What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.

Terrible Towels

Lately Kish and I have experienced a weird phenomenon:  every time we go out to buy towels, the towels we bring home don’t work very well.  In fact, you might say they suck — except that “sucking” suggests a moisture absorbency that these towels totally lack.

Rosie, the waitress from the old Bounty TV commercials, would tell you that the key quality of towels — paper or cloth — is their ability to soak up fluids.  That’s why she was always accosting customers, butting into their conversations to yammer on about the “quicker picker-upper,” and sticking Bounty towels into half-filled glasses of water to show how much water the towels could absorb without dissolving into wet paper nubs. 

But modern towel manufacturers seem to have forgotten — or perhaps they never learned — this essential lesson about what a towel should be.  They make towels that look delightfully warm and fluffy and soft, but that don’t actually soak up water.  It’s as if the cloth has a kind of coating on it that prevents it from sucking up fluids.  So when you use the fluffy towel after taking a shower, you’re just smearing water around on your arms and legs, and your hair stays wet.  The difference between the old towels in our house and the new breed is like night and day — or, most aptly, dry and wet.

It’s absurd.  It’s like buying a pillow that is hard and jagged, ordering a drink that is so brackish it  doesn’t quench your thirst, or purchasing a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t actually suck up dust and dirt.  Modern towel manufacturers consistently produce a product that doesn’t even perform its principal purpose.  How in the world did this happen?

The Oldest Oral Tradition

No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.

So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.

Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.

 

 

Keeping Up With The Devices

In 1950s America, people spoke of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  The phrase captured the desire of suburbanites to match whatever they noticed their neighbors were doing in the area of home or family improvements.  If the Joneses bought a new car or one of those newfangled TV sets, the pressure was on for the Smiths to make the same upgrade.

In hotel management classes these days, you might talk instead about “keeping up with the devices.”  It refers to the efforts of hotels to equip guest rooms with all of the plug-ins that a traveler might need to hook up the array of electronic gear they might be lugging along. 

This effort by the New York City hotel I stayed in this week is a good example of what hotels have tried to do — and why it seems forever doomed to failure.  It offers one measly electrical outlet, but a smorgasbord of other options that seem awfully dated — and hence not usable (by me, at least).  It’s got a labeled plug-in for an iPod, for example, the three yellow, red, and white holes that I associate with TVs from the ’90s, an old-fashioned phone jack, and a weird, bulky white plug that looks like it might be needed to power a Russian listening device.  And that curious gadget just highlights the additional challenge facing hotels in cities where foreign travelers are commonplace — it’s bad enough to try to keep up with American technology, but it becomes overwhelming if you add in the different kinds of connectivity people from other countries might need for their gizmos.

Of course, most of these options were useless to me; I used only the electrical outlet for my laptop and then had to search for another outlet elsewhere to charge up my iPhone.  And that, I suppose, might be a good takeaway for hotels.  Give up the self-defeating quest to identify and anticipate what your guest might need so that you look like you’re on the cutting edge of personal technology, I say!  It’s never going to really work, and within a nanosecond you’ll just be dating yourself.  Since all of devices currently known to man need electricity, do yourself a favor:  supply plenty of outlets and leave the other hook-ups to the traveler.

Sidewalk Roulette

I’m in New York City today for a quick trip, staying just next to Times Square.  Last night I went for a walk before dinner and realized, again, what a special experience it is to take a walk in Manhattan in the midst of its extended pedestrian rush hour.

real_estate_160129960_ar_-1_bwybxpzmohfmIf you’ve only been walking recently on the sleepy streets of a city like Columbus, you’re really not prepared for the Big Apple pedestrian experience.  Not only are there fewer people walking around Columbus — by a factor of about 50 or perhaps even 100, I’d estimate — but there aren’t as many sidewalk obstacles, either.  No pop-up vendors shilling stocking caps, no dirty water hot dog stands, no mounds of trash bags waiting to be collected, no building scaffolding at some point on every block, no bike messengers zipping in and out. When you go for a walk in Manhattan, in contrast, you’ve got to be aware of all of those things as you navigate the crowded sidewalks.  Your mental reflexes had better speed up considerably, or you’re going to find yourself in trouble.

Walking to work in Columbus is a reasonably pleasant experience, where you can put your brain on autopilot and let your mind wander a bit.  In New York City, that approach would be fatal.  You’ve got to adopt a much more active mindset, with all senses on high alert, as you calculate distances, scan for openings in the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic, and make sure you don’t tumble into an open cellar door or invade the space of a homeless guy sitting at the foot of a building who wasn’t visible until the last second when the foot traffic parted to pass him.

It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the thought processes of a race car driver.  If I speed up, do I have enough space to pass the slow-moving guys in front of me and get back to my side of the sidewalk before the people coming in the other direction start cussing me out for disrupting pedestrian flow?  Should I cut around the street side of the scaffolding to avoid the woman with the baby carriage who’s blocking the way, or if I do that will I be able to get safely back onto the sidewalk before the approaching traffic arrives?  And when you’re walking in the area around Times Square, there’s the ever-present possibility that the person in front of you will stop in the middle of the sidewalk without warning to take a selfie or a photo of the Allied Chemical Building, so that factor also has to be added to the mental matrix.

Walking in New York during a busy period isn’t for the faint of heart, but it does get your blood pumping.  I can’t imagine, however, what it would be like to try jogging in this busy place, where everything comes at you even faster.

The Purse From 1957

In 1957, Patti Rumfola was a student at Hoover High School, in Canton, Ohio.  At some point that year, she lost her clutch purse while attending the new school, which was built just the year before.  You can imagine her wondering what happened to the purse, but when you’re a freshman life moves on pretty quickly, and it probably wasn’t very long before the purse was forgotten.

edaed322-04c9-42ce-b75c-61a6c93c0aab-pattiIt turns out that Patti’s purse somehow fell behind lockers at the school.  Last year, a custodian at the school building — which is still in use, but now serves as the North Canton Middle School — was working on the lockers and found the dust-covered purse, which had been lost for 62 years.  The custodian and some secretaries at the school took a look inside, found a library card, and tried to track down the former owner of the purse.  They learned that Patti graduated from Hoover High in 1960, became a school teacher in Maryland, founded a theater arts guild and young women’s club in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, got married, had five children — but unfortunately died in 2013, at age 71.

The school district located Patti’s kids and delivered the purse to them, and they opened it last fall, to get a peek into the teenage life of their Mom through this inadvertent time capsule from the Eisenhower Administration.  Inside they found old-fashioned black and white photos, including snapshots of family, friends, and a dog, membership cards, a football schedule, some religious medallions, a stick of Beech-Nut peppermint gum, make-up, a comb, a compact, some pencils, a pen, and an eraser, and some Lincoln wheat pennies that Patti’s kids kept as keepsakes of their Mom.  Kudos to the school district for not throwing away the old purse and diligently working to find Patti and her kids.

Imagine finding a long-lost trove of bits of your life during your teenage years, or opening up your old school locker from your freshman year 50 years later, with its contents undisturbed during the intervening decades.  What would you find — and what memories, fun or embarrassing, would the contents suddenly stir?

The Iowa Reboot

The electoral debacle in this year’s Iowa caucus has had one positive effect:  it has made other states carefully examine their election processes, in hopes that they won’t become “the next Iowa.”  In Nevada, for example, officials took a hard look at the 2020 Iowa caucus and made several changes to the planned Nevada caucus procedure, including getting rid of apps that were going to be used and going instead to paper ballots.  Even so, many people have concerns about the Nevada caucus, which starts in a few days.

states-with-same-day-registrationIn Ohio, where the primary won’t occur until next month, the concern isn’t about apps, caucus rules, or complicated vote-counting procedures.  Instead, some people are questioning whether the turnout in Ohio elections should cause Ohio to address a more fundamental issue:  the process for registering to vote and then voting.

This article from the Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio frames the issue.  It notes that the turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections in Ohio was about 50 percent of registered voters, placing the Buckeye State’s participation percentage at 29th out of the 50 states.  The turnout by voters in the 18 to 24 group was especially pathetic.

But, what causes low turnout?  The ACLU director rejects the possibility that some citizens simply lack interest, and instead contends that Ohio’s procedures discourage participation.  He advocates for abolishing the Ohio requirement that voters register at least 30 days before an election in favor of allowing “same day” registration and voting, and argues that would-be voters should be able to register at Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices.  He also supports making sure that early voting — a process that Ohio already follows — provides for ample evening and weekend hours and simple absentee procedures to allow people who work two jobs, live in remote areas, are homebound, or are serving in the armed forces overseas to cast their ballots without a hassle.

I’m in favor of taking a fresh look at Ohio’s procedures and auditing the elections in other states that have different procedures to see whether Ohio’s processes can be simplified and improved.  I have to admit, however, that I’m leery of same day registration and voting, which seems like a recipe for Election Day chaos and potential fraud — and therefore I’m particularly interested at an objective look at how that option has worked in other states.  I also wonder at the most fundamental premise in the ACLU director’s article:  if a voter can’t be bothered to register at least 30 days before an election, is it really the procedure that is keeping that voter from the polls, or is it good old-fashioned voter apathy, instead?