Bob Schwartz

Motto: Handle with care

While stacking dishes this morning, I read this instruction on the bottom of a ceramic bowl:


It seems a good motto for the rest of the day. Or longer.

Will the Bidens hire Capitol Insurrection Shaman Guy to cleanse the White House?

The story was circulated that when the Trumps moved into the White House, Melania hired an exorcist to cleanse the building of evil Obama spirits. That story was not true.

As fortune would have it, we do have a shaman in the national news, one who knows his way around Washington. We know that the Bidens, as with every incoming administration, are changing out the mattresses in the White House. Would it be that far a step to also change out the spirits? And if you were going to cleanse the spirits, and you just happen to have a shaman under arrest, why not use him to do the job? Maybe ask in return that some time be knocked off his prison term.

I’ve heard crazier things. Every single day in America.

More Phil Spector

I included only one track in my previous post about the death of Phil Spector. There are dozens to choose from.

Be My Baby is the most renowned of the Spector tracks from the most renowned and Spectorish group, The Ronettes. (Literally the most Spectorish, since Phil married Ronnie, the lead singer of the Ronettes.)

For all its historic standing in the world of pop music, Be My Baby is not necessarily the best Ronettes track. Here are two others, less well known, both from the later days of Spector’s run as one of the most visionary, influential and revolutionary record producers.

Both were written by ultra-successful pop songwriting teams, Walking in the Rain by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Is This What I Get for Loving You? by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

If you think these are adolescent tracks, simple silly pop songs, one about the fantasy lover you dream about meeting, one about the pain of rejection, then maybe, if you have grown past your adolescent years, you haven’t been paying attention.

Phil Spector Dead

Music producer Phil Spector has died in a California prison at the age of 81. In 2009 he was convicted of murdering actress Lara Clarkson.

You might read stories about his life and about his lifelong mental struggles that devolved, even according to Spector himself, into insanity. You might also read parallel stories about his musical genius, if you aren’t personally familiar with it.

My reaction to the news of his death, given what I (sometimes at least) think about supreme art in light of an artist’s concerning life: Fuck biography. Just listen.

Recorded music is now more than a century old. For those not old enough, realize that there was a time when ordinary listeners didn’t have the tools to hear music the way we do now. Realize too that those who produced music also had much more limited tools. Yet Spector managed what remains one of the miracles in that history of records. He heard something in his head, assembled and stretched the available musicians and tools, and created something that would go from that studio to a record to a radio DJ’s turntable over the air to a tiny and crude speaker on a tiny and crude radio and sound like—heaven.

May his memory and his music be a blessing.

The Human Be-In – Saturday, January 14, 1967

Saturday afternoon
Yellow clouds rising in the noon
Acid incense and balloons
People dancing everywhere
Loudly shouting I don’t care
It’s a time for growing, and a time for knowing
Jefferson Airplane, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon (1967)

On Saturday, January 14, 1967, the Gathering of the Tribes was held at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was labeled the Human Be-In.

The lineup of counterculture luminaries was astonishing. Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Dick Gregory, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jerry Rubin, Alan Watts, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service. The day was in part to mark the recent criminalization of LSD, so famous chemist Owsley Stanley provided acid specially produced for the event.

Just months later, legendary music festivals such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock were held. Those same months later, with an influx of lost and searching souls, part of the counterculture of San Francisco evolved and devolved into the Summer of Love, which said to some that the counterculture was not only wrongheaded, but dangerous and deadly. The dominant culture, it seemed, had been proven right and won, and all these counterculture tools and philosophies were right where they belonged—on the scrapheap of history.

More than fifty years later, if you don’t believe that the counterculture has been mainstreamed, look again. Maybe fifty million Americans practice yoga. Millions practice non-Western or alternative religions. Maybe fifty million smoke marijuana regularly. Millions also use psychedelics. Millions are vegetarians and vegans. The cultural staples of war, racism, inequality, intolerance and alienation are still with us, though being slowly (too slowly) pushed aside. Sexual hypocrisy and shame are being replaced by honest expression. Strict compartments of music (and literature and film and theater) have been replaced by art without borders.

As for the observation that counterculturalists would grow up and drop in, sung about by Donavan in Season of the Witch (“Hippies are out to make it rich”), well, yeah, kind of. Noted San Francisco counterculturalist Steve Jobs thought different, made a fortune, changed the world.

There is fortunately film of the Human Be-In. You’ll notice a number of men and women spinning freely and wildly to the music, or to music in their heads (“To dance beneath the diamond sky / with one hand waving free”, Bob Dylan). You’ll also notice a lot of people who by later standards look pretty straight and sober. Some were, being curious onlookers, some not, so don’t be fooled by appearance.

Some who pay attention to the 1960s counterculture and the Human Be-In, if they bother noticing at all, are quick to box it up as a failed moment. They propose that you can move forward by moving backward. That Saturday afternoon, the Human Be-in asked the question “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” You know the answer.

We all share American karma

Buddhist concepts are deep and subtle. Terms like “karma” get tossed around, sometimes coming close to the idea and sometimes wide of the mark. The term I want to add here is “dependent origination”, which is related to what people mean when they say “karma”.

From The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Kamma: In Sanskrit, “action”; in its inflected form “karma,” it is now accepted as an English word; a term used to refer to the doctrine of action and its corresponding “ripening” or “fruition”, according to which virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind produce happiness in the future (in this life or subsequent lives), while nonvirtuous deeds lead instead to suffering.

Dependent origination: In one of the earliest summaries of the Buddha’s teachings (which is said to have been enough to bring Sariputra to enlightenment), the Buddha is said to have taught: “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”

Choose whichever one speaks to you, or both. The point is that you cannot distance yourself from consequence by saying “I’m not one of them” or “I didn’t do that.” The term “accountability” is being used a lot this week, and we do want to attach individual wrongdoing to consequences. But as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty but all are responsible.”

It is common in some quarters to hear slavery described as America’s “original sin.” This might send us back to thinking about the religiously applied original “original sin”, that is, the storied transgression of Adam and Eve. Stripped of its theological trappings, it is part of a greater story about action and lasting consequence. The bad actions, or the lack of good actions, echo down eternity, and do not think you will escape them, even if you had nothing to do with the original phenomenon.

Does this mean that you are guilty for the perpetuation of racism, or for the incompetence of leaders in managing a plague, or in the devolution of American government and politics that led to an insurrection? Depending on your particular role in all these, maybe not. But neither are you an insulated observer. “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”

The Point

The Point

Vereker’s secret, my dear man—the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” He began to flush—the numbers on his bumps to come out.  “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”
Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet

The point behind the point
The meaning behind the text
Is not what they say
Not what you think
Like the figure woven in the rug
What did the weaver have in mind
Except to cushion your feet
Delight your eyes
Believe nothing except
That behind the point
Is a question that exhausts you
To surrender

© Bob Schwartz


From Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet:

“As an older acquaintance of your late wife’s than even you were,” I began, “you must let me say to you something I have on my mind.  I shall be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name for the information she must have had from George Corvick—the information you know, that had come to him, poor chap, in one of the happiest hours of his life, straight from Hugh Vereker.”

He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust.  “The information—?”

“Vereker’s secret, my dear man—the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.”

He began to flush—the numbers on his bumps to come out.  “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”

I stared in my turn.  “You don’t mean to say you don’t know it?”  I thought for a moment he was playing with me.  “Mrs. Deane knew it; she had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after infinite search and to Vereker’s own delight, found the very mouth of the cave.  Where is the mouth?  He told after their marriage—and told alone—the person who, when the circumstances were reproduced, must have told you.  Have I been wrong in taking for granted that she admitted you, as one of the highest privileges of the relation in which you stood to her, to the knowledge of which she was after Corvick’s death the sole depositary?  All I know is that that knowledge is infinitely precious, and what I want you to understand is that if you’ll in your turn admit me to it you’ll do me a kindness for which I shall be lastingly grateful.”

He had turned at last very red; I dare say he had begun by thinking I had lost my wits.  Little by little he followed me; on my own side I stared with a livelier surprise.  Then he spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Man shown carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern at Capitol riots arrested”

You may not have noticed it, but along with my rational side, I am also a huge fan of the absurd.

This is because 1) life is absurd and 2) absurdity makes us laugh.

We all recognize the continuing tragedy of our public life, abetting and joined by the continuing tragedy of the pandemic. There is nothing funny about either.

Yet when I read this particular headline and saw the accompanying picture, something snapped, and I still can’t stop laughing. Think me callous and insensitive, but I need that laugh.

Here is the headline and picture again.

Man shown carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern at Capitol riots arrested

A Time for Tennyson and Yeats

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

Two poets and two of their most famous poems come to mind these days, both poems I’ve quoted before.

One is the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem Ulysses. The other is the William Butler Yeats poem The Second Coming.

In his time, the nineteenth century Victorian era, Tennyson was inarguably considered the greatest English poet. By the twentieth century, the greats such as Yeats and T.S. Eliot, observers of a different age, dismissed Tennyson.

It is a good thing we are in the twenty-first century, free to read without prejudice, to mix and match at will, to mine the treasures wherever they are found and whatever they are. We are, after all, heirs to heroism and horrors that were unthinkable (though Yeats had an inkling).

So here is an excerpt from Ulysses, a favorite of Bobby Kennedy. And the whole of The Second Coming, inspired by the just ended World War I, the Irish rebellion, and the death of Yeat’s beloved in the 1918 flu epidemic.

From Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Those who voted for Biden saved American democracy. So those who voted for Trump…

It is the greatest “what if” in modern American history. What if Trump had won the election in 2020?

In the two months since the election we have the gruesome answer. In a second Trump term, American government would be filled with more unbridled and self-serving lies and grabs for extra-constitutional power. That is, authoritarianism. Of this there can be no doubt.

Which leaves us with the second question. If those who helped defeat Trump, by voting for Biden or by choosing not to vote for Trump, helped America avoid totalitarianism, what do we say about those who voted for Trump?

The answer is not complicated. As we learn from the sordid history of the rise of other autocratic regimes, supporters are either dupes without good judgment or those who see some advantage in advancing the cause of diminished democracy. Apologists for centuries have tried to promote a third way, saying that people of good will can disagree, but that is historical nonsense when the choice is glaringly obvious.

So thank you if you voted for Biden. Thank you also if you considered Trump, maybe voted for him in 2016, but decided to sit out 2020. If, however, you voted for Trump in 2020, you are no doubt telling yourself or others how you were somehow advancing the cause of a healthy America. You were not. Maybe you were just a fool. Or maybe you were selfish. Either way, the good news for democracy is that your folly or your selfishness failed. A great thing for America.