Quote of the day: FEATHERS

September 22, 2017

FEATHERS

“Have you ever examined the feather of a bird?” Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of evolutionary theory, once wrote. “No man in the world could make such a thing.” Feathers are even harder to fake than fur, their structure being vastly more complex and varied. Falcon feathers are stiff, like jet-fighter wings, for stability at high altitudes; owl feathers are soft and barbed, to muffle their descent on prey; sandgrouse feathers soak up water, so their chicks can sip them in the desert. The range of designs would put any wilderness outfitter to shame. Bald-eagle feathers zip up to keep out moisture; mourning-dove feathers rotate individually to control flight; golden-crowned-kinglet feathers keep the bird’s body so insulated that it may be a hundred and forty degrees warmer than the air. “If human hair were similarly diverse,” Thor Hanson writes, “a person might combine a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard with a teased hairdo taller than the Statue of Liberty.”

Yet none of this compares to the complexity of bird color. The leaf green of a quetzal’s tail, the cerulean blue of a tree swallow’s back, the golden-eyed wings of a great argus are the work of an infinitely patient genetic process—mutation upon mutation, like paint layered on canvas. Some feathers are pigmented. Others have structural color: nanoscopic bubbles, lattices, and granules that scatter and refract light. Still others have both, the ornithologist Richard Prum, a professor at Yale, told me. The green broadbill of Sumatra and Borneo, for instance, has feathers that blend prismatic blue with pigmentatious yellow. Add to this the ultraviolet hues that birds can see and we can’t, and you can start to imagine how bedazzling a Himalayan monal truly is—how nearly hallucinatory to the female watching him dance. “All the beauty is in the feathers,” Wallace wrote. “I almost think a feather is the masterpiece of nature.”

–Burkhard Bilger, “Feathered Glory,” The New Yorker


R.I.P./From the deep archives: Don Williams

September 14, 2017

I grew up listening to country music because that’s all my parents played around the house. (My father lovingly called it “hillbilly music.” I won’t mention his all-purpose epithet for pop music.) So when I started writing record reviews as a rock critic, I specialized in writing about country music because most of my peers didn’t know or didn’t care much about the field. It amused me to get a reputation as a young journalist who wrote about gay literature, avant-garde theater, AND country music. One of my first pieces for the Village Voice when I moved to New York was a review of the latest album by Don Williams, a wonderful country singer who died last week at the age of 78.

‘Tis a gift to be simple, and Don Williams is c&w Christmas. Dubbed “the gentle giant” by his Nashville constituency and revered by rock stars like Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, he sings spare, laconic songs of heart and home with the imperturbable modesty of a man who never raises his voice. Straight in every sense of the world – morally upright, poker-faced, drug-free, unimpeachably heterosexual – Williams projects a staunch (though unpushy) Puritanism, both in his musical austerity and in his conventional domestic romanticism. His courtliness places him in the tradition of polite country crooners such as Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves; among today’s candidates, Jesse Winchester falls into that category, unlike Kenny Rogers, whose penchant for lurid, Peckinpah-ish soap operas belies his mannerly pose. And though Williams began his career as part of the pop-folk duo, The Pozo Seco Singers (best known for “Time”), his fiddle-and-pedal-steel-reinforced music places him in the country tradition rather than in pop. Actually, he’s almost as much a folkie as a country singer; he favors a stripped-down, acoustic sound that carefully distinguishes him from both Billy Sherrill’s hypercommercial c&w machine and the rock-oriented “outlaw” pack.

I haven’t listened to his music in many years but I liked what I heard. I just added my Voice piece to my writing archive. Check it out here and let me know what you think.


Photo diary: Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride 2017

September 12, 2017

All over the country and around the world, Naked Bike Riders fill city streets once a year with a mission:

Riding together to promote fuel conscious consumption, positive body image, and cycling advocacy!

And, of course, because it’s fun to hang out naked in public with other like-minded individuals under the gaze of passersby, who will say things like “I haven’t seen this much wienie in my whole life!” Andy and I Amtraked it down to Philly to do the ride with our friends Nick (a Philly resident) and Ben (another New Yorker).


That’s City Hall in the background, where we got our marriage license a month ago. City Hall from another view, below. And below that, a latecomer (the guy in gray briefs with his back to the camera) halfway through the ride stripped down on the street and joined the fun.


Body painting was a thing, along with masks, hats, wigs, and funny costumes (“Bare as you dare” was the dress code”).


Quote of the day: VALUE

September 12, 2017

VALUE

Human beings are prone to learn early in life to associate vulnerability with powerlessness and to associate the adrenalin rush of anger with personal power. The problem is that states of vulnerability are more often triggered by the diminishment of self-value rather than by the loss of power. When people feel devalued, they try to feel superior by exerting power over others overtly through aggression or by mentally devaluing them. Naturally, this tendency backfires: most of the emotional distress that clients suffer—indeed, much of the psychological dysfunction in the world in general—comes from substituting power for value. Temporarily feeling more powerful by driving aggressively or shouting at your spouse is unlikely to make you feel more valuable. In fact, it usually does the opposite. It subverts the motivational function of devalued states, which is to get us to enhance the value of our experience. Substituting power for value is like eating when your body tells you to urinate, sleeping when it tells you to eat, or taking an amphetamine when it tells you to sleep.

Steven Stosny, Psychotherapy Networker


From the deep archives: William Burroughs, Laurie Anderson, and John Giorno

August 31, 2017

I love John Giorno, but not nearly as much as his husband Ugo Rondinone does. On the occasion of Giorno’s 80th birthday, Rondinone — a Swiss-born artist known for his multi-media installations — created I ♥︎ John Giorno, an ambitious nine-chapter citywide retrospective of his career as a poet, visual artist, and activist. The Swiss Institute showed Sleep, the famous five-hour Andy Warhol film of Giorno sleeping. (Warhol was only one of Giorno’s many famous-artist lovers, who also included Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.) White Columns mounted a tribute to Giorno Poetry Systems, the entity that created Dial-a-Poem in 1968 and went on to release a series of fantastic eclectic record albums that were mostly anthologies of tracks by cutting-edge musicians and spoken-word artists, with great titles (Smack My Crack, A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse, Like a Girl I Want You to Keep Coming). Most of these shows and related events took place between late June and the middle of August. But the centerpiece of the exhibition is a display of the Giorno archives at Sky Art (555 11th Avenue), which will be open until Thanksgiving. Admission is free. You owe it to yourself to go check it out and watch the multi-channel video of Giorno performing his long brilliant poem “THANX 4 NOTHING.” Also pick up a free copy of the special edition of the monthly Brooklyn Rail devoted to the exhibition with great reminiscences by a multitude of artists and writers.

I first became aware of Giorno from hearing about his book Cancer in My Left Ball from my ex, Stephen Holden, who’d been an intimate associate of the downtown gay poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara. I saw Giorno perform a few times — his dazzling, incantatory multi-tracking style brought performance art and rock ‘n’ roll energy to the tame format of poetry recital. His AIDS activism touched me deeply.

And he’s been an extremely articulate spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism. Two long interviews with Winston Leyland, published in Gay Sunshine Interviews Volume One and Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists, made a big impression on me, especially the way he championed the integration of desire and mindfulness with zero sex shame, referring to “the great accomplishments of our Western sexuality: great bliss and clarity, fist fucking on LSD and crystal meth in the summer Olympics, going for the gold with full ignition, open and vast as the sky.”

I met Giorno in 1981, as a young journalist working for the Soho News, when I had the opportunity to interview him, William Burroughs, and Laurie Anderson, on the occasion of the 2-LP album they created called You’re The Guy I Want to Share My Money With. I spent a couple of hours with them at Giorno’s famous loft at 222 Bowery. I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the years, and this interview still stands out as the worst ever — it was awkward, strained, scattered. Partly the liability of trying to interview three disparate characters at the same time, but also Burroughs was very old, quite deaf, quite self-centered, cranky and impatient. Giorno was very kind and sweet. Laurie consoled me afterwards about how tough Burroughs was to be around sometimes. Now I look back at the transcript and it has a kind of hilarious quality — inane chitchat like something out of an absurdist play by Ionesco. For the record, I decided to post on my writing archive the complete unedited typewritten (pre-digital) transcript of the interview,  with all the cross-outs and typos. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

Renowned downtown photographer Marcia Resnick photographed the trio just before I interviewed them.


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