where, only there; when, only then

Two blocks from the school where I study (and teach) jiu-jitsu is a bar called 21 Nickels. It’s built in the low, narrow style of urban bars: bar running from entrance to bathroom, row of bar stools, aisle and a row of tables. This makes sense in the heart of a city, where square footage is at a premium; less so in the Watertown suburbs. But architecture is a language; the space evokes a type of bar, just like the high ceilings and faux ranch construction of an Outback Steakhouse evoke a type of restaurant. Realizing that occupancy counts more toward rent than ambiance, however, the owners added a side car. Literally: a dining car, rolled up on the long-rusted tracks that used to bisect Watertown, welded onto the side of the bar and connected via two sloping walkways. The dining car’s windows, which look out onto the wild grasses between a clapboard tuxedo rental outlet and the local Armenian lodge, are framed with imitation velvet curtains.

The jiu-jitsu class goes there at least once a month, typically after the belt test and promotional on the fourth Thursday. The owner recognizes us and goes out of his way to accommodate our size and post-workout stink: grouping tables in the back, firing up a preliminary order of nachos before we even have to ask, pouring out pitchers’ full of ice water. Last time we were there he kept the kitchen open late. We migrated from our usual exile in the dining car (don’t mind us) to take over the front bar, which was empty save for a middle-aged Mediterranean romancing a bottle blonde with a tan like a Camry’s driver seat. Every time we’re there we order vast quantities of food and streams of beer, then try to split the check six or seven different ways. And they always oblige. Not that Watertown’s a bad neighborhood, but most bar owners would consider being known as “the bar where the jiu-jitsu school drinks” a sound business investment.

I can’t hang like I used to – I could never really hang – so I’m usually one of the first to go. 21 Nickels is covered in sports memorabilia, old press clippings and iconic photographs, like every local bar in every suburb in America. As I exit, I note one that strikes a subsonic chord in my gut every time. Google Image Search isn’t helping, so I’ll have to describe it; this’ll be a good exercise for me.

A white man – not just white, but white – in a turn-of-the-last-century suit and tie, chin at his chest, eyes closed, mouth curving into a smirk’s imitation of a smile. He hovers over the State House like a giant ghost rising out of the earth; it’s visible through his torso. Hundreds of hands reach up from the bottom of the illustration, clutching the air through which this titan passes. A vague limning along the top of the black-and-white drawing, perhaps meant to convey a halo over the hovering figure, suggests nothing so much as a slow dawning horror, especially as the rest of the picture is chiaroscuro black. The entire drawing invokes nothing so much as a Lovecraftian terror – Nyarlathotep, perhaps – and the listless hordes drawn toward him. “THE MAYOR OF THE POOR,” the caption reads. “ELECT CURLEY.”

and reflects no light in day or night

I work in Copley Square, one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of Boston. Once a week, if not more often, I cross the plaza to my office, by threading my way through crowds of Asian tourists. They live up to (down to?) the stereotype by pointing subcompact digital cameras in every direction and snapping pictures: some with family in front, some without. They’re not lacking for vistas: the square is bordered by the Boston Public Library to the west, Trinity Church to the east, the Hancock Tower to the south and Patrick Henry’s childhood CVS to the north. Amateur photographers pose their family members, who stand with hands folded in front of their waists or with arms outstretched. Look! Boston!

The reason Asian tourists descend on Copley Square in flocks of thirty or more has nothing to do with the square’s history and everything to do with buses. The tour buses that serve the Boston area make this neighborhood a regular stop. Copley Square didn’t play a role in Boston’s revolutionary history – in fact, it was a swamp back then – but it’s certainly photogenic. Tour bus companies recognized the square was photogenic and began including it on their tours. And now strangers to the city get out and take photos because the tour bus stops here.

copley_square

The history of Boston is neither so old, nor so mysterious, that we have to argue over which came first: did the tour buses decide Copley Square was a point of interest, or was it Copley’s status as a point of interest that got tour buses to stop here? The answer is clearly the latter. Yet seeing tourists pass through Copley Square always gives me an opportunity to revisit it with a stranger’s eyes. And I’m reminded of how much institutions – like tour bus companies – shape our view of the world, while the world also shapes the way these institutions grow.

And I hope that, in every busload, there’s at least one sullen teenager or cranky grandma who gets off the coach, draws their collar up against the St. James winds, and asks, “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”

to the logical limit

A little under a week ago, I took some flack from folks on LiveJournal for my assertion that sitcoms were an inferior form of art to more active, plot-driven stories. Well, that wasn’t really what I was asserting. What I asserted was that I didn’t like it when sitcoms did that, and that it was a frequent enough trope that I was comfortable generalizing. I thought that was clear enough from beginning the post with, “Here’s what I don’t like about sitcoms,” but.

However, after defending my assertion to several logical people whose opinions I trust, I realized that I should probably unpack my feelings on art a little more. So here they are:

1. I believe that there is such a thing as great art, and that it’s not subjective. You and I, reasonable humans and critical minds, will probably disagree on what that great art is (you: Herman Melville; me: Ernest Hemingway, and on into the clove-scented night). But we should agree that there is such a thing as great art – that not only is it Platonically possible, but that it has been done and will be done again. I do not agree that all aspects of art are relative.

(I spell that out because some people think that, no, all art’s in the eye of the beholder, it’s not possible to say that one piece of art is better or worse than another in an objective sense, etc, etc. And I don’t feel that’s true)

2. I believe that art is anything created primarily to evoke a response. “Primarily” being the operative word. Art is art because its aesthetic value outweighs its utilitarian value. I don’t think that a meticulously crafted Louis XIV ottoman is art, though it has a lot of aesthetic value (attention to form, fine craftsmanship, etc) – it’s meant to be used. Now I suppose if someone buys it and puts it in a sterile room no one’s allowed to enter and insists the children never touch it, it’d be more art than furniture. Similarly, a well prepared plate of food that crosses the line from nutritional diversity (protein, carbs, fiber, fruits) into a tour of the senses could be considered art.

(Most people want a clear definition of Art so they can act as gatekeeper. “Duchamp isn’t art; it’s his gag on the art world.” “Pollock isn’t art; it’s random squiggles on paper.” “Video games aren’t art; they’re toys.” That’s not what I intend. I’m not trying to exclude anything from the category of Art. I want a working definition of art because, per point #1 above, we can’t talk about greater or lesser works of art unless we know what they’re better or worse at. Art has to do something, and the term “Art” has to mean something, for there to be greater works of Art)

3. I believe that every form of art has limitations and benefits inherent to its media. Novels can do things that film can’t; film can do things that comic books can’t; comic books can do things that symphonies can’t; etc. I spell this out in more detail in an earlier post on aesthetics of different media.

4. I believe that a piece of art which evokes a response with little apparent effort is a great work of art. I’m least certain about this belief of anything I’ve asserted so far and would welcome the most hearty debate here. But I believe that, the closer to which art approaches nature while still evoking a vivid response – or proving more diverting – the better it is. Sunsets over the ocean are beautiful, but they’re not art. A symphony that evokes the same wordless feeling in you that a sunset over the beach does is a great work of art. A chorale composition, featuring a talented vocalist singing about how beautiful the sun is, standing in front of a dropcloth on which a sunset is projected, is not as good.

(Note that when I say “nature” I don’t mean “naturalism,” though I have a strong fondness for that myself. The Matrix is a greater work of art than Jet Li’s The One, because the dialogue, effects and pacing in the former far exceed the latter. It is believable, even if it is sci-fi, and The One is not, even if it is largely similar)

5. Since technical effort is the criteria I use, I believe that the strength of the response evoked by art has little to do with its greatness. Or, in English, there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by bad art. A great work of art is great because of its technical strength, not because it evokes more powerful responses or “nobler” responses.

I find Road House more fun than Memento. Moreover, I was more entertained by Road House than I was moved by Memento. But I would still say that Memento is the greater work of art, because Christopher Nolan is the greater craftsman. He tells a more complex story with less apparent effort. I say this and I stick by it, even though I’ve watched Road House at least three times in the last twelve months and haven’t touched Memento in years.

6. And finally, I believe that you will find more great works of art among dramas or romantic comedies than among sitcoms.

Sitcoms, to my jaded and condescending eye, wear their formulas too openly. There’s the introduction, the complication, the rise to climax and the comical denouement. There’s the familiar interchange between bumbling husband and tolerant wife, between lewd boy and coquettish girl, etc. Not that the material itself renders it poor art – when this stuff was new, back in the days of commedia dell’arte, it was groundbreaking. But very few new trails have been blazed in situation comedy in the last fifty years. The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, M.A.S.H., Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Office, Arrested Development … I’m struggling to name more.

Further, sitcoms exist primarily on television today, and television, like all art, is subject to the limits of its medium. The subject matter has to please advertisers. It has to fit into a 24-minute slot. It has to break up into three recognizable beats to fit between commercials. This is why (in my opinion) you find more groundbreaking material on cable: shows like Party Down or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Weeds.

So it’s not impossible for a sitcom to be great. It’s just not as likely. And this is why I believe it.

ten years burnin’ down the road

I’ve got a piece on OTI today about Born in the U.S.A., perhaps America’s most misappropriated patriotic song. I also take some potshots at George F. Will in the column, so if that’s fun for you, check it out.

(Please note that I don’t sincerely believe “Born in the U.S.A.” is America’s most misappropriated patriotic song – “The Star-Spangled Banner,” taken from a British drinking song, might beat it out. But I do sincerely believe that George F. Will is a daft tool)

Happy Independence Day, Americans. As you enjoy your barbecues and beach trips this weekend, remember that this country is founded on a tradition of shooting at law enforcement officers and violently questioning the Party line. Now, if the cops harass you for illegal fireworks or open containers of alcohol outdoors, I’m not saying shoot them. I’m not.

I’m just saying there’s precedent.

her folks had said our life together sure was gonna be rough

“This must be the infamous Perich,” the woman said, shaking my hand as Fraley introduced us. That introduction has never borne good fruit for me, but this was Fraley and Melissa’s rehearsal dinner. The woman speaking was the Liberty Hotel’s wedding coordinator, Michelle.

Quick recap for the tourists: the Liberty Hotel was once the Charles Street Jail, the downtown lock-up that briefly held Malcolm X, Sacco and Vanzetti and a number of other famous Boston miscreants. It stood for nearly fourteen decades before closing in 1990 due to overcrowding. Ann Beha Architects renovated the interior and added a sixteen-story guesthouse adjacent, turning it into one of Boston’s premier luxury hotels. The entrance opens into a gorgeous five-story atrium, ringed by balconies that let into conference rooms and bars.

Michelle proved more than equal to my paranoia, anticipating my questions as we paced the site of Saturday’s ceremony: the former prison exercise yard.

“Am I going to be mic’ed?”
“Yes.”
“Standing mic or body mic?”
“Body mic, clipped to your lapel.”
“And the three attendants who have readings?”
“Standing mic. Facing that way.” She pointed past me.

She humored me until I shut up, then coordinated the rest of the procession. The groom’s party, bridesmaids and I practiced our stately walk into the exercise yard, standing with our backs to Storrow Drive. After a brief pause, Melissa emerged from the top of the stairs – dressed nicely, of course, but not in her gown – and followed us out.

“You know,” I mentioned, “as long as we’ve got everyone here …” But Fraley vetoed the plan; my license wouldn’t kick in until tomorrow.

Upstairs, after cocktails and an excellent dinner, Fraley and Melissa’s parents sat us through a brief slideshow, depicting the two of them as they grew up and eventually met each other. Then friends and family were invited to get up and offer toasts to the couple’s health. I sat there, nursing a mediocre hotel wine and smiling.

“We’re expecting to hear something from you, too,” Mrs. Fraley insisted.

“I’m saving the A-list material for tomorrow,” I claimed, drawing a laugh. But to be honest, I had nothing to add. Watching two of the most amazing friends in my life not only embark on a journey I didn’t think I had the courage to make, but to do so with such effortless grace and humor, took everything out of me. What words could I use in the face of that?


(photo courtesy of Dave Green)

the past is prologue

At or around 625 B.C., the great Median empire, in what is now Iran, staggered from crippling blows. The Assyrians had slain the Median king Phraortes. The Median armies, though vast in number, had no tactical organization or formation; they were “all mixed up in a mob,” according to the historian Herodotus. And when Phraortes’ son Cyaxares led a march on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a surprise attack by the Scythians scattered his forces, costing the Medians the better part of their power.

From these setbacks, Cyaxares would reunite Media and not only slaughter his enemies, but go on to expand Media further. First, the King of the Medes invited the Scythians, nomads and lusty warriors, to a gigantic feast. Getting his enemies drunk, the Medians then slaughtered them. In order that he would succeed where his father failed, Cyaxares then allied with Babylon in order to destroy the city of Nineveh, looting and ruining it utterly. In the course of his conquests, Cyaxares organized the Median army into ruthless efficiency, separating infantry, archers and cavalry. At the height of its power, the Medes received tribute from the Persians, Armenians, Parthians and Aryans: all the greatest forces of the ancient world.

The Medes’ rise to prominence troubled Alyattes, fourth king of Lydia. Alyattes ruled the vast kingdom in what is today Turkey, and launched wars of conquest with caution and cunning. He made a policy of pillaging his enemies without ruining them, allowing them to recover for later harvest. Herodotus notes that, in his annual invasions of neighboring Miletus, Alyattes “refrained from demolishing houses in order that the Milesians, having somewhere to live, might continue to work the land and sow their seed, with the result that he himself would have something to plunder each time he invaded the country.” Capable, and possessed of great foresight, Alyattes had every reason to fear a union between Media and Babylon.

For five years, the Lydians and the Medians clashed regularly, with the balance of victories split very evenly. Each great empire had just cause to fear the other, but the early assaults matured into a relentless conflict. The feuding had reached the intensity of a bonfire when the great armies met in western Turkey, at the Halys River. They charged, filling the sky with arrows and plowing through ranks of spearmen with heavy horse.

Then, as Herodotus records, “the day was turned suddenly into night.” A total solar eclipse plunged the world into darkness at noon.

Now, the men of Lydia and Medes weren’t ignorant savages. A darkening of the sun would not strike a civilized man as the work of demons. In fact, this same eclipse had been predicted by Thales of Miletus, to the exact day and year. Nevertheless, the generals must have taken it as a sign, because both armies lay down their weapons. The empires of Lydia and Medes made truce. Alyattes gave his daughter to the son of Cyaxares, and marriage sealed the bonds of peace. The Median empire crumbled under the rule of Cyaxares’ son, and soon joined the Assyrians and Scythians in the furnaces of history.

The battle at the Halys river, which produced the peace between empires, occurred exactly two thousand, five hundred and ninety-four years ago, today. I can say this with some certainty, unlike most dates in ancient history. And that in and of itself is astonishing.

Nothing in the fragmented records of historians, who were themselves borrowing from hearsay, gives us this kind of precision … except a total solar eclipse.

By pinning an astrological event to a point in history, we establish not just one date – the last exchange between Lydia and Medes – but dozens of dates surrounding it. From those dozens, we can pinpoint hundreds more, a starburst of concrete information exploding outwards from a single conflict and a single solar occurrence. Combining two unrelated fields, the physical science of astronomy and the social science of history shifts the picture from two dimensions to three. History evolves from guesswork into certainty.

All this from a single clue. Historians refer to May 28, 585 BC as one of the cardinal dates of history – a point of certainty whereby other dates can be established. It’s the Rosetta Stone of the ancient calendar, the Grand Central Station through which the empires of the old world pass. The past is no longer a mystery to us. We know what happened, and, for the first time, when. When one astronomer from a conquered province took the time to predict a solar eclipse and make his prediction known, he gave the future an inestimable gift.

The moral of the story: write everything down.

this land is your land; this land is my land

Happy 4th of July, everyone.

Remember that this country was founded on a tradition of fucking with the police. Sure, the early American colonies defeated the largest extant empire at the time with the aid of another huge empire, but nobody knew for sure that that help would come. The signers of the Declaration of Independence took the chance that they might all hang for what they did.

Real change doesn’t come from the voting booth, the ballot box, the referendum or the petition. It comes from taking a full-pressure fire hose to the chest. It starts with sniping at the King’s soldiers as they march toward your house. It ends with either your death, your exile or your gradual disillusionment as you watch your comrades repeat the same mistakes that inspired your revolt in the first place.

Today is the one time all year when I will talk about America without ending on a skeptical note. As I’ve mentioned before, the word “America” means more than one thing. America means more than just a particular territory or a particular government. It also means a shared set of historical and cultural ideals. It means that fictional, idealized wonderland of liberty and justice, that “eternal thought in the mind of God.”

It’s to that ideal that I raise a glass today. I won’t drink to any man to ever hold the title of Commander-in-Chief, or to any country that America invaded without cause. But I will drink to the dream.