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Nov302019

My new Website Design and What you can Expect to Find here..

Hello world. This is my new website design.

At long last, my home base online has a brand new look. Thank Philadephia’s own Brian Crumley for all of it.

What you’ll find here:

What I hope you’ll find here in the future: 

  • Monthly roundups of movie’s I’ve seen (ala Khoi Vinh)
  • Monthly roundups of what I’ve read (ala Ben Werdmuller)
  • Better contextualized and more useful to you versions of what i post on social media feeds elsewhere
  • More themed essays and posts like I did more of long ago.

I like the way things look a lot more now. And there’s something about redecorating that makes you want to feel the new space with projects and dreams.

Nov72019

Blue Waves: Winning the 2018 Midterm Elections and Saying So

Friends, I am as heartbroken about Andrew Gullim & Beto O’Rourke and the racist nonsense that no doubt poisoned those elections. But the House is Blue. Kris Kobach, Scott Walker & Putin’s fav. congressperson are out of of a job. We elected 111 women, half are POC. 300 state house seats flipped. Voter suppression/gerrymandering laws turned back in Florida, Michigan and Utah. A brand new, state of the art program to end homelessness in my own San Francisco. Unprecedented turnout amongst young people who 2/1 vote Dem.

If that’s not a wave, I’ve never seen one. Listen to Rebecca Solnit on this one. We blue folk are terrible at joy, at secretly loving our own tragedy and downplaying success. We mistakenly believe being miserable and refusing to be proud is a sign of our commitment to our values.

Don’t do it. We worked hard for this. We earned it. Let’s not dishonor the hard work and commitment of the millions of Americans who made it happen by pretending it’s something less than it actually is.

Nov72019

Publicly Sharing RSS Libraries i.e. My RSS Feeds are Yours

 

Inspired by Matt Haughey’s public posting of the RSS Feeds he subscribes to, I’m doing the same (below).

What is RSS, you ask? A method to subscribe to what your favorite websites publish and have their updates all in a single place. Think of it as DVR for the Internet, food delivery instead of pickup except for the web. Podcasts would on the same technology and concept: Subscribe once, receive forever without asking again.

RSS has been around for most of the 21st century but took a pretty big hit first when people began using Facebook and Twitter to receive regular news updates then when in 2013 when Google discontinued its free RSS product called Google Reader. At that point, anyone who still used an RSS reader and carefully pruned their feed library was probably over 30 and stubborn.

Lately though, its been making a bit of a comeback. Idea being that self-selecting your daily information diet (see: No Trump-loving-creepy-brothers-in-laws) probably means less unwilling toxicity and restless nights of non-sleep.

I’m all for this. RSS made the Internet seem both rich and manageable in my early days with it and I’m still grateful. And while not every one of your favorite web publications still have rss feeds (many newer ones which came along in the last fallow few years just didn’t bother)  many still do.

The more feeds we share, the more our friends and loved ones can conveniently use RSS to assemble their own rich and varied information diets free from the poison of racism, intolerance and fight-picking.

In that spirit, my entire RSS feed library taken from the great Newsblur Reader service then alphabetized is below. Take, subscribe, read, enjoy.

* items with a star are feeds custom created by me.

 

Feeds:

 

Oct212019

An Open Letter to Professor Stephen Ambrose: Did you Plagiarize or just Forget?

Dear Professor Ambrose,

I can’t imagine what the last two weeks have been like for you and your family. You’ve been crouching in a hail of hateful words like “fraud,” “plagiarist” and “vampire,” mortar shells reminiscent of the battles you describe so vividly. Since January 4, when Weekly Standard reporter Fred Barnes alleged that you copied whole passages from other historians for Wild Blue, your book on WWII fighter pilots, your integrity has been called into question by your academic peers, veterans and the salivating punditry. Several more of your books have been held under the microscope, even as they have continued to sell.

You know all this, and my thoughts are probably little more than another howl in the chaos. Nonetheless, I believe that many of your accusers sympathize with your crimes more than they say. Outrage at this wrongdoing seems to have come in two parts: moralizing on the inherent evils of plagiarism, followed closely by how you, drunk with success, brought this upon yourself. Both are correct and yet miss the point, a point a little too true to admit out loud.

Our most basic common link — you, I, historians, journalists and students — is that we are all writers. We arrange words in order to bring about larger ideas and greater understanding. We use them, as you have done magnificently, to tell stories. These stories are often the result of physical and mental toil, research (and all of that word’s resonances) and the slow boil of ideas and narratives in our head. We journalists, with our relentless deadlines, rarely have that luxury, although our minds still insist that we do. We’re wired to discover, assemble and then tell out loud. The work on a story largely comes from those first two steps and when the writing begins, we know our story backwards and forwards because we’ve told it to ourselves a hundred times. I often find it changing during the writing, which is when it becomes my favorite part of the process. Other times, I’m already done with the story by then and inscribing it feels like a bother.

I fear this may have been what happened to you, Professor Ambrose, when you decided to import another writer’s words and pass them off as your own. I too labored in the salt mines of historical research for a few years and have an idea of how easily a passage can get misplaced, wrongly quoted, lost in the mass of findings that must support these endeavors. In your case, hard evidence has surfaced that it happened too many times to be dismissed as an accident, even though that’s what you called it.

You’ve made your apologies and your peers have accepted them. They both admire and envy you, as both a champion of historical memory and bestseller machine. Few academics have a gift for narrative like yours, one that can press a scholarly book into the hands of a general audience. But those who do pay their respects to the writing process. Edmund Morris, who in interviews, calls himself a writer first, a historian second, laces his hefty presidential biographies with several narrative styles. Following a stroke, historian William Manchester no longer has the strength to complete the final volume of his massively popular Winston Churchill biography. Not being able to write, he says, makes him weep.

I don’t see the same commitment in you. The production of your books is legendary in its efficiency, with your five grown children all employed as researchers and teams of assistants running about. You’re incorporated as Ambrose & Ambrose, Inc. Steven Spielberg produces films based on your work. You’ve finished eight books in five years. Even your editors tell you to slow down. Yet the record is oddly silent when it comes to your writing, your rituals, tendencies or preferred style. Maybe journalists just haven’t asked or they’ve assumed that copying is a habit you got into early on as some of the evidence would indicate. Me, I’m left with the sense that there’s no room on the production floor of Ambrose & Ambrose for composing a book from scratch, that writing is a task that can gradually be outsourced, one paragraph at a time.

I hope this isn’t true, Professor Ambrose. I admire the zeal you’ve shown in making our nation’s military history exciting and accessible. My guess is that while your respect amongst your colleagues may suffer, your popularity will not. Few of your millions of fans care much about footnotes and correct attribution styles. But I’m just another writer, one who walks away from this incident feeling as though something has been lost. Writers write, the hackneyed saying goes. Sitting down at the proverbial desk may not the adrenaline rush of another project rolling into production but it’s what makes us who we are. Regard that as disposable and where are we? In the trenches of the battle of the mind, defenseless without our imaginations.

Best,

Kevin Smokler

Oct172019

Eulogy for an Uncle: My Uncle Barry (1909-2001)

 

I’m avoiding writing this, this eulogy if you will. I’ve got a few other pieces that need finishing and my energy needs to be targeted toward getting everything ready.

Then something happened. And now it’s harder than I thought to do this.

On Wednesday afternoon, my uncle, Barry Jeffery, died at the age of 92. My youngest brother Daniel had been with him at the hospital in Florida and told me.

I found out after midnight that my uncle said dying didn’t scare him, that he had no regrets about his life and that it meant a lot to him that we had talked on the phone the day before. Even though he couldn’t hear me through the whir of the oxygen mask over his face, I had told him that I loved him and that I hoped to be something like him someday.

Daniel, who seems to be on top of every situation, couldn’t speak. I hung up the phone, then looked at myself in the mirror while I cried.

My Uncle Barry recognized his time had come. In his letters and phone calls from the past few years, he talked about spending his days painting, writing, and shuttling back and forth to “various doctors. You know how it is.”

He always ended by laughing

Now

 

Last week, his aorta started collapsing in on itself and his lungs filled with blood. He took excellent care of himself, still swam laps well into his 80s. But his body was imploding, one vital piece at a time.

Already  in his early 70s when we became friends, he gave me a silver dollar for cleaning the leaves off the bottom of his pool. The net measured twice the length of my eight-year old frame so he held the handle.

He wrote letters to newspapers on current events throughout his retirement, winning several awards from the Florida Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald. He painted western scenes and vignettes inspired by the cowboy movies he loved as a boy. He and my brother were very close and the two would link up in Decemebr and discuss politics and world events for hours. Daniel got Barry an AOL account and before long, my 90-year old uncle had a pen pal, a 25-year old graduate student in Japan.

Barry knew he didn’t have much time. He had a lot to do before then.

Daniel and I talked several times this week in preparation for the eulogy he would give at Barry’s funeral. Our uncle was a dreamer, saw himself as a cowboy, an English gentleman and a clear-eyed witness to history. But he spent most of his life in the textile business, paying bills, raising kids. He loved heated conversation even as a person with few friends and an inherently solitary disposition.

He saw his end but lived as though it would never come.

Who we Were

When you meet someone in the twilight of their life, you have all snapshots and no captions. You have their memories, once removed, after their kids are grown, after they’ve made most of their big decisions. If you’re lucky, you get to see them do what they’ve always wanted. But you also have to be resigned to the mystery, the seeming contradictions. You weren’t there to see them become who they became.

According to our Aunt Teddy, Barry saw us as his adopted grandsons, a relationship Daniel took seriously and I probably didn’t. Barry would Instant Message me while at work and I’d put him off. I’d send him pieces of my writing when he asked and I resented that he didn’t understand my sarcastic tone or my “Gen-X-isms.” I neglected to email him back because I felt like I’d spend most of the letter explaining myself.

In my early 20s then, I barely knew myself. I didn’t have to time to justify it to some old guy. Even when my Aunt Teddy told me , that I should send him an email, I didn’t write him. He understood work had most of my attention.

“You’re a businessman now,” she said. I didn’t think I would run out of time.

I felt some of that this week. My Uncle was gone and I, too busy to grieve, two major deadlines on Thursday, a trip away for the weekend, a relaunch in less than two weeks. Twice this week, I looked up and realized too late to call Teddy, to tell her how sad this made me, that I could and would be present for her if she needed me.

Does working for myself, molding this dream from fresh clay, mean this? That sometimes being human has to wait until my schedule frees up? I didn’t go to Florida this winter because of work. I almost didn’t see them both last year but I made a stop, grudgingly, on the way back home, dragging my old friend Justin along.

What is the matter with me?

I still didn’t know when I sat in front of my window and prayed for the soul of my Uncle Barry, that he now dwelled somewhere with more time on his hands, where it didn’t hurt to breathe and where I would see him again someday.

 

Next

 

Moving into my professional life, I will have to create, produce, manage and decide, faster and with more conviction than I’ve ever had. It scares me every time I think about it. But I’m going to continue on here and dedicate the next chapter of this story to my late Uncle Barry.

He taught me that people can know you through your dreams and desires, and that sharing them without expectation or judgement means sharing your joy. That it’s not in competition with the rest of your life, but perhaps the most enriching part of it.

That we often have more time than we think.

May92019

Top 5 Books I Read in 2017:

This year I read 31 books. Bear in mind I don’t often read new books. So I won’t say then this is my “Top 5 of 2017” but instead my…

Top 5 Books Read in 2017

(which I’ve written in reverse order)

5. The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Ayon & Nate Powell (2017).

A three-volume graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis. Starts with his youth in Alabama to his work as a young man in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

You’d have to work to muff this story. Simply put, John Lewis has led one of the great lives of the 20th Century. But here, he and his collaborators have done something, in stark, almost-wordless black & white–bold, epic and beautiful.

This book won the National Book Award in 2017 for Young People’s Literature.

With good reason.

 

4. The Odd Woman & The City by Vivian Gornick. (2015)

I only know Ms. Gornick’s name and her legendary standing as a critic and intellectual of the Second Wave Feminist movement. Then I picked up this short memoir/essay collection, released in 2015. Now I know a little of how sure and effortless her prose is, how conversationally perfect. Now I know how she seems, despite being pointed at times, like a marvelous traveling companion.

This book anchors itself to her late-in-life friendship with a man named Leonard. Her own relationship with New York City having grown up there nearly 80 years ago and gone to school there in the early Eisenhower era follows right behind.

Read if you simply love a writer at the very top of her game even after being at it for a good 40 years.

 

3. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (2017)

One of my favorite writers’ new essay collection about famous animals throughout human history (including Jumbo the Elephant and the Starlings that colonized America). This fast little compendium plays funny, sweet, sad and ridiculously smart.

It’s fair to say that if you love animals, you’d missing out not to read this book. Afterwards, you’ll will never see them the same way again.

 

2. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2005)

A short, indispensable essay collection that should be required reading by anyone who considers themselves politically left-of-center. Rebecca Solnit simply argues that to be progressive and to be cynical means living a stupid self-defeating contradiction. To be politically conscious and humorless makes an argument against being politically conscious in the first place.

The first must-read book of these insane political times.

And finally…

The Best Book I Read in 2017

 

1. Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009)

A mediation on both the color blue and having your heart broken this is the kind of book where you say “OMG!” on every 3rd page. Maggie Nelson is so smart, so gifted and so good at what she does that I immediately spent the rest of the year binging on her books, one after the other, in a spirit of reading ecstasy and joy.

 

May92019

Something I’ve been trying out: “Reading Tri-Laterally”

To explain:

Lately I’ve been trying to read more than one book at a time, picking them up depending on my mood. And while my problem in the past has been losing track of what characters, which story, belonged where, this time it’s been working. Also, I don’t get confused if, among those multiple books, one is a novel, the other nonfiction, the third a poetry collection and so forth.

This means you may feel like you’re never going to finish a book and get to some future read you’ve been dying to get to. But what ends up happening is you finish your three books all about the same time, which then feels like your birthday because you get to restock three books at once.

Try it!

Apr162018

Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Molly Ringwald’s New Yorker Essay, The Breakfast Club and #MeToo

Ringwald-metoo

 

Because many of you asked what I thought about Molly Ringwald’s recent essay in The New Yorker.

1. Ms. Ringwald is absolutely right. Movies endure not just b/c they meant something to us way back then but b/c they should allow for rigorous re-examination as our culture evolves. Great movies hold up to that examination, not by seeming contemporary (which is impossible) but by constantly engaging us as we change, even though they don’t.

2. It is not “political correctness” to re-evaluate a work of art in contemporary context. It is perhaps myopic to say it shouldn’t ever be seen again because of what it said when it was made and how it isn’t cool to say that now. But Ms. Ringwald isn’t arguing for censorship. She’s arguing for not letting nostalgia gum up the rigor of our intellect.

3. Nostalgia is, by definition, a failed enterprise: A wish for what is no longer presumes a) we can turn back time and b) nothing should have changed between then and now. Both are impossible. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on things from the past. Bear in mind that the best of those things (like, for example, The Breakfast Club) are still remembered not just because of what they were then but how they continue to speak to us now.

4. John Hughes made great movies not in spite of being a flawed person but because he was a flawed person. The remarkable thing about genius is that it happens in human beings who are by definition good at some things and not others. If they are in fact, geniuses and the things they create are too, then they invite that rigor of examination not shy away from it. Dude, Where’s My Car deflates like a leaky balloon upon examination. Huck Finn, The Age of Innocence, James Brown Live at the Apollo and The Breakfast Club are so good and complicated and magnificent and frustrating in so many ways that they are gifts that keep on giving. And we look away from the full extant of those gifts, if we ignore that Mark Twain was a genius but a terrible businessman which probably hurt how much we know of is work, that Edith Wharton was a genius but an unapologetic snob that probably made her output less rangy than the true scope of her genius, that James Brown was a genius who was a terrible boss and lost a young Bootsy Collins as a bassist because of it and imagine what Mr. Brown’s music COULD have been like and that John Hughes was a genius who had great difficulty emotionally reaching beyond whom he was as a teenager and examine what could have been had he been able to write and direct movies not about the suburban midwest?

5. “Imagine if” always comes with examination of genius. Bad movies/books/songs/tv shows you cannot even summon the energy to do that.

6. I promise you, no one, not Molly Ringwald or Criterion or I or anyone else who wishes to have lively conversation about your favorite movie from childhood, is trying to ruin your childhood. We are in fact trying to acknowledge that we all grow up and change and we STILL have the opportunity to have ongoing evolved, long term relationships with the pop culture of the past. That, in fact the needlessly linear narrative of pop culture as new–>passe–>forgotten–>kitsch–>reboot is a diet of junk food and culture is meant to be a feast.

7. The evening I read this Molly Ringwald essay, I also saw Night Ranger in concert. And 35 years after their heyday, they were fantastic. Which led me to watch a ton of concert footage of theirs and to the one, every video had at least a dozen comments talking about what Night Ranger does is over, musically and will never be again, despite what I had seen with my own eyes the night before, they fact that I could watch 35 years of the band’s history for free, the fact that armed with a Spotify subscription and a web browser, I could summon Night Ranger and 25 bands like them across four decades of popular music with a few keystrokes and search terms.

I submit if you spend a bunch of your time talking about how “over” something is, you are really not talking about “it” being over but you. You’re sad because that band/movie/book reminds you a special time in life from long ago. Fine. If you want to be done having special times with art and pop culture, be my guest. That strikes me as an entirely avoidable self-inflicted cloud of depression you have decided to stand under without an umbrella. Show a little backbone, take two steps to the left and come out in the sunshine where the rest of us live.

8. I am deeply thankful to Ms. Ringwald for saying from her unique point of view better than what I tried to say in Brat Pack America that nostalgia often keeps us from further discussion, further engagement, from having marriages instead of flings with art and culture we love That living there is a wasteful and potentially dangerous enterprise. And we owe to our kids and nieces and nephews and our mentees and our young friends who we wish to share it wish to keep talking.

Apr92018

Half-Baked Preliminary Thoughts on Ready, Player One. The Movie

V1

1. I had great fun watching this movie. I would have even if 80s pop culture weren’t my subject/passion. It’s paced beautifully, it looks great, the CGI is tremendous fun and the acting is adequate enough to not get in the way of that other stuff. The pop culture signifiers are whipped cream, not the sundae.

2. It’s about 60% true to the novel which is about average for Steven Spielberg. Remember the novel Jurassic Park was practically a dystopia with John Hammond as a maniacal billionaire (not kindly old Richard Attenborough) and at the end of the novel The Color Purple, the main character ends up befriending her abuser. Spielberg’s adaptations of well known novels are usually departures in at least one significant way.

3. The novel’s pop culture references are exclusive to the 1980s including extended sequences about the pioneering text adventure video game called Zork and the 1983 classic War Games. The movie has a very loose interpretation of “the past” pop culture-wise. It references Saturday Night Fever (1977), The Shining (1980), Nightmare on Elm St. (1984), Say Anything (1989), and The Iron Giant (1999) a span of 22 years and 3 distinct eras (maybe more) in pop culture.

4. There’s some good stuff here about who owns the future, about net neutrality and about how we spend our time but with and away from screens.

5. The movie’s politics overall though are on shakier ground. For most of the story, the protagonist wants to win a contest so he can rule a virtual world and get a lot of money for it, a hard ask for sympathy and relatability. Also, it is never in doubt that the protagonist is the most skilled player of the game and yet the movie still saddles him with a “we are the rebellion and must fight” speech. Rebellions are about power imbalance. If you are clearly the best in the field of battle, you don’t get to call yourself “a rebel”. LeBron James is not a rebel no matter how well or poorly the Cleveland Cavs do. And maybe I’m making too much of this but people with great power talking about what rebels they are feels a little Trump-y in its delusion to me.

6. Part of my problem with #5 may be that I think one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest weaknesses as a storyteller is how he handles villains: Villainous roles in Spielberg movies either do nothing for the actors who play them (see Paul Freeman who played Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark) or take remarkable actors and render them unmemorable (Remember the legendary Max Von Sydow as the villain in Minority Report? Neither do I). The latter happens in Ready Player One where the usually terrific Ben Mendehlson is written and performed as a laundry pile of tics and motivations that ultimately mean nothing. It’s hard to feel like the good v. evil struggle at the center of RP1 means anything when the villains motives are being dictated by the CGI and plot rather than the character.

7. There really isn’t much for the actors to do in this movie overall which is too bad, because between Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Ben Mendohlson and Mark Rylance, it’s a fine bunch.

8. Mark Rylance plays the deceased creator (not a spoiler. It’s revealed in the movie’s prologue) of the movie’s virtual world beautifully, as a sad brilliant man who never wanted to grow up and therefore never really lived and died of a broken heart because of it.

9. I hope I am not the only one who fears Lena Waithe is stuck here playing the magical black best friend.

10. I wonder if this is the end of our current 80s pop culture revival (see Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde, Red Oaks, GLOW, The Americans and I could go on like this). Historically when a genre or a time makes reference to itself being riffed upon, it’s over (See what happened to the 80s teen movie when Heathers became the first satire of the 80s teen movie. John Hughes never came to play again). And although RP1 is being talked about as a zenith of our 80s pop revival, its pop currency of “the past” is vaguer, looser, blobbier. Are we still in an 80s pop revival if everything from Saturday Night Fever to the Iron Giant counts too?

Aug182016

Pop Hacks! Make your Creativity and Others Work For You

The following is from my semi-regular newsletter The Smoke(ler) Signal

— Ritualize creativity. Far and away the first reason I hear from students and my own head for why creative endeavors don’t happen is “I can’t find the time. I’d like to write/draw/paint/record more but practical shit always get my attention first.”

Solution:  Pair creativity with practical shit. I’ll take a few notes after parking my car. I take a few photos while running a stupid errand. I sketch or doodle for about 90 seconds before morning meditation.

Creativity happens regularly when it feels regular. If it’s workaday, like brushing your teeth, it will happen as often as you brush your teeth. If it must be special and mind blowing and a great communion with the muse every single time, well how often does “mind blowing” happen?

Read long and short. I’m in the middle of reading a mammoth book right now and while it’s magnificent, it’s also dense, slow and the size of an adult raccoon. Which means I can usually do about 5 pages a day before collapsing from reader’s exhaustion then gazing with lust at the stack of shorter, more fun books that taunt me from the nightstand.

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time reader. But in this set of special circumstances, I’ve taken to reading my mammoth book and a shorter, fun book at the same time, I get to read the fun one after I’ve finished 5 pages of Gigantor. Candy after broccoli.

Apple Trailers. You wanna know what movies are coming out, even to just add them to your Netflix Queue? Apple Trailers updates every Monday. I watch 15 minutes of trailers on Monday before getting to work and feel like Roger Ebert. And no, I don’t find trailers spoil the movie for me. Usually all I remember from the trailer is the decision to see the movie or not.

— Music Discovery: Ancestors and Descendants. The AllMusic database is Wikipedia about musicians before Wikipedia existed. More importantly, each artist page (here’s Prince) has a section that lists that artists’ main influences and whom they influence, their parents and their children, musically speaking.

If you find yourself having a hard time discovering new music, start here. Pick 3 of your favorite artists, see who influenced them and who they inspired. You won’t be straying too far from what you already like, musically speaking but you will also have kicked out the back door and gone outside. Which is a great start.

The Creative Ramp. Every creative endeavor that seems hard has easier, quicker pieces to it–playing scales on a musical instrument, warming up your voice to sing, taking notes to write. Always start with that simple stuff. Because trying out camera lenses or comparing paint colors is easy, right? It’s photo spreads and finished novels that seem hard because they require several staircases to ascend.

Don’t try and broad jump to the top step. Begin with a slow, gentle ramp. then turn and look behind you. You’ll be further up than you think.