The Dude Abides: The Gospel According To The Coen Brothers

“Be the Dude”

Now there’s some internet-friendly, tweet-ready advice for ya.  Welcome to a line of laid-back thought claiming many disciples, inspiring Dude-A-Thons and Lebowski Fests around the country, and producing buckets of ephemera to guide you in cultivating your inner Dude.  Say what you will about the tenets of Dudeism, at least it’s an ethos.

While not a devotee myself — a true life of the Dude would be mind-numbingly boring — I’d recommend keeping some Dude on speed-dial to help balance out the constipating effects of modern life.  An hour or two with a Jeff Lebowski can do wonders for your constitution, all while keeping the mind limber.

Cathleen Falsani picks up on this new doctrine and tries to trace its roots back through the entire Coen canon, looking for a spiritual core to an oeuvre often dismissed as adolescently amoral.  She’s an interesting writer, working both sides of a big cultural divide, with stuff picked up by the conservative evangelical press and lefty outlets alike.  As she’s a ’92 Wheaton grad, I can’t help but think that I know something of her world, Wheaton College being one of the other “good” schools where my high school funneled their little achievers.

And as such, I’m pretty sure that this is not the book she meant to write.  Heavy on plot synopsis, too tidy in its lessons-learned conclusions, I get a feeling that the author started off the day with a thousand thoughts, only to have her editors whittle and polish it down to something with careful commercial appeal.  Something palatable to the sort of church-going reader who won’t reference an R-rated film without a disclaimer.  Someone who hasn’t seen enough of the films to frame their reference in the first place.

Any serious student of the Coen brothers will find this book a little lite, but she does have her insights.  Falsani lives in a tough spot as an author, and I feel for her.  Half of her potential audience would find the idea of receiving spiritual truth through a film to be nigh-blasphemous.  The other half can’t fathom that there’s an issue.  One man’s provocative is another’s pedestrian, and it takes a deft touch to address them all without coming off as either a punk or a prude.

But she’s right, you know.  There is plenty to learn from the Coen brother’s films and their mottled heroes — Jeff, Ulysses, Hi, Llewelyn, Ted, etc. —  all decent men tossed in over their heads, making mistakes, suffering consequences, but generally doing the best they can with what they’ve got.  Slow-growth karma, or as I like to see it, baby steps toward salvation.  Perhaps grace and redemption aren’t far behind.

Who knows, they’ve never shot a sequel.

Kick Butt!

kick butt grant wentzel

Why do I read the books I read?  Got my reasons.  Three of ’em:

There’s the stuff I read because I should (another turn through The Great Gatsby before that new film comes out), the stuff I pick up to keep up (Freak-o-nomics, Gladwell, et al.), and the stuff that makes its way to the back of the john due to some sort of personal connection.

I’ll never champion one category over another.  Gems can be found glittering in all, and it’s a mystic thing how the right book can find the right reader at the right time.  Oft heaven sent, me thinks.

Kick Butt touched down in category three.  I had the good luck to spend a little time with the author while my special lady was “on the market”, that bizarre combination of auction block and poker tournament that awaits as a final right of passage for grad students done good.  More than a few people I ran into mentioned that he’d recently published a novel, and a pretty good one at that.

I’d have to agree.  And I don’t even understand football.  At all.

Kick Butt, which follows a helluva season with the fictional Morgan University Knights, is sheared from Tom Wolfe’s starched-white cloth.  Think a less ambitious Man In Full with a little splash of Charlotte Simmons, tossed into the deep end of southern-style collegiate sports.

Yes, it’s kind of a big deal down there, where the culture-clash still simmers between antebellum royalty and carpet-bagging Yankees, between black and white, rich and poor.  ‘Tis football that blessedly binds them all.

And’s got me too?  There’s a great quote before Chapter 15 that points to the fact that the sports metaphor is now not only the indispensable crutch of daily conversation, it has metastasized into the central conceit of our American existence.  It is our shared cultural touchstone: what Homer was to the Ancients, the Church to the Middle Ages.  Sports are the shorthand for our noble quests, our battles between good and evil, between the self and a sacrifice to a higher call.  Go team!

Perhaps that’s why I found the whole thing so relatable, despite the opaque scoring mechanisms and inscrutable tactics employed on the field.   Did I mention I don’t have a scrap of smarts about football?

I only wish that it ran another hundred pages long.  There are plenty of  interesting second-string characters begging to get back on the field, and a lot of loose ends which I’d enjoy seeing tied up, or maybe just strung out a little more.

Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works?  A Kick Butter?

This Is Your Brain On Music

brain on music grant wentzel

My favorite drug got the full-length treatment in Daniel Levitin’s science-lite best seller. I’d heard the guy interviewed a long time back, methinks on a podcast of Sound Opinions, but it was a pine-scented Christmas morning surprise to find his book in my hands.

A prog-rocker turned record-producer turned academic-researcher, Dr. Levitin isn’t one of small ambitions.  Not surprisingly his book takes on quite a bit too, with three topics spinning in heavy rotation:  music theory, scientific memoir, and ruminations on music and evolution.

The first cut would fascinate anyone who loves them tunes. For that alone, I’d short-list this book for everybody who picks up a mic, straps on a guitar, or sits behind a mixer. He spends a lot time at the intersection of music theory and perception, harmonizing what you remember from high school band with what you’ve absorbed from years of radio-listening experience.  If you ever wondered why a “G” on a telecaster sounds different from a “G” on a strat, this book’s for you.

The needle skips a bit on the biographical stuff, but if you worked with Watson & Crick you’d probably want to talk about it too.

Finally, he attempts to explain why music evolved as it has, and why it is so universal and so universally loved.  In doing so, he offers a rational, scientific explanation for oddities such as the lovely Liv Tyler:

Dr. Levitin asserts that the ability to master the complex mental and physical feats of coordination necessary to perform music may indicate a high level of reproductive fitness to a potential mate. And, as he puts it, “for the top rock stars, such as Mick Jagger, physical appearance doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.”

So there’s a little handy motivation for the next time your kid complains about practicing — making this an enjoyable and ultimately useful book.

Second Helping of Dinosaur

eating the dinosaur grant wentzel

Just finished reading Chuck Klosterman’s Eating The Dinosaur.  Twice.

It’s not that the prose was so poetic that I had to roll it around my tongue a little longer.  It’s not that the thoughts were so pithy that I had to cud-chew it another time to get it down.  There was no necessary reason to start back on page one after running my nose through the index.  (A good index, perhaps the only index ever where the film Dazed and Confused is followed by an entry for the indomitable dc Talk.)  No real reason at all, expect that it sat there, bashful and forlorn, on the back of the toilet.  And I was feeling lonely for old friends.

Klosterman and I go way back, having spent lots of quality time in both Akron and the Dakotas discussing the same records, reading the same magazines, and catching the same bands.  This relationship would be much more interesting if we’d ever met.  As far as I know, our circles never crossed, though there’s probably very few Kevin Bacon Degrees between us.

Despite these gaps of a few years and a few miles, I’m sure he would have fit right in, dueling with lubricated wits against my coterie of friendly savants.  These were mighty men of great wisdom.  Titans who once ruled over the whims of popular opinion, before the current age, before the Strokes heard Television and unleashed the Tyranny of the Hipster upon us all.

I miss those all-nighters in 24-hour diners analyzing the misheard mutterings of rockstars.  Eating The Dinosaur could have been plucked from any of those conversations:  Spinning theories going nowhere, but making the journey a more interesting place to be.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Never Heard of You Either.

we yevgeny zamyatin grant wentzel

The cover of this cheese-ball, spooky-font, mass-market paperback shouted it loud: “The most influential science fiction novel of the 20th century!”

I call bullshit.

If you were so good, I woulda heard of you.  I’ve read my Wells, my Asimov, hunkered down with Herbert, done some galactic hitch-hiking, and even went through a phase of hiding away from lovely summer days with Spock and Kirk’s paperbacked adventures. They continued to go where no man has gone before.  It seemed safer to stay inside.

But now that WE‘s been read,  I was wrong.

Zamyatin rails against the inevitable abuses of the future utopian “One State” decades before Orwell and Huxley got a crack at it.  And he does so in Russian.  How’s that for cred?  (Ain’t no regime as cold as the Soviet regime.)  If your inner Tea Partier has run out of Rand, read this book before taking that third trip through Fountain Shrugged.  Like  Ayn, Zamyatin spends most of his time championing the individual.  Unlike Ayn, he manages to create two-dimensional characters in the process.  (I suppose that going for 3-D might have muddied the rhetorical waters too much.)  After a few snippy remarks at the homogenizing evils of Christianity, he even ties in a thread of the Moulin-Rouge Bohemian in his revolutionary solution:  Freedom, Beauty, Truth, Love!

And that’s where I hoped it would end.  Darn Russo-Pessimism had to get in the way.   But no spoilers here.  Go forth, mighty self-sufficient one, and read it for yourself.

Infinite Jest: It Is Finished, Part 2

But what to do with it all?  I once saw an interview with the author whence he noted the improbability that those who reviewed his book had read it.  “Do the math,” he said, “there’s too many pages to read it all in that amount of time.”  So true.  It 0nly took me a decade of false starts and a few months of dedication.  Nothing that would happen by an end-of-the-day-Friday sort of deadline.

With other books, I’ve made it a point to look Google-up the words and references I don’t know as I go, tightening my mind’s grasp on our language, to more firmly bear-hug and french-kiss this great English tongue of ours, in American.  Well, that wasn’t really in the cards for this one.  If there was ever a time to let oblique references and literary obfuscation wash over me like a dip under the Niagara, it was now.

So yeah, it’s big.  And full of good stuff.  Diamonds a-plenty.  In plenty of rough.  The shear quantity of rough parts I found troubling, though I suppose his editor did not.

On the up side, I really enjoyed the whole Salinger/Glass family thing.  I happily latched on to Hal as an updated Holden Caulfield beset by East Coast prep-school privilege and brimming with potential, yet unsure of how to proceed with no real dreams and/or direction to point his way save the expectations of his uniquely gifted family.  But I had nothing but head-scratching for the whole Quebecois Separatist subplot,  though it was funny and the accent was outrageous.  That being said, after a thousand pages, I was getting pretty curious as to how the whole ridiculous attack of the wheelchair-bound assassins was going to play out, to see what sort of mini-eschaton was about unfold on the courts of the Academy.  To see how DFW was going to tie it all together.  But then?  Well…  nothing.

Argh.

I’m not big on plot.  My knee-jerk reaction to the best-novel-ever question is On The Road.  But there were some pot-boiler, page-turner twists in there that ought to be going unambiguously Somewhere.  Sure, you can cut up the book and re-string some scenes together in a more chronologically consistent order.  You can make some educated guesses as to what lies behind the many veils of ambiguity.  You can fill in the narrative gaps about the short-term fate of our wonderboy, Inc.  But why-oh-why-oh-why does Mr. Wallace feel justified in cranking out dozen-page-long drug-mumbled rambles plucked right from the brains of addle-minded minor characters without giving us just a little proper satisfaction as to how the thing turns out?  Yeah?  Not saying I need to be spoon-fed Readi-Whip and Cheez-Whiz to be kept happy, but a wee bit of payoff would have been polite.  Is it too much to ask?  Dan Brown wouldn’t do this to me.

Despite this (point-missing, I know) grumble, INFJ is certainly a thing of beauty with much to ponder.  Ponderous Exhibit #1 being addiction.  Nary a character escaped the grip of some compulsion or another, chemical or otherwise.  But mostly chemical.

Addiction, in INFJ, is the unspoken tie that binds every last man, woman and child in the near North American future.  Your fix could be as simple as TV, or over-training for tennis, or as terrifying as multi-day blackouts at the mercy of an alphabet soup of grade-A pharmaceuticals.  At the root, it’s not so different.

DFW delves deep into 12-step insight, including the concept of learning to separate Identifying and Comparing.  The idea is that when listening to a fellow addict’s tale of woe, regardless of how horrible it may be — and DFW has a flair for the surreal and gratuitous grotesque, disturbingly — the important thing to remember is the common shared humanity between you and the speaker, to look at this fellow suffering human being as being like you, with the same feelings and fears, the same shames and weaknesses, and the same longings for escape.  Don’t compare, don’t judge, don’t rank, just understand how they felt, how you’ve felt, how much we’ve all got in common.

Despite the hyperbole, there’s a lot of  stop-and-look-in-the-mirror stuff in there.  In other words, there’s plenty for any honest person to Identify with, as long as you can remember not to Compare.

So, now that I’ve read it?  I’d like to read it all over again.  I missed too much linguistic trickery the first time, and the words were too luxurious,  too sweetly decadent, not to be enjoyed a second time.  Eventually.

For instance, most of the story takes place in the fictitious just-outside-of-Boston town of Enfield, Massachusetts.  However, there really was an Enfield, Massachusettes.  It’s now at the bottom of a lake, washed-over and drowned-out in the name of progress, just like the book’s experialist territories formerly of USA.  There’s a lot more where that came from.  A lot more.

I must admit that I had pinned my hopes on a more transcendent experience through this journey of a thousand pages, to catch a view of some new Xanadu now that I’ve climbed to the top of this mighty pulp mountain.  INFJ is too realistic for that.  Like the character of Don Gately, on occasion we find moments of enlightenment, but most days we must struggle to do the redemptive work before us.  As the adage says: “One day at a time.”

Infinte Jest: It Is Finished, Part 1

This book has been on my shelf for about 10 years.  Since the late nineties, it’s been skulking there in the corner.  Bright-oranged and baby-blued, unmissable in girth and shelf-sagging heft.  (Can’t find it?  Look for the low spot on Shelf “W”.)  This year marked my third attempt at getting through, though I must confess that my motives had not been pure.

My first swing at INFJ was driven by thoughts of Ought.  As a recent graduate in the fantastic field of English Literature, I knew that it was my duty to continue my education.  (Call me old-fashioned, but I still buy into the idea that the goal of a Liberal Arts Education is to learn how to educate one’s self, ’til death or senility do we part.)  I had heard tale of this this new scribbler, this inscrutable hotshot Dave Wallace, and felt I ought to size him up as only I, college graduate, could.  So I read The Girl With Curious Hair and started in on INFJ.  Didn’t get far.  At all.  I had cash-in-hand waitering jobs to attend to.  (English Major career opportunities and all that.)

A few years later, the urge hit me again.  This time, I needed to get a few new intellectual bragging rights to wave around.  Rock ‘n Roll was good kicks, but my new venue for social performance was lousy with grad students.  I figured that tackling the Gen X version of Ulysses would do the trick the next time someone asked, “Read anything good lately?”  Unfortunately, the answer “I’ve read INFJ” is just as satisfying at a cocktail party as “I’m reading INFJ.”  And since nobody else had finished it either, there weren’t many questions relating to the captivating climax and the delicious denouement.  There was no need to complete the quest, as long as it loitered on the back of the john with a bookmark stuck firmly in place.

But this year he came up a lot.  New people that I’d met in new circles found him worth reading, indeed, worth finishing.  He seemed to have something to say.  So I licked a finger and held it to the wind, catching more and more interviews, essays, addresses, and other bandanna-brained dives into the icky depths of modern  life.  In death, his once-shelved specter loomed large.  I started to love the guy, the man, DFW.

Motivational rudder righted, compass reset, and course corrected, I set sail once again.

Spin Sez: Columbus Rock City

I know it’s been way too long since I’ve hit the right balance of inspired and untired to do a little writing, but the last issue of Spin has convinced me it’s nigh time to pop the cork on another bottle of blog.

So it’s back to my roots; back to the guys that most recently lit my muse.  Columbus, OH may not be an Athens or an Austin or a Seattle, but this college town has got more than its share of real deal rock ‘n roll, as evidenced by the August ’09 issue of Spin which declared that it’s pages contained “100 of the Greatest Bands You’ve (Probably) Never Heard.”

The headline was right on the money.  Yes, 96% of these guys I’ve never heard.  But the other 4% were some of the greatest.

I know because 4 of the top 100  hailed from what  was once known as Cowtown, the now magnificent megalopolis of Columbus.  That’s 4% of Spin’s Top 100 Worldwide.  That’s saying something for a snatch of real estate which sure as hail ain’t New York or LA or Chicago or even Hotlanta.

Granted, all of these guys peaked before I earned the right to plug in my Fender Twin, but it’s this scene that gave me the dream to keep it going on and on and on.  (Not Stopping Believing, as it were.)

So, for the record, they are:

Gaunt

Great Plains

Royal Crescent Mob

Scrawl

I’m a little bummed that I can’t find a decent picture online of any of these guys rocking out in obviously Central Ohio sort of way.  Sure, there’s a million pictures of bands bashing away at Bernie’s, but they all post-date the digital revolution (iPhones n’at.)  I’m sure that somebody out there has got a stash and a scanner.  Get to work!  Because of this, I’m using the above picture of some guy wearing a Gaunt t-shirt.  It’s the best that I can do.

Just to round out the Buckeye Beat, I must also mention that the hard workin’ Michael Stanley Band made Spin’s list of “Essential Heartland Rock” at slot number six with his EMI-released and spot-on titled, “Heartland”.  Trust me, he was a big deal if you grew up on bunny-ear-only Cleveland TV.  Kind of a local King Of All Media.  The kind of guy who only had to play one show at year, at the biggest shed in town, and it always sold out.

Still not convinced?  To let the proving begin, here he is with a song I know you know, the glorious romp “He Can’t Love You.”  Enjoy:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44bamW7ZbMo

Math & The Mother Of All Cigarette Bans

Recently, The Economist ran this article about a new law to rid the land of Nebuchadnezzar from the the dangers of secondhand puffing by introducing legislation to nix lighting up within the four walls of all public institutions.

How’d it work for them?  Here’s a sampling of the hyperbolic reaction greeting the new measure:

“My cousin was recently murdered by terrorists, my neighbour was tortured by the police, my electricity is cut for most of the day, the same is true in most hospitals in the city. And they are worried about smoking?”

“Bring back Saddam. We were free to smoke anywhere then.”

“Prisons are public buildings, right? So will they now prevent guards from stubbing out cigarettes on the arms, legs and backs of inmates?”

Wowzers.  That all being said, the key fact behind the bill is that smoking is responsible for 55 Babylonian deaths a day, as opposed to 10 for insurgent-related shootings and bombings.   A 10-death-daily toll is still way too high for my little green-lawned and shrubberied suburban mind to comprehend, but it’s still a lot safer to face the jihad than to make a habit of sparking up a Camel.   Of course, that just doesn’t feel right, now does it?

This gap between feeling and thinking illustrates a greater principle:  People are pretty bad at setting priorities.

Ever since reading the book Innumeracy, I’ve been fascinated by the odds underlying life as we know it.  In his book, author John Allen Paulos makes the case that the average person can’t apply basic math to everyday decisions.  This results in much idiocy and hullabaloo.

Freakonomics mined much of the same turf when it famously pointed out that swimming pools are much more lethal than pistols, yet we joyfully take the kids swimming and fear them finding a gun.  And we can listen to Dave Ramsey run the figures all day and then go out and still slowly swipe ourselves into debt and depression.

I’m as guilty as anybody when it comes to ignoring the numbers.  Not in my head, mind you, but somewhere in that emotional part of the back of the brain where opinions are formed and next steps are felt-through rather than thought-out.  But I’m not alone.  There’s a growing field of study known as Behavioral Economics that’s been endeavoring to figure it all out.  A guy named Barack Obama channeled it to great success last year with a little campaign called “Hope & Change”, so it might be on to something.

Another resource I’d highly recommend is the BBC documentary The Century Of The Self which describes the revolution on Madison Avenue a few generations back, when Freud’s Id was tapped to sell us what we want instead of what we need.

Spock we are not.  That’s not a bad thing, but a little self-awareness might do us some good while we attempt to “live long and prosper.”

Sufjan Stevens: So Wrong But So Right

Great interview in the month’s TapeOp with Sufjan Stevens, a man mostly unknown but loved and adored by my former clique in the big ol’ OH-IO.  The article is called “So Wrong, But So Right” and that really sums up everything that is true about this guy and the way in which he goes about making his music.

I listened to Illinoise again yesterday at the gym. (The gym being this place where I like to strap on the headphones and find a world of my own, the anonymity of the group-sweat,  being together alone, all human, inescapably human.  The man beside me in the locker room, falling apart, his 60-some years of burgers and fries falling over his too-tight whites, heavy-breathing and panting while shrugging black socks up his shower-damp feet.  A quick-shave later and he’s risen from the bench, fully robed in pin-point starched oxford and charcoal-wool slacks.  Matched cordovan belt to Johnston & Murphy’s.  Watch, ring, wallet, keys.  A captain of local industry ready to take on the rest of his day, transformed, indestructibly armoured by the Macy’s Men’s Department.)

At the gym yesterday, I listened again to Illinoise.  (The gym being the place where I like to really give things a listen, being a captive in search of an audience to slip into, being able to listen in perfect ear-budded stereo to new and old and try new things knowing that just because my body’s strapped to the machine doesn’t mean that my mind can’t be stretching its wings.)

And so, at the gym yesterday, while listening to Illinoise, and reflecting on the recording as a recording after reading TapeOp’s interview with Sufjan, the following point was made more clear than ever:  It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.  It’s not the tools, it’s the hands that weild them.  Within 10 feet I’ve got enough gear to write the next folk anthem and record a MySpace-ready demo capable of blowing up the indie charts.  Within 10 feet I’ve got enough typing-up and editing-down tools to write the greatest and latest novel to burn a hole in your soul.  Within 10 feet I’ve got a broadband connection and quiet room and a space for my head to burst, to bloom.

All of this can be summed up in one quote from Dallas Willard:  Never try to find a place to speak, try to have something to say. Alrighty then, here goes.