Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Living la vida ahora

It's like the good old days, reading a friend's blog and being inspired to riff off something found there...

Via Derek, who found the link at the Blogora, comes this 2007 New Yorker article on the language of the Piraha, a "remote Amazonian tribe." The article is, as Jim Aune commented when posting the link, fascinating on many levels.

The primary focus is on the challenge that the linguist Dan Everett's interpretation of the language poses to Chomsky's notion of universal grammar. What the Piraha language seems to lack is the very thing that Chomsky and his associates have posited as the key feature of human language: recursion, the embedding of one phrase into another. So, rather than saying the equivalent of "The man who lives downstream fell in the river," they would say something like, "The man lives downstream. He fell in the river." Their expressions are what prescriptive grammarians would call simple sentences. There's no sentence combining here.

Going along with this grammatical feature is a kind of radical empiricism. They speak of what they can see or of what someone they know has seen. While all language is abstract, they seem to eschew abstractions that are more than one degree removed from the concrete. Thus, they have no words for colors. Rather, they refer to color by way of simile, but without fixing upon a simile. According to the article, they might describe a red cup as looking like blood, but at another time say that it looks like a certain kind of berry.

They have no mythic origin stories, which makes me wonder if they have no particular religion. When missionaries have translated parts of the Bible into their language (a task that is itself apparently extraordinarily difficult), they have no sense of it as "spiritual." After being read the parable of the prodigal son, for instance, a Piraha speaker asked the reader if he knew this man. When the answer was no, the man showed no interest in the story. If it isn't close to firsthand, what's the point?

They have no art beyond art that momentarily exists to express something new. When an airplane lands, boys make model planes from balsa wood. But they're soon discarded and forgotten.

According to Everett, the linguist, these tendencies away from abstraction are not the result of some sort of cognitive deficiency. If a baby was taken out of the forest and raised in the city, she would be perfectly capable of learning another language and thinking in abstractions. Rather, Everett maintains, the difference is cultural. As a culture, the Piraha simply reject the abstract.

One might say they live in the moment.

And that's what's so fascinating to me. I don't want to fall into a sentimental fallacy here. I don't mean to romanticize the Piraha a la the "Noble Savage" ideology of the nineteenth century.

Rather, I'm fascinated that this kind of radical empiricism is possible, that a culture could create and maintain it for centuries.

In the practice of meditation, the intention is to abandon the conceptual, to "be with what is." It seems as if this whole culture is built on that intention.

Good, bad. That's not the point. It's just that it's possible. That there they are, a group of people who live in the moment. They don't store more than a few days' worth of flour. Theravada monks are not allowed to store food. It's the same principle, basically. It's a renunciation of conceptualization. Full attention is on the now, not on some abstract notion like the future.

So, yeah, fascinating.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The decade in music

No, I haven't posted in many months. And lately this blog has become a big spam magnet. Still, I have a certain affection for it. And now that grades are in, I'm ready for a nice reflective bit of writing.

And so taking a cue from my friend and yours, Mr. Comoprozac, the one who keeps blogging, I am setting out to offer a list of my favorite music of the past decade.

I make no pretense at offering anything like the "best." I hardly listen to enough music to be able to make any such list. But I have developed a certain connection to many CDs over the years of this new century so far. And if Frank Rich is right (and I think he may be), that this had been a decade characterized by bamboozlement, there is at least the music.

And so a list of my favorites (which may or may not represent a hierarchy of preferences):

10. Krishna Das, Flow of Grace (2007)
It's kirtan music, which may not to everyone's taste, but it's wonderful for focusing the mind. I wrote the introduction to my book while listening to it. (And, yes, that is a monkey on the cover. A very special monkey.)

9. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois. (2005)
So much to love about this CD. An instrumental homage to coming "Out of Egypt," as I just had the previous year, along with what another former Southern Illinoisian has called the prettiest song ever written about a serial killer. Mr. Comoprozac puts it right at the top of his list, and it's hard to blame him.

8. Numinous, Vipassana (2009)
Be-a-u-tiful. "Vipassana" is a type of meditation, aimed at seeing deeply into things as they are. The title caught my attention. The music kept it.

7. Kronos Quartet, Terry Riley: Cusp of Magic (2008)
C. bought this and played it and I loved it. It's beautiful. That is all.

6. Panda Bear, Person Pitch (2007).
It might be heresy to say so, but I really enjoy this effort by the Animal Collective member more than the collective's much-lauded Merriweather Post Pavillion.

5. Dave Douglas, A Thousand Evenings (2000)
It's hard to pick a favorite CD among the many amazing CDs released over the past decade by one of my very favorite jazz artists. He's nothing if not prolific, that one. But I choose this one, with which he opened the century, featuring one of my favorites of his groups, Charms of the Night Sky. I just wish the woman on the cover didn't look so uncomfortable.

4. Ben Allison, Peace Pipe (2002)
Fresh jazz composing with Mamadou Diabate's kora-playing. This CD was in heavy rotation back in the early years of the decade, when I still was in Carbondale, working out at the Rec Center.

3. Marilyn Crispell, Amaryllis (2001)
Glorious. The kind of playing that makes me search for everything I can find by the artist, even if it means sending my credit card information over email to some small music store in New York.

2. Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live! (2002)
A legendary jazz composer and saxophonist puts together a quartet of young talent, with wondrous results. Ah, Wayne.

1. Fleet Foxes(2008)
I've played this CD so many times I've practically worn it out. Probably the last thing I re-played so obsessively was Synchronicity, which I listed to every afternoon for months on end. (I was young and prone to strong addictions.) The haunting voice of Robin Pecknold together with the unlikely synthesis of something like the Beach Boys and a Baroque sensibility keeps bringing me to tears. That's right. Tears.

I've already got in mind a lot of things that could be included here, but aren't. Including Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around, with that incredible rendition of "Hurt"; Jolie Holland, Escondida; ); Tin Hat Trio, The Rodeo Eroded and it could go on. But I've been at this long enough. Time to post.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I haven't been keeping up with the news as well as I might. So it wasn't until today, when I saw the article on the front of the New York Times, "A New Chapter of Grief in Plath-Hughes Legacy," that I learned of Nicholas Hughes's suicide.

He was an academic. He studied fish. Ecologies. He lived in Fairbanks, Alaska.

According to the article, he never talked about his parents, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. His life was quite apart from that legacy. He directed dissertations. He wrote proposals for internal grants. Like one for "Video analysis/editing workstation for graduate students and faculty of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (SFOS)." He gave talks for his department: "Developing the Theory Needed to Predict the Migratory Routes and Distribution of Salmon at Sea."

He was an academic. An ordinary academic. And one suffering from a malady not uncommon among academics: depression.

But I would never have learned of his death were it not for his parents. And the sadness from anyone's death seems magnified by the tragedy of his mother's death.

And since he never talked of his mother, who died when he was still a baby, it seems something less than appropriate to bring forth a poem from her. And yet it's what I can't get out of my head. And so here it is, a poem I've taught, in my own academic life. Students have commented that she put too much pressure on the little baby. I've always felt the turn toward the baby is one of the most moving tonal shifts I know of. "Nick and the Candlestick."

I am a miner. The light burns blue.
Waxy stalactites
Drip and thicken, tears

The earthen womb

Exudes from its dead boredom.
Black bat airs

Wrap me, raggy shawls,
Cold homicides.
They weld to me like plums.

Old cave of calcium
Icicles, old echoer.
Even the newts are white,

Those holy Joes.
And the fish, the fish----
Christ! They are panes of ice,

A vice of knives,
A piranha
Religion, drinking

Its first communion out of my live toes.
The candle
Gulps and recovers its small altitude,

Its yellows hearten.
O love, how did you get here?
O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,
Your crossed position.
The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.
The pain
You wake to is not yours.

Love, love,
I have hung our cave with roses.
With soft rugs----

The last of Victoriana.
Let the stars
Plummet to their dark address,

Let the mercuric
Atoms that cripple drip
Into the terrible well,

You are the one
Solid the spaces lean on, envious.
You are the baby in the barn.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Sleeper team

I have to tell you, my interest in following men's basketball has waned over the past few years. Like I said below, I just couldn't get into following Missouri. Now SIU, that was a team I could get behind. They constantly surprised people. The players weren't a bunch of stars. No one left to join the NBA after playing a year. They were a mid-major team, and they were fun to watch.

Then I come to Missouri, a place with a whole lot more money, and a coach who nervously met with the public to defend himself against their disappointment. But things never got better, and when they lost against, as one radio announcer put it, "Big 12 bottom feeders Baylor," well, that was it. He was out of here.

So when Missouri hired Mike Anderson, I was kind of hopeful. He came out of a mid-major program, UAB, one that had surprised people. I liked that. But still, I was so jaded from the Quin years, I just didn't pay that much attention.

But, wow. Did you see the game last night? Yeah, it got kind of messy for awhile toward the end, but their energy level was something to see. And there was that shot that they're talking about, that was featured on the front of my Yahoo page this morning, that had the most amazing and beautiful arc. (Reminds me of a shot I saw at the SIU Arena back in the day.)

And so it seems, while I wasn't paying attention, that Mizzou has transformed itself into exactly the kind of team I like. A team's team. Not a team that forms itself around a star or two. A team that believes in itself, that works together. That surprises people. Back in January, a Sports Illustrated writer called them the "Sleeper Team."

Last night's game was pretty spectacular. And I'll be watching on Saturday. Even though I was thinking they can't possible win, that's not what the critics are saying. It should be a good game, no matter the outcome.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Brits say yes to blogs, ho-hum to history

Or, as The BBC puts it in their lead-in:

Primary school pupils should learn how to blog and use internet sites like Twitter and Wikipedia and spend less time studying history, it is claimed.

The British primary school curriculum has undergone review, and the resulting recommendations put greater emphasis on information literacy. The report apparently identifies six key areas of learning:

* understanding English, communication and languages
* mathematical understanding
* scientific and technological understanding
* human, social and environmental understanding
* understanding physical health and well-being
* understanding the arts and design

This is for primary school, but it overlaps quite a lot with what folks like the New London group have recommended for higher education, especially greater attention to design and to ecologies.

It's also significant to remember that British educational innovations have a history of bleeding into composition studies, most notably the work of James Britton and his associates. So perhaps some borrowing might happen again?

(via Heidi on Facebook)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I don't do brackets

But I do take an interest in the NCAA tournament. Comoprozac remarked to me last evening that none of my teams made it to the tournament.

Au contraire.

Let's not forget Butler. A former student of mine was on the team that went to the Sweet Sixteen a few years back. Sure, I taught there only one year, but I have allegiance.

But the biggest surprise (for me, because I wasn't paying attention, I have to admit) is #3 seed Missouri. I haven't been able to generate a lot of love for the Tigers in my nearly 5 years in Columbia, but maybe I can begin to. They won the Big 12 Tournament (beating, bizarrely, my tainted alma mater Baylor)!

The biggest disappointment? Well, that would be the Salukis. They appear to have finished 7th in the Missouri Valley. And there's only one MVC team in the tournament. What happen to the good old days of just a few years back, when THREE MVC teams were on the brackets?

Things change. Alas.

At any rate, I'll be routing for my two teams. And that's really all the bracketing that I do.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A return? Or a last hurrah?

My blogging guru has been posting like a fiend over the last few days.

Maybe that will prompt me to begin posting, too.

Back in the day, he helped me with words of wisdom like, Imagine you're writing on a post-it note. Or, establish a rhythm.

And now he's modeling it once again.

So maybe, just maybe. There could be hope for me.