Even before the heat, July was making me slow down, let the yard work go, cancel other obligations. I’ve been drifting towards books, ideas and music, into rabbit holes in general that I might not have gone down if I wasn’t already sitting still or stretching out.
For example, while my mind was wandering in the late afternoon one day this week, I was drawn into a conversation that Margot Jefferson was having on the radio, her voice clear and alive like a bell that was pulling me into it. It seemed that she’d written a new memoir about her career as a music critic and was talking about how she might reconcile, say, Ella Fitzgerald’s remarkable voice, her enormous bulk and sweaty performances with the similarly discordant features in her own “delivery” as a woman and a writer. I probably wouldn’t have been drawn into this conversationif I hadn’t been quiet enough to hear the ring of its bell and available enough to follow it. That’s what the relaxing curiosity of July sometimes allows.
Here’s a paywall–free book review of Constructing a Nervous System in the New York Times. (As always, let me know if you have a problem accessing so I can hook you up.)
Two More July Books
When it comes to reading, there have been other digressions from the usual fare this month and I’d like to mention two more books that are worth checking out when you get the chance.
The Free Library of Philadelphia lets readers go on line, order a book, and visit their local branch to pick it up when it's available—so this institution joins "visiting local book stores" as a convenient way to explore books that peak one's interest. After a newsletter that I subscribe to mentioned Several Short Sentences About Writingby Verlyn Klinkenborg for the third time, I decided to call it out from the stacks—and couldn’t be happier that I did. I think I found the author’s name initially off-putting (possibly too much 7th-grade-English-teacher-hair-spray) and also didn’t know how a book of small sentences would actually "read," but I can tell you in a word: “Delightfully.” Klinkenborg is a member of the Times’ editorial board so he spends most of his professional life with good and bad sentences. And by way of good advice, here are two early ones of his:
“At first, it will help to make short sentences,
Short enough to feel the variations in length.
Leave space between them for the things that words
can’t really say.”
If you’re interested in learning how to communicate more clearly and effectively, as well as being able to pause easily and pick up again with any short sentence in this brief but delicious book, you can’t go wrong with Mr. Klinkenborg.
Just as revelatory this month has been a book of poetry.
I’d already heard a moving interview with the Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong about the death of his mother, who had left with other Vietnamese refuges after the War, had worked in a nail salon throughout her son’s life, and had recently passed away. I was particularly interested in the odd juxtapositions of American slang in his poetry and in one poem where he talked about celebrating his mother’s modestly heroic life called “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker”—so I got at the end of a very long line of Library users when I ordered his most recent poetry collection called Time is a Mother.
Because we “are” (in a way) what we buy, “Amazon History” was an intricate tribute to a woman who was on her knees facing other people’s feet for long hours every day (what does she shop for? what does she want for herself when her workday is done?), but Vuong’s preoccupations extend beyond this pivotal relationship. For example, at the beginning of “Old Glory” he conjures with our casual use of violent words the terrible spirit that we’ve also been witnessing recently in Buffalo and Uvaldi:
“Knock ‘em dead, big guy. Go in there
guns blazing buddy. You crushed
at the show. No, it was a blow-out. No
a massacre. Total over-kill. We tore
them a new one. My son’s a beast. A lady
killer. Straight shooter, he knocked
her up. A bombshell blond. You’ll blow
Is July a month to read poetry, something you wouldn’t normally be spending much (if any) time with? All I can say is that the slow flows of its days make this the perfect time to grapple with the in-your-face words of a much acclaimed poet like this one.
Technology and Culture
New technologies are coming at us so fast and furiously that sometimes it takes a month like July to step back and ponder what all this machinery and artificial intelligence is telling us about ourselves.
Some months ago, I'd been captivated by a short video that had migrated from TikTok onto my Instagram feed. It was "a mechanical performance piece" by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu that had been recorded at the Venice Biennial in 2019. The video had already gone viral on TikTok, where comments like ‘It looks so tired and unmotivated,’’ and ‘’Why can’t we just let it rest?’’ were plentiful and liked by thousands of viewers--as if they were relating to and sympathizing with the fate of this machine.
This is how one observer described its animated movements in Diggit, an on-line magazine:
“The artwork …can be described as a robotic arm that has one specific, life-long duty: to prevent the deep-red, bloodlike liquid, which constantly oozes outwards, from straying too far. By dragging its sweeper across the floor in calculated, almost dance-like movements, the robot brings the liquid back into place over and over again, without it ever seeming to stop. In an effort to clean up the constant mess, the robot only makes matters worse by leaving smudges of the liquid on the floor, the walls, and itself…[leading] the robot [to] slow down enormously and eventually be unplugged ... In the end, the robot [just] couldn’t help itself [by acting this way].”
Diggit’s commentator previews the analysis of the Yuan/Yu piece that she's about to provide this way:
“the emphasis will be on how the artwork allowed the artists to offer a critical reflection on modern-day issues, such as migration, surveillance, authoritarianism, and even on technology itself. Moreover, the artwork’s virality on TikTok will be taken into account to describe the similarities between the robot’s sad, meaningless life and life in a digital, capitalist-driven society. David Graeber’s notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ will be discussed to reflect on the alienation that comes with doing pointless labor, and how this relates to the robot as well. Lastly, Camus’ reading of the myth of Sisyphus will be considered.”
I returned to this video (and discovered the article about it) because once I'd seen it, I couldn’t get its almost hysterical work ethic out of my mind. Because art’s impact really can change the way that we see things, you might take a look at this performance piece too.
What did I see in it this time around? The bloody futility of keeping "what we have" given the crazy path that we stubbornly persitst in being on.
A University of Oxford-based research consortium has developed a robot with the ability to create faithful copies of large historical objects like the Elgin Marbles that were taken from the Acropolis in Athens during a British military expedition in the early 1800’s.
If you’re unfamiliar with the historical accounts, Lord Elgin not only stripped off many of the elaborate marble sculptures which had adorned the Parthenon and other ancient structures in Athens for more than 2200 years, he then carted them back to the British Museum as “loot,” which is where these priceless artifacts remain and still bear his name (to the decades-long lament of Mellina Mercouri and countless other Greek patriots).
In a 30-day period that also saw the Belgian king’s return of Patrice Lumumba’s gold tooth to the former Belgian Congo (all that remained of this indigenous leader after his state-sanctioned assassination), July also tantalized us (if that’s the right word) with the possible return of these famous Marbles to Greece, something that would have been unthinkable to many in Britain without the intervention of new technologies.
On a personal note, when I first visited the British Museum some years back, it was these Marbles as well as the Rosetta Stone that I was most looking forward to seeing. For whatever reason, neither was nearly as impactful as the Museum's soaring glassed-in entry hall that led directly into the smaller gallery housing these ancient touchstones.
Maybe it was the discoloration of those Marbles and their “out of context” presentation that conspire to make today’s “technology to the rescue” so potentially win-win. Greece could get its Marbles back and the British Museum could be left with exact replicas, carved in pristine white by pre-programmed mechanical arms that might even be able to “help fill in the blanks” in these marbled stories and “fit them” into a presentation that is far more illuminating than what we can see at the Museum today.
At a time when we’re hearing a great deal about the technology of war, with kamakaze drones and HIMARs (or high mobility artillery rocket systems) in Ukraine, this story is on the happier side of mechanical innovation today.
The Heart of Summer Listening
As a high-school kid, one of my first concerts was seeing the original Temptations in a ridiculously intimate venue, but I didn't realize until I got there that I was a little late to the “originals game" because their falsetto and co-founder, Eddie Kendricks (think “My Girl”), had already left the group, and he was, well, irreplaceable. Motown had been “a first wave of fandom” for me, fueled by WAVZ (now a sports radio station but then playing “just about everything” that wasn’t classical or jazz) in New Haven, which was the listening market into which my little shore town fell.
So it didn’t take long for WAVZ to start playing the next wave of so-called “soul music,” and this time it didn’t hale from Detroit but from Philadelphia (long before I landed here). The leading edge of this wave was an impossibly smooth and melodic three-man group called the Delfonics. I was reminded about just how much their songs meant to me back then by the passing, this week, of their falsetto, William “Poogie” Hart, and the songs of his that suddenly seemed to be everywhere I was listening.
You might remember the Grammy-winning “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” or “La-La (Means I Love You)—ahh, those parentheticals!—a sound that the Washington Post said this week “was defined by the rich orchestral arrangements and layered harmonies…that made Philadelphia soul as essential to the 1970’s as Detroit’s Motown had been in the previous decade.”
As I body-surfed back over the Delfonics catalog this week, my memory was of hearing their songs in July, how much theirs was Summer Music in a far simpler time, and maybe they will take you back too.
Here’s a YouTube video of the Delfonics delivering a love note directly to the heart in one of my all-time favorites: “Ready or Not, Here I Come (Can’t Hide from Love).” And here’s a second video, this one an “homage” (as the French would call it) or a “sample” (as hip-hop's masters would) that features Lauren Hill when she was a voice in the Fugees, reaching out and grabbing hearts that were no longer quite as soft (but still possible to reach) many years later.
With their rumbles of distant thunder, I think these two "blasts from the past" add up to something that's close to Sublime in July.
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Have a good week at work and outside of it. I’ll see you next Sunday when we can begin to look forward to August.
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