Saturday, October 24, 2009

“Nut up or Shut Up”

Of late, discussions in the office have brought about a fuller understanding of this “phrase that pays”, so to speak. As the subheading of the adverts for “Zombieland” it obviously refers to the other popular locution, “Man Up”: i.e., to act like a man; do not whimper or complain but, instead, to demonstrate the courage of your convictions. The sum total of this text is to create an Us vs. Them proposition wherein opposing sides cease the war of words and, in effect, join in combat.

In previous eras, the phrase “to get one’s nut” or “to make our nut” was the slang showpeople used for the cost of goods and services in the presentation of a performance (or whatever) weighted against box office receipts: i.e., “the net”. How it got down to “nut” I have no idea. (I would suggest asking William Safire, but, like “Mistah Kurtz” in “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, “he dead”.)

However, there is a secondary effect as well. In Hip Hop, or Gangsta, or whatever label you choose for post-Rap lingo, the meaning takes on a fuller dimension. In Too Short’s old usage (back in the ‘90s, or ‘80s depending upon when you twigged yer wig), to get your “nut” was to find male sexual release. Hence, today, “nut up” is the completion…with prejudice..solo. It remains an open question as to whether the campaign for the movie was designed with that in mind yet there is no doubt it cannot but help benefit from it as lots of testosterone-oriented persons find it equally provocative and humorous.

H.L. Mencken and Marshal McLuhan would be proud of any and all of these definitions, and maybe even Carl Sandburg. This is “the language that” not only “rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”, but, does triple duty in the measure. And, as well, engages the imagination and provides a continuous flow from one generation to the next.

Slang is a beautiful thing.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

October is the time for catch-up ball in the extreme

Another hiatus, another afflatus. At first, it would have been 'coming to terms' with the nature of the Blog: spontaneity. Then, it was the words themselves: chosen? found? Finally, some sort of arrangement of them into... Ok. Not that it matters, but it occurred to me that if I wanted to say something, it might sound better than just blowing in the wind...

The trick of talking and not saying anything, and garnering a lot of attention, is easy. Look at Glenn Beck. So much is written about him and his fantastic ravings that the essential picture is being missed. There is a philosophical method of argument called, loosely, "the sacrificial straw dog". In this, you simply set up an extreme that is wholly outrageous and then allow other people to take note of the obvious: why, he's insane! Then you can say: of course he is! Now you can't really compare him with me!?! Can you? I'm the reasonable one...and therefore, whatever arguments you make that are just as insane, but couched in calmly, must be considered as valid. Even when they are ludicrous.

Another illustration of how such a ruse works can be seen in the health care debate. By letting semi-pro flacks and rabid-rousing radio rangers ramp up the rhetoric via lunatic fringes of crowds, while placing "outside agitators" (amazing, no?--that was once used during the civil rights' marches era to describe voting and poll workers and lunch-counter sit-ins with 'yankees stirrin' up our colored folk', etc. such it is how the wheel goes around) inside town halls, the "silent majority" (another jaw-dropper, eh?) is effectively negated. The content (conservative think-tank tick-tock disguised as fervent homespun stories of heartland issues forgotten by the Eastern Standard Liberal Establishment) isn't at issue here, and neither is the form. It is in the summary.

But that's not where I wanted to begin.

I wanted to start by listing some books I'd read. Then I thought: that's really tooting your horn, isn't it? That said, I'm blowing the whistle on my ambitions; the way out of the labyrinth is showing the tracks and letting others follow if they have a mind to, if so inclined. However, there is also the beauty of the track in the snow. The best way to do that is to make a case for some startling models of classical physics which could translate into quantum mechanics: Mandelbrot's fractals and Cantor dusts. Equally, that Primo Levi's meditation on the periodic table of Elements is a God's-eye-view of what scientists call 'metals'--which should be touted as same by the 'Intelligent Design" school, if they had a whit of wit betwixt them. And, moreover, how the Theory of Evolution and the General Relativity Theory seemed to both be on the same track to the same laws, and we could see them too if only we had more perspective. On the other hand, the curiosity of how the same relationship pattern runs through so many peak-bonding and break-ups among French men of arts and letters--Robespierre and Danton, Camus and Sartre, Godard and Truffaut, Debord and Lefebvre--that you might think it also display some kind of law, but would be even more hard-pressed to find one out of those pairings than the Darwin/Einstein connection.

But then I thought about Jim Carroll.

Here's one or two things I know about him.

Back in the day, I'd interviewed him and written about him for a couple of mags, and was on what we call a 'nodding acquaintance', like: when I see you I make eye contact and offer the briefest of head jogs, just to say, I acknowledge your existence. And that exchange would be every year he'd show up to the St. Marks Poetry Marathon on New Years Day. For the last few, it was pretty much excerpts from his book, his first real novel. It will probably be published soon and I'll buy a copy like everyone else. But when I read it I will hear his voice. I always hear his voice whenever I read his words. Halting, almost at the edge of a stammer, reedy as befits an Irish Catholic Boy, and with the faintest taste of whistle. He had a similar way of addressing the mike, preferring the stationary angle-poise fixture to a hand-held, always rocking it forward and back--no different between slinging it onstage at the Ritz or Irving Plaza or at a quiet reading. At one time he WAS All-City and played against a really tall black rail named Lew Alcindor, who we now know as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And according to Jim, "I may not have been able to smoke him, but he'd get game all the same". See? Modest too? "It wasn't the heroin that seduced me away from basketball, but poetry." And in no way in love with death, or maudit morbidity, despite junkie-saint persona in the press, and all the hoopla surrounding the Columbine incident. He'd rather talk about Love, carnal and eternal, like Abelard and Elouise. But all people seem to really use is his own ready-made-for-MTV-memorial (well, probably VH1, these days) obit, the soundtrack of which be on every commercial-break bumper outro: "Those Are People Who Died".

I prefer to think of how he lived.

Which brings me to what would appear to be an idiotic comparison; all the former rhetorical jizz vs. a guy who makes love with the muse. Not quite, yet; it is the stuff in between that is what matters. In between what? Those subjects...on this page. So let's examine the latter first. Jim would talk street (which is now "ghetto"? or "hood"?) but also come up with dazzling classical refs and do it in the course of the same conversation, even same sentence. When you say, 'I hung on every word', that's just what that means. You never know where the next turn of phrase will take you so you'd better pay attention. That's the kind of speech (not in the sense of "prepared" but the general one of spoken language) I enjoy the most, and which, coincidentally enough, is also the subject at the core of Information Theory.

That's the stuff in between, the stuff I read. (Yes. I know. Didn't expect that, did you? Honestly, that's the fun of this: neither did I.)

When Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver came up with the whole shebang at Bell Labs in 1948, it was pretty arcane stuff. At the core it was the measurement of Information Entropy, which "quantifies the uncertainty involved when encountering random variables". If this seems too far afield of the subject, just accept that this is the basis of packet-switching, which is the sum total of what actually happens in this service called the Internet. The essential idea to get, for the purpose of this essay, is the comparison of two packets of data, seeing what doesn't match in the other, and then figuring out whether that was an error in transmission, or new data to incorporate. Today, it boils down to what has entered the common usage as "signal-to-noise ratio". It actually has an even simpler manifestation: the Surprise Factor. What led me down this bizarre, jagged path was Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan". In it, he was describing how much space/room/storage/volume (whatever) it took to convey something like, well, his book--to illustrate the point. On every page, it seemed, he was taking turns into history and philosophy and mathematics and economics and even popular culture that could neither be anticipated by what preceded it nor dismissed as immaterial to what succeeded it. You needed almost as much space to get everything in it IN IT as there was in it.

(That last bit sounds a tad desperate. Or maybe impassioned? Let's leave it at that.)

Taleb cited Shannon and Weaver as saying much the same. To recap the previous, the whole issue of 'transmitter/receiver' is important only when the transmitter has more information than the receiver. The receiver can have all this data, and it can be complete, as far as its particular set goes. (I will not digress into set theory here except to say that's the part about this that led to Cantor sets and, hence, Cantor dusts. Yeah. Not today.) But, when the transmitter sends something new, that is a surprise. And not only that, it changes things: the parameters of the set, the organization of the data, the priorities, even 'what you know'. Sure, that all goes without saying. And something else that goes without saying: EVERYTHING ELSE!

This is where the other part comes in. Unless you are speaking only to a population composed entirely short-term memory loss patients, you do not have to repeat everything every time! Stop the presses, break up the front page and get out an extra: nobody cares if you are a talking-point parrot! At least nobody who has any self-respect. The aforementioned with the attention spans of ants may be what keeps your ratings up but, outside of the 24-hr cable circle jerk, this doesn't even count as high as yesterday's papers: you can't wrap fish in them or line the bird cage. Yet, there they are, always in your face or ear, buzzing about things which have no value of any kind because they are not enduring truths but merely enduring signals, caught in a loop like Bernie Maddoff walking out of 500 Pearl Street, accompanied by his attorney and the media pack, for the last time. They run that footage (along with his one shove of an obnoxious cameraman) over and over because they don't have anything else to fill in the time. And the only reason they stay on the air for people stare at is that they don't have anything else to fill in their lives.

This is not 'News'; this is something like 'Olds'. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of it as it is labelled, but it needs active resistance. I will admit, learning to ignore that which offers nothing new requires a lot of discipline. Kinda like not turning your head when an attractively-attired teenaged member of your desired gender-group passes on the sidewalk. I would be remiss not to admit that I will still have occasion to watch Olberman or even Maddow, despite my pledge to only attend to Stewart, as I find more honesty in comedy than comity in honesty. Who needs the agita?

Now, to get back to the alternate. A poet requires much more attention, given. And there's nothing even vaguely au courant about a bound volume. You are not going to be able to offer commentary on, oh, say, some local municipal scandal, or outrageous testimony before a Senate subcommittee, or even a special report on sex-slaves in the Suburbs! No, you are going to have nothing to say which anyone would be interested in as your take on the pre-digested pap and "press-play" press releases disguised as reportage. And isn't that awful? But you will feel a whole lot better about being powerless...and you may even find some power in that. I have to admit, I hadn't picked "Fear of Dreaming" off the wall in a while. It was strange, though, how only a few pages in, I am walking on a beach with Carroll as he ruminates on romance and mortality, using flash images of sky and waves to put me, perhaps, in the same Coney Island Of The Mind that Lawrence Ferlinghetti did for us both, how many ages ago? And that's a surprise because it isn't the same waves and the same sand and the same walk as the last time, but it is just as engaging.

And his voice lives in my head; even as a vague outline of an awkward crow casting shadows on my wall. I am not hiding my head in the sand of his beach; I am paying attention to that which offers me information--real information. It may be objected that, "Oh, you're saying that art is preferable to Life! Sure! But I have to live in the REAL WORLD, chum!" Uh-huh. Like just because something is broadcast over airwaves by living humans, that this somehow constitutes "Life", the "REAL WORLD"? Try swallowing a little quantum physics and superstring theory and then tell me you know what is real. That stuff is based on mathematics, which is a whole lot more certain than anything you have your retirement funds in, I can assure you. Or grasp a tiny fragment of "Origin of the Species" or even the great library of popularizers of this monumental work and then let's discuss the situation of Man on Earth.

This is why I didn't want to do a reading list at the top. I am getting more and more smug by the phrase. It is only that, and here's the payoff: talking heads and op-eds tell me why people think they are right, and none of them cite any authorities which could remotely be related to the "REAL WORLD". This blog was actually, physically, begun during a rare moment of personal civic engagement in which I decided that, instead of talking the talk, I would walk the walk. Things did change, enough so that I moved onto more cerebral concerns, perhaps, but that doesn't negate the experience, any more than research into original sources of enlightenment means I'm a book-learnin' snob. If Jim's right, about a "Fear of Dreaming", then sure, you can accuse me of living in a dream world...only if you'll admit you're living in a delusion.

Now, if that seems like an extraordinary request, remember: we are merely coming to terms.