Spirit of Compromise

Compromise between people of opposing views: in general I think this is a good thing.  Yes, if only our politicians could learn to compromise instead of bickering endlessly, life in America would be pleasant.  And yet when a friend used the phrase “spirit of compromise” during a dinner conversation tonight (topic: fiscal cliff), I immediately thought that “Spirit Of Compromise” sounded like the name of a boat… a boat I wouldn’t want to go on.  I imagined the schooner Spirit of Compromise sailing rather reluctantly and generally being a dud.  So, is there a conflict in my views on compromise?

It’s an interesting little thought experiment: take any quality you consider as a virtue and then ask yourself if you’d go for a sail on “Spirit of [that virtue].”  Looking over the Seven Heavenly Virtues, I find that some would make decent boat names while others forebode a harrowing trip.  Spirit of Kindness?  Sure.  But Spirit of Patience?  Not so much.

A search of coast guard records indicates 152 vessels with names beginning in “Spirit of…”  There is no Spirit of Temperance, but there is one Spirit of Bacchus; no Spirit of Humility, but one Spirit of Power; no Spirit of Chastity, but two Spirit of Loves, two Spirit of Freedoms and five Spirit of Ecstasys.

Other popular names are Spirit of ’76 (14 entries), Spirit of Adventure (6 entries), Spirit of Aloha (5 entries), Spirit of America (7 entries), Spirit of the Wind (3 entries), and even Spirit of Truth (2 entries).

There is no Spirit of Compromise.

Diversions, Places

Welcome Plaque

This Christmas, I thought it would be a good idea to sublimate some of my holiday cheer into a welcome plaque for my home–a greeting for the front door–and here is the result of that effort:


How did I arrive at this particular expression of hospitality?  Since I lack the Hallmark gene, I needed to find the text for my plaque in an external source.  I was inspired by a sign that I’ve noticed almost every day since I began living near the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina.  This sign appears at the shipyard’s security gate, and in that prominent spot, it is a recurring visual prelude to all of the many things one might do inside: take a walk on the pier, ogle the yachts and houseboats, visit the outdoor sculpture garden, sign up for scuba lessons, grab a bite to eat at the Aussie restaurant KO, or watch a cargo ship being repaired:


The sign is so familiar to me by now that, in a twisted way, it really does signal “home.”


So who wrote that scintillating text? A quick search leads to this section from the Code of Federal Regulations:


The code states that all facilities operating at MARSEC (Marine Security) Level 1 must decorate as follows:

Conspicuously post signs that describe security measures currently in effect and clearly state that:

(i) Entering the facility is deemed valid consent to screening or inspection; and    (ii) Failure to consent or submit to screening or inspection will result in denial or revocation of authorization to enter;

Notice that the code only specifies the points to be conveyed but does not mandate any specific wording.  Nevertheless, the makers of the sign at Boston Harbor Shipyard took this text verbatim from the CFR, not even changing the phrase “Entering the facility” to “Entering this facility.”  Their only customizations were to remove the (i) and (ii), replace the trailing semicolon with a period, and engage the caps lock key.

For my own plaque, I thought a friendlier font was in order so I chose the very gracious Janda Celebration Script by Kimberly Geswein.  Minimalists may prefer the version I offered above, but here is a second version–my personal favorite, as it is enhanced by 25 butterflies, 5 swans, and 19 floral ornaments:


And here it is on the wall:



Fresh Content

The phrase “fresh content” brings me fresh discontent.

It conjures an image of a gray world where there are no people, only zombies who lust after a paradoxical substance that is ever plentiful, yet always in shortage. Theirs is a joyless lust, where instead of tasting, feeling, and touching, they merely consume. They do not move from fullness to hunger, and by eating, back to fullness, but remain in a constant need that can be appeased but never satisfied. There is no day, when content can be seen, or night, with its obscuring dark — instead, an unending fluorescence that renders content ever visible, never in focus.

The new hunger is felt not in the stomach, and cannot be heard in a groan or a gurgle, but only in the clicking of buttons, the tapping of keys; the accelerated hum of a computer fan, the faster spinning of a disk as content is being loaded. Loaded from where? Don’t ask, just eat, for content isn’t crafted, it it is only produced — its source hidden behind the impersonal cloak of a “personal” brand. Anyone, at any time, may produce content, for we are all created equal, and anyone may distribute it, for we are all created equal, and anyone may consume it, for we are all created equal (but if I have more likes than you I am more equal), and everyone must do these things, for we are all equally starved in our excess, and dependent on each other to sustain this networked feeding frenzy. Our content hunger is experienced only in negatives, in not having enough. It is an inevitable and indefinite hunger, because “having enough” has been impossible since sometime in 1984.

Content to me sounds like a meal that might have been satisfying if it had been prepared in an entirely different way. Content is pink slime. It is imagined ambrosia with real helpings of high fructose corn syrup, and we’ll take it if we can have it now.

I see myself in the future of this world: I’ve been admitted to the hospital starving, I suffered a content shortage. They hooked me up to an intravenous content delivery network and sent a bill to my content provider. But they overcharged me, the content they served wasn’t fresh.

Everywhere, we expect fresh content — in truth, fresh content looks and feels no different from stale content, other than the timestamp it bears — yet we cannot bring ourselves to like the stale kind, to bless it with our smiley faces and thumbs up.  Without fresh content, attention fades, eyes tire — we lose whatever bit of wakefulness our drug supplied.  We are what we eat; we are only as fresh as the content we consume.

Freshness brings the illusion of connectedness, for the fact that something is fresh makes us feel close to all the other people who share our fetish for that freshness, who are seeking or consuming this newest installment of the new, as we are right now — even if their existence is known to us only through a counter. We don’t need to know more about them, as in this world we are all aroused by the same kind of stimulus, even if it masquerades as personally tailored.

They say content is king, but they don’t mean substance is king; rather, that the flow of something appearing like substance — that is king.

“Fresh content” brings to mind that moment of letdown one might experience after a period of creative work — writing, painting — during which there was no “content”, only words in motion, colors bleeding on canvas; for a musician, sound pulsing through space. At some point later there’s a manuscript, a piece of cloth with drying paint — was all that sweat really for that little bit of stuff?  The writer or painter knows that through this bit of material, another person might step into a magical world, and because of that transporting potential, we revere the physical artifact, meager as it seems — but when it is digitized and labeled as content, its future is predestined: fresh, to stale. The greatest height it might reach in this arc is to become for a brief moment popular content, liked content, shared content; if improbably fortunate, viral for a time.

When before in history have creative people aspired for their work to be viral? One thinks of Beethoven proud that his Ode to Joy had been pronounced tubercular, Proust delighted that his memories went malarial, Rembrandt tickled to know that his self-portraits had gone cancerous.

If content becomes stale after being viral, it still never decomposes, is never broken back into its elements; it may be archived, it may be indexed and re-indexed, it may be forever crawled and scraped.  It will be forgotten by all but spiders, yet it cannot die, for it is what we aspire to be: immortal.

Content may be marketed, managed, monetized, strategized, farmed, tagged, pipelined, curated, mashed up, and placed in front of traffic.  Imagining for a moment that I were content, I would live in fear, because all of these things sound terribly painful.

And I am afraid, because in this world the self is identified as the content it produces.  “I = C” is the equation of our age. I am content, and yes, my dream is to be trafficked. I’ll say no more, because even before I have distributed these words, even before you consume them, I can feel them going stale; God, refresh me.

Visual Design

Wrestling Words

This is the story of a graphic design challenge and my path to solving it. It’s a story about all the meandering little steps that one takes on the journey from a design concept to a finished product.  The challenge was to express the meaning of the word edit in a picture, using any medium at hand (photography, pencil sketch, vector art). This was my first sketch:

edit 0

As you can see, I chose to include the actual word edit in the illustration (although that wasn’t required), and my idea was to give the word a taste of its own medicine: to show edit being edited. Once I had crossed out the d, I noticed that my red editorial mark gave rise to a second word: exit. This is where my obsession began.

Could I take my sketch and turn it into a really dramatic composition, where the words edit and exit would appear to be struggling against each other, competing for prominence in an undecided typographic battle? I wanted it to be violent but beautiful, something like… I don’t know… The Uffizi Wrestlers?


Background: Pictorial Matter

I should tell you how I came upon this challenge. The story starts in late 2009, when a site called WordIt announced it would close.

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Improvisation: Reaching Out

Here’s an improvisation I recorded last week.  I call it Reaching Out.  I hope you enjoy listening.

Technically, I’m playing in D Dorian over a quartal accompaniment.  I’m playing the solo line on a steel string — my Borgeois Piccolo Parlor strung with La Bella Silk & Steel.  The accompaniment is a separate track that I played on my Stephan Connor classical.

Music never ceases to surprise me.  I tend to think of music as a language, and I bring some of the same expectations to my communication through music that I bring to my use of English.  When I speak in English I’m usually able to find words to express, or at least to approximate what I’m thinking or feeling.  When words don’t come to me on the spot it’s usually a matter of sitting down with a blank page and experimenting.  And when I get writer’s block, the problem is rarely in my facility with English — it’s somewhere else inside me.  Learning something new about English may help me communicate with more precision, but it rarely opens up a whole world of possibilities that had been unavailable before.  But musical communication is different for me; on the one hand, it feels much deeper than English or any verbal communication, but it is also laden with obstacles (and corresponding leaps) that I don’t experience when communicating in my verbal mother tongue.  And sometimes I do find entire worlds opening up as I gain bits and pieces of technical knowledge in music.  I might go on for years wanting to express a certain thing musically, and feeling ready to do so, as if there were a river of music in me waiting to flow out; it cannot flow because I don’t yet have the technical foundation to realize it.  And then, at some point I’ll learn something new — maybe a new chord progression, or a new approach to melodic embellishment — and with this little bit of technical knowledge I can now begin to release what had been pent up all that time.  Something like this happened with the recording I’m posting here.  The solo line that I’m playing, and whatever feeling it carries, was unlocked for me by the accompanying chord progression that I’m using here: a simple sequence of quartal chords.  I had gone on for years feeling ready to “make sounds” like what you hear here, but without having come upon this quartal progression, it wasn’t possible.  And then, with guidance from a wonderful teacher, I began exploring this region of the harmonic universe, and finally the technical elements were in place so that this particular music could flow.


Turns from Vaccai’s Più non si

The composer Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848) was a contemporary of some very famous –ini’s including Rossini, Bellini, and Paganini.  Vaccai’s sixteen operas are rarely performed today but his vocal exercises, published as Metodo pratico di canto italiano per camera, or Practical Method of Italian Singing, have been studied by generations of students from the nineteenth century to the present, including a certain newbie: your humble author.  I first learned of Vaccai and started working through his exercises when I began taking voice lessons last year, my most recent step in a long musical journey that began when I took up classical guitar in my early teens.

While all of Vaccai’s exercises have been challenging for me in one way or another, I didn’t find myself “stuck” until I got to Più non si trovano, a piece that showcases the turn or gruppetto. In this post, I’d like to take a close look at this ornament, first in the abstract, and then in the context of Più non siIf you’re a singer working on Più non si, you’ll find a detailed discussion of how to interpret the turns in the score, including a helpful comment from the Vaccai editor.


Background on Turns

The basic idea behind a turn is to surround a given note with its upper and lower neighbors.  The example below shows how a turn symbol can be placed directly above the note to ornamented:


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How To Drive In India

Perhaps I should have titled this note How to Go For a Ride in India rather than How to Drive in India because, if you’re a tourist like me, you probably won’t get behind the wheel yourself. The way of the road is one of those startling things about India that confirms, for a visitor from somewhere like the U.S., that you are in a very different place. Perhaps the most startling thing about driving in India is that people survive it. In fact, survival is the predominant outcome. And yet, all sorts of things happen on the road which, if the same thing were to happen on an American highway, would cause immediate catastrophe. And so, I find driving in India fascinating as an example of how a completely different way of doing things is possible — a way that defies “common sense” and plays to our deepest fears, a way that works as long as one key ingredient is present: cooperation.

To illustrate this, I’d like to describe one of the most dramatic and frequent maneuvers my driver Syed made on a recent road trip we took through the state of Karnataka. I’d like to speak about passing in India, which is nothing like we do it in the U.S.

Let’s say you are on a two lane road with traffic going in opposite directions and you want to pass a truck in front of you. From your perspective, you and the truck are on the left (remember, Indians drive on the left like the Brits), and there’s traffic whizzing toward you on the right. I won’t even go into a description of how “traffic” in India may mean all sort of things from livestock (sheep, cows, goats, oxen-drawn carts), pedestrians, two-wheelers (mopeds) carrying families of six with groceries, rickshaws (autos), cars, buses, and giant trucks stacked with timber, grains, and pretty much anything you can imagine. If this were the U.S., tough luck, there would be no way to pass that truck. But since it’s India, what you do first is you start honking, not to express annoyance or frustration, but just to signal to the other drivers that they might want to know what you’re up to. There’s so much “communicative” honking going on (trucks even have signs pleading with you to honk when you’re near them: SOUND HORN) that one wonders how drivers distinguish any particular honk from any other, but that is another topic.

Now that you’ve initiated the passing process by adding your own honk into the ongoing chorus, you veer into the wrong lane. If you were an American driver risking an illegal maneuver like this, you’d probably do it with some caution, checking that there are no cars approaching before you proceed, and paying some heed to your passengers who might be asking whether you’re crazy.  But in India, what you do if you see a car zooming toward you after you’ve veered into opposing lane — that is, after you find yourself in a perfect set up for a head-on collision — is you accelerate. The logic here is that by accelerating, in what seems very much like a game of chicken, you make it possible to complete the maneuver before the approaching car hits you. Accelerating also demonstrates your seriousness about the move; it’s a way of saying to the other drivers, “Yes, I am doing this.”

Having stepped on the gas, you will soon find yourself at passing’s Point of No Return. You’ve gained ground on the truck you were trying to pass and you are now driving directly alongside that truck, in the wrong lane where an approaching car is about to hit you. The first few times this happened in my recent trip, I closed my eyes and thought “We are going to die.” And in fact, if the other cars involved in such an impending accident did nothing to adjust, we would have died. At the Point of No Return, it’s too late to swerve back into the proper lane since you’d hit the truck that’s now next to you; but stay in the wrong lane and you’ll smash into the approaching car. It really is like one of those moments in action movies where the protagonist’s demise seems 100% guaranteed.

But because this is India, everyone else on the road is familiar with the maneuver you’re trying to execute, as they are practitioners of the same art — in fact, if they dare go on the roads, they’d better be masters of it, as it seems most drivers are. Furthermore, they know they have to help you complete the maneuver, or else they will share in your unpleasant fate. So what happens is, right at the last moment — right when the scaredy-pants in the back seat concludes there’s no way out — all three drivers will quickly and smoothly collaborate. The truck will slow down a bit, creating a little room for you to swerve back into the proper lane, just a hair in front it; and the approaching car will slow down or (if absolutely necessary) move to your right, just enough to avoid hitting you. All of this depends, of course, on your recognizing precisely when the moment is right and veering suddenly back to safety — doing it a second too early or a second too late would make for an entirely different story.  Throughout this process, the drivers are totally calm, even peaceful — there’s no swearing, no flinching, and no one at any point thinks an accident is going to happen, except maybe a squeamish foreign passenger.

So you’ve done it, you’ve passed a truck by getting into the wrong lane and brazenly accelerating into opposing traffic — what happens next? Of course, you find yourself in front of another truck, so you start the whole thing over again. This kind of maneuver is not the exception but the norm, and can happen dozens of times in a few hours of driving. I’ve heard an Indian driver’s situation described as “a state of constant passing.”

It strikes me that in the U.S., traffic laws are set up so that if everyone follows the law, things will generally work out. Many accidents come about when someone doesn’t follow the law, and there’s an assumption that if too many people ignored the law, the whole system would collapse. From this perspective, there’s a tendency to view driving in India as pure chaos. And yet if we call it chaos, we visitors should notice that it’s chaos that actually works — most people get where they need to go. It’s highly structured chaos that’s built on the quick responses, supreme alertness, and near-automatic cooperation of drivers who have no choice but to be experts at what they’re doing.  There’s a kind of collective consciousness that drivers share, where instead of focusing their awareness on traffic lights and road signs, they focus on each other, and they help each other out.

In my recent trip, after closing my eyes during a dozen or so Points Of No Return only to open them and find our car safely restored to the proper lane, I developed some optimism and started expecting to survive the next pass. Still, I astonished my driver with what seemed to me like a simple request. Would he help me pull the seat belt out from underneath the back seat so I could wear it?

“You don’t need it,” he assured me.