Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Harry Nilsson legacy

Everbody's talkin at me
I don't hear a word they're saying
Only the echoes of their mind

People stopping staring
I can't see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Backing off of the North East winds sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

I first heard Harry Nilsson sing these lyrics, composed by Fred Neil, and a staple of the great music that helped make Midnight Cowboy one of the best films of 1969 as a graduate student in Chapel Hill, seeking time-out from academic rigor.

Over the years, I neither forgot the movie with its archetypal search for the lost Eden, nor its haunting lead song, which has remained my favorite, beating out even John Lennon's "Imagine" and Linda Ronstadt's smash hit, "Blue Bayou." By the way, Lennon and Nilsson were drinking buddies at one point, and the Beetles admired his song-writing. He was prolific, often writing songs for other singers and bands, including Glenn Campbell and the Monkees.

There's something about this song, maybe the way Nilsson sings it, that puts me in a buoyant mood setting out for a new day whenever I hear it.

Ironically, his name probably draws a blank for many young people, underscoring yet again the short tenure of fame in a world that moves on.

For the older generation, how can one forget his "I guess the Lord must be in New York City," another great song from Midnight Cowboy:

I say good-bye to all my sorrows
And by tomorrow I'll be on my way
I guess the Lord must be in New York City

Nilsson also wrote and sang the gentle lyrics of "Remember," which was revived as part of the sound track for the popular movie, You've got mail:

Remember is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with every place you know
Remember, when you're feeling sad and down
Remember, turn around

Life is just a memory
Close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be

I think of "Remember" as a lullaby, great for sleepless nights.

Nilsson also wrote other memorable songs, often sung by other artists:

"Sixteen Tons"
"Me and my Arrow"
"As Time Goes By"
"A Love Like Yours"

I like it best when he sings his own lyrics in that mellifluous, cadenced voice that resonates so hauntingly, for Nilsson's music, make no mistake about it, is about you and me in our everyday humanity, expectant, but often disappointed.

It's quite amazing that this musical genius came from a rough, Brooklyn neighborhood and a broken home. He had just a ninth grade education. His mother was an alcoholic, and he would have six step-fathers. It was rare he gave a public concert. Only one album came out under his own name.

Among his admirers were the Beatles, who deemed him the best American solo singer-writer in America. He enjoyed close relationships with John and Ringo.

I think of him as being a lot like his contemporary, the English singer-songwriter, Nick Drake. Like Nilsson, Drake refrained from public concerts, remained relatively unknown, and was largely an influence. Today he's recognized in the UK as one of its greatest singer-songwriters in the last 50 years. He was 26 when he died of a drug overdose for depression.

On January 15, 1994, Nilsson died from a heart attack. He was just 53.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Finding a hobby: shaking yourself awake

Do you have a hobby? I suppose a hobby is anything you spend time doing with a passion, not because it's practical, but for its own sake- a kind of follow your bliss thing. Everybody should have a hobby, if nothing else, to break the 9 to 5 syndrome that, along with sleep, consumes two thirds of our lives, a precious commodity slipping like sand through our fingers daily till one day we find we're no longer that age when all our body parts did their thing and desire never slackened and courage came in abundance.

Now there are all kinds of hobbies. As a child in Philly, I once picked-up a boy scout handbook. It fascinated me to read of so many skill areas, from mastering rope knots to bee-keeping. Master 20 of them and you got to be an eagle scout, top- of-the line. Just one would have been plenty for me. Do you have a hobby? I'd be grateful if you'd share it with me in the commentary section that comes after a post.

My hobbies? I have many interests such as reading, gardening, and even blogging. But I'm all about specializing, or developing expertise to the point you become an authority like a connoisseur of fine wine. Sometimes a hobby can bloom into a career. How cool is that?

If we have to sit under the toad, work, as poet Philip Larkin once put it, then there's nothing surpassing that rarity when vocation and avocation prove bed fellows. Hobbies give joy, release us from a volatile world, help us get in touch with ourselves. God knows, in these uncertain times we need a hobby more than ever to wade through life's daily muck and capricious surprises.

I was just thinking: how intriguing it would be to find out what hobbies, if any, many of our icons--movie stars, athletes, political figures, etc, pursue. I know that Churchill and Eisenhower were into painting. Celebrity Dennis Weaver got into photography as a youngster and got quite good at it. Keanu Reeves indulges in his band, Dogstar.

Hobbies can do good for others. Besides collecting orphans, Brad Pitt has founded and is active in a project that builds affordable housing for the displaced in post-Katrina New Orleans. Geena Davis is one hell of an archer, finishing 24th among 300 would-be Olympic archers. Go, Geena! They're all busy people, but they all have hobbies.

Me, I've always had this hankering for travel. As a child, I studied flags, read about countries, pursued ships docked at the Philly pier, spent oodles of time working-up imaginary itineraries, a wanna-be Frank Buck bent on safari. Out of this came my love for languages. I guess I've studied about thirteen of them now, not all of them for long spells, but some, a great deal like German and French. These last years, I've chosen to specialize, more specifically, to learn Spanish well, and so, todos los dias (everyday), with rare exception, I spend time working at it. The trick is to gauge your interests, choose one, and master it well.

I think Dale Carnegie may have said it best: "Today is life--the only life you are sure of. Make the most of today. Get interested in something. Shake yourself awake, Develop a hobby, Let the winds of enthusiasm sweep through you. Live today with gusto."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bombing Iran: Big mistake!

This year, 2012, is fraught with danger. I write of Iran, which clearly has become our leading nemesis. Perhaps not since pre-Pearl Harbor has talk of a pending war, like the menacing sword of Democles, weighed so heavily upon our nation. It's a conflict that need not happen and that we should do everything to avoid.

The problem is that both the U. S. and Europeans have already pursued negotiations several times with little result, with a new round to take place soon. Just two months ago, the U. N. issued the findings of its International Atomic Energy Agency, with troves of evidence substantiating Iran's steady march towards a nuclear capacity far beyond its purported purpose of generating electricity and empowering medical reactors.

Several experts forecast Iran will have its bomb within the next three years, and that over the next several months, will have reached the irreversible point in its technological advances. In short, the window for a successful attack, knocking out Iran's capacity to produce a nuclear bomb, is rapidly closing. Even if such an attack were initiated, we would at best probably set back their program by maybe three years. It's simply not a viable option.

The consequences would be incalculable. Hamas and Hezbollah would attack Israel. It would unite much of the Muslim world, wreak havoc on our troops still in Afghanistan, and within hours, spike oil prices 50% higher, plunging the world into economic chaos.

Quite frankly, Iran holds all the aces in this dangerous political poker. We just may have to live with a nuclear Iran. We did so with the Soviet Union, then China and, presently, North Korea.

We have tried assassination of Iranian scientists, planted explosives inside facilities, conducted electronic sabotage, but to no avail. Thus far, sanctions have proven our best option and are clearly biting into the Iranian economy. Yet even here, we are countered by Russian and Chinese recalcitrance.

Meanwhile, there looms the possibility of Israel's launching a preemptive strike. We know Netanyahu and his cabinet have been engaged in secret discussion on a contingency plan. Ideally, they'd like the U. S. to initiate a strike, highly unlikely while Obama is president. As Romney put it, "Reelect Obama and Iran will have the bomb." Currently, Israel's relationship with the Obama administration is at an unprecedented low point.

If Israel were to attack, it would optimally be just before the November election, resulting in substantial pressure on the Obama administration to support its staunch ally, which understandably sees its very survival at stake. In a replay of August, 1914, when Germany was forced into supporting its treaty ally, Austro-Hungary, resulting in World War I, the U. S. could find itself drawn into a military imbroglio that would make Iraq and Afghanistan seem mere excursions by comparison

Again, the stakes are too high to play brinkmanship. Ratching up the rhetoric in a political year only increases the danger of igniting a spark kindling global catastrophe. The wisest approach should be one grounded in calm, reasoned diplomacy, with Iran treated as an equal at the conference table. Sanctions are one thing, but surely we can try some carrots, too.

And if Iran does get the bomb, don't assume it means lights out. We have lived with nuclear adversaries a very long time. We can do so yet again.

Monday, January 16, 2012

One thing is certain...

I apologize for not having blogged for about a week now. Frankly, I hadn't been feeling well, though I now seem to be on the mend. Funny how you get up one morning and your whole world can change. I think we often forget this, even with our best laid schemes to wrest security from the fates, much as did Oedipus in that splendid Sophocles rendition more than two millennia ago.

I heard somewhere, and never really forgot it, that every morning looms the possibility we tie our shoes for the last time. Life's fragility should teach us its sacredness, a fine wine to be dispersed carefully, for once gone, there is no more. When I used to be into religion, it was habitual for me to say, "Lord willing" before setting out on any new venture, not only in recognition that events don't always lie in human hands, but that somehow if we sanctify the moment with God's blessing, then like seasoning poured on the food, everything will be better. Now I know you can sign the cross daily, pray five times to Mecca, call on Zeus, or whatever your thing is, only to find life goes its own way, defiant, mindless of human desire.

My best counsel with living life successfully into old age is simply, Watch your step. One of my favorite poems, a nightstand staple in Victorian homes, is Fitzgerald's magnificent adaptation from the Persian of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. Now here you have a poem, whole snatches of which are worth committing to memory for their ability to measure life rightly. The poem, in turn, reminds me of my favorite biblical book, Ecclesiastes, with its similar take on life's cosmic rhythms. I doubt anyone can do better than Khayyam in depicting in four lines life's brevity in an ambiguous universe:

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies__
The flower that once has blown forever dies.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A view from the precipice: the American economy

In the last several weeks we've seen signs, small, yet significant because of their consistency, of an upturn in the American economy, with unemployment dropping to 8.6% after spiking to 9.9% in April, 2010. Nonetheless, we're still facing a bumpy ride and it may take another three years to right ourselves in even the best scenario. Just yesterday, Boeing announced it will close its plant in Wichita in 2013, resulting in the loss of 2160 jobs. Boeing faults upcoming defense cuts.

This is a case in point. On the one hand, there is a need to stimulate the economy; on the other, a need to cut spending. As I see it, the priority should be on getting people back to work and preserving the jobs that remain. Yet I see the President will announce today a $500 billion reduction in defense spending. The fallout in job losses is incalculable, and I'm puzzled as to how this squares with his near daily appearances in several states, giving pep talks on what he's done and wants to do to create jobs. The one hand gives, and the other hand takes away.

Here are some sobering facts you're not getting from the Washington power-brokers:

As of July, 2011, only 63% of men were working.

Unemployment stood at 7.6% when Obama took office. Three years later, it hovers just below 9%. If you're Black or Spanish, the numbers are staggering.

In the 1950s, manufacturing was 28% of our GEP. By 2010, it had dropped to 11.7%. In contrast, it stands at 25% in China. So much for free trade!

Forty percent of our jobs are low-paying, compared with 30% in the 1980s.

Median household income has fallen three years in a row.

Student loan indebtedness has soared to an average $25000 on graduation.

Consumer debt is rising again, as Americans turn to their credit cards to make ends meet.

The federal government now has ownership of more than 250,000 foreclosed homes.

Millions of Americans currently pay mortgages on homes no longer worth their purchase price.

The total debt of Fannie May, Freddie Mack, and Sallie Mae now stands at 6.4 trillion. It was 3.1 trillion in 2008.

Fifty million Americans lack health insurance. Meanwhile, companies are continuing to drop health care coverage for their employees or asking them to pay more.

Poverty is growing in the U. S., with one in five Americans now dirt poor, the highest figure since 1959 when the government began calculating poverty.

I haven't ventured into state indebtedness, a whole subject in itself. Most of the states are in hock for millions, if not billions, especially in funding pensions for their public employees. In virtually all the states, costs are being passed on to cities and counties. Meanwhile, infrastructure, education, safety, health and environment are being compromised with spending reductions. Some states are selling off assets like tollways to foreign investors.

While all this is going on, Sears is closing, yet again, a number of its stores, Barnes and Noble just announced a steep drop in profits, and Bank of America will eliminate 600 branch banks.

Add to this the danger of a Europe meltdown: Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy going into default. Our economies are interlocked in today's global village. Should it happen, it means an even deeper recession.

Meanwhile our politicians seem more interested in power than solutions. Worse, they have been lying to us. Maybe they need to join the unemployed.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The lost art of letter writing

I don't know about you, but I miss the old-fashioned letter, the seeming casualty of email in our time of computer dominance. I miss both the sending and receiving. My father was a faithful letter writer and if we kids didn't answer, we got hell.

Though I appreciate their virtually instant delivery devoid of stamps and mailboxes, there is just something too impersonal about emails, To me, they seem modern substitutes for the telegram. Abounding in brevity, they tend to forfeit depth and perhaps sincerity. The idea is to get things said hurriedly.

Letter writing has a long history, and some of the best letters exhibit art in their beauty and substance. I remember how struck I was with this when I first came upon the letters exchanged between Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Voltaire was one of the most prolific letter writers, writing thousands of them in several languages on virtually every subject. In America, Jefferson stands in the forefront, writing some 26,000 letters.

Letters can be illuminating. I think of those letter writers I'm familiar with: Keats, Dickinson. Woolf, and Joyce. We'd be at a substantial loss in understanding their motivation and the context of their art without those letters. Do today's great thinkers and artists still write letters? I wouldn't bet on it. The loss is incalculable. Emails, in any event, usually get deleted or, worse-case scenario, get lost in computer crashes.

Letter-writing gave us opportunity to be pianists with words and sentences, playing out their chords rhythmically and infinitely.

Letter writing brought us into deeper knowledge of ourselves as well as each other. In so many ways, writing has always been a means to self-discovery, the finding in reflection of who we are and what we really want to say.

In one of life's telling ironies, technology now threatens the email with even greater minimization of written discourse in the increasing popularity of texting to get the job done. Messaging may even be making in-roads on telephone calls. Again, the idea is brevity.

In my teaching years, I would always counsel that when you really care about someone, you write a letter. I hold to that counsel still.