"What Makes Life So Sweet”: Thoughts on New Year’s Eve 

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Credit: sharpgirl

Life, however long, will always be short,” the poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote. And for those of us with a secular worldview who don’t expect to experience an afterlife, our time here is that much more precious. “Something about the meaning of life changes when you realize deeply that it won’t last forever,” wrote Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. “We bring a deeper commitment to our happiness when we fully understand… that our time left is limited and we really need to make it count.” There is only one holiday this season celebrating what is arguably the defining aspect of human life: New Year’s Eve, our global, secular celebration of the passage of time.

Beyond the parties, traffic, and kissing, December 31st offers a pause in life’s chattering conversation to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past and what we hope for the future. Most of us want to live happy, meaningful lives, but we also know we’re not going to live forever—if we were, we would have no need to mark the passing of each year with such passionate celebrations of life. After several years researching what mankind has had to say about how to live a meaningful life, I’ve found the finitude of life is a universal theme. As Saul Bellow wrote, “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” Death, the moment in each of our lives when time’s arrow hits it target, is what gives our lives meaning.

Of course, brooding about death all the time is no recipe for happiness. Embracing joy when you find it is. “Be fully awake to everything about you,” LeRoy Pollock advised his teenaged son Jackson in 1928. “The more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.” We shouldn’t forget or abstain from having fun.

Writer Brendan Gill concurred. “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, though it is often hard and even terrible,” he wrote. “Since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.” In the long nights of midwinter, New Year’s Eve parties encourage just this attitude. Toward the end of his extraordinary life, the twentieth century’s greatest economist John Maynard Keynes confessed: “My only regret is that I have not drunk more Champagne.” Don’t make Keynes’s mistake.

We should, then, make an effort to be happy. But how? “Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life,” wrote Elie Wiesel. “We must make every minute rich and enriching, not for oneself, but for someone else.” Compassion and kindness are the keys. “The only possible good in the universe is happiness,” said the Civil War veteran, orator, and noted freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll. “The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to try to make others so.”

So what if the past year wasn’t all you hoped for? In that case it can be helpful to remember a simple trick of perspective: take the long view. As Charlie Chaplin believed, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” What seems terrible right now will seem less so, later. Or, as Caitlin Moran puts it: “Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.” Either way, you’re covered.

And if you are among the one-fifth of Americans who claims no religious affiliation or the one of the growing number of the nonreligious, the mere fact of our existence can itself inspire, whatever the time of year. “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small,” wrote Lewis Thomas, “that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise." Atheists don’t look to the supernatural for wonder; we can see it all around us, whatever the season. As the English playwright Laurence Housman said: “Find something that isn’t a miracle, you’ll have cause to wonder then.”

Our time here on earth amidst its deep forests, its crowded sidewalks, and in the company of the people we love, is limited. “That it will never come again,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Is what makes life so sweet.” So enjoy the sweetness of this New Year’s Eve. And “if you ever start taking life too seriously,” comedian Joe Rogan reminds us, “just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.” Now pour the talking monkeys some Champagne.

I launched a newsletter! It's called Continuous Small Treats. And it's free.

BJ Chuck E Cheese glasses 2015 That's right, I'm now writing a free fortnightly newsletter that can be delivered to your Inbox if you like. What is it about? Interesting things. Fun things. Exasperating things. So far:

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Book Review: THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

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The “average New England churchgoer absorbed some fifteen thousand hours of sermons” in a lifetime, Stacy Schiff reveals in her meticulous and disturbing history of “America’s tiny reign of terror”: “The Witches: Salem, 1692.’’

“On intimate terms with the supernatural,” Puritans were repeatedly reminded by their ministers that the devil was “watching, wishing, snatching, to devour us.” In their zeal for religious vigilance, the godly people of Salem “stripped the calendar of every festival and holiday,” which only made the risk of bewitchment worse. After all, Schiff writes, possession “rarely occurs in the absence of intense piety.”

With “The Witches,’’ Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, most recently, of “Cleopatra,’’ draws on a huge body of scholarship as well as primary sources to synthesize her own erudite chronicle of a community in crisis, weeding through centuries of accreted mythologies to tell, from its strange start to its wretched finish, what actually took place in several localities north of Boston at the end of the 17th century. She tells us what happened there. But the bigger question, of course, is why?

While acknowledging the established frames of interpretation — adolescent psychology, the politics of gender, issues of class, and a dozen more — one of Schiff’s strongest contributions to this American horror story is her constant reminder that while we may never be able to definitively explain exactly why 19 people (and two dogs) were executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts (owing in part to a concerted effort to expunge any public records), we can still learn something from it. “The Witches’’ is not merely the story of the Salem witch trials — it is a cautionary account of our human tendency “to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous [and] drown our private guilts in a public well.”

The horror began in January 1692 in the Salem home of minister Samuel Parris. His 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams and his 9-year-old daughter Betty complained of “prickling sensations . . . bites and pinches by ‘invisible agents.’ They barked and yelped. They fell dumb. Their bodies shuddered and spun.” The list of strange, spasmodic symptoms went on and on. There were no physicians in Salem, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered much — the basic medical kit of the time differed little from that used by the Greeks.

The malady was eventually decided to be supernatural. And it was contagious: The number of accusers and accused grew until the plague had spread to 25 nearby villages and towns; in Andover, one out of every 15 people would be accused of witchcraft.

What was behind the panic? Schiff argues that conditions “favored such an outbreak. The talk around Betty and Abigail was fraught, angry, apocalyptic.”

These were a people so vulnerable to what Cotton Mather called “diseases of astonishment” that they postponed Harvard College’s graduation on account of an inauspicious eclipse. In this community, “[n]ot to believe in witchcraft [was] the greatest of heresies.”

The witch hunts lasted nine months, during which as many as 185 people were imprisoned and brought to Salem’s newly-formed court of oyer and terminer for criminal trial. By the end of 1692 14 women and five men had been executed, all publicly hanged except 81-year-old Giles Corey, who over two long days was slowly crushed to death by planks and stones as spectators urged him to confess his collusion with the devil. He never did.

As the paranoia spread it soon became evident that “it was safer to be afflicted” by witchcraft “than accused,” and naturally the number of accusations escalated. “A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives . . . siblings each other . . . A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out.” Attempting to clear one’s name was in fact the worst possible strategy: Every single defendant who actually confessed to witchcraft was spared; only those claiming innocence were executed. For it was not the accused’s place to determine innocence or guilt; in this highly structured society, “[j]ustices and ministers alone unriddled witchcraft.”

The fact that many more women than men were accused and convicted fits with the contradictory role women held at the time. Women had no political rights in New England and were regarded as the weaker sex. Yet female religious leaders, such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, were considered potential threats to the very foundations of society. Further, women were constantly appearing as the strong, daring, wily heroines of the Indian captivity and escape narratives that became, as Schiff suggests, templates for stories of witchcraft.

The series of show trials and gruesome executions finally wore down the psyches of the public and officials. By late 1692 those in charge, who were some of Massachusetts’s most esteemed public figures with names that still resonate in the state — the ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, Stephen Sewall (a street in Brookline is named for him), William Stoughton (the town of Stoughton is named for him, as is a residence hall at Harvard), and John Hathorn (ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added a letter to his name to obscure the relationship) among them — began to cover their tracks.

Salem was a community of “[m]aniacal record-keepers,” Schiff writes, but they “made an exception for 1692.” Thomas Putnam, Salem’s official court recorder, rewrote the village record, deleting any events that were, in his words, “grievous to any of us in time past or that may be unprofitable for time to come.” Schiff states with stunned bluntness: “No trace of a single session of the witchcraft court survives.” What we have instead are the personal notes of community members, some of whom heard the stories second hand.

Over the past three centuries, however, historians have resurrected much of the world Putnam tried to erase. Schiff balances an elegant, almost imperial narrative style befitting the scale of the tragedy with a sensitivity to the individual lives that were destroyed. Five-year-old Dorothy Good, for example, who “spent eight and a half months in miniature manacles. Her infant sister died before her eyes. She had watched her mother, against whom she had testified, head defiantly off to the gallows.” Little Dorothy “went insane;” Schiff writes: “she would require care for the rest of her life.”

Horrifying as it was, Schiff never distances herself or the reader from the human experience she has recounted. “We all subscribe to preposterous beliefs,” she reminds us. “[W]e just don’t know yet which ones they are.”

THE WITCHES: Salem, 1692

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown, 498 pp., illustrated, $32

Illustration: Papercut Totentanz/ Dance Macabre, Walter Draesner, 1922.

This review was originally published in the Books section of the Boston Globe on Sunday, October 25, 2015.

Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, by Mark Ribowsky

maxresdefault Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler called him “the single most extraordinary talent I had ever seen.” Impresario Bill Graham felt his concert at the San Francisco Fillmore was “the best gig I ever put on in my entire life.” His performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival made the Rolling Stones’s Brian Jones cry. Janis Joplin was characteristically blunt: “Otis is God.”

One of America’s greatest performers, Otis Redding enjoyed less than a decade of fame before dying in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. Just days earlier he recorded the song that would become his biggest hit: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” the sixth most-played song in the 20th century.

Redding’s death was tragic, but his life was not. This is the central challenge for biographer Mark Ribowsky in “Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul.” Redding was a gifted, hard working songwriter and singer — he was a pro. At age 15 he won his hometown of Macon, Ga.’s citywide talent show 15 weeks straight. From then on, the force of his talent provided a fairly unimpeded path to stardom.

Compared to the lives of some of his peers, such as Etta James, Wilson Pickett, and Marvin Gaye, Redding’s life was uneventful. He wasn’t a drug addict or alcoholic, nor was he emotionally tortured, although Ribowsky does wring some drama out of his relationship with his father, a man of strict religious beliefs who initially discouraged his son from a life of show business but eventually became his champion. Every few chapters we get a glimpse of Redding’s early idol, fellow Macon native Little Richard, who scandalized the public with his bisexuality, drug use, and freaky charisma, and think: Wow, remind me to pick up his biography next time.

Ribowsky thus makes the wise choice to broaden his scope to the Southern Soul scene itself, particularly the unlikely triumph of Memphis’s small but influential Stax Records (Redding’s label) and the music industry as a whole. Ribowsky is pleasingly candid: “The record game, to be polite, is one of the most venal and soulless entities ever known, and a bane to creatively inclined people easily manipulated by power brokers with a fast line and legal levers to rip them off.” As Ribowsky shows, Stax itself fell victim to the same “insidious but legal backstabbing” when Atlantic Records virtually stole Stax’s world-famous back catalog (including recordings by Redding, Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and many others) and all the royalties associated with it.

But before all that ugliness, the tiny, family-run Stax, with its racially integrated staff and seat-of-the-pants production, managed to create a unique and influential sound that rivaled Motown, gained the admiration of fans around the world, and “converted one of the whitest bastions of the post-Confederate South into the vital core of black music.”

It’s a great story but one that is often interrupted by Ribowsky’s awkward phrasing. A recording studio has “glutinous echoes”; he describes Little Richard as “bold and daring yet conventionally spiritual enough to wear the label derived from a centuries-old religious conceptualization of the immortal essence of the human spirit and its undying connection to a higher power,” whatever that means.

One gets the sense that Ribowsky is turning up the volume a little too high to try and make his point. It’s a shame, because the subject practically speaks for itself. Notwithstanding the soul-baring theatricality of Redding’s performances on songs such as “Try a Little Tenderness,” the power of soul music has always been, paradoxically, its sense of restraint. The greatest soul singers are masters of dynamics, starting out softly with a slow build to the climax. “It wasn’t the size of his voice,” said keyboardist Booker T. Jones of Redding, “we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang.” “Dreams to Remember” provides some fascinating historical context, but most of what you need to know about the emotional biography of Otis Redding can be found in the still-vital and moving recordings he left behind.

Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul

By Mark Ribowsky

Liveright, 400 pp., illustrated, $27.95

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on June 13, 2015.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "Multi-Love"

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This music review originally ran in Sounditout.com on June 2, 2015.

It can be difficult for those who came of age before the 1980s to find the sound of soul in a synthesizer (just ask my dad). But the rest of us know it’s possible: look no further than Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” propelled by the all-digital funk of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. And Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, knows it, too.

Nelson wrote and recorded the new album, “Multi-Love” in his Portland, Oregon basement during sessions lasting long into the early morning, eventually calling on his brother Kody Nielson Riley Geare, Jacob Portrait and his father, jazz trumpeter Chris Nielson, to fill out the arrangements. Although “Multi-Love” has been promoted as a sort of audio diary of his Ruban Nielson’s experiment with polyamory, you would never know there was any concept behind it other than a quest for soulful songs and the heartfelt expression of emotions.

Deploying a palette of synthesized keyboards, drum machines and bright, versatile falsetto, the songs call back to some of the 1980s’ great purveyors of heartbreak-with-a-beat, from A Flock of Seagulls to Split Enz, especially in the title track and on “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty.” There’s a good helping of “Raspberry Beret”-era Prince here, too; check out the psychedelic swirl of “The World is Crowded” and “Necessary Evil.”

The greatest heroes of disco and New Wave triumphed when they were able to combine technical perfection with a dab of that special sauce known as human frailty, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra aims for the same recipe here. And while the turbulent story of Nielson’s polyamorous adventure has been told elsewhere, the emotional record of it–this record–provides as much drama and detail as most of us need. Is it complicated? Sure. But it’s fun, too.

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