Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Cinch Review

Merry Christmas, You Beasts

Below, a photo of our little mutt, Billie, posing cooperatively and carefully amidst some very breakable Christmas ornaments (recycled from a previous Christmas photo session, in case anyone remembers).

Merry Christmas from a friendly beast

There were reports in the media earlier this year regarding a new book from Pope Benedict, the current commander-in-chief at the Vatican, titled “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” It was said that he had debunked some traditional notions regarding Christmas. One of those had to do with the specific year in which Jesus was born, to the effect that it was likely not in the year 1 AD, but rather in the year 5 or 6 BC. This fact is really nothing new (although it must have caused no end of confusion for calendar-makers back then: “Well, is he here yet or isn’t he here yet? We can’t cancel another print run!”)

The other reported-debunking was more controversial, however. It was widely broadcast just as in the following story: Continue reading Merry Christmas, You Beasts

The Cinch Review

Fairytale of New York

Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacCollI just checked the U.K. Top 40, and the song “Fairytale of New York,” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, is at number 18, having fallen three spots from last week. That might sound like a weak performance, but not when you consider that it was originally released for the Christmas of 1987 (when it reached number 2) and that this is the tenth year since then in which it has charted. This also happens to be the 25th anniversary of that original release. (Oh boy.)

“Fairytale of New York” is assuredly a unique Christmas classic. It fairly dripped with greatness and with resonance on the day it was released, and the years that have passed have only magnified the resonance, till I daresay there are many tender souls out there who waste no time and begin their crying as soon as they hear the opening piano notes. Yours truly wouldn’t be one of them, not at all. I’m made of much tougher stuff, although I have little trouble relating to some of the major touchstones of the song, such as Ireland (having grown up there from about age 7 to 20) and New York City, where so many people come with their dreams, it being my favorite city in the world (despite everything) and the one I’m currently blessed to be able to live in.

The record “Fairytale of New York” has been pondered at length and talked about and documentary’d-about, probably to excess, as I’ve recently discovered, but I feel the urge to pay it some tribute and I’ll therefore do so regardless, although briefly. I think that one of the key elements of its magic (aside from the beautiful tune and great performance) is the absence of too much narrative detail in the lyric. There are just enough words used and images dropped in to evoke this couple, arriving as immigrants to New York in a bygone decade, wide-eyed and floating on their dreams, dreams which have then crumbled and left them in the worst kind of decrepitude, snarling bitter insults at one another through their drug and/or alcohol haze. Yet, in the end, they seem to know that they have nothing to hold onto but one another, and some kind of strange hope that still hovers over them, and is incarnate in the sound of those bells that are “ringing out for Christmas Day.” As a piece of songwriting (with which Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer tinkered for two years before finalizing) it’s an exquisitely-balanced exercise in the bittersweet, bringing the profane and the transcendent right up against one another and forcing them to shake hands. Continue reading Fairytale of New York

The Cinch Review

Thoughts on Sandy Hook Elementary

I read someone quoted in a news story today, comparing her feelings regarding the Newtown massacre to how she felt following 9/11/2001. And I think many are feeling a lot like that. One may intellectually grasp the fact that horrible things are happening all the time, in the U.S. and all over the world—countless children being tortured, abused, murdered, to say nothing of what is happening to grown men and women—but seeing this kind of inexplicable single event where innocent children are randomly slaughtered, without warning … it rightly turns our stomachs and disturbs our sleep, like the visions of those people jumping from the buildings and the thought of thousands being crushed in the towers’ collapse. The word unspeakable is the one that comes to our lips, because there are no words to speak that comprehend the evil of the event. How can any of these parents be comforted? Ever?

And like that day in 2001, the horror is juxtaposed with the stories of ordinary people acting with earthshaking courage, deciding in the space of mere moments to take the correct and just action, even if meant losing their own lives. The passengers on Flight 93 had only minutes to take in what was occurring that morning, and to decide to ignore all of the deeply-ingrained advice about cooperating with hijackers in order to achieve a peaceful conclusion, and instead choose to attack the hijackers in whatever small hope there was of overcoming them and saving the aircraft, or at least frustrating their plans. In the Sandy Hook Elementary School, we are told that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and the school’s psychologist, Mary Sherlach, on hearing the initial gunshots, rushed towards the perpetrator, despite being unarmed. They instantaneously decided that rushing the killer was the best hope of defeating him, even it resulted in their own deaths, which it did. It remains unknown at this juncture why the killer took his own life at the moment that he did, rather than continuing his mass murder, but the resistance he had encountered during his actions had to have played some role. Continue reading Thoughts on Sandy Hook Elementary

The Cinch Review

Song for the season (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”)

Writing yesterday in this space on Frank Sinatra’s Jolly Christmas album, I referred to the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this way:

As secular Christmas songs go, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is probably closest to achieving a sacredness of its own. The song walks an exquisitely fine line between celebrating the season and mourning the trouble in all of our lives.

Many of us don’t have to look very far to see the trouble in our own lives, sadly; and you only have to glance at the news headlines to see all the trouble in the world, tragically.

The song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane) made its debut in 1944 in a film called Meet Me in St. Louis, as sung by Judy Garland. Judy had her strengths and weaknesses, no doubt, but I think probably everyone would agree that she nails this.

The Cinch Review

Dogs “pass driving test” in New Zealand (and notes on the value of mutts)

Dog newsReports indicate that the famous driving dogs of New Zealand passed their driving test on live TV, although I watched the long-form footage of that event and found it a little underwhelming. Much more fun is some edited stuff, perhaps from another day, embedded below, of my favorite of the three mutts, Porter, going through his paces. He is beyond cool.

Although this whole thing has grown into a massive worldwide internet and TV sensation, it’s worth remembering the small idea behind it. The local SPCA wanted to attract some publicity to promote the idea that your average mutt from the pound is a worthy creature, full of potential and deserving of a good home.

I’d always kind of thought everybody knew this—that mutts are great, and the pound or shelter is a great place to get a dog for very little money—but about eight years ago when we got our mutt Billie at the city pound, and began taking her around to socialize in her New York City neighborhood, I quickly found out that the great majority of people do not think first of going to the shelter to get a dog. Most people, it seems, have very clear ideas of what breed they want, and many are willing to pay quite high amounts to get it. And then, in recent years, we’ve had the phenomenon of “designer mutts,” where one established breed is deliberately mixed with another to achieve a desired result, such as a Cockapoo (Cocker-Spaniel and Poodle) or a Puggle (Pug and Beagle).

I’m not going to be morally-preachy about it: people ought to get the kind of dog they want, and take good care of it. That’s the bottom line. But just as the SPCA in New Zealand was trying to do, it’s good to talk up some of the advantages of mutts (though occasionally shelter dogs are not mutts: pure-bred pooches get abandoned too).

(1) Mutts, like Porter in the video above, are cool because they are unique. People are always stopping on the street to ask what kind of dog our Billie is. After years of igniting back and forth conversations about possible mixes, I’ve come up with the perfect answer: She is one of a kind. And she is, and so is any true mutt.

(2) Mutts are unpredictable, and that makes them a joy. You can’t look up in a book what your dog’s personality traits and tendencies might be. You can only watch and wait as they unfold. (Of-course I know pure-breds also have unique and individual personalities, but a mutt is naturally more of a wild-card.)

(3) Mutts are devoid of any sword-of-Damocles trait or threat that hangs over most pure-bred dogs. Most established breeds have known weaknesses or tendencies towards specific health problems. With a mutt, there are two arguable advantages: (a) You don’t know what weaknesses there may be, so you don’t live in dread of them and (b) You can hope that in whatever genetic mixing that has gone on, any dangerous recessive genes from one particular breed have been overwritten. Some people seriously argue that mutts are healthier by nature. I don’t know if that’s true. I only thank God that our mutt is about to turn nine-years-old and is as healthy and full of vigor as when she was a one-year-old. Continue reading Dogs “pass driving test” in New Zealand (and notes on the value of mutts)

The Cinch Review

Advent Musings

Happy Chanukah to Jewish friends and readers, that festival having begun yesterday evening and continuing until next Sunday. Here in New York City one can have a tangible sense of the holiday being celebrated without being Jewish, due to the make up of the population, a sense which I must assume is pretty uncommon elsewhere. It is one of the nice things about this city.

Although (judging by appearances in the stores) it seems that Christmas began sometime in October, it is still weeks away. Yet, many Christians do continue to observe at least some of the traditions of the season known as Advent, a time of anticipation of the arrival of Jesus. It encompasses roughly four weeks in advance of December 25th, today counting as the second Sunday of this year’s Advent season. I’m far from being the religious historian or theologian to attempt to fully explain the tradition, which has many rich and varied aspects, but on a very basic level I would judge its purpose is to help in nurturing and recalling a sense of longing for the Messiah. This is a strange thing, and maybe all the more worthy of cherishing for that reason. People who grow up as Christians, whether in actuality or merely nominally to one degree or another, are naturally prone to taking the birth of Jesus for granted. It’s old-hat, even. Yeah, Jesus was born, whether it was 2012 years ago or a few years earlier. But we’ve moved beyond all that now. We’ve got other problems.

Advent offers a means of stepping back and remembering why the arrival of such a Savior was something for which to yearn. Then, the celebration of His arrival can be something more than rote and something more than just a religious holiday that coincides with the zenith of the retail year. It can rather be something that gives genuine relief to souls badly in need of it.

Advent has its own songs. Tunes like “Jingle Bells Will Be Ringing Soon” and “Santa Claus Is Beginning to Make Plans to Travel.” But those are just the secular ones. An Advent hymn heard at church today was “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry.”

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.

The reference is to John the Baptist, who didn’t actually foretell the birth of Jesus (as he was a contemporary) but foretold His ministry. The Gospel reading in many churches today would have been from Luke, chapter three, and also concerned John the Baptist. It struck me in one particular way this morning. A slightly abridged version:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

What happened to strike me this morning was this concrete example of why all Christians at least ought to be extremely dubious of anyone who claims they know how any biblical prophecy will actually be fulfilled. The evangelist Luke is indicating pretty clearly that the passage from Isaiah (chapter 40) is a foretelling of the ministry of John the Baptist. (In the Gospel of John, this same assertion is attributed to John the Baptist himself.) A Jewish exegesis of this passage would inevitably be different. But when one piece of Holy Scripture (of the New Testament) characterizes another piece of Holy Scripture (of the Old Testament) in this way, believing Christians pretty much have to take it as, well, the Gospel truth. What does it mean to accept that this prophecy was fulfilled in this very specific way?

“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low …” Is that what John the Baptist did? It is glorious language from Isaiah, poetic and powerful and rightly stirring. Yet, on the most mundane level, what John the Baptist did was to preach repentance from sin, which was something that prophets had done often before to the people of Israel, and in his way he inspired a kind of spiritual revival amongst those who listened to him. He wasn’t saying anything so dramatically new—I don’t think—but instead was reminding people of the urgency of repentance and of following God’s law. Although very few of his words have been recorded (only those few that are in the Gospels) he was apparently very inspiring to those who heard him. Even King Herod of the time, a decadent and corrupt man by all accounts, was intrigued and compelled by things that John the Baptist preached. However, John didn’t literally fill the valleys and level the mountains. The physical geography remained unchanged. What he did was inspire people and gather followers, and when Jesus began his public ministry he found a ready audience in people who had already been following John. John was a warm-up act, one might say. Perhaps in a certain sense he did the spadework, helping to enable Jesus to work at a higher level in his own preaching. Continue reading Advent Musings

The Cinch Review

Leonard Cohen: “Amen” and “Come Healing”

In concert lately, Leonard Cohen has been following his song “Amen” with his song “Come Healing,” which are both from his most recent album, Old Ideas.

There’s a fan’s YouTube clip embedded below, and a few thoughts from yours truly on the songs below that.

I think that “Amen” is as harrowing a song as he’s ever written. To my ears at any rate it is a deep moan to God, without sentimentality, laying out the worst of this world, begging maybe just to be able to believe it will be put right. Can God really want us, actually love us, after all of it? It’s a prayer for the evidence. Continue reading Leonard Cohen: “Amen” and “Come Healing”

The Cinch Review

“Revisionist Art” by Bob Dylan at the Gagosian Gallery in New York

Review of Revisionist Art by Bob Dylan at Gagosian“Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan” is on show at New York City’s Gagosian Gallery. It was unveiled last Wednesday and runs, God willing, until January 12th, 2013. I was slightly surprised to hear that Dylan was having another show at the Gagosian. It was little more than a year ago that they hosted his “Asia Series,” which visitors were led to believe had sprung from his time spent traveling in Asia, but turned out to be sourced directly from a bunch of old photographs (taken by other people). I thought at the time that this might be a little embarrassing for the gallery. But, I guess it’s true what they say: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And, indeed, I think that old adage would make a pretty good subtitle for the current exhibition, a display of thirty re-imagined American magazine covers which is part burlesque show and part horror show, with the lines pretty blurry between the two.

In addition, it is quite comic. At least, the missus and I did our fair share of chuckling as we perused the thirty silkscreen-on-canvas creations. The handful of other visitors who were there at the time seemed considerably more somber and I hope we didn’t spoil their visit with our giggles.

BabyTalk by Bob Dylan at the Gagosian GalleryThe two images being used to promote the show—”BabyTalk” and “Playboy”—are quite typical of what you’ll see if you visit. Is it high art, or is it just humor somewhere on the level of “MAD” magazine? (That’s one magazine cover which is not featured, by the way.) I would say more the latter than the former, but I have neither the credentials nor the motivation to make a definite determination. One thing did occur to me: Whatever these things look like now, they will be quite a bit more interesting if they are exhibited one or two hundred years from now, as a visual commentary of sorts on America from about 1960 to 2012 by the late, great figure of that time, Bob Dylan. (Though that still doesn’t mean they are necessarily great art.)

And I’m not an art critic. Different people will take different things from looking at these works. (How often does an art critic say something like that?) But some of the things that struck me are as follows.

The photos of the women on these magazine covers run from lascivious to pornographic. Male faces and figures are usually battered and covered in blood. Sex and violence is the basic consumer product being highlighted. The porn-flick and the Colosseum. (Even the hoity-toity “Philosophy Today” features a nude woman, albeit a little more classical-looking.) The text of the various headlines then reads like a hierarchy of consumer interest: vanity, gossip, conflict, and a little something cultural or intellectual tossed in like salt and pepper. The names of politicians, celebrities and the references to events in the news (notably wars) are interchangeable and bear no relation to the dates on the magazine covers, conveying a sense of there being a continuum of all the same kinds of stuff repackaged and resold over and over again. Continue reading “Revisionist Art” by Bob Dylan at the Gagosian Gallery in New York

The Cinch Review

Carol Singing and Tree Lighting on Park Avenue in New York City

In 1945, a tradition was begun in New York City by a group of families led by one Mrs. Stephen C. Clark, to illuminate fir trees up and down the median of tony Park Avenue to honor members of the military who lost their lives in World War II. It is continued to this day as a memorial to those who have lost their lives defending the nation, and is accompanied by the singing of Christmas carols, with the throngs gathering in front of the Brick Presbyterian Church at 91st St. and Park Avenue. It takes place on the evening of the first Sunday of December, which was today. Park Avenue in the vicinity is closed to vehicular traffic and the crowds stream in on foot from the south and the north.

Traditions like these are worth cherishing. There’s a very short video clip below captured during this evening’s proceedings. Continue reading Carol Singing and Tree Lighting on Park Avenue in New York City