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Hindsight blog

Muse on participatory democracy and the roles of all citizens including students, artists, the media, and of course, politicians. Presented by the Weisman Art Museum with the exhibition "Hindsight is Always 20/20".

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October 31, 2008

Join the Volunteers of America

In my inaugural post for the Hindsight 20/20 blog, I asked readers to share the art that has made a difference in their lives. I also promised to share the work that’s been inspirational to me. I’ve been massively distracted by that attention-chomping beast, Election 2008, but here goes:

Music lit the spark of social awareness in me when I was a teenager. This is largely due to growing up in a southern Wisconsin industrial town with no museum or theater. Music was my cultural lifeline and the radio waves were alive with possibility. I could listen to stations out of Milwaukee and Chicago and, on a night with good reception, even St. Louis. Whole worlds were dancing in my ears. Commercial radio was “free form? then, shaped by the tastes of real, live DJs – not anonymous corporations – and music fans followed their favorites faithfully.

This was the age of Vietnam and Watergate. The Summer of Love was over and the war continued. An anxious cynicism hovered over the country. Music was at the heart of many young people’s experience of these social realities, especially kids like me, living in small cities and rural towns with limited cultural opportunities.

Tetes Noires at First Avenue.jpg
Tetes Noires, First Avenue, circa mid 1980's. That's me on the far right.

I’ll never forget hearing Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Ohio for the first time. A riveting response to the National Guard shooting of young anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, the song captured the rage that was budding inside me:

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio?

I was also moved by the Jefferson Airplane song Volunteers, with its call to become one of the “volunteers of America? and save the country through a collective and joyful revolutionary zeal. I’d sing along at the top of my lungs, guileless, youthful exuberance buoyed by the bliss of innocence. Change seemed so sweetly possible.

Marvin Gaye was my late night companion. I’d sneak downstairs with my headphones in the wee hours to listen to him on the stereo when the rest of the house was dark. I cried when I first heard Gaye’s monumental LP What’s Going On. Soulful and musically sophisticated, the album is a brilliant examination of war, poverty, racism and the pressures of an urban life I could only imagine.

The score of my formative years was propelled by sensitive souls, topical lyrics, and hallucinogenic hopes. Looking back I still vividly remember the hours spent listening to songs like these, songs that brought the world into my room during troubled times. Songs that would soon lead me to make music of my own.

Next up: Joe the Plumber: Country Star? And a look back at that famous American anti-war protester, Mark Twain.

October 20, 2008

Speaking of plumbers...

I started my Weisman blogging with the Lionel Trilling observation that it is now life, not art, that requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Lately there is nothing that reinforces this more than the current presidential campaign. In recent weeks I’ve too-often rubbed my eyes in disbelief or gasped, “Did s/he really say that?!??

And so it was last Wednesday watching the Presidential debate. After about two dozen references to “Joe the Plumber? I wanted to know more about this mystery man who’d sidled up to Barack Obama with a YouTube-ready question about Obama’s tax plan. In case you’ve not heard the exact query, Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel “Joe? Wurzelbacher, asked Senator Obama, “I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year; your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it??

Mr. Wurzelbacher hopes to purchase the plumbing business where he works. His comments gave me pause as I have a friend, Todd Landon, who owns a successful small plumbing business. In an amusing bit of synchronicity Landon calls his business ‘Todd the Plumber’.


Landon’s business is nearly identical to the one Wurzelbacher hopes to purchase: small, usually two to three employees, including the owner. I asked Todd if his business’ net income usually exceeds $250,000+ per year and in his singular wry/dry style he informed me it does not. Indeed, the average Ohio plumber earns $47,930.* Landon, as a business owner, likely earns more than that, but he’s not clearing a quarter mil – not even close.

As news junkies know by now it’s been discovered that Mr. Wurzelbacher is not, unfortunately for his employer and his clients, a licensed plumber. (Toledo, where Wurzelbacher lives and works, requires a license of all plumbing contractors.)

Mr. Wurzelbacher’s exchange with Senator Obama, and Senator McCain’s decision to position Joe-the-not-really-a-plumber as the American everyman, has temporarily drained my reservoir of available disbelief. Everything about this episode felt awkward and stilted – and if life is a stage I’m giving this performance a really bad review.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about Joe the Plumber, and why I’m bothering to review bad political theater. It’s at least in part because I know a plumber and felt a swell of righteous indignation when hardworking plumbers everywhere were besmirched by this debacle.

However that’s not the only reason. The political season brings to mind another of my favorite quotes, this one from former President John F. Kennedy: “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.?**

I share President Kennedy’s sentiment. I believe that poets, writers, musicians and artists of all stripes do our country a great service by observing, recording, making art about and in all ways participating in our public life. Even when it means writing a blog post about a faux plumber who just enjoyed his 15 minutes of Warholian notoriety.

P.S. I’ll be back later this week to respond to comments re: my earlier post inquiring about the art that’s inspired you. A shout out to Mark, Sam, and Carol for their eloquent posts on the topic.

*According to the May 2007 occupational earnings report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
**Kennedy address at Harvard University, 1956

October 8, 2008

A Crisis in What?

It seems everywhere I go someone is talking about crisis. Turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or listen to conversations in a coffee shop and you’ll hear constant chatter about the economic crisis. If you listen for a little longer, you might hear about the Georgia crisis. Religious and spiritual people are talking about a crisis in meaning. Al Gore and now the rest of the country are talking about an environmental crisis. All this talk about crisis is leaving me wondering: as we approach this election, are we headed toward the apocalypse—crisis like humankind has never before seen—or are we just getting a little excitable about some serious, but manageable problems? We’ve thought the world was going to end at least once before (the Cold War comes to mind), but we’ve made it this far. Then again, with the economy in the gutter, the environment headed toward doomsday, Russia and the “West? acting a little bit too much like they are headed toward Cold War Round II, and a complete lack of meaning in our lives, maybe we ought to be as worried as we are.

If there weren’t enough things out there to be worried about, I want to throw another one into the mix. Maybe it even has something to do with the rest of these issues, but few people are talking about it. Have you ever had a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus? Rarely. Do you know your neighbors? Rarely. When’s the last time you had a good, long conversation about something that really mattered to you? When’s the last time you’ve felt truly listened to, truly heard? When’s the last time you’ve felt truly free to speak what’s on your mind? How often do you feel present—that is, how often are you completely focused on where you are and what you are doing, without the push and pull of other tasks or better places?

I’m worried because I think we’ve become so busy, so individualistic, and so separated off from each other that we’ve forgotten an important part of what makes us human. We live in a fast food world where we can go through the drive-through and never have to interact with a human being except over a microphone and through a tiny window. We go to college where we spend money in exchange for a diploma, but not an education. We’ve got so much to do in our never-ending quest to “get ahead? that we not only miss smelling the roses, but miss spending time with our friends and family too (except when we drink on the weekends to unwind from all that hustling and bustling).

I’m worried because I think we’ve forgotten that what matters (and what will make us happy) in life is not the number of things we own, the number of degrees we have up on the wall, or how much we’ve “accomplished?. If you think I’m wrong, try this slightly morbid exercise: Ask yourself what you want people to say about you when you die. I bet you won’t answer “She was really wealthy? or “Man, did he own a big TV!? Maybe instead you’ll want someone to say something like, “She loved the people in her life with all her heart.?

What I’m trying to say is that I think we’ve forgotten a lot of what it means to be human. Sure, it’s important to have a career, work at your goals, and “make it? somewhere in life. I just think we can do that and more if we acknowledge that a part of what makes us human is a feeling of connectedness to other people; deep, meaningful, caring relationships that not only enable us to be ourselves, but to be more than ourselves. Together we make a sum greater than the total of our individual selves. Apart and uncaring, we forget that other people are human too and subprime mortgages start to sound like a good way to make some money.

My first question to you is not about how to solve all of the crises we are facing as a nation and a world. Instead, I want to ask: how do we start to solve this crisis of separation in our own lives? How do we take a step back from the whirlwind that is most of our lives and examine what it is to be human; to care and be cared for; to love and be loved; to listen and to be heard?

October 6, 2008

Life, Art and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

“It is now life, and not art, that requires the willing suspension of disbelief.?

So wrote Lionel Trilling in a 1955 essay titled "The Novel Alive or Dead." Trilling uses the potential demise of the novel to explore the complexities of attempting creative work at a time when “the actuality of the world is so very intense and so very strange that the figments of the imagination cannot compete with it.? In 1955 Disneyland opened, the McDonald’s fast food chain was launched, Congress authorized all US currency and coins to say "In God We Trust", and the United States started down the path to war by sending over $200 million in aid (and covert military advisors) to Vietnam.

Looking at the world today one might say it’s déjà-vu all over again.

As a citizen I often feel that everyday life defies the imagination. I struggle with a growing sense of disbelief and disempowerment. The ongoing war in Iraq, the slow eroding of our civil rights post 9-11, global warming, and the current financial crisis are just a few of the issues that make my head spin on a regular basis. And I haven’t even mentioned the migraine inducing squawk of talk radio, the e-fascination of Twitter culture and the stranger-than-life appeal of online avatar communities like SecondLife. Reality exhausts me. Where’s the head-sized hole with my name on it?

But, gentle reader, here’s the delicious dichotomy: as a citizen I often feel beaten and powerless but as an artist I feel challenged and fierce. I’ll admit I’m haunted by the specter of relevancy and the possibility that, as Trilling so eloquently puts it, the figments of my imagination can’t compete with the photographs of Abu Ghraib or the worm guzzling contestants on Fear Factor. Talk about performance art! However, righteous motivation trumps my doubt-filled inner critic (almost) every time.

So here’s my question du jour:

Has an exhibition or single work of art, piece of music, or live performance ever been the catalyst for a personal epiphany and inspired YOU to take a stand, take action, or take up a cause?

I’ll read and respond to your comments and will be back soon to share some of the art, theater and music that changed my life – and why.


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