Understanding Reality

Think about cockroaches.  How much do they know about reality?  They have compound eyes that see the world poorly.  They can sense vibration, and they have a sense of touch.  Do they smell and taste the world around them?  I don’t know.  Cockroaches are little biological machines that eat and replicate.  They survive.  Between roaches and humans is an array of animal life with ever improving senses that understand more of reality.  To get some idea how an animal thinks watch “My Life as a Turkey.”  Humans do not have an exclusive hold on consciousness, but our consciousness lets us explore reality far deeper than any other creature we know.

I tend to doubt animals understand their environment in a conscious way.  They react to it, and even develop rudimentary calls that can be language-like that can relate to others of their kind about locations, events or things in their environment.  But I don’t think they ever ask:  who, what, where, when, how and why?  Maybe some higher forms of animals might pine for who, what and where, but I doubt they cognitively ask.

I believe we have a number of cognitive tools that help us analyze, map and understand reality.

Language

Words let us break down reality into parts.  Grammar lets us describe actions with nouns and verbs.  The origin of language let us work with who, what, where and when.

Theology

Theology introduces abstractions that attempt to answer how.  Theology was our first tool that lets us ask why are we here.  Unfortunately, theology is all based on imaginary concepts.  Theology distorts reality.  Theology lets us think we see things that aren’t there.  Theology has imprisoned humans for tens of thousands of years in a pseudo-reality.

Philosophy

Philosophy introduced rhetoric and logic and attempts to understand reality through deduction.  Sadly, philosophy was tainted by religion and sought to reconcile reality with ideal forms of the mind.  It took philosophy centuries to throw off trying to make reality shoehorn into a preconceived concept.

Mathematics

We started counting with language and commerce, but mathematics came into its own with philosophy.  At first mathematics was used in philosophical interpretations of abstractions and ideal forms, but eventually we applied it to analyzing reality.  It became our first tool where consensus and validation was important.

Science

Science is a system for testing reality.  Answers only count if they are consistent, reproducible and universal.  Mathematics became the cognitive tool of science.

Technology

Technology allowed us to expand our senses.  Telescopes and microscopes see further than our eyes.  Other technology allowed us to look into the reality where our senses can’t perceive.

The first three cognitive tools we developed, language, theology and philosophy often distort reality, or create illusions and fantasies.  Most humans never get beyond those three tools and even though they perceive reality far greater than a cockroach because of their superior senses, language, theology and philosophy often just confuses their minds.  Our brains are so powerful that they let us see what we want to see.  Our minds can override our senses and alter reality.  Theology has always been more powerful than any drug, especially combined with the power of our imagination.

The Limits of the Mind

Math, science and technology have expanded our awareness of reality out to infinity in all directions, including time.  How much of this reality humans can comprehend is yet to be determine.  Most humans on planet Earth cannot get beyond theology which blinds them from seeing true reality.  Most religions have incorporated bits of philosophy to make their religion logical and understandable by rhetoric, but its foundation is based on illusion and quicksand.  In recent years theology has even attempted to incorporate science but its been a pathetic failure.  Those people whose only cognitive tool for understanding reality is theology cannot comprehend how science works, if they did, it would destroy their theology.

There are many other tools for understanding reality, such as art, literature, history, journalism, poetry, drama, etc.  They are all subjective, but they have their pros and cons.

JWH – 3/6/12

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is both fascinating and tedious.  Who Jesus was has been argued by billions for thousands of years, so why should anyone assume we can solve an unsolvable puzzle?  Before the Catholic Church became the monolithic institution that defined Christianity for centuries, there were a few centuries after Christ’s death where many different Christian beliefs flourished, and among those were the Gnostics.  Gnosticism wasn’t limited to Christian thinking, but Christian Gnosticism in various forms were large enough movement that early orthodox leaders wrote books teaching against Gnostic thinking.  Gnostics were heretics early orthodox Christians hated even more than the Romans.  The orthodox did everything it could to wipe out the heretics and burn all their books.  In 1945 we found 52 texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

gnostic-gospels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a short overview of alternate Christian beliefs before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Now here’s the rub.  You have many Christian philosophies before 325 AD, then hundreds of years of the Catholic Church, and many Christian philosophies after the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  The Catholic Church spent centuries hammering out who Christ was and what his teachings meant, but there are always other people believing he taught something different.  Gnostics had very radical ideas about Christ that sound just as good or better.  Who is the real Jesus?

How Christianity evolved is a fascinating historical mystery.  I’ve been watching Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication, A Great Course lecture by Bart D. Ehrman.  I got The Gnostic Gospels as a supplement.  The Gnostics are intriguing because they claim to have secret knowledge of Jesus based on his mystical teachings, like Eastern religions.  Some Gnostics thought the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were silly stories the orthodox Christians believed in and claim to know the real truth.  They said Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was within and had already arrived and with the right practices and secret knowledge it would be revealed here on Earth.  It wasn’t faith, but direct experience.

While studying these early Christians I got a strange idea.  History is full of religious charlatans and con men.  What if Jesus had been a con man gathering his flock with a promise of secret knowledge.  Then he gets killed, and after that all his followers taught something different about his “secret knowledge” creating endless religions never knowing they had been conned.  Most people like to assume that one view of Christ is the right one.  But what if they are all wrong?

The more I study the history of Christianity the more its obvious that every Christian see a different Jesus and it’s impossible to know the real Jesus.  Reading The Gnostic Gospels only made me feel more conclusively that Jesus and his teachings are unknowable – and all we can know is an endless series of imaginary Christs created by people who have their on unique beliefs.

JWH 1/4/12

Nonfiction, Fiction, History, Myth and States of Consciousness

Have you ever read a book about a real life event and then watched a documentary about the same subject?  The contrast of what we can learn from words and what we can learn from film is often jarring and sometimes shocking.  One of my favorite books from youth is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  Wolfe made literary fame by pioneering “new journalism” which is now called creative nonfictionThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was considered the book that defined the hippies and their philosophy.  I read this book back in 1969, and now 42 years later I got to watch Magic Trip, a documentary that used actual film footage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.   Wolfe interviewed all the principal people right after the events, and he also must have seen the original 30 hours of film, and I was blown away by the difference between the two ways of telling the same story.

KoolAid_1stUSEd_front

Truth is the actual events.  How close can we ever come to reconstructing the truth?  What is the best evidence for the truth?  When Farmer Ted bets his geeky friends he’ll hook up with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and his friends demand proof, he asks them what kind, and they say in unison, “Video!”   As far as I can imagine, video comes closest to the truth as any evidence we can find – but even then it’s far from perfect.  For centuries, before the advent of video, our knowledge of past events was based on writing.

How much can we know from reading?  Before writing was invented our worldview was limited to the here and now.  We had oral storytellers that conveyed news from distant lands and remembered events and people from the past, but it was very limited.  Most of the time people’s consciousness was focused on the present and the immediate world around them.  Then reading and writing was invented and information about endless places and countless past moments could be recorded so people could conjure up in their minds things that weren’t here and now.  But how effective is reading at reproducing the past?  How accurate can reading describe distant places and events?

All my life I’ve been a bookworm, spending hours a day with my head in a book.  When young I most read fiction, and felt that time away from reality was just escapist entertainment, but over the decades I’ve shifted to reading more nonfiction, and felt I was learning stuff about other places, people and the past.  But am I?

Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction books and then seeking out documentaries and photographs to supplement my reading, and in every case I’m shocked by how different my mental image from reading is from the photograph or film.  Words are black marks on white paper, but they attempt to encode information that comes through our five senses.  How well does any word for a color convey the actual color? Does the word blue suggest any particular shade of blue?  Picture the wall of paint sample colors at your local Home Depot.  Which of the thousands of blues are the one we call blue?  Now think about the other four senses and words for sounds, textures, tastes and smells.  How close do words come to the infinite varieties of sensual details?

Last night I watched a documentary Magic Trip about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters taking a bus from the west coast to visit New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  In 1969 when I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe it blew me away by how exciting his non-fiction writing was at vividly conveying the story of these freaks on acid traveling across the country.  Over the years I’ve read more books and articles about this event, and the people involved.  To me this cross country trip was the legendary beginning of the hippies.  Of course I was wrong.   Kesey and his Merry Pranksters met the real hippies, like the Grateful Dead, when they got back from the trip and started promoting their acid test events.  Hippies already existed in 1964.

The documentary Magic Trip was created around the actual film the Pranksters took while on the trip and it blew my mind again.  It was absolutely nothing like I pictured from the Tom Wolfe book.  First off, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t look like hippies – only the women had long hair.  And they all looked ordinary – I wouldn’t have named them the Merry Pranksters – that moniker seems way to grand for them.  The people in the film looked like college kids from the late 1950s or early 1960s acting really silly.  They looked more like early Beach Boys wearing stripe shirts.  Their antics looked as sophisticated as old episodes of The Monkees.

In some of the film clips Kesey and the Pranksters are on heavy doses of acid but you couldn’t tell that from what you see.  Now I know what they were feeling, I can remember that from those days.  Acid is like having a hurricane in your head, but you don’t see that from the outside.  What you see is kids being goofy and stupid.  Now in the book, Tom Wolfe tries to convey the epic psychological discoveries they were making – things going on in their heads, and the Magic Trip film tries to suggest that too, but the physical evidence of visuals from the film and sound recordings from tape just don’t back it up.  Wolfe wrote about what was going on in their heads and we can’t see that in the film.

As evidence of what actually happened I credit the film over Wolfe.  But is that fair or even accurate?  How much can we judge the truth of an event from what we can see and hear?  As counter evidence, how much do people know you from seeing you and hearing you talk?  See what I mean?  Reality and truth is deceptive.

It’s impossible to convey a psychedelic trip in words – and the clips of the trip festivals at the end of the movie don’t even come close.  What you see is kids dancing and acting weird and idiotic – no wonder the silent-majority Americans were freaked out by the freaks.  Back then the claim was drugs took you to a state of higher consciousness, but I always felt like they took me to a state of animal consciousness – a lowering.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite revealing, and you can learn a lot about how the mind functions, but all that talk about higher states was bullshit.  But then I value the verbal mind over the nonverbal mind.

In one part of the film, the west coast Merry Pranksters, along with their legendary bus driver Neal Cassidy, famed beat character Dean Moriarty from On the Road, meet up with his fellow real life On the Road beat characters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  Hippies meet their beatnik idols.  But things don’t go off well.  Jack is morose and turned off by the silly pranksters.  Then the west coast psychedelic legends go and meet the east coast prophets of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.  Leary is so turned off by them that he runs away and hides and leaves the future Ram Das to deal with them.  Leary and Alpert were trying to make LSD a serious tool for studying consciousness and these proto-hippies were abusing acid like teenagers breaking into their parents liquor cabinet.  In 1964 most people did not know what to make of these crazy kids.

Seeing Magic Trip was shocking to me.  Imagine how disturbing it would be to discover films of Jesus and his merry band of disciples.  Christianity has created thousands of different interpretations of the history of Jesus – so imagine if we got to see what Jesus really said and did?   Video can be so shocking to see after studying words.  We have no idea what Jesus was like or what he said.  Everything he supposedly said was recreated decades after the fact.  In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe is deifying Kesey and his disciples just three years after the real event, and it’s impossible to know how much of the legend is Wolfe and how much is Kesey?

Tom Wolfe had used words to make this trip into an epic adventure, a transcendental experience of the first order.  He totally mythologized the people involved – of course the Pranksters were trying to do that themselves even while they were on the trip.  They gave each other funny names making themselves into characters on an epic adventure traveling in their legendary bus Further.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that these folks weren’t experiencing eye opening philosophical experiences.  They were exploring a new consciousness, breaking out of the rigid 1950s stereotypes, and exploring new experiences that would come to be known as the psychedelic sixties – but it wasn’t new consciousness.   Throughout history groups of people have rediscovered the Dionysian joys of intoxication and ecstasy – and wanting to escape from the rigid confines of society.  Even in the film Kesey says they were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.

I remember my psychedelic days from over forty years ago, and it pretty much followed the Pranksters.  Me and my friends did a lot of silly and stupid things while exploring the doors of perception.  I had been inspired by Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and wanted my trips to be scientific experiments into the mind, but they weren’t.  It was just me and my friends doing many of the same exact things the Pranksters did in Magic Trip – going group swimming, driving around in funny vehicles that got a lot of attention, trying to play musical instruments when we had no ability, getting zonked out by nature, admiring the beats, upsetting the older people.  Oh, I learned a lot, but I can safely say to kids today, don’t bother, there are much better ways to explore the mind.  Read Steven Pinker, Edge.org and learn how to achieve Zen mindfulness.

But does any of this answer the question about how much truth we can attain from words?  In terms of acquiring knowledge, words can get you far higher than any amount of acid.  Truth and experience are wordless – ineffable.  I’ve experienced wordless states of consciousness through drugs and a mini-stroke, and that’s not a normal human state of consciousness.  As humans, like it or not, our consciousness minds are based on words and language – and language and words do not mirror reality perfectly.  Or even closely.  I know there are non-verbal conscious states of mind but the past and future don’t exist in those states.  The mere act of trying to recreate the past is a verbal state of consciousness.

The real question is:  How close does the nonverbal reality match our verbal reality?  I don’t think very much at all.  My proof is the fact that we all live in different verbal realities, and even when several people experience the same event they seldom recreate the shared reality with the same words.

A good lesson in understanding this is to study writing creative nonfiction.  I took two MFA writing courses with Kristen Iversen dealing with Creative Nonfiction and I learned quite a lot about “telling the truth” with words.  It’s actually very hard, if not impossible.  One of the first writing lessons she gave our class was to take a memory from when we were young and put it into words.   Even here I’m being misleading.  I can’t remember the exact assignment.  I think she might have told us to pick a memory from when we were twelve, but I’m not sure.  What immediately occurred to me to write about was a memory of me staying with my grandmother who maintained an old apartment building on Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the night she gave me an old fishing tackle box left in one of the apartments, and how I went out alone to fish off the concrete wall by the bay.  The more I thought about the memory the more details I could dredge up, but eventually I realized I couldn’t be sure of any of the exact details.  Memory is so faulty, but they’re also tricky.  It’s easy to create false memories. But my final essay was praised in class for its vivid details.

Was the essay absolutely true?  No, it wasn’t.  But I didn’t feel I was lying either.  I had recreated in words what were vague impressions and memories in my mind.  Mining those memories took work.  There’s a quality of effort in recreating memories that is very enlightening.  But still this brings us no closer to explaining the difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

I have read many nonfiction books on Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many documentaries on Wyatt Earp.  I have read many fictional stories about Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many fictional movies about Wyatt Earp.  I have heard many people discuss Wyatt Earp as a legendary mythic character of the old west.  Which of these various modes of learning about Wyatt Earp are the best for knowing who the real Wyatt Earp was like?  Is Tombstone the movie better than The Last Gunfight the nonfiction book, or Doc, a fictional novel where Wyatt is a prominent character?  Or the  PBS American Experience episode about Wyatt Earp?

Here’s what I can tell you.  It’s only based on personal feelings.  Wyatt Earp the man who lived in the nonverbal reality of the 19th century is long gone and unknowable.  That kind of reality is unknowable.  That’s why it’s called ineffable.  I can say some fictional versions of Wyatt Earp vary far from the actual reality of the nonfictional evidence, but can we say the Wyatt we create with historical evidence is actually close the to real flesh and blood Wyatt?  Yes, I think we can, even though there are many nonfictional Wyatt Earps to consider.  Every account, whether fiction or nonfiction creates a new edition of Wyatt Earp.  But I actually doubt we really get that close to the real man – some accounts are just more factual than others.

Scientists like to entertain the idea of multiple universes because there should be an infinity of these other universes allowing endless versions of our own world, many just slightly different.  That’s how verbally reconstructed Wyatt Earps exists.  There’s an infinity of them.  Some of them are close to the real world that did exist, but it’s very hard to judge which are the closest.  We can spot the absurd examples easy enough like all the Wyatt Earps in science fiction stories, but we can’t say which historical Wyatt is actually the best.

I think we’re getting closer to understand nonfiction, fiction, history and myth, but we’re not there yet.  I am reminded of a book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  What Jaynes suggested was for early humanity they had a different state of mind than we do now, which he called the bicameral mind.  I don’t want to go into the details of his theory other than to say that in the past we shifted from one kind of consciousness to another.  I just want to suggest that as our verbal consciousness evolved, we’re now shifting into a third state of consciousness.  This new consciousness is based on sharing facts and building a consensus model of reality based on science.

We’re not that good at it yet – the proof can be seen by how Democrats and Republicans model our political reality.  And even conservatives and liberals seldom share the same ideas.  But in theory we believe through science and other forms of knowledge, that we can model our complex social reality in political and economic laws, as well as nonfiction, history and even fiction.

In other words, many of us believe given enough facts we could prove to each other the validity of a model of reality.  Science has gone the furthest by explaining the physical world.  The consensus is very strong with that – there’s very little fiction or myth in science.  All other areas of knowledge, like politics, ethics, law, economics are a long way from matching reality with any kind of common agreement.  In other words, they are mostly built on fiction and myths.

What I’m saying finally is, we all like to believe that we can separate nonfiction and history from fiction and myths.  Whether that’s true or even possible, is still open for scientific evaluation.  In other words, if you hold any beliefs other than those covered by a narrow range of scientific study, you can’t be sure if there is any difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

There is no way to know who Ken Kesey or Wyatt Earp was scientifically, but is there any emerging discipline that could use consensus like science, to measure the accuracy between nonfiction and fiction?  Is the scholarship of History rigorous enough to make that claim?  Or will all areas of knowledge outside of science always by undermined by subjectivity?

JWH – 12/30/11

The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn has a subtitle that perfectly describes the book:  “The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How it Changed the American West.”  I’ve been reading about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral for decades, and the story just gets better and better as historians gather more and more data and keep putting the pieces together over and over looking for the historical truth.  Jeff Guinn’s book is the best yet, but I also liked Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra.  Both have come a tremendous distance down the trail since Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931.

the-last-gunfight

Growing up in the 1950s meant watching a lot of westerns on television.  Western movies have been around since the earliest days of silent films.  The allure of the wild west began in print way before the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 with newspaper stories and dime novels.  Stories of the west have always been mythic, and the truth has always been hard to know.  We know the wild west through fiction – through the myths.   In recent years historians have been examining and writing about those myths and the reality is startlingly different.

Back in the 1950s Wyatt Earp on TV was a squeaky clean good guy.  But before the real Wyatt Earp got to Tombstone he had mainly worked in whorehouses, probably as a bouncer, but maybe as investor, and had been arrested a couple of times, including for horse stealing.  After the gunfight he killed three men in cold blood, and only one in a gunfight, because he was tired of waiting for the law to catch the killers of his brother.  Wyatt Earp essentially got away with murder.  Many people also felt the Earps and Doc Holladay murdered the three men at the O.K. Corral.   Wyatt Earp had worked for the law, but never as full Marshal or Sheriff, just as a deputy.  But this work brought him in contact with criminals that wanted him and his brothers dead, and the Earps killed the cowboys first.

In the myths of television and movie westerns violence is the solution.  We like to think the white hat cowboys represent good and the American way of life, and the black hat cowboys represent lawlessness and evil.  Jeff Guinn’s book goes beyond those stereotypes to explain things were far more complex.  As ambiguous as any complex issue today.

Even as the conflict between the cowboy rustlers around southern Arizona and New Mexico was taking place with the city folk of Tombstone, press reports about the violence was entertaining newspaper readers all over the country.  At first the Earps were praised for warring against criminals and maintaining the peace, but after the famous gunfight, when Wyatt went on his famous revenge vendetta ride, the public turned against him too.  He became just another killer that society needed to deal with.

Wyatt Earp lived another forty something years and fame dogged him the rest of his life.  He wanted to square his story with the public, which is why he worked with Stuart Lake on his autobiography.  But Earp died before it was finished, and Lake had to make it into a biography.  But because of Earp’s wife Josephine, Lake was forced to clean up the story.  Wyatt had already been telling lies for years about his life, and before he died already had his own mythic view of his past ready.  People wanted to read about a gunman, but Earp wanted them to believe he was a peace officer and businessman.

Then the movies started coming out and the legend began to grow and Wyatt Earp was turned into one of most famous men in wild west history.  He’s even eclipsing Wild Bill Hickok and other men who were more famous at the time.  Jeff Guinn explores this in the last chapter of his book.  I think it deserve a whole book itself.

The story is complicated.  Just read the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” at Wikipedia.  It’s so complicated that it makes for a Rashomon like tale.  Jeff Guinn strengthens this story by giving a lot of American history that leads up to why the various principle characters acted the way that they did.  Much of the story is political – can’t get far from the Republicans and Democrats today, can we?

Because of television and movies we picture old west towns with one long street, with a sheriff’s office, several saloons, a hotel, a general store, a telegraph office and a livery stable.  1881 Tombstone was far more urban than that.  It had two opera houses, a bowling alley, an ice cream store, tennis courts, a stationary story, many hotels, mines, factories, countless bars, countless whorehouses, two newspapers, and lots of businesses, including those that sold the latest fashions for women from the east and Europe.  The wild west in 1881 was already becoming what we know as modern – and thus the famous shootout was less about wild west gunslingers and more about of a complicated crime.

Wyatt Earp and his brothers had common law marriages to prostitutes, mainly earned their money from gambling, and Wyatt hoped to make it big by becoming Sheriff who got to keep 10% of the taxes he collected.  The Earps were near the bottom of the social/economic heap and hoped to climb up in status by working as lawmen.  Unlike the movies, they weren’t famous citizens of their town.  Their names got in the papers when they arrested cattle rustlers or arrested drunk and disorderly cowboys, but that wasn’t that often.  They were just tough guys hired to deal with more unpleasant tough guys.

We see westerns today where the good guys kill countless bad guys.  How many men did Marshal Matt Dillon kill over the course of Gunsmoke?  Well Wyatt Earp is the most famous gunfighter in history for being involved in killing six men, but none in quick draw duels.  There were damn few gunfight duels like we see on television that you have to study hard to find them.  Most gunfights were drunken brawls and cowardly ambushes.  Even the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral was not men whipping out six-shooters from their holsters.  Wyatt had his pistol in a coat with a specially made pocket for a handgun.  I don’t know if any of the men had guns in holsters slung low on the hip like we see in the movies.  One man the Earps shot apparently didn’t even have a gun – but they probably didn’t know it since they let another man with out a gun, Ike Clanton, the man they really wanted to kill the most,  get out of the way.  Something like 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds by six people.   More of a close fire fight than a duel.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was an insignificant event in America history that’s been elevated into myth and legend.  Because the event is at the intersection of history and myth, like stories we find in The Bible, people can’t let them go.  The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is like a meme that grows and grows.  We can no longer tell reality from myth when it comes to stories about the American wild west, but there is something about these stories that deeply resonate with us.  We want to define ourselves and our history by the myths rather than reality.

I predict there will be more movies about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the future, and with each new generation of films, they will redefine the story again and again.  Sometimes the pendulum will swing towards reality and other times towards fantasy.  The Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell portrayals glorified Wyatt Earp even though they both tried to be realistic.   The new book Doc by Mary Doria Russell tries to de-glorify them, and make them more human, and demystify the violence – but I’m worried she went to far in making them likable.  My personal guess is they were both pretty damn unlikable.  But the fact is we’ll never know.  We can make Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday into whatever we want – and will, time and again in the movies and books.

JWH – 12/28/11

1959 by Fred Kaplan and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

If you have a Spotify account you can listen to Kind of Blue while you read my review.   Visit this link and it will launch Spotify and play the album. If you don’t have Spotify, request a free account here.  Having at least the free Spotify account means you can always try a new album when your friends rave about a new album discover.  Kind of Blue was first released in 1959.  I’ve included YouTube versions of its five songs below.

I am becoming more and more fascinated and entertained by history – but not the history they teach in school, but the everyday history of people, inventions and art.  We take every new thing for granted, as if it sprung fully formed new on the scene.  Take the hit gadget of the moment, the iPad.  It was far from the first tablet computer, and the concept goes back to at least to the Dynabook imagined by Alan Kay in 1968.  Nor could the tablet computer exist without the integrated circuit which was patented in 1959 by Jack Kilby, hence the connection to the book I want to talk about, 1959 by Fred Kaplan.

In 1959 Kaplan writes several related essays about how 1959 was a pivotal year for all of us who have been living since.  Essentially, you can do this for any year, but Kaplan makes a good case for 1959.  Whether it’s birth control, jazz, Fidel Castro, atomic warfare, Beat writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, Motown, integrated circuits, Malcolm X, Vietnam, Grove Press, or any of the other happening events of 1959, they all impact on us today.  Everything evolves, and everything trails a history, and the past gives birth to the now.

Never heard of Grove Press?  Well, it took on U.S. censorship and since then we’ve had sex and dirty words in books and movies.  Now you might not think that’s a good thing, but it is a pivotal change in society.  What Kaplan is getting at is you could experience pop culture before 1959 it would be much different from anything you know now.  Not unknown, because everything before is still around, but it would be missing a lot of stuff that’s come out since.

This is hard to explain.  I lived before cell phones were invented, in any form.  People who grew up with cell phones can’t imagine what life was like without them.  What Kaplan is trying to explain in a series of essays is what life was like before 1959, and what came out that year that has changed everything since.

One of the essays that really stood out for me was the one on Miles Davis and his sextet recording Kind of Blue.  It’s easy to understand the impact of technology.  Kaplan writes about the invention of the integrated circuit and we’ve been living with the technology it generated ever since, from computers to high definition TVs.  That’s obvious.  But can you understand the impact of a kind of “new technology” in music?  I struggle for that, but it’s pretty obvious if you spend time listening to Kind of Blue.  Most young people today will not understand the roots of their favorite music, but their favorite musicians who create the music will.

I find it tremendous fun to time travel via pop culture.  For most of us baby boomers, we were kids in the 1950s, and our memories of the times are fleeting and tainted by TV.  It’s easier to remember Leave It To Beaver than the politics of Dwight Eisenhower.  I was born in 1951, so I lived through most of the decade, but I have few memories of it.  I do remember the 1960s vividly, but putting the puzzle pieces of the 1950s together makes the 1960s make more sense.

Kind of Blue is a transition marker in the art of music.  If you like to play the six degrees of separation game, it will link you to many cool people.  It’s both a tipping point and a crossroads.  You can listen to the music, but it’s also fun to read about its history.

Kind-of-Blue

Kind of Blue is considered to be one of the best jazz albums of all time, and the best selling jazz album.  A 2001 NPR report claims it sells 5,000 copies every week.   There are no words to describe how beautiful this album is, that’s why I provide the link to Spotify above.  The album has a fascinating history that you can read at Wikipedia or listen to on this NPR documentary – I won’t try to rephrase that history since these sources do it so well.

As I read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a columnist for Slate magazine and also columnist on jazz at Stereophile magazine, I realized the Kaplan had a gift for music history.  I thought the chapter on Kind of Blue in 1959 was full of wonderful historical details and the his descriptions of music are very precise and vivid.  It’s very hard to describe music in words.  Check out Kaplan’s video introduction to the book in this video clip at Amazon.  It opens with music from Kind of Blue, Kaplan will give you a better idea of his enthusiasm for writing about 1959.

I turned eight in 1959, and I was living in New Jersey, out in the country, where I was oblivious to the world at large.  I’m not sure we even had a TV set at the time.  Kaplan covers a quirky view of 1959, but one I can identify with because all the topics later impacted my life.  I didn’t discover Kind of Blue until the late 1980s.  I was reading Kerouac and Ginsberg in the late 1960s.  Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, and I spent most of my youth growing up in Miami living with the results, so I’m like one degree away from that chapter, plus I spent the 1960s loving hits from Motown which was started in 1959.  I never knew I had so many connections to 1959 until I read this book.

Kaplan is right about 1959, people and inventions from 1959 have slowly weaved themselves into the fabric of my life over the last 52 years.  I wished I had been given a record player and the LP of Kind of Blue when I was 8, because I grew up with AM rock n roll and that has shaped the musical tastes of my lifetime.  I wonder if I was exposed to jazz at 8 if I would have been a different person.  For the most part I don’t even like jazz, but I love Kind of Blue, and Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, another masterpiece of jazz from 1959.

I have been able to travel back in time to enjoy the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, and through the swing era of the 1940s.  Then came Bebop, which was beginning of modern jazz and although I can admire it intellectually, I don’t feel it.  I feel the same way about most classical music.  Neither kind moves me emotionally.

Miles Davis worked with Charlie Parker, one of the pioneers of Bebop, and then Davis moved on to Hard Bop, which brought R&B, gospel and blues into jazz.  I bought several Art Blakey and John Coltrane CDs in the 1980s trying to get into this era of jazz.  Again, I could semi-enjoy this kind of jazz, but something was missing.  Why?

Why was Jack Kerouac and his Beat buddies so blown about by jazz of the 1940s and 1950s?  It drove them insane with excitement, but it’s all too cool emotionally for me.  Then comes 1959 and Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck produce two albums that turn me on, but also turn on a zillion other people to jazz again.  When I read Kaplan’s chapter on Miles Davis I wanted to go back and try to get into those jazz years I can’t connect with.  My friend Mike who got into jazz about the same time as I did broke the barrier and left me behind.

For those of you who didn’t take the time to join Spotify, here’s “So What” the first cut off of Kind of Blue.  It really helps to have good speakers to enjoy the textured loveliness of these tunes.

Maybe the reason why I dig this new direction in jazz is because it jettisons so much of the old forms of jazz.  Miles Davis and Bill Evans prepared very little in the way of musical notation for the musicians to follow.  Fred Kaplan explains what they are doing in words, but these seven musicians are improvising from very little structure, mainly just the mood of the piano.  I wish I understood music to know what they are doing, but I don’t.

All I know is this music lights up my mind.  I highly recommend getting a copy of Kind of Blue and play it when you are ready to just relax and listen.  Let your mind go with the music.  It’s very different, yet this album has influenced many artists since.  I really got into The Allman Brothers in 1969, and even got to see them before Duane was killed.  Duane Allman loved Kind of Blue and claims it influenced his music.  In can feel “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” in “Freddie Freeloader” which you can play here:

“Blue in Green” is so moody that it feels more like a soundtrack for a story, or music for a modern dance piece.  This third track was the final song recorded in the March 2, 1959 session.  Give it a listen:

The final two cuts were performed on April 22, 1959.

“All Blues,” the first cut on the back side of the LP, picks up the tempo and is the longest cut on the the album (11:31), and my favorite, but sadly it’s cut short here on YouTube because of the 10 minute limit.

The last track, “Flamenco Sketches.”  This is so far from modern pop music that I’m not sure if young people will be able to get into this kind of music at all.  I think one reason why I love this Miles Davis over his earlier work is because the music is slower.  I couldn’t handle the frantic tempo of Bebop, nor did I relate to the old tunes being blended into Hard Bop.  This music is as modern as NASA, the agency that was created just a year before in 1958.  This music is light-years away from the teen idols I was hearing on the radio at the time.

Is this really the sound of 1959?  The music of bomb shelters and revolutions in Cuba?  It certainly sounds like music for books by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, but how many regular Americans listened to this album?  I’m sure its as esoteric as Zen Buddhists to mainstream America, yet it was significant to our culture.

Us baby boomers can’t let go of the 1950s.  Look at TV shows like Mad Men, that started with 1950s ad men confronting the beginning of the 1960s or the film The Tree of Life, which tries to put the 1950s in context of the whole history of the universe.  Or read a book like The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which is a nostalgic memoir of the times by Bill Bryson.

I wonder what people from generations after us baby boomers think of the 1950s.  It must be as alien as the 1920s are to me, the decade my parents were children, or the 1930s, the decade they were teens.

Kind of Blue was a musical experiment.  A few other albums after it pursued the same techniques, but as far as I know, it’s a dead end for a trend, yet fleeting pieces of its sound show up in music all the time.  Modern pop music is almost a rigid formula – I almost ache to hear something new and different.  What musical experiments are going on now in 2011 that will be written about in the 2060s?

JWH – 7/30/11

Reliving the Sixties: Freedom Riders (May 1961)

Last night I caught the riveting documentary Freedom Riders on the PBS American Experience series.  May 4th, was the fiftieth anniversary of the first freedom riders who rode down south to challenge the Jim Crow laws.  Check your PBS stations because they often repeat shows and this show is a standout that’s worth tracking down.  You can also watch the show online.

Last night I wasn’t in the mood to watch TV at all, but I caught the beginning of this show and just couldn’t stop watching, and the film was two hours long.  I love history, I read a lot of history books, and watch a lot of documentaries on TV about history, and I’ve read and seen references to freedom riders my whole life, but until I saw this film I never understood their real importance and how these people affected our everyday lives.  This film, in a day-by-day diary, made history riveting, but more than that, it was a revelation because it was history I had lived though, even though I was only nine at the time, and I realized just how little I had been paying attention.

Even if we’re news addicts, reading newspapers, magazines, blogs and spend all our time watching TV news, we still miss so much.  It takes time to put history together into a story that’s understandable.  Sometimes it takes a long time before we really want to put the facts together to make a story.  That’s why great books are often written years and decades later.

I realized as I was watching this film – we’re going to be reliving the 1960s day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month as 50th anniversary news stories and documentaries appear to remind us of how things happened as we were growing up.  I don’t know why I didn’t realize this sooner.  They’ve already had 50th anniversary stories about John F. Kennedy’s inauguration (January 20), the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club (February 9),  the Peace Corp creation (March 1), Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight (April 12),  Bay of Pigs (April 17), Alan Shepard goes into space (May 5), and so on.  I’m waiting for anniversary of  Kennedy announcing our plan to go to the Moon (May 25).

Fifty years is a long time.  I grew up in the 60s, so I love stories about that decade.  I turn 60 this year, and will be hearing all the anniversaries about the 1960s all through my sixties.  I felt like I came of age in the 1960s, so watching documentaries about those times is like filling in gaps to my memory.  Seeing that show last night was like SNAP! – and suddenly so much became clear.  My actual knowledge of the 1960s is rather sketchy, like having a 1,000 word puzzle with just a few clumps of pieces put together and no box cover to know what the image looks like.  The Freedom Riders show connected several pieces were I can actually see part of an image.

I was 9 years old in May of 1961 when the freedom riders started their trips south.  I was finishing up the third grade and I knew very little about the world around me.  I was very excited by the space program, and I remember being at school and they played Alan Shepard’s flight over the PA system.  I remember a lot of excitement about John F. Kennedy – my mom loved him.  I remember doing duck and cover drills, and I had fantasies about B-52 bombers dropping atomic bombs on our playground as part of the drills, and being disappointed when they didn’t. 

But if I heard about the freedom riders it made no impression on me.  I was living in Hollywood, Florida at the time, but just before that, when my mom and dad were separated for awhile, my Mom, sister and I lived in Marks, Mississippi.  My first memory of Jim Crow in action was at Marks, when I was getting a drink at the Piggly-Wiggly.  A big white guy came running out of the back and started screaming at me, calling me all kinds of names for being stupid.  I was drinking out of the fountain for black people.  I didn’t like that guy.  I didn’t like any of the racists I met there, but it wasn’t because I was enlightened and understood civil rights.  I just never liked violent people.

I don’t know when I became aware of civil rights as a cause.  Growing up the the 1960s I saw a lot of social upheaval, and civil rights was just one of many causes I grew up hearing about.  Because my family moved around so much, I was always the new kid, the outsider, and it was easy for me to identify with other outsiders.  I grew up embracing liberal ideas and thinking radical thoughts.  I have no idea why.  And often what I knew was fragmentary at best, third and fourth hand knowledge, passed around by kids who didn’t know shit.  I don’t think it was until 1965 that I started watching the nightly news regularly.  I got a few fun bits of news from Life Magazine and The Today Show, but how much?

My awareness of living through the early sixties was extremely limited at best, so seeing something like Freedom Riders brings a clarity to me, putting youthful memories into perspective.  I knew what civil rights were by 1965, but mainly because of Bob Dylan, so I’m sketchy on how things developed in the early 60s.  The Freedom Riders were the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, but I never knew that until last night.  And I had just finished The Warmth of Other Suns, that had chronicled the effects of Jim Crow in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  History is amazing when the puzzle pieces start coming together.

The trouble is we all know so little about history.  How can we make sense of our times?  Look at this report, “STILL AT RISK:  What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.”   Only 43% of students can place the Civil War in the 1850-1900 time period?  April 11th was the 150th anniversary of attack on Fort Sumter.  Is the Civil War just too old to matter?  Well, most students don’t know much about WWI or WWII or Korea or Vietnam.  Maybe we’ve been in too many wars for our students to remember.  But should high school kids be expected to understand the wars in which they lived through?  Will it take kids who were 9 when 9/11 happened fifty years to finally put the puzzle pieces together abut their times?

History is something we learn our whole life.  As a kid I lived in the now, which was the 1950s and early 1960s, then as I started reading, watching the news, seeing documentaries, I started living backwards in time, studying the past.  While still young I explored the 1930s through MGM movies, or 1950s with jazz music, or the 1940s by reading Jack Kerouac.  I’m currently exploring 1870s England by reading Anthony Trollope.  But I think for the next ten years I’ll be concentrating on the 1960s again because of all the 50th anniversary remembrances.

Wikipedia has a nice year by year summary, and you can check 1961 to see what’s coming up.  June 25 is the anniversary of Iraq trying to annex Kuwait.  I didn’t know that, and that only proves Santayana’s famous quote "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

1961 was the year that Catch-22 and Stranger in a Strange Land were first published.  In 1961 Bob Dylan moved to New York City, and Ben E. King sang “Stand By Me” on the radio, and The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on TV, but I didn’t know all that because I was 9 and was watching shows like The FlintstonesMr. Ed and Car 54, Where Are You?  What’s weird is I can go back to 1961 now by watching the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.

I remember even more about 1962, 1963 and 1964.  As I got older I paid more attention to the things around me, and I can look at the Wikipedia listings of events during those years and remember that I heard about more of them when they happened, but most of those events I don’t remember at all, or learned about later.  But even by the year 1969, the year I graduated high school, I was still unaware of most of the events listed by Wikipedia.  How many of them will be remembered on the nightly news in the upcoming decade? 

How many of these historical events will get a 2 hour documentary made about them, like the Freedom Riders show?  I expect the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 to get the full treatment.  But what about the New York World’s Fair from the same year?  Most events might get 30 seconds on the nightly news, but the special ones will get  1-2 hour documentaries on PBS.

Remember Vietnam?  Reliving the 1960s will be reliving the Vietnam War.  Plus we have the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.  Remember the generation gap, the sexual revolution, hippies, rock and roll, communism, feminism, gay rights, and on and on.  There should be a wealth of 50th Anniversary documentaries in our future.  Why did we suddenly start changing so violently fifties years ago?  History is always about change, so was there really more change in the 1960s, or did it just seem so?

Why didn’t the 1950s get showcased in the last decade?  There was plenty of looking back to the 1950s, but I don’t remember the level of remembrances like we’re probably going to see for the 1960s.  The 1960s were when the baby boomers came of age, and we loved the spotlight, so I think my generation is going to do a lot more looking backwards.  Maybe the 1960s is more memorable because that was the decade that television and satellite communications took off.  Camera crews went everywhere.  But what does that mean for now, when historians start making documentaries about the twenty-tens?  There are way more cameras watching.  We’ll have to wait and see, but I doubt I’ll be around.

JWH – 5/21/11