Revisiting Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac.

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Trebuchets. Oboes. Manhole covers. Labyrinthian playground equipment. Interactive Christmas sweaters. Grocery carts. Pangolins. Fish-slapping bears.

These are just a few of the items that decorate the off-kilter and thoroughly delightful world of Cul de Sac, the comic strip by Richard Thompson (no relation to the guitarist) that ran in newspapers from 2007 to 2012.

Thompson, who died at age 58 in August due to complications from Parkinson’s Disease, wasn’t a household name like Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson. And while successful, Cul de Sac wasn’t a phenomenon along the lines of Garfield or Dilbert. But for those comic connoisseurs who had the opportunity to discover it, it was nothing short of a work of comedic genius. More… “Comic Connections”

Smell the roses and enjoy the view.

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This is where you get to play. Fool around. Insert a private joke. This is the no-sweat zone. All you have to do is show your reader around the world the two of you have entered.

Though I suppose I should mention here, before I go on, that not all stories have middles, or the middle is so undefined it’s hard to separate it from the beginning and the end. In Irwin Shaw’s compressed “Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” a man and woman — a married couple — discuss fidelity. She is in favor of it. He is uncertain he can be faithful for life.

They are walking together, down Fifth Avenue, on a sunny November day, but as the conversation develops, a gap opens between them. A crevasse. A tectonic plate. Side by side as they are, there is nevertheless between them a gulf like an earthquake. More… “Daydreams in Dresses”

A response to Kevin Mattson

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In my most recent essay for The Smart Set, “What is Education for?” I argued that the tendency to equate education with mere instruction neglects the more fundamental purposes of education: initiation into a cultural or civilizational tradition, indoctrination into a public philosophy — in the United States, democratic republican liberalism — and inculcation of the manners which enable young people to grow into good citizens, good neighbors, and good colleagues.

In the liberal magazine Democracy Journal, Kevin Mattson was quick to respond. Mattson is a professor of history at Ohio University, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, and a member of the editorial Board of Dissent. As my politics are those of a Rooseveltian social democratic liberal, and presumably similar to those of Mattson, to judge from his affiliations and his publications, I was curious to learn what his objections were. It turns out the divide between us has nothing to do with politics, in the conventional sense, but rather with our differing views of the purpose of education.

More… “What is Education for? Part II”

The world's most indecent fruit

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The past centuries, if not millennia, have been characterized by the unprecedented spread of certain plants to other continents. Crops such as bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and rice are classic examples. Many others did not require human help; their seeds were spread by wind and birds and encountered favorable conditions, as has happened since time immemorial. Some plant types are particularly aggressive, spreading and replacing other plants. They are usually called “invasive” types, and they sometimes succeed with the involuntary help of humans. Now, due to climate change, vegetation zones are changing: Conifer forests, for example, are spreading to tundras, and in the tropics, the rain forest is becoming denser. More… “A Fruit of Many Names”

Lost in adaptation

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How to best come to terms with the fiction of Philip Roth seems an almost idle question. What need do we have of any special terms? Can’t it simply be the old problem of how best to talk about the books we read, and some of those we come to love? And is it hagiography we might be after, or a stern desire to avoid any hint of such? Shouldn’t Roth take his unabashed stance and his licks with the others: Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, who are at once his compeers and his opponents, even in part his creation (think of the character of Lonoff in The Ghost Writer)? But more than a shadowy suspicion colors the problem. Could it be that Roth is the greatest of all his generation of American novelists, even with a nod to others such as Updike and Delillo? Would he himself be willing to play the games of genius and fortune and pace setter and the varied counters by which we measure literary achievement? In his work the (authorial) self is always trying to make the (existential) self answerable to the snares and glitter of ambition, irony, and self-delusion (not to mention self-abasement.) It might be the better part of wisdom to let Roth deal with his own artistic legacy, for after all his recently announced retirement from the life of writing suggests that he has come to terms with his own final self-estimations.

More… “Philip Roth’s Indignation

The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they're awesome.

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At 10:30 on Monday night, six young office workers sat at a table outside of FamilyMart, eating snacks and drinking chūhai. As a sticker someone slapped on a nearby wall said: “Be Alive in Kyoto.” They certainly were. My wife Rebekah and I had come to Japan on our honeymoon. She’s passed out early in the hotel this night, so I went out alone. I wanted to live, and FamilyMart was just a block away.

The thing about Japanese convenience stores is that they’re awesome. Called conbini, sometimes spelled konbini, Americans won’t believe this, but conbini are respectable social centers that serve high quality packaged and delicious fresh food that you actually want to eat, rather than avoid. Open 24 hours, three main chains dominate 90% of the Japanese marketplace: 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart, with Ministop, Daily Yamazaki, Seico, Poplar, and Circle K Sunkus making up the rest. Around 55,000 conbini operate in Japan. Mostly a get-it-and-go operation, you buy your crisp, cheese-stuffed croquettes, spongy green tea cream roll and egg salad sandwich to take to work or the park or home. Some stores provide a few stools by a counter so customers can eat inside, maybe a few small tables, but space is tight and expensive in urban Japan. Where many rural and suburban convenience stores have enough property to dedicate to outside seating or parking, fewer stores in the centers of large dense cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto do. Somehow this FamilyMart in central Kyoto had enough room to provide five round, white plastic tables out front for customers. It was the space that would be a parking lot in America.

More… “Conbini Life: Kyoto, Japan”

Circumventing dead mom and wife tropes in Louder than Bombs

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There was an older man at a dinner party, relaying the history of his marriages. His first one, he told us, was a disaster. He was too young, she was too young. It lasted only a few years and then it ended angrily. He thought he’d never remarry, but then he decided he wanted to have a child. He married another woman, who turned out not to want children, but, he assured us, he eventually “wore her down.”

There are all sorts of struggles that take place within a marriage. Conflicting desires create situations without the possibility of compromise and so one partner tries to overpower the other’s will. Wives do this as well as husbands. But there was something about the way the story was told that caused the women at the table to immediately exchange worried looks and inhale deeply at the words “wore her down.” He wanted a child, but for that he needed a woman’s body. He procured a woman’s body, and when that body was not compliant, he forced compliance through manipulation and control. The man was a writer, and so I am making the assumption that he told this story with a particular intention and that that intention could be analyzed. I understand that this is probably unfair.

More… “No Giggling Ghost”

A nostalgic look at The Blues Project's Danny Kalb

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When I was 13 or 14 I spent a certain amount of time in my local record store in suburban Connecticut contemplating the cover of Projections by the Blues Project: five proto-hippies hanging out on the corner looking slick with their polka dot shirts and sideburns. And that guy with the coolly arrogant stare with his finger hooked in his belt loop – who was that? Kooper, the most famous one, I recognized from his association with Bob Dylan, and Katz I knew from the covers of two Blood, Sweat and Tears albums, a band that had even then achieved far more success than the already defunct Blues Project. But the swaggering hipster who caught my eye – that was Danny.

I met Danny Kalb in 1996 at a party in Park Slope, where he had lived for some years after the breakup of the Blues Project and a spell in California that had not been good for his mental health. Danny had founded the band in 1965, making the progression from Greenwich Village folkie and resident guitar virtuoso to plugged-in rock and roller. For a while the Blues Project, with their progressive blending of blues, rock, pop, and jazz, looked like they might be the Next Big Thing, but it never panned out; as Danny once told me, he had been a minor rock star for a couple of years. Most people agree that neither Projections nor its under produced predecessor Live at the Café Au Go Go really did justice to the band. Like many a cult band, they never quite got down their vibe on wax. I prefer their third and last album, Reunion in Central Park (1972), which comes closest to capturing their almost-as-tight-as-a-jazz-band-but-not-obsessed-about-it essence. The boxed set The Blues Project Anthology (1997), in the grab-bag way of the band, contains a rich miscellany of rockers, pop ballads, jazzy instrumentals, blues standards, and throwaways, but I can’t improve on the superb liner notes by John Platt and anyway what I really want to talk about is Danny, the only rock star, minor or otherwise, I’ve ever known.
More… “A Minor Rock Star”

The rise and fall of MTV’s empire

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“Does anyone under 25 play an instrument anymore?” grumbled one veteran producer in response to the recent MTV Video Music Awards show. “They need to take the M out of these awards.”

Audiences had an even harsher verdict on the MTV event. Ratings were down a whopping 34% over the previous year — and 2015 ratings had shown a comparable decline versus 2014. In an industry that agonizes over shifts of a fraction of a percent, this kind of free-fall is unprecedented. The music business brought out its biggest guns for the MTV event — Beyoncé, Kanye, Rihanna, and Britney, among other one-name phenoms — and the show was broadcast on 11 different networks, including VH1, BET, CMT, and Spike. Even Comedy Central gave the event wall-to-wall coverage. But I don’t think anyone is laughing now.

More… “Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?”

Forget the three R’s. We need the four I’s.

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What is the purpose of education? It is usually assumed that the major purpose of education is instruction: the transmission of information and the imparting of particular skills like the classic three R’s: ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic’.

But instruction is the least important part of education. Most information is accessible from books and the media. Basic literacy and numeracy are important, but many if not most skills used by adults in daily life are picked up on the job. The main objective of education in every enduring society is to transmit authoritative cultural, political, and ethical traditions from one generation to the next. We can speak of the major purposes of education as the Four I’s: Initiation, Indoctrination, Inculcation, and Instruction.

More… “What is Education for?”