Obtuse Strategies Deck

I’m sure most people know about Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies — a deck of cards with gnomic suggestions to consult at random during creative work.

I propose my own, new deck, informed by my jaundiced world view, and in no small part, my own failings as a human being.

  1. Cultivate the disreputable
  2. Lie gratuitously
  3. Argue extravagantly over minutiae
  4. Blame the innocent
  5. Solve the wrong problem
  6. Construct the trivial sturdy, the crucial shoddy
  7. Give misleading directions
  8. Damn with faint praise
  9. Make a virtue of waste, a vice of thrift
  10. Play dumb
  11. Make incorrect change
  12. Celebrate incompetence
  13. Value syntax over meaning
  14. Imagine things to complain about
  15. Leave out the important part
  16. Flatter the deluded
  17. Argue with those who agree with you
  18. Subvert while appearing to cooperate
  19. Niggle, always
  20. Curse the virtuous
  21. Speak authoritatively when ignorant
  22. Say the opposite
  23. Laugh hardest at the unfunny
  24. Meet sincerity with sarcasm
  25. Hold grudges
  26. Complain operatically
  27. Suspect every kindness
  28. Swamp any straightforward motive with ulterior ones
  29. Purport falsely
  30. Implacably oppose the reasonable
  31. Deliver less than you promise
  32. Ridicule caution
  33. Value yourself negatively, others less
  34. No such thing as excessively literal
  35. Prevaricate, Obfuscate, Denigrate
  36. Puncture someone’s good mood
  37. Pursue empty ambitions relentlessly
  38. Exasperated sighs, sour grimaces
  39. Let people try to drag you with them
  40. Whenever possible, disappoint
  41. Deny the problem
  42. Smirk at people’s misfortune
  43. Boast without justification
  44. Give up early
  45. Assign everyone else sinister motives
  46. Squander the irreplaceable
  47. Disturb the tranquil
  48. Afflict the unfortunate
  49. Cut in line
  50. Waste everyone’s time
  51. Take no stand
  52. No pity, ever
  53. Profit from misfortune

In Praise of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

This post has been making the rounds this week and I had to respond. Not so much because it needs defending, but because I believe this post fundamentally misunderstands Peanuts and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“F*ck You, Charlie Brown.” Poor Charles Schultz would cringe to see that; he was a pretty old fashioned guy for whom outbursts like “Darn it!” were strong language. But these days, when coarseness and vulgarity are the order of the day, Schultz is an anachronism. He grew up in Minnesota after all, where being nice is the state religion.

What Peanuts brought to the funny pages was only rarely more than mildly funny, but the occasional wry chuckle it evoked was just a spoonful of sugar to make the strip’s exploration of human failings more palatable. Charlie Brown was insecure and depressed, a victim of the thoughtless cruelty of his friends and his own self-doubt. Lucy was sadistic, self-centered and vain. Linus was in his own world, clinging to his blanket and sucking his thumb. Peppermint Patty was well-meaning but clueless, oblivious to the embarrassment her misguided, blustery invasion of Charlie Brown’s life caused him. Snoopy was just plain nuts, a chymera of doggish impulses and fantasy. Schroeder was self involved, and the only person whose indifference could wound Lucy emotionally.

These characters were the only ones with any emotional authenticity in the funny pages. Peanuts could be occasionally jokey, but it always had heart. Schulz was a committed Christian — one of the real ones who actually worried about what Jesus would do, instead of wearing a plastic bracelet about it. The Peanuts kids had conflicts, indulged in each of the Seven Deadly Sins, but they each had a saving grace: Linus’ compassion, Lucy’s fearlessness, Charlie Brown’s humility, Sally’s innocence, Peppermint Patty’s good cheer. Moreover, Schulz’ treated his characters with loving kindness, even as he looked directly at their failings.

All of the qualities that made Peanuts special were on display in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe you had to be there, but when this show came out in 1965, it was a revelation. There were kids who were sad, angry, cruel, vain, and silly. If you’d grown up on Frosty The Snowman, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and even Miracle Of 34th Street, you were used to candy-colored fantasies and, not to put too fine a point on it, being lied to. Peanuts kids were like the children you knew. They felt real, and you could share their point of view.

There was funny bits, like the Snoopy Dance, and oddly touching stuff, like Linus’ long quote from Luke 2. The message of A Charlie Brown Christmas was that people can set aside their differences and baser impulses and join in community, with compassion for each other and shared joy.

As a Thomas Jefferson Christian, I have learned to appreciate what feels like the true Christian spirit of caritas and let all the supernatural stuff slide. Life and history are stories we tell each other, and reality (as Paul told the Corinthians) is essentially unknowable. Peanuts illustrated the uncertainty, loneliness, and anxiety of life, but also the loving kindness that is the only thing (as Paul said) that abides.

Another thing about Drew Magary’s post: he dismisses the work of Vince Guaraldi as “horrible slow Jazz.” Dude, seriously. I’m admittedly biased because my dad commissioned an orchestral arrangement of the Guaraldi’s music for the Peanuts special, called “The Charlie Brown Suite”, which Guaraldi performed with my dad conducting. Guaraldi used to come to parties at our house and play my mom’s Steinway, before climbing underneath and falling asleep.

“Christmastime is Here” is my favorite modern Christmas song, and Guaraldi’s version of “O Tannenbaum” rescues it from a million hideous Muzak rendition. “Linus and Lucy” is as close to perfect as a Jazz pop song can be. His “A Child Is Born” (Greensleeves) extrapolates the traditional chord sequence into something unexpected and exciting. I loved this music as a child, and as an adult I hear a rare emotional depth in it.

As my Grandmother taught me, it’s impolite to say “I don’t like tomatoes.” One should rather say “I don’t care for tomatoes, thank you.” It’s OK to not enjoy the Peanuts TV specials. Frankly they started out strong with the Christmas and Halloween specials and devolved into annoying kicking-a-dead-horse potboilers. But if you can’t appreciate a work of art in the spirit in which it was intended, “F*ck you” seems like a pretty mean way to address it.

The Awl: The Phantom Tollbooth, or The Democratizing Principle of Literature

Maria Bustillos nails it on the Awl Blog

“…I cannot help but think that it is flat wrong to teach anyone that he or she should not read, or love, or identify with, any book he or she pleases.”

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, originated a great turn of phrase — “”There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

Now unlike friend Fox, I’m not a Christian in the Supernatural Sky Father sense of the term, but I evaluate all art on whether it speaks to my condition. And that means that there are no boundaries: I can dig on Omar Souleyman, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Burning Spear, and Ferron. Even though I’m not a Syrian Muslim, an oppressed black man, a Rastafarian or a lesbian.

One of the things that makes them each great artists is that they can speak to my condition — their work is about the specifics of their condition, but there’s nothing narrow or specific about their ability to connect with an audience. I’m with Maria Bustillos on The Phantom Tollbooth. That book fired my imagination and I’ve always been an evangelist for it. In fact, when my brother Sean was still in grade school I gave it to him for his birthday twice the second time because I’d forgotten the first.

To paraphrase Norton Juster, our project should be to swim in the sea of knowledge and get wet. If we put blinders on for any reason no matter how well intentioned, we lose.

My Children’s Treasury Of Helpful Misinformation — now downloadable/printable

I drew a book for my niece Lucy for Christmas 2007, based on an anecdote from her mother Tessa: Tessa was in a bookstore in Park Slope Brooklyn with my niece Lucy, who was two and a half years old. Lucy tells Tessa “Mommy, let me read to you!” So Tessa sits down with Lucy, Lucy holding a random book. Lucy began to read with the title “American States In The Thirties and Forties.”

So I decided to write that book, and fill it with as many lies and as much misinformation as I could muster.

Today I took all the scanned images and stuck them together in Word and made a PDF file out of them, the better to print out or browse through on a computer.


Lucy's Favorite Page
Lucy's Favorite Page

It’s still available as individual images on Flickr.com.

If you can make it there: Tyne Daly & Martha Plimpton Caberet in NYC?

I read the New York Times Arts section on the off chance they’ll write about music I might find interesting. When that happens it’s usually perceptive and well-written. This week, I note two reviews for events I can’t even begin to imagine attending: Martha Plimpton and Tyne Daly doing Caberet shows.

The structuralist critics liked to talk about there only being two (or 36, or ???) different stories that are retold over and over. These two women’s shows are exactly the same story: Actor, past the prime earning years, trades on what’s left of their fame to draw a live audience to hear them sing. This shop-worn trope only occurs in New York City in the US — I’ve never lived or visited anywhere else where people pay good money to see B-list celebrity Cabaret. Who hires the musicians, commissions the arrangements, secures the venue? Do these women do it as a vanity project, does someone put up the money to indulge them, or is there still someone left in New York City that thinks this sort of thing is a good idea in which to invest thousands of dollars?

The reviews linked above seem to damn both with faint praise, exhibiting an unusual (for the Times) amount of charity, but giving readers very little to actually recommend the shows. Daly’s voice is described as ‘delicately brassy,’ which sounds like the worst of both worlds. Plimpton is described as having a ‘serviceable, medium-sized voice,’ which is NYTimes Arts-speak for ‘don’t quit your day job.’

Perhaps I’m not being fair to either Plimpton or Daly — I have admired both actors on occasion, and who knows, maybe they can keep an audience enthralled with a few songs and some amusing anecdotes. But in the extremely unlikely event some successful actor is reading this post, let me warn you: Plenty of singers have turned to acting, and done OK for themselves, but I can’t think of one actor that has done the reverse and had things end well.

If someone tells you you’re multi-talented, the only sane response should be intense skepticism. Amongst the various human talents for performance, being able to act barely qualifies you for acting jobs. All effective singers are already actors, but in addition they have good voices and the can sing in tune. The converse doesn’t obtain — remembering lines, modulating your facial expression and hitting your mark has nothing to do with singing.

So don’t quit your day job.

Digital Download Services — How Ugly Are The Licenses?

Consider Boomkat. They’re very specific about what you can do with them: put them on up to three computers, three portable music players, and burn on up to five CDs. They say that you permanently own the tracks you purchase, but at the same time they’re owned by Boomkat and the other parties involved — labels & artists. That is more or less consistent with the ownership of physical objects.

But they also say “the Service and the Tracks are solely for personal non-commercial use.” Which means you can’t use them on mixtapes, mix cds, or DJ mixes for which you charge money. On the other hand, it also appears to prohibit playing the tracks as part of a DJ Set, which is rather the point of buying dance music in any format, unless I’m reading that sentence wrongly?

Beatport, oddly, doesn’t have an license statement anywhere. In their FAQ they state “In the United States and UK buying a track from the site is just like buying a record from the record store. The same legal implications are in effect.” But I’m not sure that’s actually an accurate statement to make globally. It also doesn’t address the fundamental difference between physical media and digital media: owning a record or CD is a zero-sum game — if it’s loaned, or sold, or stolen, someone else has it and you don’t. I’d really prefer that they have some actual legal statement about what it is they’re selling.

Amazon terms of services (as listed on TOSback.com) are as restrictive as Boomkat with respect to public performance: “…you agree that you will not redistribute, transmit, assign, sell, broadcast, rent, share, lend, modify, adapt, edit, license or otherwise transfer or use the Digital Content. You are not granted any synchronization, public performance, promotional use, commercial sale, resale, reproduction or distribution rights for the Digital Content.”

That seems to preclude me playing any MP3’s I’ve bought from Amazon when I DJ, or do a radio show, or put up a DJ mix for download. Which I don’t think really makes any sense; if I play something on the radio, the station has arrangements with licensing organizations to compensate the license holders, and any bar or performance space that operates as a business pays for a similar license to present music. Not only that, the Amazon Terms Of Service are more restrictive than Boomkats, even though they apply to exactly the same product.

Can Amazon actually add restrictions on the use of items they sell? They are, in fact, the middleman in a transaction between me, the buyer, and the holder of license, the record label. Do they have any say at all in how I use digital downloads? And what about artists whose music isn’t covered by a standard copyright – e.g. Throbbing Gristle who, from what I’ve read, don’t copyright their music? I’m sure there are artists whose MP3s are sold by Amazon.com that use a Creative Commons license, which can conflict in several ways with the Amazon TOS.

I’m not an Intellectual Property lawyer by any means, so I don’t know what to think. But all musicians are faced with a disruptive change that’s happening with respect to how music is distributed, and none of us know where we stand, really. I’m all for musicians to get paid for their work. Hell, I’d like to get paid for my work. But going forward we’re going to have to come up with some sort of fair, sustainable business model in a world where digital copies zero out the cost of reproduction and distribution.

I think in the near term, if you want to support musicians, you should buy their music rather than download it illegally. More than that, you should try and buy it directly from the musician if at all possible, because that way, they get more money than if you buy from a record store or on-line site. I just bought a series of EPs from Cooly G, by sending money to her directly via Paypal. She also has a couple of records out on Hyperdub, but I bet she’s made more money selling directly to her fans than she has from stuff released via Hyperdub.

Brittany Murphy — The Lesser Known Movies

So, writing about a movie star when they die isn’t exactly my thing, but Brittany Murphy dying got to me. And I wouldn’t write about it at all except that through random trolling for movies with Melissa, I saw a few of her lesser known movies that were interesting. To wit:

Sidewalks of New York was Ed Burns’ auteur turn as the post-milleneal answer to Woody Allen. Watchable but not fantastic. Murphy is decent and better than just watchable. She has a face that’s like a CNN crawl of her thoughts, and she’s a good enough actress that her thoughts when in front of the camera are what her character would be thinking.

In Ramen Girl, she plays an American girl stranded in Japan, who, for reasons not readily apparent to me, decides she must learn to become a Ramen Master. This was, I think, a movie originally for Japanese audiences (with Brittany’s English in subtitles) that got language-inverted and sent straight to DVD. She seems a little too gobsmacked and weepy in this movie, but she did her best to make an actual character out of a dishrag of a caricature. This reminded me of Tampopo, which had its basis in the same Japanese in-joke: Americans take at face value the reverence for ramen in the movie, but to a Japanese audience this is ridiculous — Ramen is fast food, and becoming a Ramen master is a little like becoming a French Fry master at Burger King.

The Dead Girl in which she plays the title role, is a movie that tells the story of a murder as the story of the people around the event. Murphy is only in the last segment, detailing her last day as a prostitute trying to deliver her child a birthday present, and of these three movies, this one is the best performance.

I’m sure in coming days we’ll find out all sorts of tawdry details of how she died, her less salubrious proclivities, her schlubby husband, etc. But for now I think it’s worth reflecting on her work, which on the whole was really good. A lot of mention has also been made of her voice work; her Luanne on “King of the Hill” was peerless. And if you peruse her filmography there is ample evidence (she worked A LOT) that she was without fear when choosing roles — she’d try anything once.

Stone Cold Classic: Popeye “Sinbad The Sailor”

All of the original Ub Iwerks “Popeye” cartoons lapsed into Public Domain before the film industry stooges bribed Congress to extend copyright indefinitely. These cartoons were vastly superior to the later Popeye retreads, which are still under copyright. Paul Di Filippo reminded me that a lot of these are available on Youtube these days.

And “Sinbad The Sailor” holds a special place in my heart, because it was a family favorite when my son Sean was very young. And it has everything: Ub’s ‘turntable’ innovation, combining filmed 3D backgrounds with cell animation, plenty of Popeye’s surreal muttered asides, the “Twister Punch,” and Blimpie’s legendary appetite. And it’s a mini-operetta — the Sinbad song sung by Bluto became a car ride favorite. It’s a mark of it’s excellence that it was later quoted in abridged form in a 1952 Paramount Popeye cartoon, with different music. Curiously the “Twister Punch” becomes “The Onesie-Twosie.”

Pansonic & Haino Kenji Live

Whoa I got the mailer from Bleep just now and featured is Pan.Sonic and Haino Kenji “Shall I Download a Black Hole”.

This was recorded at the Volksb├╝hne in Berline on November 15, 2007, and I went to that show. I don’t know how a recording could really do justice to that show — I was in the first row, and the bass was rearranging my innards and pushing and pulling the air out of my lungs. But if you’re into uncomprimising industrial-strength noise music, you’d love it.

The Awfulness of Religion-driven Art

The other night I watched, beginning to end the movie Faith Like Potatoes. It’s based on a ‘true’ story of a farmer who leaves Zambia for South Africa, and how he becomes a lay Evangelical preacher.

I liked the setting in Kwazulu Natal, and hearing Zulu spoken. It was beautifully filmed. Those two things kept me from getting up 20 minutes in and turning it off. After 40 minutes, I wanted to see if it ever found a way to redeem itself. In the end, though, it is an example of how fundamentally some people misunderstand how to make religious art.
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