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Sunday
Jun282009

The Passing Of A Trickster

Thursday evening’s news of the death of Michael Jackson has brought an outpouring of grief and remembrance of his music, his talent and his impact on pop music and the world. Others have seen his death as a chance to lampoon and deride Jackson because of his oddness, his lifestyle and the acts he allegedly committed.

The airwaves and video screens of 1980s America were owned by Michael Jackson. He leapfrogged everyone by producing video that were innovative, creative and entertaining. They were events. He was the total package: passion, intensity, sex appeal and a magical aura. But the magic was deluded by the celebrity, and the rumors and legal battles pushed Jackson deeper into isolation, but not obscurity. Love him or hate him, Michael Jackson was a cultural force, defying and redefining the music, dance and social mores of his day. He looked and acted different from anyone else. His songs were both intimate and universal in their outlook and appeal. The Les Trois Freres Shaman

Of all the archetypes in mythology, none is more important than the Trickster. Before the hero, there was the Trickster. Creative, deceptive and disruptive, yet comical, the Trickster is the clever and evil infant Hermes, who stole the cattle of Apollo. He is Eshu of Yorba mythology walk down the road with a hat on, one side black, the other red. He is the shapeshifting, contemptuous Loki of Norse legends. In India, he is Krishna, the blue-skinned flute-playing boy sent to set the world aright by his disruptive, deceptive acts. And Trickster was not only “he.” Trickster godesses, such as Apate and Eris, populate ancient mythology. In the Paleolithic cultures of Europe, the Trickster is the shaman, transformed into an amalgam of animal spirits, a chimeric bridge, envisioning and negotiating between this world and the one unseen.

Michael Jackson was one of the Tricksters of our age. Loved as well as hated, misunderstood and idolized for his actions, Jackson epitomizes the spirit of the Trickster. In his shape-shifting, he became the other--neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, neither gay nor straight. He was defined by his indefinite being, his disruptive appearance, his odd behavior. Appealing to all types of people all the world over, he was known to everyone, but was mystery to all, constantly open to interpretation.

One of his favorite characters from literature was Peter Pan, a child trickster who refused to grow up. Thrust into the spotlight at the age of five, Jackson was deprived of a normal childhood. The rehearsals, concerts and recording studios must have been surreal to a young boy. In a Rolling Stone cover story from the 1990s, one Motown producer remembers that as the other Jackson brothers would go shoot hoops between takes, Michael would stay in the studio and pepper the recorder, engineer and producer with questions. In the recording studio, Michael saw that a new world could be created--a world of song. On stage, his hard work and talent gave birth to delight and magic as audiences adored the young boy, then young man. Jackson felt no need to surrender to adulthood, with its tendency toward banality and stiffness. He became the real-life Peter Pan.

With the appearance of the music video, Jackson found a willing manipulative canvas on which to interpret and expand his songs. Jackson could be whatever he wanted to be: the werewolf/zombie (Thriller); the good kid who was the real tough (Bad); the beguiling magician (Remember the Time). He could poke fun of himself (Leave Me Alone) all on the endlessly changing green-screen of CGI and backlots.

Trickster changes the world, but that change is not always welcome or beneficially apparent. We equally love and vilify the Trickster, as enthralled as we are made uncomfortable by them. Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries in his music and how it was presented. A consummate artist, he had a hand in shaping every aspect of his work. However, that control ended at the studio and stage door. The world of people proved to be a harder place for Jackson to live. For every one person who found inspiration in Jackson’s music, there was another equally ready to highlight any wrinkle, real or perceived. A series of less than successful albums, cancelled tours, botched appearances, and mounting legal problems forced Jackson to seek a space away from the glare of the spotlight. But, the lure of those lights seemed too great. Jackson died while preparing for an incredible 50 shows at the O2 Center in London.

Jackson’s death brings to mind the fragility of life, the fact of impermanence that runs through this world. What will his true legacy be? His music? His videos? His eccentric behavior? Ultimately, the legacy Michael Jackson leaves is the same one you and I will leave--our lives and the people we touched during our short sojourn here. Aside from his children and family, who I suspect will miss him greatly, those of us who were touched by the music and magic of this most unique of human beings have to find what he left for us. What do we do with this man’s contribution?

If you loved the music, the magic of this trickster’s dance, there is only one thing to do. Listen, and then live your life with the passion you heard in the music. Do everything with the intensity and focus you saw Jackson put into his craft. Then do what Jackson himself physically could not because of his fame and notoriety: reach out and do what you can to create a world of beauty, fairness, justice, compassion and vision.

The Trickster showed the way. We ignore him at our peril, and we dishonor the man and the words he sang, the way he lived and the joy he gave.

 

 

Tuesday
May262009

Milky Way Rising

This is great footage of the Milky Way rising over a Texas Star party.  This is a sight a lot of us city dwellers cannot see because of the lights.  Light pollution has changed the night times of millions of people worldwide.  Human beings need the night, and we have always adored and followed the stars, placing our concerns and aspirations as well as our fears in the night sky.  Many towns and municipalities are beginning to switch to less invasive lighting that lessens the amount of light going skyward.  There are several advocacy groups working around the globe to convince cities to curb their lighting, use less intrusive lamps, and designate light-free zones in parks so stargazers can savor the wonder of the night sky.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

 

 

 

 

Thursday
May212009

The month of May great for Evolutionary Science

May has been an exciting month for science reporting.

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article about the unveiling of a nearly intact fossil of a 47 million year old creature that may help explain the evolutionary roots of monkeys, apes and humans. While it is not a direct ancestor, the fossil shows a species well on its way, living and evolving quite nicely in ancient rainforests that have since morphed into modern day Germany.Fossil plate of Darwinius masillae

The scientific team that studied the fossil at length presented their findings in the online journal PLOS (Public Library Of Science). The teams points out several features in the fossil’s anatomy that show up in later primate species.

Of course, in the true spirit of science, the team’s finding are being questioned and disputed by other scientists. The research team, however, is moving on to the public spotlight, with the diminutive little proto-primate, named Ida (after one of the researcher’s daughter) is the star of her own documentary, The Link, which will premiere Monday (25 May) on the History Channel.

In the 7 May edition of Nature, the saga of the Flores island “Hobbit”* continued, with several articles devoted to the meter high hominid. Found in 2003 in a limestone cave, the little creature nicknamed the “Hobbit,” formally named Homo floresiensis has sparked controversy among paleoanthropologists. Some researches offered that the “Hobbit” is an ancestor of modern man who underwent “island dwarfing.” But skeptics believed it to be a diseased modern human, a microcephalic, or a pygmy.Who you smiling at? H. floresiensis (L) & H. sapiens (R)

But H. floresiensis defies easy categorization. The female “Hobbit” has an unusual wrist and foot structure reminiscent of early hominids. It brain is smaller than other Homo species, more like a primates; but has a very developed frontal cortex like those larger Homo species. There is also evidence of stone toolmaking, and organized hunting (evidenced by the pygmy elephant bones and other animals found in the cave).

The team that made the discovery has spent years chipping away at the skeptic’s arguments. One of the articles in Nature, the main researchers report on the bone structure of the “Hobbit’s” foot. Examining the bones, they found that it is distinctly different from any other Homo species. The foot is larger in proportion to the lower leg bones; the big toe is shorter than the other toes. H. floresiensis may have walked, but it could not run.Foot and Lower leg bones of H. floresiensis

On of the authors of the article, William Junger, is convinced the “Hobbit” is of an earlier lineage than previously thought, arriving on Flores much earlier than the Homo species, H. erectus, and co-existing with humans for a time. Others are not so sure.

On of the great things about the scientific enterprise is that new discoveries can enhance, or even replace, older ideas and theories. The discussion of Darwinius masillae and the Flores “Hobbit” are far from over, as new evidence is unearthed and conventional wisdom is challeged.

This world still has many mysteries to ponder and hold in awe. The story of life on this planet, and our place in it, is an ongoing series with many pages left to pen.

Links to articles discussed:

Analysis Shows German Fossil to Be Early primate New York Times, Tuesday 16 May 2009

Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology PLOS One

'Hobbit' was a dwarf with large feet Nature, 7 May 2009

 

Friday
May152009

Congratulations April!

My niece April graduated from college this morning. Last night, I celebrated her achievement along with family and friends at Razorback Pizza.The pretty one is April

Persistence is April's middle name.  She was determined to get her degree.  She found a good fit at U of A Monticello, and along the way she found strength to make it through the hard times.  Her hard work and dedication paid off.  She walked across the stage this morning to receive her Bachelor's Degree in marketing and Public Relations.

April has always been the plucky one. Very positive, easy to make new friends, and always ready to have fun.  She has a bright future ahead of her.  Regardless of what she does next, I trust it will something she loves to do, and that she will go all-out with creativity and passion.

It was great to spend time with April and show my appreciation for her.  It was good to meet her friends who have stuck by her through the years, and visit with family. And the pizza was not half bad. 

Congratulations, April!

 

 

April opening giftsApril with parents Pam and Tim, and brothers Chris and Matt

Friday
May012009

Together Through Life: Good Time Bluesy Music For All 

Album image from bobdylan.com

I'm an album guy.  I'm also an artist guy.  I listen to records straight through, and I let the artist take me where they want me to go.  

Bob Dylan has been plugging away at this music thing since his 1962 self-titled debut.  He is the preeminent scholar of the American songbook.  I stopped trying to figure out his lyrics along time ago. Dylan's references go too deep, get too personal.  So too with his music: blues, folk, country and early rock and roll show up in his songs.  A new Dylan album is a journey of which I always love to hitch a ride.  

Together Through Life is a bluesy, country-tinged journey through the Southern Delta and Texas.  It's there in the mandolin, steel guitar, accordion, and guitar.  The album sounds like it was recorded at sound-checks and stolen moments backstage.  It feels intimate, like you're in a roadside bar with a beer and pulled-pork sandwich.

The album starts abruptly with Beyond Here Lies Nothin', a rhythm-driven small-stage affair exploding outward, setting the tone for the rest of the record.  Dylan moves through these songs, old-style and heart-felt, sometimes cynical (My Wife's Hometown, Forgetful Heart), sometimes touching (the beautiful waltz-like This Dream Of You), all delivered with sharp arrangement, and Dylan's characteristic wit. No one makes social commentary (It's All Good) like Dylan. It's enough to make you smile.

At the end of Together Through Life is a studio rehearsal of Lay, Lady, Lay from 1969's Nashville Skyline.  It is somehow appropriate that Dylan closes an arc of music nearly 40 years long.  When the rest of his generation of musicians were moving into the sprawling aftermath that was the 1970s, Bob Dylan stepped back, dug deep, and came out with a beautiful, authentic country record.  Bob Dylan still travels that road, grown over with weeds with old oaks hung over, dapples of sun breaking through the branches.  It's a journey worth joining. To hell with the destination.