If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, Glenn Gould merits each and every one of the many applications of the word “genius” to his name. The world knows that name primarily as one of a genius of the piano, of course, especially when interpreting the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, but he also made an impression in his homeland of Canada as a genius of the radio editing suite. Having recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s classical-and-jazz record label CBC Records placed him well to realize his ideas on the CBC’s airwaves, most memorably in the form of The Idea of North, an hourlong meditation on the vast, cold expanse that constitutes the top third of the country, which first aired on December 28, 1967.
The broadcast’s fiftieth anniversary has prompted Canadians and non-Canadians alike to have another listen to Gould’s best-known radio project, back then shockingly experimental and still boldly unconventional today. “The pianist used a technique he called ‘contrapuntal radio,’ layering speaking voices on top of each other to create a unique sonic environment situated in the space between conversation and music,” says the site of CBC’s Ideas, which recently aired a new episode about the making of The Idea of North called Return to North.
The page quotes Gould biographer Geoffrey Payzant as describing it and Gould’s subsequent documentaries as “hybrids of music, drama, and several other strains, including essay, journalism, anthropology, ethics, social commentary, [and] contemporary history.”
One might might well compare The Idea of North‘s form to that of a fugue, the type of complex contrapuntal composition so closely associated with Bach and thus with Gould as well. But the form also serves the substance, “that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” as Gould himself puts it in the broadcast’s introduction. “I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there,” he continues, but like most Canadians remained ever “an outsider” to the North, “and the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”
The North also offered Gould a powerful symbol of solitude, a condition which he sought throughout his life, especially after quitting live performance to focus exclusively on the studio shortly before making The Idea of North. In the decade thereafter he made two more formally and thematically similar documentaries, one on coastal Newfoundlanders and another on Mennonites in Manitoba, and the three together make up his “Solitude Trilogy.” A television film of The Idea of North, co-produced by the CBC and PBS, appeared in 1970, layering images of the North atop of the words about the North Gould had collected. It certainly adds a dimension to Gould’s painstakingly constructed audio collage, but somehow pure radio, the old “theater of the mind,” still suits it best: the images of the North he wanted to evoke, one senses just as well now as half a century ago, exist only in the mind.
Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and watch Hitchcock give new meaning to “scaredy cat.” Enjoy.
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I don’t know about you, but my tendency to procrastinate feels like a character flaw. And yet, no amount of moralizing with myself makes any difference. Feeling bad, in fact, only makes things worse. Perhaps that’s because—as Tim Pychyl, Associate Professor in Psychology at Carleton University argues—procrastination is not a moral failing so much as a coping mechanism for painful feelings, a psychological avoidance of tasks we fear for some reason: because we fear rejection or failure, or even the burdens of success.
Pychyl should know. He’s made studying procrastination the basis of his career and runs the 20-year-old Procrastination Research Group. Procrastination is a “puzzle,” he theorizes (the title of one of his books is Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change). Solving it involves understanding how its pieces work, including our beliefs about how it operates. Pychyl’s lecture above addresses graduate students charged with helping undergraduates who procrastinate, but its lessons apply to all of us. In his first slide, Pychyl outlines four typical beliefs about procrastination:
It’s the task
It’s the way I think
It’s my lack of willpower
Pychyl wants to debunk these notions, but he also argues that procrastination is “something we seem to understand very well” in popular parlance. One of his slides shows a typical “successories”-type poster that reads, “Procrastination: hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.” While Pychyl doesn’t use judgmental language like “laziness,” he does acknowledge that procrastination results from ideas about short- versus long-term gain. We want to feel good, right now, a drive common to everyone.
The next poster reads “if the job’s worth doing, it will still be worth doing tomorrow.” The notion of the “future self” plays a role—the you of tomorrow who still has to face the work your present self puts off. “What are we doing to ‘future self?’” Pychyl asks. “If we can just bring future self into clearer vision, lots of times the procrastination may go away.” This has been demonstrated in research studies, Ana Swanson notes at The Washington Post, in which people made better decisions after viewing digitally-aged photographs of themselves. But in general, we tend not to have much consideration for “future self.”
A final successories slide reads, “Procrastination: by not doing what you should be doing, you could be having this much fun.” This is one of the most pervasive forms of self-delusion. We may convince ourselves that putting difficult things off for tomorrow means more fun today. But the amount of guilt we feel ensures a different experience. “Guilt is a paralyzing emotion,” Pychyl says. When we put off an important task, we feel terrible. And often, instead of enjoying life, we create more work for ourselves that makes us feel purposeful, like cooking or cleaning. This “task management” game temporarily relieves guilt, but it does not address the central problem. We simply “manage our emotions by managing our tasks.”
The word procrastination comes directly from classical Latin and translates to “put forward” that which “belongs to tomorrow.” This sounds benign, given that many a task does indeed belong to tomorrow. But prudent planning is one thing, procrastination is another. When we put off what we can or should accomplish today, we invoke tomorrow as “a mystical land where 98% of all human productivity, motivation, and achievement are stored.” The distinction between planning or unavoidable delay and procrastination is important. When delays are either intentional or the consequence of unpredictable life events, we need not consider them a problem. “All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.”
So, to sum up Pychyl’s research on our attitudes about procrastination: “we think we’re having more fun, but we’re not”; “we think we’re not affecting future self, but we are”; and “it’s all about giving in to feel good,” which—see point number one—doesn’t actually work that well.
While we might minimize procrastination as a minor issue, its personal costs tell us otherwise, including severe impacts to “performance, well-being, health, relationships, regrets & bereavement.” Procrastinators get sick more often, report higher rates of depression, and suffer the somatic and psychological effects of elevated stress. Procrastination doesn’t only affect our personal well-being and integrity, but it has an ethical dimension, affecting those around us who suffer “second-hand,” either because of the time we take away from them when we rush off to finish things last-minute, or because the stress we put ourselves under negatively affects the health of our relationships.
But procrastination begins first and foremost with our relationship to ourselves. Again, we put things off not because we are morally deficient, or “lazy,” but because our emotional brains are trying to cope. We feel some significant degree of fear or anxiety about the task at hand. The guilt and shame that comes with not accomplishing the task compounds the problem, and leads to further procrastination. “The behavior,” writes Swanson, turns into “a vicious, self-defeating cycle.”
How do we get out of the self-made loop of procrastination? Just as in the failure of the “Just say No” campaign, simply shaking ourselves by the metaphorical shoulders and telling ourselves to get to work isn’t enough. We have to deal with the emotions that set things in motion, and in this case, that means going easy on ourselves. “Research suggests that one of the most effective things that procrastinators can do is to forgive themselves for procrastinating,” Swanson reports.
Once we reduce the guilt, we can weaken the proclivity to procrastinate. Then, paradoxically, we need to ignore our emotions. “Most of us seem to tacitly believe,” Pychyl says, “that our emotional state has to match the task at hand.” For writers and artists, this belief has a lofty pedigree in romantic ideas about inspiration and muses. Irrelevant, the procrastination expert says. When approaching something difficult, “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.” Feelings of motivation and creative inspiration often strike us in the midst of a task, not before. Breaking down daunting activities into smaller tasks, and approaching these one at a time, gives us a practical roadmap for conquering procrastination. For more insights and research findings, watch Pychyl’s full lecture, and listen to him discuss his research on the Healthy Family podcast just above.
It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when the world you prepared yourself for changes and leaves you behind. Coldly, and sometimes without warning.
Above, watch Steve Cutts’ 2014 animated mockumentary, “Where Are They Now?“. Starring Roger and Jessica Rabbit, and featuring cameos by Garfield and The Smurfs, the short film revisits cartoon characters who had it all in the 1980s. Then hit the skids in the early 90s. Hard. “We had done our jobs,” says an aged Jessica Rabbit. “Now we were forgotten about. Obsolete.” It’s a bleak picture that Cutts paints. But, it’s not all bad. He-Man became a wealthy lingerie designer. We could all use a well-thought-out Plan B.
As the Rockettes are to legs, Russia’s Berezka Ensemble, above, is to the seeming absence of them.
There are certain similarities between the two troops. Both are composed exclusively of young women in peak physical condition. The choreography and costuming dazzle by way of uniformity. So many girls, all doing the exact same thing at the exact same time!
(On a personal note, no one expects the Rockettes to out-feminist Barbie, but they could do a better job at diversifying their annual Christmas Spectacular cast’s racial make up—unlike the city in which it takes place, that kick line’s mighty white.)
The Berezka Ensemble, aka the Little Birch Tree Choreographic group’s wholesomeness is more in keeping with the Waldorf School. Their costumes are maidenly folk art affairs—much better suited to twirling birch branches than their American counterparts’ snug sequins…
But on to the signature moves…
To master their famed floating step, the Berezka Ensemble’s dancers’ submit to a training regimen every bit as grueling as the one the Rockettes undergo in pursuit of their synchronized eye-high kicks.
The floating step was invented in the 40’s by company founder Nadezhda Nadezhdina, and enjoys a mystical reputation, despite various how-to videos floating around online.
Conspiracy theories abound. What’s underneath those hooped hemlines? Roller skates?
Calves of steel, as it turns out. A rehearsal video reveals many, many mincing steps, taken en demi-pointe.
But what really sells the frictionless illusion is the dancers’ placid above-waist facades, which one YouTube commenter aptly compared to ducks gliding about on a pond, their feet paddling furiously just below the water’s surface.
A recent LED-enhanced performance, below, shines some literal light on the fancy footwork.
Begun by user “BackForward24” and crowdsourced through Reddit, this map of the world illustrates the most beloved/popular book of each country by pasting a scan of the book cover over its space on the world map. For book lovers who want to read themselves around the world, it will prove invaluable. (And if you can’t read the map, no worries, there is a text version available.)
But let’s unpack the larger (and yes, first world) countries first. The United States is represented by To Kill a Mockingbird, which ticks off a lot of the marks that make it quintessentially American: most high schoolers have read it, and it deals with both racism and our shameful history and the faith that the law can eventually right wrongs. Canada has Anne of Green Gables. Great Britain has Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Ireland Ulysses (no surprise there.)
Our Australian readers might want to weigh in on Tom Winton’s Cloudstreet (a quite recent novel), and New Zealanders please tell us about The Bone People by Keri Hulme.
My takeaway and possibly yours from the map is how many titles are new to the Westerner. Europe has some familiar titles: Spain gets Cervantes’ Don Quixote (of course), Italy gets Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and France gets Les Misérables by Hugo. And while Russia is represented by Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Eastern Europe is rather unfamiliar, at least compared to South America, where Argentina has Borges’ Fictions, Chile has Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, and Colombia has Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, all well known from decades of prizes, book club attention, and film adaptations.
This Reddit thread contains much criticism and debate, so please check it out. Some good points are raised: if the Iliad represents Greece, why not the Mahabharata/Ramayan for India? “Honestly there is work to do (in) the Africa part,” says another (very politely). There’s also debate over countries not being represented at all, such as Tibet (under Chinese occupation), along with Western Sahara, Somaliland, Kashmir, Balochistan, and Kurdistan. Frankly, if you start trying to talk about the culture of nations, there will be debate over what constitutes a nation. (I’m not sure if Palestine is covered, but some Redditors are voting for Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin.)
Another thing to keep in mind: the novel is very much a Western genre. For many countries, that might not be the case. However, I sense that that debate (and future map) will be another Reddit thread, somewhere, sometime.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
It’s not immediately apparent that Lou Reed and Edgar Allan Poe would have that much in common. It’s true Reed inherited a gothic sensibility (though one could argue that this element in the Velvet Underground came mainly from Nico and John Cale), and he worked in a self-consciously literary vein. But in almost every other respect, he spoke a totally different idiom. Drawn to the seedy bars and street corners rather than the great houses, laboratories, and scholar’s nooks of Poe, Reed inclined his ear toward the common tongue, in contrast to Poe’s carefully composed Romantic diction.
But while it’s hard to imagine Poe thinking much of Reed’s rock and roll, the themes of sexual obsession, madness, terror, and morbid reflection that Poe brought into prominence seem to find their fruition over 100 years later in the work of the Velvets (and the thousands of post-punk bands they inspired), and in much of Reed’s subsequent solo work—up to his final album, the critically-reviled Lulu with Metallica, which his longtime partner Laurie Anderson declared full of “fear and rage and venom and terror and revenge and love,” and which David Bowie pronounced a “masterpiece.”
While we know where much of Reed’s personal angst came from, we can also hear—in the vivid shock of his imagery and the extremity of his emotions—the echo of Poe’s crazed protagonists. Leave it to Reed, then, to take on the task of interpreting Poe in the 21st century, in his 2003 album, The Raven, a collection of Poe-themed musical pieces (“This is the story of Edgar Allan Poe / Not exactly the boy next door”), with such collaborators as Anderson, Bowie, Ornette Coleman, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Antony, Elizabeth Ashley, and Willem Dafoe, who reads a Reed-adapted version of the poem at the top (track 9 in the album below), over a video tribute to B horror actress Debbie Rochon (for some reason).
What did Reed seek to accomplish with this conceptual project? As he himself writes in the liner notes, “I have reread and rewritten Poe to ask the same questions again. Who am I? Why am I drawn to do what I should not?… Why do we love what we cannot have? Why do we have a passion for exactly the wrong thing?” These are timeless philosophical questions, indeed, which transcend matters of style and genre. Again and again, both Poe and Reed pursued them into the darkest recesses of the human psyche—the places most of us fear to go. And perhaps for that reason especially, we are perenially drawn back to their work.
If you want to read a book about cities, you still can’t do much better than a slim, plotless work of fiction by Italo Calvino wherein the explorer Marco Polo tells the emperor Kublai Khan of what he’s seen in his travels across the world. Originally published in Italian in 1972, Invisible Cities has inspired generations of readers, hailing from all across the world themselves, to think in entirely new ways not just about cities but about travel, place, perception, reality, myth, and literature itself. Though very much a work concerned with what’s seen only in the imagination, the book has also inspired artists to try their hand at rendering the 55 fictitious cities Polo describes within.
A few years ago we featured “Seeing Calvino,” a joint effort by artists Matt Kish, Leighton Connor, Joe Kuth to illustrate, among other elements of the Calvino canon, each and every one of Invisible Cities‘ fantastical, often impossible collections of structures, lives, and, ideas. More recently, the Peru-based architect and artist Karina Puente has, with her Invisible Cities Project, put herself to work on a similar endeavor. Each of Puente’s intricate renderings takes about a week to produce, and as she tells Archdaily, “they are not only drawn – I use different types of paper and draw on each one before cutting them out with exacto knives. All the drawings are composed of layers of paper which are cut out and glued.”
At the top we have Puente’s city of Dorotea where, bearing in mind the rules of its infrastructural division by gates, drawbridges, and canals and those of the marriages between the trading families that reside there, “you can then work from these facts until you learn everything you wish about the city in the past, present, and future.” In the middle is Isaura, a city built on a deep subterranean lake whose gods, “according to some people, live in the depths,” and to others live in the associated buckets, pump handles, windmill blades, pipes, and every other built element of this “city that moves entirely upward.”
Just above you can see Zobeide, laid out according to a series of dreams of “a woman running at night through an unknown city,” pursued but never found, altered to conform to each dream until new arrivals “could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.” While at first Polo’s descriptions of the cities all across Khan’s empire may strike readers as completely fantastical, they’ll soon hear echoes of the places they live in in these metaphorical metropolises. And if they take a look at Puente’s illustrations as they read, they’ll see them as well.
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