‘Grand Maitre’. It was a huge honor, but came with the indelible stain of the country’s ruling kleptocracy. His lyrics changed significantly under the weight of official recognition, switching to patriotic songs of praise and tributes to rich fans—an about-face from the independent profile he had cut as a younger man.

Yet even as Mobutu recognized Franco’s power, he also feared it, trying to control it and use it to his advantage. But Franco was not always the darling of the political establishment, and spent short periods in jail on accusations of ‘immorality’. Like all Congolese, he relished the apt pun and used parables to address controversial subjects. Was the song ‘Liberté’ only about escaping a domineering wife, or about a more fundamental form of liberty? Was ‘Tailleur’ really about a tailor who loses his needle, or was it Mobutu’s bootlicking Prime Minister? Under a repressive single-party regime, Congolese warmed to Franco’s subtle satire.

Faced with the biggest crisis of his life, however, Franco dropped the parodies and puns. The only solo composition he released in 1987 was “Attention na SIDA” (“Beware of AIDS”), whose lyrics presented a somber, plainspoken warning. It was his last big hit. He died two years later, never acknowledging that he may have had the disease. While his life’s work had certain international influence, the fact that so few Westerners know Franco’s music suggests the world is not so small after all.

Given that Franco recorded over 1000 songs with O.K. Jazz, getting an initial grip on the discography can be daunting. Far from mastering the entire Franco repertoire, I tend to cherish albums I’ve stumbled upon over the years, or that Congolese have referred to me. For first-timers, the three albums I always recommend are:

• ‘20e Anniversaire: 6 juin 1956 – 6 juin 1976’: The plaintive, rolling ‘Liberté’, mentioned above, opens the album. It also contains my two all-time favorite ballads, ‘Voyage na Bandundu’ and ‘Kamikaze’.
• ‘Missile’: From the authenticité era, it features the incredibly tight, tempo hopping ‘Adieu je m’en vais’.
• ‘Omona Wapi’, the legendary duet between Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, another great ‘sorcerer’ in Congolese music. ‘Lisanga ya Banganga’, the opener, is still heard on Kinshasa streets today.

Acquire these three disks and you’re ready to raise your glass and drink to the memory of these musical legends. The cultural era they created and almost singlehandedly sustained for forty years was destroyed in toto with the eruption of Congo’s tragic civil war in 1996. Congolese music has survived the war but lacks the authority and vision that Franco carried so well, for so long.

Here’s ‘Ngungi’ (‘mosquito’), from ‘Omona Wapi’, a stab at Kinshasa’s idle, gossiping class… some things about Kinshasa haven’t changed!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sadness may be good philosophy — and better for you

From The Washington Post:

Book_2 If only we’d listened to John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, he declared that human beings were entitled only to “life, liberty and” — get ready — “estate.” As in property. Leave it to Mr. Jefferson of Virginia to change that last item in the trinity to “pursuit of happiness.” What he neglected to tell us was that, 230 years later, we would still be pursuing it.

Make even a passing scan of today’s bestseller lists, and you’ll find a veritable happiness racket: titles urging us to start “Living Well” and “Become a Better You” and master “The Secret” and (my personal favorite) be “Happy for No Reason.” Between all the Tony Robbinses and Rick Warrens and Deepak Chopras of the world, happiness is perhaps our last growth industry, and it even has a volunteer sales force. “Smile!” a stranger recently exhorted me on the street. “It can’t be that bad.” To which my only response was: “How do you know?”

Maybe it’s all paying off, though. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, nearly 85 percent of us believe ourselves to be happy or very happy. All power, then, to Eric G. Wilson for writing a book with the refreshing title Against Happiness. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, is seriously bummed by the cultural landscape. “Everywhere I see advertisements offering even more happiness, happiness on land or by sea, in a car or under the stars. . . . It seems truly, perhaps more than ever before, an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.” This “overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness,” he writes, produces only blandness, conformity, “a dystopia of flaccid grins” fueled by Lexapro and Paxil.

More here.

How paint dries, the way flags flutter, how Nature discovered origami

From Harvard Magazine:

Lakshmi “Just because something is familiar doesn’t mean you understand it. That is the common fallacy that all adults make—and no child ever does,” says Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, England de Valpine professor of applied mathematics. Mahadevan enjoys explaining mathematically the phenomena of everyday life: practicing the old-fashioned method of scientific inquiry called natural philosophy, where one wonders about everything.

Mahadevan, who grew up in India, tells a traditional story about Krishna where mud becomes metaphor. “In Hindu mythology, Krishna is divine,” he begins. “However, because there was a prophecy that he would overthrow an evil king, his origins when he was a baby were hidden from almost everybody. So when Krishna was born, his mother surreptitiously sent him away to be brought up by a foster mother who didn’t know who he was. As in all mythologies, there were premonitions [of greatness], but growing up with his foster mother, he would go out like all children and play in the mud. One day he started to eat the mud, putting it in his mouth. And his [foster] mother, from afar, said, ‘Don’t do it.’” Krishna kept eating the mud. “Again [she] said, ‘Don’t do it,’ and yet he continued. So she came up to him, and when she opened his mouth to take out the mud, she looked—and she saw the universe.

“Without ever claiming all the grandeur that the story actually suggests,” says Mahadevan, “you just have to look and you will find interesting things everywhere.”

More here.