Space and Time

December 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thanks to a link in the Times review of the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, my post about the show’s language anachronisms has become the most viewed page on this blog. I hadn’t intended to write another post along similar lines, but then I watched the first episode of the new season. We are still in the late 50s or 1960s at the latest. Midge (Mrs. Maisel for you non-fans) has separated from her husband Joel, but she still loves him. She calls him from Paris.* But he is not so keen on getting back together.

I had just seen folksinger-songwriter Christine Lavin (along with several other old folkies) at a 50th birthday celebration for the radio show “Woody’s Children.” And I recalled the title of one of her songs: “If You Want Space, Go to Utah.” It appeared on her album “The Bellevue Years,” released in 2000.

But when had “space” become part of the psychobabble lexicon? It must have been long enough before to allow it to become familiar yet recent enough to still merit Lavin’s satirical take. My guess was that it came out of the EST training  that became popular in the late 1970s.

I checked Google nGrams using a phrase I thought would capture the idea of emotional space and exclude the more literal meaning — “need some space.”

The curve rises in the late 70s and shoots upward through the rest of the century. But in 1960, when Joel is talking on that rotary phone, the space people had was something that could be measured in square feet.

Someone on Twitter suggested that maybe Joel meant closet space. Could be. Nobody in New York has enough closet space – not now, and not in 1960.

Tom Waits

December 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tom Waits is 69 years old today.

I don’t remember how I found my way to Tom Waits, though it happened fairly late in my listening life,  or who showed me the way? Was it the jazz station DJ who played “Emotional Weather Report” early one morning as I was driving to New Jersey? Or my step-brother the huge Dylan fan? Or was it the friend who sent me a mix tape with the Tori Amos cover of “Time.”? (Waits’s songs do not lend themselves to covers. But Amos’s “Time” is an exception. And of course there’s Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl.”).

Waits’s lyrics, like Dylan’s, shine with novel imagery of the familiar world.

You’re east of East St. Louis
And the wind is making speeches
And the rain sounds
Like a round of applause.

But Waits, also like Dylan, often stays in his own room, inviting us in to look at the striking but puzzling pictures on the wall.

Oh and things are pretty lousy
For a calendar girl.
The boys just dive right off the cars
And splash into the street
And when they’re on a roll
She pulls a razor from her boot
And a thousand pigeons
Fall around her feet

Anyway, here’s the original, just Waits (voice and guitar) and an accordion sounding more like a concertina.

Doctor My Eyes

November 29, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

You could have seen it coming. A little over a year ago, the University of Wisconsin board of regents passed a Free Speech resolution. The intent, supposedly,  was to guarantee “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to explore ideas and to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”

A fine principle, free speech. After all, the regents couldn’t very well pass a resolution that protected only conservative speech. But that’s what they meant. That part about the broadest possible latitude — just kidding.

So when a communications professor at UW LaCrosse had author and former porn star Nina Hartley give a talk during “free speech week,” the university system president and the board sent him a letter of reprimand. His “poor judgment” will affect his salary adjustment, though it doesn’t say how much he will have to pay for free speech. 

What struck me was not the obvious hypocrisy. As I say, that was predictable (the Inside Higher Ed story (here) has some of the more mealy-mouthed quotes). It was this gem in an op-ed written by one of the regents, Bob Atwell:

Most of us don’t need science to know how devastating pornography is to the mental, physical and social health of those enslaved by it. We can see it in the sad and empty eyes of millions of boys and young men whose zest for life is being sucked into their smart phones.

I was having double déjà vu. First, “we don’t need science.” Back in February. Ross Douthat said pretty much the same thing, though not quite so blatantly. In fact, when prodded, he acknowledged that rape, pregnancy, and abortion had all decreased as porn became more and more widespread. He thought porn made people unhappy, though he allowed that the evidence linking porn with unhappiness was flawed. Nevertheless, he persisted. Porn was just plain bad.

Years before, Irving Kristol, a founding father of neo-conservatism, writing in the Wall Street Journal had argued in language very similar to regent Atwell’s: “we don’t really need social science to confirm what common sense and common observations tell us to be the case.  Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies, and violent porn in our ‘rap’ music is without effect?” (For more detail, see my earlier blog post ).

Then there were those “sad and empty eyes” and the lost “zest for life.” Where had I heard that before? I searched my files and found it.

This is a very degrading and destructive habit. There is probably no vice which is more injurious to both mind and body, and produces more fearful consequences than this. . . When the evil has been pursued for several years, there will be an irritable condition of the system; sudden flushes) of heat over the face; the countenance becomes pale and clammy; the eyes have a dull, sheepish look.

Back when I taught deviance, I would sometimes read a longer version of this passage to students and ask them to guess. Weed and cigarettes were the usual suspects, but even after I identified the source and date — Our Family Physician published in 1885 — nobody got it. Nor did it help when I would tell them the title of the chapter — “Onanism.”

I’m not all that familiar with the actual research on how porn (or masturbation) affects young men (or women). Its enduring effects on older conservatives seems clearer — a tendency tp reject science and replace it with “common sense” and a deep look into the eyes of the afflicted.

Randy Newman

November 28, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Randy Newman is 75 today.

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in a movie theater watching Toy Story 2. It may have been someone’s birthday party. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the song “When She Loved Me.”

As the song ended, I thought: here I am, a grown man  surrounded by a bunch of eight-year olds, and I’m practically in tears because of a song that a cartoon toy doll just sang about a cartoon girl.

If this song does not win an Academy Award, I thought, there is no justice. It didn’t and there wasn’t. The Oscar went to Phil Collins.

The song has none of the irony that pervades his non-Pixar songs. In those songs, we hear flawed characters and unreliable narrators, like the voice in his biggest hit “Short People.” (Some unimaginative listeners, unable to see the satire and irony,  took Newman literally and condemned the song.)

The ambivalence haunts even the love songs, like “Marie,” which seems merely beautiful until you listen to the lyrics and realize that this guy is an abusive drunk, someone Marie would be better off without..

    And I'm weak and I'm lazy
    And I've hurt you so
    And I don't listen to a word you say
    When you're in trouble I just turn away

And yet, his feeling is real.

(I made similar observations in this 2008 blog post after seeing Newman in concert at Carnegie Hall.)