Here is the interview I conducted with artist/animator/free culture activist Nina Paley which was broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM NY radio yesterday.
I’ve posted about the brilliant Ms. Paley before, and you can learn a lot more about her and her latest project, Seder Masochism, by listening to the audio above. I think you’ll enjoy it. The video above is one more segment of the Seder Masochism project.
She also has some very non-mainstream views about copyright, which have served her well. I’d love to hear your comments about that and anything else.
It’s been about a month since I spent any substantial time working on Novel #2. Lots of excuses—dental surgery, friend died, working on some interviews, the book sucks, worried about Novel #1—but none of them are any good. My schedule for this book was three days a week, 800 words a day. Seems innocent enough. Here’s a little outline of the road to hell.
It starts with me feeling lousy in the morning. For a few days I procrastinate and finally do my scheduled writing in the evening.
Next, I miss a day entirely and make it up the next day, on the day I’m supposed to have the day off entirely from writing.
Next, I miss a day and don’t make it up, feeling very guilty about it.
Next, I miss another day and don’t make it up, but now I don’t feel so guilty about it.
Next, remorselessly, I miss another and another and another day. Soon, it’s almost a month since I’ve written any of my 800 words a day.
Friend calls, says she can’t write, the muse isn’t visiting. I tell her to hell with the Muse visiting, you have to visit the Muse.
Today is approaching, and I know I want to write this particular post about getting back on the wagon. I’ll feel like a terrible phony if I write about getting back to writing without getting back to writing.
I open the file for the novel, and start reading, and realize I have no idea where I am in the plot.
I write anyway, not caring whether it has any coherence or not. It’s more important to get the 800 words in.
I do it, and it’s still pretty awful.
I know it’s awful, but allow that there just might be some little thing that will make it into the next draft. That’s reward enough right now.
I write this post, so that I can remember the arc of what happened.
For the future:
Stick to my schedule whether I feel like it or not. It’s like what those money gurus tell you about saving money from your paycheck—pay yourself first; writing that book is my first obligation.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. What matters is 800 words.
If I don’t do it, it won’t be done by anyone else. My years on this planet as a functioning human being are quite finite.
If it doesn’t seem worthwhile, maybe it’s not. But it’s not like I’m doing anything better with the time.
Okay, maybe I’m fooling myself, it’s all worthless. True, but there’s nothing wrong with fooling myself, if it helps me keep going.
Whether I write or not, time is going to pass anyway. I can let it pass with a book, or without it. I’ll be happier if I have a book—even if it sucks.
I remind myself about the magic of revision. I can’t revise unless there’s something to revise.
When I see myself slipping down the ladder, get back to the very first rung again, back to the original schedule.
Hope this is helpful to someone out there—but selfishly, I hope this is useful to me!
Sometimes love isn’t enough to get you up in the morning. Was there ever a more bitter song that made it onto mainstream radio? This Monday we get out of the cold bed kicked in the head by the sound of Mr. Warmth, Bob Dylan and Positively 4th Street.
When I saw the UPS man stooped over as he was delivering the package to my mailbox, I knew that it had finally arrived. I’m talking about Taschen’s Magic 1400s-1950s, an amazing book of posters and essays that is hands down the most magnificent book of any kind that I own.
It seems impossible to believe, but what I ordered from Amazon is actually the abridged edition. Abridged in this case means 540 pages instead of 650 pages, 2 inches shorter in length, and 1 1/2 inches narrower; but the book is still massive, two inches thick, measuring 16″ x 11″, weighing twelve pounds.
You can open this tome at any point and you will be greeted by the most wonderful historical magic posters and photos in beautiful color. And every once in a while you will also be greeted by the most lovely of two-page spreads. The illustrations on the posters are truly delicious, and many of them have not been in print in book form before. In the centuries before social media, the variety arts were advertised through posters that promised the most extraordinary of delights, and the wonders of Kellar, Thurston, Houdini, and countless others were communicated in large part through this medium.
But, you say, you are one of those people that buys Playboy for the articles and doesn’t care about the pictures. In that case, you are still in luck. The book is also filled with fascinating essays by the great Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, and Mike Caveney, all Godfathers of magical knowledge, both historical and practical. The essays (and picture captions) are all in three languages: English, French, and German. But the nice thing about this is that though the text is repeated, there are different pictorial elements for each, so the 540 pages is really a full 540 pages of content, not just repetition. It seems incredible to me, that when you consider that the original edition cost $250, that Amazon can currently sell this for under $50. Oh, and did I mention that for that price, the book is also provided with a handsome slip cover as well?
As my wife says, this is the kind of book that makes you want to run out and buy a coffee table, it’s that good. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who has the slightest interest in the magical or the illustrative arts. I guarantee you will spend many delightful times with this book.
The other book that I’ve been reading this week is also a magic history book, but at the other end of the spectrum. Where the Taschen book covers 500 years of history and spans multiple countries and genres of magic, Dick Oslund’s self-published Road Scholar is quite the opposite. It is highly specific, and covers a very narrow, but deep, slice of American magical history. To wit, the good-natured Oslund spent forty-plus years on the road as a performer touring the “knowledge boxes,” that is, the school Lyceum circuit. Oslund made a career of performing his 45-minute show in up to four different schools a day as he traveled an average 500 miles a week, through the tiniest towns of Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and parts West. If the definition of success is to find a niche and to fill it, then Oslund was successful in spades. He tells literally hundreds of stories of his visits to schools around the country, and by the end, you are exhausted, but feel that he must have encountered every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a school performer.
The production values here are, as I said before, on the opposite spectrum of the Taschen book, but in its own way, it is no less comprehensive. There’s not a whole lot in the way of editing, and the photos are all in glorious black and white, but in the chatty conversation here, there’s a lot of wisdom born of hard experience. The casual magician will be most interested in the latter half of the book, what Oslund calls “The Book Within a Book.” In this section, which follows the anecdotal section (and 82-year-old Oslund must have kept the most amazing notes or have the most amazing memory!), Oslund talks about his trick set list and magic philosophy, while also including his road-tested scripts and precious bits of business. This section begins with Oslund’s nine sacred rules for choosing effects for a school audience, and it’s advice that can be followed by all who want to make sure that their platform show can be performed under any condition.
There will probably be some who feel that Oslund could have just published the latter half of the book, and I can’t say that I totally disagree; the opening material while interesting does start to get repetitious. There’s also lots of biographical information about all the other school performers he met along the way; while this is important to document for historical reasons, for the casual reader it probably holds less interest.
In a way there’s a method to Oslund’s madness. In his insistence to document just about every school in which he ever performed, and every performer that he ever met, he creates the context for the second part of his book. Because in a way, you can’t really understand the full value of the trick part of the book without understanding that, subliminally, Oslund has been telling you all along the real secret: all those folks he met along the way, all those home-cooked meals given to him by comrades, some newly met, all those “jackpots” and stories swapped convivially, were the real secret of his success. Without ever explicitly saying so, Oslund makes you understand that he was actually in the people business, and that he was a success in his field because he loved people and had a genius for friendship. He knew what people wanted, and could give it to them. I can’t say that this is a book for everyone, but Oslund paints a little seen portrait of the vast network and isolation of the rural school systems across America, hungry for outside input. I can truly say I learned a lot about both American magic history and American education from this Road Scholar.
Last week I posted a top 30 list of favorite under-the-radar posts. Those posts were all pieces that I had had some hand in creating. Today I’m listing my favorite under-the-radar posts of the past year that were other people’s creations including cartoons, comedy clips, and music.
I just finished reading Red Rosa, a graphic biography of the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. (The novel is graphic in both senses of the word.) You probably never read about her in high school, and maybe not in college either, unless you followed things Marxist, but she was an incredibly influential figure in the period leading up to and during World War I. At a time when women’s roles were severely constricted in Western society, Rosa was living the life of a free, committed revolutionary woman. She traveled from Poland (where as a child, she wrote, for a school contest that was supposed to praise him, an essay excoriating the Kaiser ) and on to Germany where she became a key figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She forged her own political views, and produced some trenchant analyses of capitalism. She was suspicious of the anti-democratic line of the Soviet Marxists, but also contemptuous of the socialist-in-name-only leaders of the Social Democratic Party who led the party into war and the arms of the bourgeoisie on the eve of World War One.
The author and illustrator Kate Evans does a very good job of packing in a large life in 179 pages, and one gets a sense of what an extraordinary woman Rosa was. But I’m not really here to talk about politics but rather to fixate on one particular aspect of the times that Rosa lived in. And it is this. The Speed of Thought. How was it that revolutionary thought spread so quickly, and so far in that time? The whole of Russia, England, and Germany were in an uproar, and revolutionaries like Rosa spread Marx’s ideas across large swaths of land with little but words: smuggled in handbills, street corner lectures, and newspapers laboriously set in type in secret. It seems in today’s world an almost impossible feat. No Facebook, Twitter, Internet, Social Media, cellphones. And I don’t mean this in a jocular way. It just seems amazing to me that ideas could have spread so quickly.
I suppose one can say, look at the rapid spread of Darwin and Freud’s ideas in roughly the same period; true, but those were ideas that were circulating in small scientific and psychoanalytic communities, specialized formations. But ideas that actually resulted in the material re-organization of society—well, that seems more impressive to me.
My wife is doing a literacy training, and the teacher said something very interesting to her class: People who can’t read have trouble listening. If you want to teach people to read, you must teach them to listen first. And the flip side of that is that writing is talking. In order to write you must find your voice.
Simple and remarkable I think. And one step more. How do you get people who don’t listen to listen? This: By listening to them. When people feel heard, they can in turn start listening to others. and then they can begin to understand what reading is all about. And after that, they can find their own voices.
Revolutionaries like Rosa arise at certain times in history. They have listened to themselves and the masses who at key moments in history desperately need to be heard. The masses in turn are ready to listen because they have been listened to. The sound of a book is about unchaining oneself. How fast from seeing the words on the page to the lips? How quick is it from the thought to the action? How far from a book to a new society?
These are the questions that came up for me when I thought about the vast stretches of the Earth that were on fire in 1917. I wonder if there could be a comparable experience again today. Because with social media, that experience of worldwide sharing has become both common but also commodified as the most banal mass culture, and hence, unremarkable, and certainly not revolutionary. Can we still be moved in a deep, societal-changing way by a few profound ideas?
Through a strange turn of events last year, I found myself, for a few months, occasionally in the company of a fairly well-known professional magician. Now it’s true that keeping company with this convivial fellow usually meant keeping up with him at the neighborhood bar. For the sake of convenience, let’s call the magician Peter. I haven’t seen Peter for a long time since then, unfortunately, but he was quite a raconteur, and here is one of the best stories he told me.
Peter had a small role in the Batman blockbuster movie in which Jack Nicholson played The Joker. Every day on the set, Nicholson would bum cigarettes from him. Peter gladly gave up his cigarettes, happy to have the opportunity to talk to Nicholson. But as this mooching of cigarettes went on day after day, Peter, no mean moocher himself, started to get ticked off. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he blew up at Nicholson, saying, “Here you are, an extraordinarily wealthy man, yet everyday you come to bum cigarettes off me! How can you look yourself in the mirror everyday, and keep doing that?”
And Nicholson, perfectly calm, looked Peter straight in the eye, and flashed that killer smile of his. Slowly, killer smile still intact, he said, in his most Joker-like voice:
“It’s Good To Be Jack.”
PS Here’s a little postscript to the story (disclaimer: it’s quite possible that either my memory or Peter’s memory is hazy on the details of this part, but for the sake of the story, we’ll ignore that). As the filming continued, Nicholson kept on bumming cigarettes from Peter, and Peter, ever so reluctantly, kept on giving them to him. At the end of the shoot, however, Nicholson walked over to Peter and handed him a bag. Peter, puzzled, opened it: in the bag, were several cartons of cigarettes, and an engraved gold-plated cigarette lighter.
This is the poem as I performed it over WBAI radio 99.5 FM NYC last year. I mentioned in another post that I thought this performance was too big for the medium. What do you think? Click on the grey triangle to play