magnificent speech by Glenn Greenwald on civil liberties

In my previous post I discussed certain unhealthy effects of our current highly politicized culture, and my own relationship to these. I ended by mentioning one particular question I do happen to be (somewhat) following, this being the progressive abridgement of the core civil liberties which are at the heart of the American enterprise.

In the embedded video below filmed at Brown University in 2011, Glenn Greenwald gives an exceptionally clear and eloquent presentation (using no notes!) of the subject. Here is a brief summary:

He begins by enumerating four features of our Bill of Rights often forgotten today:

1) It is meant to be understood in an absolute sense. Other aspects of our political system involve compromise, necessarily; but this was explicitly placed beyond that realm. To be a defender of the Bill of Rights is perforce to be a civil liberties “extremist,” as it were;

2) It was intentionally set up to be anti-democratic, to protect against the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” The example Greenwald gives is that of Fred Phelps. As he says, pretty much no one likes Fred Phelps, or at least what he has to say, but all the same that 99.9% majority is not allowed to curtail his self-expression;

3) It makes no distinction between wartime and peacetime, contrary to what is often asserted. Certain other aspects of the Constitution mention war powers, but the Bill of Rights is not so delimited. (Greenwald acknowledges that precise meanings of the enumerated rights are up for discussion – for example, what an “unreasonable” search and seizure is – but not their absolute status.);

4) It simply makes no distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

He goes on to make three points about why we should all care, and care deeply, about the health of the Bill of Rights, even if we think we are “the good guys” who could never be affected by current developments:

1) History makes very clear that abridgements of liberty, while they may begin as narrowly defined, inevitably broaden out to encompass larger groups of people;

2) More immediately, said abridgments create a climate of fear which over time ends up actually changing the culture. Greenwald gives several concrete examples of this: he speaks of how innumerable people have said or written to him that they support what Wikileaks does and would like to donate to it (freedom of association), but are afraid they might end up on a government list somewhere and so have refrained. Furthermore, that nearly all of the European members of Wikileaks he knows of have either already left the organization or are contemplating doing so, not because of fears related to their own governments but rather that the United States might find a way to bring them back one day, where they will have no guarantees of due process, might end up tortured, in a cage in solitary confinement for months or years without being convicted of anything at all – like Bradley Manning – or in permanent limbo in a place like Guantanamo.

The world today knows that the US – in tragically flagrant violation of the document that is its soul – asserts limitless power over anyone they simply claim to be somehow involved in “terrorism.” And this generalized climate of fear then creates a situation of increasing self-censorship, a degraded and very dangerous state of affairs.

3) Finally, I can do no better than simply to transcribe Greenwald here (I have emphasized certain points):

The last point I want to make about why civil liberty infringements are crucial to care about even if you’re not being directly targeted by them or if you think that the only people who are are people who deserve it, is that there’s one proposition that I think history demonstrates fairly conclusively – I would even say indisputably – which is that there really is no such thing as “legitimate certainty.” By which I mean that it’s always the case in every single society that there are certain opinions, certain propositions that are deemed to be unquestionably true, and then there are other propositions that are always deemed to be unquestionably false. And the ones that are deemed unquestionably false are the ones that you’re simply not permitted to express and that have traditionally been punished if they have been expressed.

And what always happens – not sometimes, not usually, not most of the time, what always happens to every society – is that certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably correct turn out to be completely erroneous, even evil. And certain opinions that they believe to be indisputably erroneous and pernicious turn out to be absolutely right. And nobody, as a result, should be so hubristic that they believe that certainty is warranted or legitimate when it comes to empowering the government: empowering the government to ban certain opinions, empowering the government to imprison certain people who just seem definitely guilty, without due process. This certainty is completely unwarranted by even a casual review of history. And that is ultimately what civil liberties are about, is preventing the government from exerting power without checks: checks that are necessary to prevent these kinds of errors.

So we accepted the idea that it was okay to put huge numbers of Muslims into cages without due process because even those of us who kind of thought it wasn’t the right thing to do deep down believed that these people were probably guilty, because where there’s smoke there’s fire. That we didn’t just pluck them off the street randomly, that they probably, if not being the kind of terrorist mastermind that they might have been accused of being, probably on some level were kind of guilty of something and therefore belong there. And it may be objectionable in theory, but not really passionately wrong that they were being imprisoned without due process. And yet as it turns out, the vast majority of them, people who spent time in Guantanamo, have turned out to be guilty of absolutely nothing. Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson said that not only were the majority of them guilty of nothing but the Bush administration knew they were guilty of nothing but kept them there anyway to prevent the realization that they were imprisoning innocent people and to prevent people at Guantanamo from publicizing what had been done to them.

And ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 said that Guantanamo detainees have the right to habeas corpus review, the right to get into a court and ask a court to review the circumstances and validity of their detention, the Obama administration went in in each one of these cases and told the court, “we have overwhelming evidence that these people are terrorists and that they belong in Guantanamo.” The Obama administration announced, just like the Bush administration announced, that there’s no reason to worry about the lack of due process at Guantanamo – these are the worst of the worst. And yet when courts finally were allowed to review the actual so-called evidence against the people who were there, the evidence justifying the accusations, the courts found in 75% of the cases – that’s the current statistic – that there was no credible evidence to justify their detention. And many of them had been in prison for 5, 6, 7, and 8 years with what our own courts found were no credible evidence. And these are the people about whom the government was saying are the absolutely clearly, unquestionably guilty ones, the worst of the worst.

Certainty is not something that anybody should believe exists. That’s why all people, but especially people with power, and the more power the more this is true, need checks, need scrutiny, need accountability. And ultimately that’s what civil liberties are designed to do. So even if you think the government is acting correctly in a certain case and are therefore willing to acquiesce to the transgression of civil liberties, the mere fact that certainty is never warranted by itself ought to lead you to find that objectionable.

Greenwald went on to document how the Obama administration not only has not rolled back the civil liberties violations of the Bush administration but in certain respects has expanded them.

The remaining 45 minutes or so are a Q-and-A.

the tyranny of the political

I intentionally don’t engage in “politics” as such in this journal, at least in the more usual, narrow sense of that word. In part this is because I don’t follow the subject. I never look at newspapers, don’t own a TV, and try as best I can to bypass “news” as such online – for example by avoiding those day-to-day, minute-by-minute kinds of news sites as much as possible. In spite of this, such is the state of things that I always seem to know most of what is “going on.”

Many would say this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the practical inability to avoid all kinds of news, much of which is quite disturbing and most of which we are powerless to affect, does not make for a healthy environment in which to live our lives. An inherent bias towards negative news, reported negatively, certainly is an important part of this.

I submit that we humans don’t thrive very well in a climate drenched in the political. “Politics” should only ever have been a somewhat peripheral concern: the process of coming to communal decisions of various kinds. It’s everything else that is really the point of it all: the cultivation of health; the taming and training of mind; the expansion of the heart; the nurturing of others; the study of life and human culture; and creative expression of all kinds. Even the “communal decisions” I referred to oughtn’t to be different in kind from all other forms of personal relationship we maintain.

Today, however, the political seems to have swallowed up our culture. Not only has everything become politicized, but this has occurred within the context of extreme polarization and thus stagnation. When a realm of human experience gets politicized, it’s often the case that everything colorful and multi-dimensional and cool about it gets sucked out, its inner life papered over in predictable patterns of grey. Beyond this, I experience never-ending “news” as an attempt to draw my mind through a sieve leading to blinkered, tiny vision and a permanent state of agitation and panic.

So I prefer to engage with these kinds of “political” questions at one remove, by not following the unfolding of events day-by-day or even necessarily week-by-week but rather waiting until we have some kind of larger perspective on the more important of these. And even then, I choose to pay attention only to those “issues” which I can relate to deeper concerns of mine, ones which I feel capable of thinking through properly and communicating something about which hopefully has some kind of clarity.

One of these happens to be very much in the forefront at the present time: the question of civil liberties and their serious abridgement in the name of a seemingly never-ending “war.” A subject for the next post.

dream fragment

Some contemporary writer (Jonathan Franzen?) has as one of his guidelines for fiction to refrain from bringing in dreams, presumably because he doesn’t feel they are interesting except to the people who dream them. Personally I find a compelling dream as compelling as anything else. In any event I’m about to break that rule (or would be doing so if this post were a piece of fiction), for…

I am in a kitchen, opening the fridge, searching for something to eat. Almost everything I see or open contains carrots and peas in some form or other. I give up for the time being, turn, and start walking out of the room. As I pass the sink I notice some kind of insect moving from the counter down into the sink and thence the drain, and then another. The third one however is blocked from doing so by a very fast-moving critter coming from nowhere, who catches up to the other and sort of taps it, whereupon it crumples. Peering more closely I see that the attacker is … a miniature moose! A moose the size of an insect. I wake up.

Now, as soon as this little vignette ends I’m asking myself, of course: huh? And three sources quickly come to mind, all condensed into that single image.

grasshopper editMost immediately, I am unfortunately in the midst of dealing with an insect situation in my bathroom. The water people uprooted the meter in there, to replace it with something external that can be read remotely, and I think it must have disturbed the local ecology.  It has been a bit of an ordeal for the past week or so, with several different species suddenly appearing out of nowhere to surprise me in the middle of the night…

mulholland drive image editSecondly, I’d just written a post about David Lynch, including my favorite of his films and one of my favorite films of all, Mulholland Drive, which includes a scene – viewers will vividly remember – of an elderly couple suddenly miniaturizing and passing under the door of a room.

mooseAnd thirdly, the moose is an animal one must watch out for on Vermont roads, as running into one is more-or-less like hitting another car head-on. That particular fear is lodged in my unconscious, for sure, and just a couple days ago in the neighborhood where I live a young deer suddenly appeared at the side of the road, about to cross, saw me, stopped, and scurried back into the woods.

So, some neat condensation going on there, it seemed to me.

The carrots and peas?  I’d just bought some in frozen form.  Also, it was the first vegetable combination I learned how to make into a curry…

lentil and zucchini cakes with rice pilav at Mint

Yesterday evening at Mint Restaurant in Waitsfield (Vermont) I had something especially delicious. The photo below unfortunately doesn’t do the colors justice at all as it was an overcast sky: the harissa sauce is much more vivid in reality, a deep, just slightly orangey red; the green sauce (which looked similar to traditional Indian mint chutney but was in fact made of spinach, subtly sweetened with agave) came out a little garish in the automatic flash; and the cakes (lentil, zucchini, onion, and spices) and rice pilav lack a lot of the warm colors of the real thing. But I thought I’d add my photo in any case to give a hint of what the dish looked like. It was wonderful: the cakes and rice pilav each moist and richly flavorful in complementary ways, the harissa adding a lovely, bright heat, the spinach sauce balancing it with its fresh coolness and dab of sweetness.

A starter of butternut squash soup with leeks, coconut cream thyme, pumpkin seeds, and (for flavor, not so much for sweetness) pears, completed the meal, along with a summery salad with lots of sweet basil.


I reviewed Mint earlier here. It continues to be my favorite place to go to get nourished and inspired at the same time. All the more now that the weather is warm and I can sit outdoors (see below – though again not our more typical Vermont clear summer sky!):


And while I’m at it, here’s another meal I had there earlier in the summer, a mezze plate with the best falafel I’ve ever had – light, soft, and deliciously herby in the middle. (And everything else was as good as it looks too…)


“The Lady” – Sandy Denny

I’ve always loved this song, both for the expressive beauty of Sandy Denny’s voice and the exceptional elegance of the lyrics.

It’s a song that basically contains a single, simple event: a woman is singing at dawn. That’s it. But out of this comes something really special.

There are three stanzas, with each of the first two introducing two parallel images. We have a silver tongue – whose sole purpose is to sing – and a golden heart – whose sole purpose is to love. And we have the experience of silence descending, and the sun ascending.

the lady she had a silver tongue
for to sing she said, and maybe that’s all
wait for the dawn and we will have that song
when it ends it will seem … that we hear silence fall

the lady she had a golden heart
for to love she said, and she did not lie
wait for the dawn and we’ll watch for the sun
as we turn it will seem … to arise in the sky

My ellipses above don’t indicate gaps in the lyrics. I put them in to indicate both the fact that she stretches out the word “seem” in both cases (“seeeem” would look strange), and also to point to yet another gorgeously economical device of the song: these first two stanzas reference “seeming,” have a mirage-like quality, while the last declares a real-live, luminous event.

So here, in just four further lines, she manages to bring together each of these parallels so brilliantly. The final stanza’s first line references the images of line 3 in each of the first two stanzas, and its third line then references line 4 in each of the others.

Meanwhile, lines 2 and 4 here turn mirage/”seeming” into the blazing warmth of a new day, while the silver of the lady’s capacity to sing and the gold of her capacity to love are transformed into the very essence of that day, the silver and gold of “a beautiful morning.” Isn’t that so great? Very unusual in my experience for a song lyric to be genuinely dazzling like this.

we heard that song while watching the sky
oh the sound it rang so clear through the cold
then silence fell and the sun did arise
on a beautiful morning … of silver and gold

But now, forget all of that, and just listen…

Jon Stewart in Egypt, talking satire

I found this interview between Jon Stewart and his Egyptian counterpart of sorts, Bassem Youssef, somehow a little encouraging. One of the remarkable things about Jon is his ability to make substantive points in areas and venues where most others would founder. Part of this stems from the disarming capacity of good comedy, but obviously this isn’t enough. Genuineness is needed too, and sharp intelligence, and together they produce his mastery of tone and tact, in evidence here for instance at 10:26:

I’ll tell you this: it [satire] doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into. I get in trouble, but nowhere near what happens to you. … I do Bassem’s job in a country that has carved out already – it is settled law, satire is settled law. Governments have realized that … if your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime. [wild applause]

Because … you have to be able to handle anything – a joke is a joke. You may say that is an insult, and they say, you know, there’s an expression – I don’t know if you have it – “adding insult to injury.” Yes, maybe it is an insult, but it is not an injury. A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas into a group of people in a park. It’s just talk. [applause]

So … what Bassem is doing, and this is what is so inspiring to me – [to Bassem] and I know you don’t like it when I talk like this – he is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, is the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. It’s just the opportunity to be heard, and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it. [applause] This is what you do.

Just after this, Bassem brings up his experience of living in America and becoming acquainted with Fox News: “I was wondering in which pit of hell they do their editorials…. The amount of hate, and stereotyping, and profiling …”

But Jon interrupts, saying: “But I always see it as fear. I always see it for what it is…. It’s fear. Everything is conspiracy, there [are] monsters around every corner.”

And I think this in fact is one of his secrets, why so many public figures far from him in political views enjoy coming onto his show: he maintains a fundamental, genuine respect for people he disagrees with. Being able, for example, to see the fear beneath manifestations of aggression or even hatred, he protects himself from falling into aggression and hatred in turn. Instead, you can see in such interactions some kind of basic empathy still operating, which he uses to explore further where such negative thoughts and actions are coming from. This is one of the things that really sets Jon Stewart apart for me.

All of which enables, too, the heartwarming moment when the Jewish Stewart is praised by Bassem Youssef, on Egyptian television, for being known as a defender of the human rights of Muslims.

extensive interview with David Lynch by Mark Cousins

What a strange, inscrutable genius is David Lynch. There is no artist like him in the world, not even close. His mind has generated so many scenes of such visceral demented horror that sometimes you can’t help but wonder a little about the soundness of their creator … but then – later in the same film – suddenly a moment, or a stretch, of unimaginable beauty. Above all his films display an endlessly astonishing inventiveness that keeps me riveted to them even when they are – as they often are – exceptionally uncomfortable to watch. And a degree of almost unmatched cinematic purity which makes talking about them seem almost sacrilegious.

Certain scenes in Lost Highway or the Twin Peaks series, very much including the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and one scene in particular in Inland Empire (I think those who have seen it will know which one I mean) have terrified me more than just about anything I’ve witnessed on the screen.

At the same time, Mulholland Drive (also not without its heartpounding moments and atmospheric dread) is one of the most extraordinary and thoroughly fascinating movies I will ever see: inexhaustibly rich on multiple levels, exquisitely designed and filmed down to the last detail, still not quite (after seven or eight viewings) 100% narratively explainable, yet all the more satisfying for that. A luscious, deeply mysterious, ultimately sacred journey for me – and at least once every time its beauty reduces me to tears (very often during the scene at Club Silenzio, for example).

I can’t say I love everything of his. Lost Highway is one disturbing nightmare… Full of brilliance, no question, but also about as deranging a cinematic experience as one can have. Blue Velvet is another work of real artistry but I always walk away from it feeling a little queasy, if that’s the right word. The nastiness is so vivid while the 50s-esque small-town-American innocence with which it is contrasted never convinces to the same degree, so I’m invariably left with a sense of vertigo at the end – of a manichaean world tilted the wrong way, as it were. Whereas at the end of Mulholland Drive, which for me is unquestionably his masterpiece, I emerge in awestruck wonder at a perfectly realized artistic vision.

Then there is Eraserhead … and Inland Empire … about which I still can’t say much (having seen each only twice thus far) because they are both sui generis and so unutterably, stupendously weird – even for Lynch! – that they almost defy commentary. (For anyone interested in a superb – though ultimately, inevitably, inadequate – Lacanian perspective on Lynch’s whole oeuvre, I can recommend Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, though this was published before Inland Empire came out.)

Then there is the tenderness and warmth of The Elephant Man, unlike anything else Lynch has produced apart from The Straight Story. But contrast that with a recent music video he has released for his own song “Crazy Clown Time” (and yes that is his own eerie singing), and I find myself wondering about him all over again, because, I’m afraid, that video is one of the creepiest, most nihilistic things I’ve seen in quite awhile… (Such cognitive dissonance watching that a second time: can this man I know to be a great artist really be producing something so pointless and seemingly juvenile, or am I truly missing something somewhere?)

So who on earth is this guy? From time to time I try to find out more with some biographical querying, but he remains an enigma. An extra on the Inland Empire DVD films him preparing one of his favorite meals (quinoa and broccoli, which I’ve made by the way and can recommend, although you have to reduce the amount of vegetable bouillon down to about an eighth of what he suggests unless you really, really, really love the taste of salt…). A nice homey insight into his daily life you might think, except that even that ends up being rather spooky to watch!

However, I was pleased to just discover a long interview he did in 1999 with Mark Cousins (and yes, that fish tank, presumably in Lynch’s own home, is full of sharks). Famously averse to talking about his films, he says more there about them than I’ve ever come across, so if you are a big Lynch fan like me you are in for a treat…

Milan Kundera on the totalitarian mind

I’ve been rereading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in the back of which is an interview with Kundera from the late ’70s/early ’80s, given by Philip Roth.

His words here seem as important as ever. These days, grand utopian visions as such may be a little thin on the ground, but the impulses he references take other forms as well. In particular, I think they should remind us of that perennial delusion of omnipotent security so many of us seem to subscribe to, borne, of course, by fear. We really are True Believers in power: the power of science and technology ultimately to solve all human problems, the power of military strength to create a world free of anger and violence, the power of punishment to generate goodness.

Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise – the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Referencing the poet Paul Éluard, who publicly turned on his friend Závis Kalandra when the latter, in 1950, was sentenced to death by “the rulers of paradise,” he goes on:

People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The devil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

bottom of the barrel

The more I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their dangers, the more convinced I am that their prime promoter and beneficiary – Monsanto – has got to be reckoned one of the most recklessly, fiendishly destructive entities on the face of the earth.

I read Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith, shortly after it came out, along with a couple of other shorter books on the subject. I’d already had a great deal of skepticism on the subject from my understanding of how thoroughly interdependent are all phenomena and how cataclysmically powerful and dangerous human manipulation of the natural world can be (cf. nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; a great many pharmaceuticals; pollutants of all kinds). The argument that genetic engineering is just another form of what nature itself has done all along has never washed with me: nature is simply not capable of forcing genetic material from a salmon into tomato DNA. (Or spider into goat, jellyfish into pig, human into corn and rice, hepatitis into corn…)

But as a non-scientist, the study of scientific papers takes me a great deal of time. It’s not very cost-efficient, as it were, and furthermore – at least in the case of real “science” science as opposed to social “science” – I simply lack a deep enough background to feel comfortable, much of the time at least, forming fairly certain conclusions. (What I am capable of doing, as is anyone with the interest, is asking the larger philosophical questions about scientific paradigms of one sort or the other. And querying certain more general assumptions, aspects of design and methodology, and the basic health and integrity of scientific culture today.)

Taking all of this into account, my judgment has been that GMOs have already been shown unsafe in at least several important respects to both humans and other species, along with the earth as a whole, with much more evidence of further danger likely to come over time. Leaving all this aside, it’s been incomprehensible to me how the US still doesn’t have GMO labelling laws in place, given the newness of this technology, with all of its long-term unknowns.

But gradually, also, I have been forced to conclude that the Monsanto Corporation is more-or-less at the bottom of the barrel. They have already given us Agent Orange and DDT, and for decades now have been producing more and more of our food, promising complete safety in their technology, yet exercising all kinds of veto power over research into this (see the 2009 Scientific American editorial reprinted here).

There is a wealth of important information on GMO health risks here (see in particular the eye-opening articles under the headings “GMO Education” and “Fraud.”)

According to the ETC Group, Monsanto owns 23% of the global proprietary seed market, far and away the largest share (DuPont is second with 15%; Syngenta, another chemicals company, is third with 9%) – the article is here).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our government believes Monsanto’s assurances every time, despite a mountain of evidence of serious health risk and ecological danger in this technology.

I can’t think of any issue more important than the very integrity of our food. A good starting point to understanding what is at stake is this FAQ page.

[ae:::h], or, English needs more interjections…

My last post, a frustrated shriek concerning the now seemingly complete acceptability of cell phone use in public indoor spaces, ended with the well-known non-word “aargh.” This reminds me of the relative poverty-strickenness of our language with regard to interjections.

Yes, seriously.

Two cases in point. There’s a word I say all the time that doesn’t exist, but sounds rather like the IPA symbols given in the title to this post. For those unacquainted with the IPA, the symbol “ae” indicates a near-open front vowel, unrounded (like our “a” in the word “hat”), and the colons after it indicate lengthening (“h” is like our ordinary unvoiced “h”). I say that a lot, although more precisely the vowel is somewhat in-between an [ae] and the slightly “closer” (tongue higher) [ɛ].

But we have no word for this, so I can’t type it! “Eh” doesn’t work: this nearly always is used interrogatively, meaning “huh?” So I end up typing something like “ugh” or “aargh,” but that’s not what I mean.

The other “word” I say a lot has a vowel sound like the i in “is,” though slightly more central, followed by a sound somewhere in-between our English “h” and German “ch.” When I use it it means something like: “what can ya do?” or like an abbreviated alternative to “oy vey,” or something like that. But again if you were to try and write that you’d get something like “ihh,” and no one would understand it at all.

And come to think of it, we all say a lot of “words” which basically consist of just a single, often in-between kind of vowel, sometimes with some kind of optional “h” at the very end. And they are all very expressive. The only problem is they don’t happen to be words…

I always used to devalue interjections as a part of speech. When you begin studying a new language you become gradually more and more immersed in all the semantic intricacies and profundities of Verbs, find yourself engulfed in the endless sea of Nouns. You master the various classes of Pronoun, pick up comparative and superlative forms of Adjective and Adverb along the way, learn those basic twenty or so Prepositions, and bow at the feet of the mighty Conjunctions and Particles which structure and clarify larger units of thought. But Interjections? I always used to think: why are they even a part of speech? Grammars and vocabulary books only ever give you, like, two of them! What’s the point?

Our word “interjection” comes from the Latin “interiectiō,” literally meaning “throwing something in.” The idea is that there are no structural ties there to the rest of the sentence. In any case, I’ve decided they do need their own part of speech after all, because I’ve realized we need more of them. However … “ihh” just isn’t going to catch on, I understand this. Or [ae:::h]. Oh well. Who’s in charge of all this anyway? Someone should write a letter…

time for a grouse

It does appear we have lost the battle of the Cell Phone…

What I mean is: any sense of restraint regarding public use.

It’s strange. Really not all that long ago – maybe 4 years? – we had a general cultural understanding that yakking on one’s phone in public indoor spaces was, well, rather rude. And that’s just vanished now. What to do?

Personally, I can’t get used to the idea. I know I should probably try harder, since clearly, as I say, we have lost, but it’s so hard. I will be sitting in a quiet space over lunch or tea, reading or reflecting, and suddenly … “HELLO? …” (and my head literally jolts backward as if struck). “HEY DUDE, YEAH, WUSSUP? … YEAH … YEAH … HUH? … OH, YEAH … NAH … WHAT? … YEAH … NAH I’M JUST EATING LUNCH … HUH?” And on and on, for 5, 10 … 30 minutes. So I give up, put the book down or stop reflecting, and start fuming… What is wrong with me? Why can’t I accept this is the way it is now?

But I find it ridiculously hard. And I’m certainly not alone. One of the owners of a place where I eat lunch all the time tells me he feels exactly the same way, even more so, since he would prefer if people didn’t even pull out laptops and tablets, but rather took the opportunity to unplug for awhile and have a peaceful, relaxed meal. A teahouse in Montréal, I’m told – I think Camellia Sinensis – has adopted that policy in fact.

What to do, what to do? Once or twice I have seen someone actually get up and very firmly tell the phone yakker that they really ought to walk the 20 steps or so to be outdoors – they can still talk, but no one else is bothered. Usually, I’m a coward in this: I just privately fume.

What is it about this? After all, a loud conversation nearby can be distracting too. I think it’s a combination of different things:

1) There’s something inherently private about a phone call. Traditionally they only occurred, after all, in private spaces: one’s home, or a (closed) phone booth. So when they go off and you hear the loud (see point 3) “HELLO?,” I at least have the sensation of being an eavesdropper, of – more to the point – being forced to be an eavesdropper. There’s just something not … quite … fully decent about it somehow.

2) Since you are only ever hearing one half of a conversation, the experience is disorientating, and thus pulls you in. It’s distracting in the way something on the radio continually cutting out is, or the way a film would be if it kept flashing on and off. We naturally strive to fill in gaps in perception, and cell phones continuously stimulate that tendency, while definitively denying us any possibility of success. And that very fact is what makes them startling, makes them endlessly interrupt concentration. Not an issue for most people having a conversation themselves there, but an effective destroyer of peaceful public space for those of us who still greatly value such a thing.

3) Most people, not all but most, do talk more loudly on a cell phone.

So yes, I should try harder to get used to it. There are still places – blessed be they! – who maintain cell-phone-free environments, but they have dwindled rapidly in recent years. The other day I was told by someone who works at one of these that after asking a customer if he might simply step outside to finish his call, said customer responded quite irately, left altogether, then phoned 10 minutes later to complain further! Amazing: it’s now even become something of a “right” … And I mean, people even gabber on them in libraries now, even blatantly within yards of the sign saying: please no cell phones… (That, by the way, is where I do take charge.)

Not at all a healthy development, if you ask me.

This is leaving aside the fact that, more and more, that annoyingly ugly MIDI jingle (or more sedate buzz) signalling an incoming phone call or text, causes the person you thought you were having a conversation with to cut you off: “excuse me, I just need to take this call…” Actually, no, 9 times out of 10 you really don’t need to take that call. Your mind has just been marinating in a super-speedy high-octane cacophonously hyper-distracted culture for too many years, and… AARGH!

“On a Clear Day” (the Chris Peterman Quintet at Discover Jazz)

Last night the annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival began. I’d actually somehow forgotten which day it was when I approached Church Street in search of a light dinner and heard a cacophony of sound – at least three different bands playing outdoors within a couple of blocks of each other.

There are the big names over at the Flynn – Branford Marsalis, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, among plenty of others – but then there is also jazz everywhere else around the center of town for the next 10 days, much of it outdoors. I sat outside Das Bierhaus the rest of the evening listening to the Chris Peterman Quintet, who were superb. They are (or at least were at this particular gig): Chris Peterman on saxes, John Rivers on bass, Caleb Bronz on drums, Matt Wright on vocals, and Tom Cleary on piano. Chris I’d never properly heard before and he was brilliant: I loved the fluidity of his playing, the long melodic arches to his solos, effortless inventiveness. Matt – also new to me – shone in some adventurous scat singing, and the rhythm section as usual played with spot-on precision and clarity.

As for Tom, I took a jazz improv class with him a few years ago and always look forward to hearing him. His playing is stylistically versatile and virtuosic, above all always immaculately musical whatever he’s playing – in part stemming from a deep study of jazz history (a journal he’s recently begun exploring musical questions within jazz is here). I was hoping to link to some really amazing samples of what he can do from the CD Frame Problem, a release by Fragile Zoe, but haven’t found anything online as of yet (and am unable to upload my own audio files until I upgrade to self-hosting – hopefully soon). Fragile Zoe are a jazz-funk fusion band consisting of several members of the University of Vermont faculty (Tom and John, and Patricia Julien on flute), along with Patricia’s husband Alec on guitar, and Caleb from last night’s group also.

One tune from last night was “On a Clear Day” (written by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner), which I hadn’t heard in a long time. I’d forgotten what a great song it is. The band played it uptempo and its soaring openness really brightened up the overcast Burlington night sky. Afterward I asked Tom for a recommendation of a recording, and one which he mentioned was Oscar Peterson’s (below). As always when I hear this man, I can’t help laughing from time to time at the level of seemingly effortless virtuosity on display – and check out how his left hand joins the party at 2:26 here… Always fiercely swinging too – I dare you to listen to this with stationery feet…

But then I wanted to find a vocal recording of it and there were fewer choices on YouTube than I expected. Most of these are from Barbra Streisand, each a little different, and then there is one from Shirley Bassey too. In general I find a wee bit too much belting out of this song, which doesn’t feel right to me. The lyrics here are kind of stupendous and don’t need exaggerated force to communicate themselves. At the end, sure, some crescendo, though to my taste not as much as I’m mostly hearing in these recordings. The following – the actual 45 single from way back when – builds too quickly I think, and has the usual triumphalist kind of interpretation. But that hushed opening is pure magic.

On a clear day
Rise and look around you
And you’ll see who you are
On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star
You’ll feel part of
Every mountain, sea and shore,
You can hear from far and near
A world you’ve never never heard before

And on a clear day
On a clear day
You can see forever, and ever, and ever more.