On one of my last visits, even as my father was in severe pain, he asked me the same question he always did: What are you reading?

I fluffed my feathers a bit and said: Kierkegaard. “What is he telling you?” asked my dad. I had just been reading a volume of Kierkegaard’s journals on the train, immersed in the poetic ruminations of the great Danish philosopher. So I immediately spouted, verbatim and with the appropriate pauses for world-weary effect, the words I still remember to this day: “No individual can assist or save the age. He can only express that it is lost.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, my dad retorted: “He’s right. But that’s exactly why you must try to assist and save the age.”

In that one moment, my dad put a callow youth gently in his place, out-existentialized the great existentialist and gave me words to conduct a career by.

WordPress or SquareSpace?

And as I thought about how this blog looks, I had to confess I'd also gotten rather tired of the Barthelme theme I've been using since the blog started up in '06 or '07. It's been a great theme, and I chose a minimalist design specifically because I like the aesthetic and I wanted the focus to be on the words. From a tech standpoint, I wanted to fiddle as little as possible with the code driving this theme and so I've done little to tweak its looks or functionality. Getting too deep into the customizing and coding of these free themes can lead to WordPress updates not installing. Also, the Barthelme theme has not been updated for over two years so there is a question of how long this free lunch will last.

In looking at the landscape of WordPress themes, my god, are there lots of them out there. And truthfully, one could get lost playing around with the WP dashboard where the look and behavior of the blog is configured. Add to this, in addition to the yearly cost of my site and domain name, I'd have to buy a framework and child theme if I wanted to be assured of a stronger functional foundation and more flexible design choices. (The framework is the programming scaffolding while the theme controls the colors, fonts, and other styling visuals; the Barthelme theme, and most all free WP themes,  conjoin the two into a single -- sometimes fragile -- entity.)

So instead of wandering through that forest, I wondered if there was maybe an easier route to a new blog look.

Last year, I helped my friend Mike Uhl set up his own blog and web site on SquareSpace. It's a great way for someone new to the web to set up and start their own web site -- the site is hosted on the SS servers, you get a free custom domain name, they offer technical support, their drag and drop interface makes building a site easy, and their template library makes changing the look of the site dead simple. Depending on your needs, you may pay a little more per month than if you hosted a WP site on your own server, but when you add in the cost of a WP framework and child theme, the costs are pretty similar.

The informal comparisons I read of the two systems painted them as Mac (SquareSpace) vs. Windows (WordPress). Either operating system will let you do what you want to do, but you have to decide how much of a hobbyist you want to be. And no matter which you choose, there will be a learning curve.

I spent most of last week reading blog posts and review articles on the merits and demerits of both products, with about an even number of blog posts documenting how and why the writers were switching from WP to SS and vice versa.

WordPress is complicated, not suited for beginners, offers solid performance, is endlessly customizable and easy to mess up because of that, has a ton of eye-catching themes and a few reliable frameworks, the WP plugins let you extend your site's functionality and usability (as long as you don't use too many of them) and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

SquareSpace is easy to use, solid unless you start writing your own CSS, with tech support that's good when they know the answer but poor if they don't, beautiful templates that all kinda look alike (but also work alike and behave reliably), is much easier for the non-techie photographer to set up a portfolio, offers limited widgets and plugins but they work without making the site fall over, and it works just the way that writer expects it to work.

It was obvious to me that the differences between these two systems were, as they say, as fine as a frog's hair. So there was no clear winner, in my mind. I must needs therefore gather more information!

I started a 2-week free trial of SS, which is a great deal, as you can't do that with the expensive WP frameworks and themes. And I didn't want to be fooled by the sunk costs fallacy: even though I'd been using the WP blog for years, that did not mean I had to keep using it if there was a better option.

So, I created a couple of pages, a blog, poked around the options, and, honestly, the SS dashboard looked as intimidating and bewildering to me as the WP dashboard. So, for me, the "best" system was not going to be decided based on ease of use.

At this point, after a week of mulling it over, it hit me: this decision was becoming a procrastination distraction. Yes, changing my blog's look was something I wanted to do anyway, but I was letting it take over my attention cycles. And, as my old coach used to say, indecision causes suffering.

What was also happening was that I wasn't doing the writing I wanted to do, because writing is hard. But this tech stuff ... promised an answer. If I got this choice right, everything else would fall into place. But of course it wouldn't and I could see that.

So, the question was not "which system is better," because that is essentially unanswerable. Based on my reading, the real answer is a matter of opinion based on what you value in blogging software.

The question for me instead was "which option will cause me the least disruption?" Either option would turn my world upside down, but which one would get me up and running a little more quickly? For me, the answer to that question was to stick with WP. It's worked reliably for me so far, and buying a reliable framework/theme combo would simply give me more options. I also would not have to export my blog posts, set up redirects, etc. thinking of which always made my stomach hurt.

So, I decided that the best theme for someone like me (technically competent but clueless when it comes to PHP, CSS, and WP internals) seems to be the Genesis framework with the Prose theme. Yes, it looks rather familiar. As the poet says, the end of all our exploring is to arrive where we started.

 

You can easily go too far with all this talk of meaningfulness: that way lies acres of self-help nonsense about Finding Your Life Purpose and “doing great work”. But Graeber’s analysis suggests a more down-to-earth question for navigating the world of careers: is the job you’re doing, or applying for, one that the world would be perfectly fine without? (Financial necessity might still oblige you to do it, but at least you’ll be acting without illusions.) As life strategies go, this seems a decent one: where possible, move in the direction of non-pointless activities, and away from those that reek of bullshit. Do stuff that people would miss – however slightly – if it never got done at all.

Movie: "Blue Jasmine"

To get this out of the way as quickly as possible: Cate Blanchett clocks an amazing performance as Woody Allen’s Blanche DuBois in this utterly unsurprising and tiresome movie. Oh, and there’s a great soundtrack – I’m definitely buying the soundtrack. As with Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the soundtrack is more entertaining than the wretched movie from which it is hellspawned.

Frame by tooth-grinding frame, “Blue Jasmine” demonstrates nearly every tic of Allen’s that infuriate me:

  • The way his characters talk in exposition: “Of course, since my husband is a high-flying financier and businessman, I simply couldn’t finish my anthropology degree so we adopted his son from a previous marriage and now I’m simply so busy managing our homes in New York and the Hamptons that I barely have time to breathe!” I’m exaggerating, of course, but see how his characters talk in the first 10 minutes or how they introduce themselves later. Real people – and well-drawn characters – don’t talk like this.
  • The way his characters’ lines are so single-entendre; there’s no attempt at layering, no attempt at giving the actors any subtext to play. Every line of dialogue is on-the-nose and has zero replay value (unlike the soundtrack!). Count how many times the rough-talking blue-collar characters tell off Jasmine by summing up everything we already know and saying it in the flattest way possible. And also just what a god-awful homage to “Streetcar Named Desire” this movie is. Where’s the poetry? Where’s the sympathy? Sally Hawkins’ (another good performance in a thankless role – where did her English accent go?) former boyfriend gets his “Stella!” breakdown but it’s the B storyline and – so what, really? Meanwhile, Jasmine retreats to her dreamworld and begins actively making bad decisions that, of course, ensures she’ll end badly.
  • Allen’s lazy approach to writing and research. Jasmine takes a class to learn basic computer skills. Meanwhile, she’s working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office – a dentist’s office, in San Francisco, that does not use computers. I mean – what?? Allen must be remembering how dentist offices worked 30 years ago – has he never noticed how they look and operate today? (OK, the guy who cuts my hair – he still uses a big paper appointment book. But not my dentist!)
  • His ongoing obsession with and romanticized contrast of high and low culture. Jasmine and her husband Hal live in rich, palatial homes and apartments with rooms that are tastefully curated, all parallel and perpendicular lines. When she’s shown her new beau’s empty house, it’s a huge empty room that could field a hockey match and sports an I-want-it view of San Francisco Bay. My first thought was, “House porn.” Allen’s movies dwell on these classier-than-thou settings. (There’s a similar scene in “Match Point,” except that apartment – also with floor-to-ceiling windows – overlooks the Thames.)

    By contrast, Sally Hawkins’ small apartment that she shares with her two sons is small, cramped, cluttered, and plays host to her boyfriend’s crew as they watch boxing. Jasmine is suffocated by the cage-like atmosphere – though, golly, it looks a lot more homey than the places where she used to live. The lower-class men all talk like Andrew Dice Clay (or like bad imitations of Brando’s Stanley). Every character is either refined or tawdry, and their intellectual speeds barely register on the dial – they all seemed to finish at the place where they started.

    Of course, of the upper- and lower-crust characters, who do you think will end up happy?

The folks I saw the movie with were surprised by the downbeat ending. I was surprised that they were surprised. To my eyes, absolutely nothing I saw unfold was unexpected.

Cate Blanchett sells her part with conviction, courage, and desperate energy – her final scene is unglamorous and riveting. But I think she’s the one who sells the ending, rather than the thin, insubstantial, and lazy script. Allen’s movies more and more seem removed from real life, which is OK, if the world you’re creating is involving or the characters you’re creating are interesting people I’ve never seen before. But his movies seem  to be recycling characters and tropes from previous Woody Allen movies, which I think yields little real emotional or artistic value.

I want to tell him to please take off a year or two, spend time with his kids, read some new books, soak up some new experiences, and let his ideas germinate longer before he starts up another production. Please.

The last good movie of Allen’s I enjoyed was “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I think is probably the high-water mark of his dramatic films. The recent documentary on Allen by Robert Wiede is also quite good, especially on his early career, his influences, and his enviable work ethic. And check out Cate Blanchett’s turn – or turns – in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes” – it’s a lark, and she has fun sending up her image.

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“Fuckin’ endings, man,” Get Shorty concludes. “They weren’t as easy as they looked.” When Elmore Leonard died this week, the Mozart of profanity, the Cole Porter of the word “motherfucker”, he left the world as easily secure of a lasting reputation as any novelist in history. What makes a novelist last is the music they make – not their social concern, not the importance of their subjects, not the utterances they make. PG Wodehouse has lasted where AJ Cronin faded. Silliness, absurdity and the utmost triviality are no barriers; novels about nothing more than the squire’s daughter marrying the squire’s neighbour last forever, if they sing.

The word “salute” reminds me of a startling essay-starter that Claire Hahn of Fordham University shared with our class one day: “Chaucer stood with one foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages, and with the other he saluted the dawn of the Renaissance.” She loved it.

Krishnamurti went on to give countless talks at which he frequently implied that his audience shouldn’t be wasting their time listening to spiritual talks.

But perhaps the most striking was a 1977 lecture in California. “Part-way through this particular talk,” writes Jim Dreaver, who was present, “Krishnamurti suddenly paused, leaned forward and said, almost conspiratorially, ‘Do you want to know what my secret is?' ” (There are several accounts of this event; details vary.) Krishnamurti rarely spoke in such personal terms, and the audience was electrified, Dreaver recalls. “Almost as though we were one body we sat up… I could see people all around me lean forward, their ears straining and their mouths slowly opening in hushed anticipation.” Then Krishnamurti, “in a soft, almost shy voice”, said: “You see, I don’t mind what happens.”

Movie: "20 Feet From Stardom"

When Tom Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, “We all love music and we want music to love us, too.” It’s a thought that haunted me after watching the glorious documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

The movie starts on a sunny note as a trio of backup singers reunite after not having seen each other for decades. The tracks of songs they sang are played underneath, and you notice the names of different girl groups appear for each song. Their voices were everywhere, it seems, but they remained anonymous.tumblr_mm6mcw3TR61sn7wjto1_1280

“20 Feet” tracks the fortunes of several singers from the first generation of girl backup singers. The first half of the film is fun, vibrant, and star-studded: the girls sing backup for the big names of rock and roll, with occasional solo duties on the records or duets with the stars. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and Sting contribute both raves for the singers who work with them and grounded, thoughtful perspectives on the life of a backup singer and why stardom sometimes eludes them.

Because, make no mistake, these singers gave everything they had to music and – not without reason – they’d like something back. As the girls grow into women, and the ‘60s become the ‘70s and the ‘80s, their attempts to crack the mainstream become more and more futile and their feelings about music turn bitter. The movie becomes heartbreaking by slow degrees. There’s a particularly disquieting moment when the camera pans down a stack of solo albums by backup singers who saw these records as their ticket to mainstream success – none of which were successful.

Did they not work hard enough? If you love something enough that you give up your life and youth for it, isn’t it supposed to pay off? Where’s the line between persistence and banging your head against a wall? Or is it also, as Sting and Springsteen say, a matter of luck, circumstance, and a thousand other variables that no one can control? The up-and-coming singer Judith Hill, who was all set to break out into superstardom, suffers with a tragic setback that she could not have planned for or even imagined. The movie follows her as she continues trying to execute her solo career, while also accepting backup jobs when she has to or wants to.

One of the profiled singers, Lisa Fischer, is at peace with her life as a backup singer. She knows the price big stars pay for their stardom, and she’s happy that she never paid it. The occasional moments of her singing solo showcase a deep, jazzy voice; the respect that the other artists in the movie have for her and her voice are strong and stirring. She may not be out front, but she’s never taken for granted.

The movie, however, belongs to two women: Merry Clayton, a powerhouse singer with a “kill spirit” who worked single-mindedly to become a star and who still feels the frustration that her dream eluded her, and Darlene Love, whose voice was used in dozens of hits produced by Phil Spector, who cruelly exploited her talent. Darlene’s story has a happy ending, of sorts, but I could not shake the story of her years away from music and how narrowly she missed the chance to be welcomed back into its arms.

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