Last night, I was at a screening of the classic 1971 film Our Latin Thing, showcasing the music of the incredible Fania All-Stars, which time-warped us all to 1970s NYC.
Monday morning is all congas, flute, bass, brass, and joy.
About a decade ago, I did a straitjacket escape that was a lot of fun for a school talent show. I recently dug up the video of it; there are a few unfortunate cuts, but I think you’ll enjoy watching this if you’ve never seen this performed. By the way, I was using a regulation Humane straitjacket, not gaffed or gimmicked. I eventually sold the jacket when it became apparent that my back would no longer be able to survive another bout with it. Click on the video to play.
Mongo’s Manteca! Monday Morning
Click on the video to play Dizzy Gillespie’s and Chano Pozo’s Afro-Cuban Latin jazz classic performed by Mongo Santamaria.
Thanks to YouTuber andrescabreraf
While most people understand that the performance of magic requires deception, they generally have no idea of the range of deceptions possible. Mirrors, sleight-of-hand, threads, trapdoors, yes, these are known, of course. But, really, these are only a small number of the methods—not that they can’t still fool even those who know of them.
But the performance of magic actually entails a very large collection of often interlocking discrete methods, and even magicians can be fooled by another magician. Each time I learned about a branch of magic different from those with which I was already familiar, I would be surprised at the new tools brought to bear—“Oh, they’re really doing that!—I had no idea!” Sometimes ideas and methods from one branch of magic are carried over to another branch, but cleverly adapted to the limitations and possibilities of the other field; on the other hand, some methods really are unique to one particular branch of magic. For a magician it’s kind of a thrill to learn that the method was not method a, b, or c, or even method x, y, or z , but the unconceived Ψ, Ω, and Σ. (Most spectators on the other hand, as previously discussed, do not feel delighted at all when told of a method. They generally just feel stupid and suckered. Contrary to magic ads of the 50s and 60s, it’s not “Fun to be fooled!”)
I have in mind, for example, the mentalist practice of miscalling. Now I’m not at liberty to explain what that is here, but it absolutely shocked me when I first came across it. It filled me with surprise, disbelief, scorn, and then ultimately admiration. Probably not many in the general public know of the use of the technique. But what I can tell you is that that class of methods was totally off my radar.
Now writers deceive all the time, too, but not much attention is paid by the general public to the methods of deception used. Unlike in a magic performance, with writing the deceptions are not the main course, but the means to a different end. You can take lots of literature courses in college, intensively studying a work, but the facts of deception are almost always glossed over in favor of focusing on matters like theme, plot, character, and so on: the deceptions fade into the background and become invisibly transparent.
I know this, though: I feel more of a cheat as a writer than as a magician. At least most people understand that a magician is using deception even if they don’t understand the means. On the other hand, I don’t think that many readers understand the range of deceptions that the writer brings to the table. Perhaps the deceptive technique that slides by readers the most is that of revision. It’s a huge cheat. Readers see the final artifact of a novel as if it were created at once in a coherent linear manner. But that’s almost never the case. It’s not even true of this essay; I’m writing this now on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. But I have no intention of publishing it now. I know that by the time that I do publish this essay, I will have revised it, and it will be very different. In fact, I have no idea what this essay will look like ultimately when I do finally publish it. I am trusting right now that despite my first incoherent draft, somehow, sometime later, I’ll be able to pull something out of it. It really is an act of faith, but the reader will never know what this piece once was. I have all the time in the world to make this be just what I want it to be. So, I’ll be seeing you sometime later—who knows how much later?—just don’t tell anybody when I really wrote this (wink).
When I was a teen-ager, most of my friends were reading something by Herman Hesse—the most popular titles then were Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. The books appealed to the dreamy, druggy adolescent sense of self-involvement that naturally arose at that age. Later, in my twenties, looking back, I thought of them as silly and somewhat banal. From time to time I would eye the thick pages of Magister Ludi, but I would always demur, not ready to deal with that much woo-woo at once.
The other day, I saw Demian sitting on my bookshelf, one of Hesse’s shorter novels, which I hadn’t read since I was a teen, but which I remembered as being my favorite of Hesse’s novels. I was in the mood for reading something short, and I thought I would look at it again for a few reasons: 1) to see whether the book held up as a novel; 2) to see if I held up as a reader, and 3) to look at it from a writer’s point of view to see how it was constructed. Would I still think it was worthwhile, but for different reasons from when I was a teen, or would I, as I did in my twenties, see it as New Age-y nonsense? Okay, so I’m being impolite.
I was surprised by my reactions to reading it this time. The first surprise was that I found the book absolutely compelling. From the first pages, I was drawn in to the story of a youth who was trying to understand the darker forces of his own and other’s natures. And though at times I had to put the book down for awhile, I was eager to pick it up again. I wasn’t putting it down because it was boring, but on the contrary because it was too interesting, and I felt I needed time to digest it as I went along. At the same time, the book’s shortcomings were very clear to me—the lack of any political analysis, the Jungian simplifications of life that teeter on the edge of, and sometimes fall into, the well of banality, the repressed homoeroticism that is never really addressed, the stubborn refusal to ground sexual feeling into sexual action, the German Romanticism of the period which today seems hopelessly sappy, all these are glaring, and my getting older didn’t make them go away.
But here’s the thing. I was still compelled to read. And I was compelled by the kernel of truth that the novel contains, so deep and so important that it stays and lingers as a feeling not able to be articulated, but a feeling that something of life that was known yet previously unsaid or pushed out of consciousness was brought back into view again. Exactly like a drug trip or an a-ha moment of meditative or otherwise enlightenment.
And now with my being older, and being interested in the writing process itself, I wanted to know how Hesse was doing this. The thing is so simple—about forty thousand words, and yet its impact is considerable. I wanted to pull it apart like a child pulls apart a favorite toy, and yet when I did that with this novel I felt like I was pulling apart a dandelion, for there doesn’t seem to be anything to see.
The book is, for all its apparent mysticism and near banality, transparent. There is no hiding behind words and sentences. As a writer, over the years I have become so much more conscious of word selection and the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and yet here, it seems like nothing. There is no memorable vocabulary or phrase; no structuring of sentences or elements that seems to be writerly. It is seemingly just a story, that is all. A story that a boy might tell. There doesn’t seem to be any art in it. And yet it is as compelling as someone sitting across the table from you telling you this extraordinary thing that has happened to them. There is no apparent sense of craft.
And yet at the same time, there is no clumsiness of craft that distracts from the story, either, and that causes the reader to stumble. It is writing that is decidedly (at least in the English translation that I read) pure; it never calls attention to itself, it never shines, but like an ordinary staircase it leads you along. When Hesse first published the book, he published it under the name of the storytelling youth of the book. It’s a craft of apparently no craft.
The particular lesson I take as a writer from this book is this: for all the attention we pay to words, sentences, paragraphs, the kernel of real truth about life is what ultimately determines the true power of a story. There is not only one way to do it, there are many; but in reading Demian I was forced to confront how powerful words can be when there is strong truth and revelation underneath them, and they are put out in plain view.
Who knew then that this was a Richard Rodgers song? Not me. In those days, my musical taste and judgments were simple: there were only two kinds of songs—fast ones, and slow ones. I liked the fast ones.
Monday morning gets you looking out your window high above.
Thanks to YouTuber fabrizio lencioni
Sparrow is the name of the poet that music critic Robert Christgau called “the funniest man in America.” Yesterday, this interview I did with Sparrow was broadcast on radio station WBAI’s Arts Express program. I think you’ll find him both profound and irreverent. Click on the grey triangle above to enjoy both his poetry and conversation.
And oh yes—Sparrow gives Arts Express a hot political scoop!