Archive | Commentary

Commentaries about anything that interests Mark. How’s that for open ended?

He’s My Man: Leonard Cohen

leonard cohen (black and white photo)

I’m sure most people are still trying to understand Trump’s win, but seriously, they’re missing the meaning of Cohen’s loss.

He made the personal epic, but in the right way.

Leonard Cohen will be lauded as a songwriter, and a poet, but for me, he was always a consummate storyteller. The kind of storyteller I will always try to emulate. I’m feeling the same kind of grief I did when Kurt Vonnegut died. One of my narrative lodestones is gone. They’re not showing me the way anymore. I’ll have to take their examples, and do it on my own.

But what examples!

Not too long ago, I spent an evening listening to “Alexandra Leaving”, a song that was part of his 2001 album, 10 New Songs.

Over and over and over and over. (There may have been some wine involved.)

It is just an example of his genius. He took a poem written by the Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, which Cavafy had based on just a few lines Plutarch had written about how Mark Anthony must have felt, the night before his death, and turned it into an insightful, beautiful, heart-rending evaluation of how relationships change, end, and how to face that inevitability. (Gotta say here, because of journalism, co-written by Sharon Robinson — ah, you’ve stopped reading at this point.) Anyway, I’d encourage you to read the source material: Plutarch, Cavafy and what Cohen does with it. He takes the idea, the kernel of despair that is a man who has lost an empire, and makes it personal.

Unlike Anthony, who gambled and lost on an empire, the story is now about a man who has lost his woman. Cohen takes an ordinary — but excruciating — thing, and makes it epic. Alexandra isn’t just leaving. She’s leaving with a God. And the song, like the poem, encourages the lover to take it all. To appreciate her love, right up to the point it is gone. To love her, even when it is over.

I dunno. That’s one song, it’s off the top of my head, and that’s what, two long paragraphs? Every time I pick up the guitar I end up playing at least one of his songs. I nearly cry every time I venture into “Famous Blue Raincoat” territory. It’s wholly inappropriate, but I still love the combined affection and megalomania of “Chelsea Hotel.”

Cohen foresaw many of the ills of our current era in two albums, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). In fact, I’m sure that distant historians will look at the lyrics of “The Future” and say things like: “See, they weren’t all idiots. Some of them understood what was happening.”

But more than that, Cohen loved. It was the central idea in his poetry, his writing, his music. It was, for him, the one thing that made us redeemable as a species. And I agree with him, though the world seems bent on proving it otherwise.

Like Cohen, I’ll endure — as long as I can — and like him, I’ll find the cracks that let the light get in.

The 14 people you need to help you decide if you should publish or not

There are three things that I love about this:

  1. they are tremendous and witty words of wisdom from Mark Twain.
  2. it is narrated by John Lithgow, who’s voice alone makes me laugh.
  3. the sleeping man scares me, and reminds me to be entertaining, as he should.

In Twain’s own words:

“But the man whom I most depend upon is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within 15 minutes, I burn the book. If he keeps awake three quarters of an hour, I publish, and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my books is to entertain and by making this man comfortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell, within a shade or two, what degrees of success I’m going to achieve.”

–Mark Twain

via Brain Pickings, and the New York Public Library’s Live from NYPL program.

The Digital Sabbath, or Why I Never Reply to Your Emails on Saturday

Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

If it’s Saturday and you’re reading this, I am far away from you.

That’s because every week, I unplug and celebrate what I call the digital sabbath. I know, I know, it’s kind of blasphemous, but it is the best way to think about the activity of disconnecting from the Internet to give my brain a breather.

Many cultures have celebrated the sabbath, or a day of rest. (The etymology of the word, according to Google: Old English, from Latin sabbatum, via Greek from Hebrew šabbāṯ, from šāḇaṯ ‘to rest.’) In Judaism, it’s held on Saturday. In Christian circles, on Sunday. Buddhist rest days follow lunar cycles. Even some secular cultures have had state-mandated rest days. From ancient times, we’ve understood the importance of taking a break. (Even if it’s done for some dubious religious reason.)

Psychological studies have demonstrated that our brains need downtime. Not only to recover from the stress of the constant distractions of work and media, but to harness the brain’s ability to do creative work. That’s right, there’s evidence to suggest our brains are productive while they’re resting:

Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself.

There are many ways to achieve the kind of rest required. It can be as simple as going for a walk in the woods. Meditation works wonders, as do short naps. The new hotness is something called mindfulness. All of these are difficult — if not impossible — to do when you’re being bombarded by distractions from the digital sphere. Which is pretty much everything these days.

So my solution is to disconnect from the Internet. Friends and loved ones can still reach me by phone. I’ll allow myself to read a book (yes, even on my Kindle), watch a movie or play a game on my console. So I’m not totally free of the digital sphere, but I am free of the part that will interrupt me and distract me from my mental downtime. Some Saturdays, it’s difficult. That iPhone just sits there. I know its Twitter app is only a click away. The urge is usually strongest in the morning, and by the afternoon, I’ve adjusted to not communicating online. By the evening, I’ve forgotten that I need to. Often, it will not be until late on Sunday that I remember I have social media accounts that need maintaining, emails to read.

In other words, life slips in during my absence from the Net. I have conversations. I nap. I think. My mind is free to wander without the shackles of a digital feed.

Do I think everyone needs to do this? Not really. I’m sure there are many people who can resist the siren call of their devices without unplugging completely, but I’m also sure there are more who can’t. Those are the folks who may want to consider this, or something like it.

Is this all I do? Of course not. I also exercise, meditate, and drink red wine. (Usually in that order.) I also have a memo taped to my office wall, which helps me keep on track with writing:

nottodo

What practices do you follow?

Alltop never distracts me from laughing. Incredible infographic by David MccCandless at InformationisBeautiful.net