Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Apollo 11 +50:
Please Remember This Man, Too

Cut to the chase: Follow this link to Chapter 20: Tranquility Base at Medium.com

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On Tuesday, July 16, 2019, the world will begin commemorating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, that improbable mission that culminated four days later with Neil Armstrong’s historic “giant leap for mankind.”

In recent weeks, there have already been recollections of the thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of men and women  all over America who made countless individual contributions to the most ambitious project of the 20th Century.

But amid all the clamor and celebration, one pivotal name will likely be ignored, as it has been for most of the past 80 years.

That name is Philo T. Farnsworth.  All he did was invent the damn television.

Without his seminal  contributions in the 1920s and 30s, we might have had to just listen to the moon landing on the radio.  Instead, half-a-billion people  watched it all unfold in real time.

The outline of the Farnsworth story goes like this:

  • Farnsworth was 14 years old in the summer of 1921 when he first dreamed of transmitting moving pictures, one line at a time, on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons from the bottom of one vacuum bottle to the bottom of another;
  • In the winter of 1922, he drew a sketch of his idea for his high school science teacher in Rigby, Idaho.  Arguably, every video screen on the planet – including the one you are looking at now  can trace its origins to that sketch;
  • In 1926 – After sitting on the idea for four years Farnsworth was set up in a laboratory in San Francisco with sufficient “venture capital” to begin experimenting with his ideas and fabricating the first television tubes;
  • On September 7, 1927, with his wife and a handful of colleagues at his side, Farnsworth successfully transmitted the image of a rotating line from his “Image Dissector” tube to cathode ray tube receiver in an adjoining room.  If you need a date when television actually arrived on the planet, that’s a date.  It should be in the annals of human evolution along with Apollo 11’s touchdown on July 20, 1969,
  • In the summer of 1930, Farnsworth was granted the seminal patents for the art that made fully electronic television possible.  His patents became the technical cornerstone of a new industry.
  • He fought through the 1930s with David Sarnoff and the Radio Corporation of America over the ownership of those patents;
  • In 1939, RCA capitulated, accepting a license and making Farnsworth the first inventor ever paid patent royalties by RCA;
  • As his invention spread across the land in the late 1940s and 50s, Farnsworth went on to other pursuits: most notably, a nuclear fusion process.  Prototype devices were tested in the 1960s. 50 years later, nobody with knowledge of the field can say categorically whether or not the Farnsworth Fusor showed the way toward a clean, safe, and essentially limitless supply of energy from the same reaction that powers the sun and stars;
  • By the time he appeared as a mystery guest on the TeeVee quiz show “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1957, none or the panelists recognized or knew the name whose invention had made their jobs possible.

All of this is recounted in my Farnsworth biography, The Boy Who Invented Television: A Tale of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion (Amazon),

The last part of this tale – and Farnsworth’s own experience with Apollo 11 – has been retold in the final chapter of the book, which I have posted to Medium.com in time for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

Please follow this link to read that chapter and follow some additional links to web-stuff about the Philo T. Farnsworth, whose forgotten genius is rekindled every time we look at a video screen.

Like you are doing right fucking NOW.

 

Who Are You?

I have been an outlaw
All my grown up life
Just ask my former in-laws
Just ask my former wife…
– Dana Cooper and Pierce Pettis, My Life of Crime (Spotify)

Who Are You? 

That’s the question that I keep wanting to ask – of the people who are receiving the infrequently delivered “Weekly Digest” from my website, CohesionArts. 

I wonder because I’m sorta starting it up again… it’s been dormant for the better part of a year.  And longer than that, really.  It’s been quiet since I went into creative seclusion three years ago.  

Despite my seemingly massive ego and out of control narcissism (it’s right there in the interogatories for the divorce, so it must be true, right?) I’m a lousy self promoter.   

For a long time, I carried a business card that said that I am a “Writer / Photographer / Musician / Artist* – follow that asterisk to the bottom of the card and it reads “and I’m going to keep telling that lie until it comes true…”  

Everybody laughs at that line.  And yeah, it’s intended as a joke.  But it’s not nearly as funny as it is true. 

CohesionArts.com is the website where I gather what remains of my creative energy these days. A couple of years ago I devised an automated routine that rounds up whatever I’ve posted to the site for a week and publishes it to a mailing list of a few hundred subscribers under the guise of a “Weekly Digest.” 

Two weeks ago, a Weekly Digest went out before I even realized that I’d reactivated the protocols.  When I looked at the records, I discovered that was the first issue since November of last year.  

In the meantime, I managed to finalize the divorce that had been pending for almost a year, the genesis of which goes back more than three years (or 7, depending on which point of demarcation you choose…). 

Right away about a half dozen people unsubscribed the list.  

Which has me wondering about the few hundred people who remain.  That would be, umm… you, whoever might be reading this.  

This is the first time I’ve addressed this list directly.  

Because I wonder… who are you? 

I’m Paul. This is my wall.

My best guess is that you are one of the people who have purchased something from my wall at the Erabellum Gallery at the Arcade in downtown Nashville, where I stand in front of some of my photography once a month.  I do it mostly for the ego gratification.  I like it when people walk up and look at the images and ask “Are you the artist?” To which I gleefully reply, “Well, if you thin this is art then… yeah, I’m the artist!” 

When people do purchase something, I will ask for their email address.  That’s how I got yours, and why you are getting the “Weekly Digest.”  And I think that at some point I might use this list to, you know, actually market things to people.  Did I mention that I’m a lousy self promoter? I’m working with my therapist on that….😜

So that’s what this is and why you’re getting it, and if in fact you’re reading this, I’d like to hear from you.  Just a quick note to paul@cohesionarts.com to say hello, maybe let me know if you remember how or where we met and if you’ve got one of my photos hanging on a wall somewhere in your domicile.  

That’s all. 

Thanks. 

More From Harvey:
The 1956 Medical Trilogy, Part 3

In which the hint of a diagnosis is finally revealed in a letter written to Harvey and Ellen’s friends Renee and Jules Gordon during his visit to the Mayo Clinic:

 

December 8, 1956

 Dear Renée and Jules,

 I am now some 150 pages into the Civil War and enjoying it fine. It’s a very exciting business, and I wonder how it comes out. The book is swell. Many thanks. I tried to reach you Monday night before I left but gave up after a half hour or so of busy signals. No perseverance.

 It’s cold out here, but ideal for winter sports such as sleeping, and sitting around fires drinking hot toddies. I may very well settle for sitting around a nice, roaring radiator drinking scotch. Of course it’s that pleasant, dry cold that they have in Minnesota, so you don’t really notice it or mind it so much. It’s just that I wish those damn penguins would quit waddling up and down my windowsill.

 The clinic itself is a real swell place, full of jolly old doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks and the like. There’s plenty to do, which makes it  so different from a lot of these winter lodges that offer nothing but skiing and ice-skating. Although so far I haven’t picked up any gold medals, (after all I’m a relative newcomer) I’ve done very well in the following: The Hundred Meter Needle Toss, Blood Polo, The Urine Put, and the Freestyle Rectal Dash. My coach is very proud of me.

 I keep seeing the doctor from time to time, but so far he has had nothing much to tell me. By Monday the results of all the tests should be tabulated, and I expect to have a conference with him and learn the answer to this whole business – whether I am really Jewish or not.

 Well, that’s about all for now. I want to go back to my book and find out if Grant really does win the damn thing after all.

 Look to you both,

 Harvey

 P. S. If you want to start making a line of mouton-aligned ankle straps and wedgies, I think you have a real market for them out here.

 

My Name Is Harvey…

…as in the rabbit….

So began a letter that my father, Harvey Schatzkin, wrote to Macy’s in the winter of 1946 – four years before I was born.

He and wife Ellen were living at the time in an “inflated white house” in Milltown, New Jersey – building their lives together on the early fruits of America’s post-war prosperity.  For a vehicle, they owned a surplus Army Jeep, and as they assembled their household, they purchased a lot of stuff from Macy’s Department Store in New York City.

Problem was, Macy’s kept delivering their purchases to a factory on the other side of town.

So my father wrote Macy’s a letter.

Letter-writing was one of my father’s talents.  For decades now, I have been sitting on a trove of letters, essays and stories that he wrote.  All along I have been thinking I might one day do something with them. It seems that day has arrived.

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Dispatches from the Outskirts:
Whither Facebookistan?

Bang bang, and here we go again… 

A gun goes off, people – children! – are killed and wounded, and the cycle of social media outrage – over the act, over the response or lack-thereof, over the unfathomable tragedy of it all – resumes, along with the meaningless deluge of “thoughts and prayers” that pours into the digital ether all over again.

The last time this happened (well, no, not the last time, because amid this week’s news comes the revelation that Parkland was, what, the nineteenth gun-related multiple-death incident this year?!?!),  in the aftermath of the Country Music Massacre in Las Vegas last October, I started to scroll through the countless expressions of futility and declared that “The Moment That Facebook Became Insufferable.”

Then I went into a self-imposed exile from “Facebookistan.”

It didn’t last.

Too much has already been written about the irresistible lure of our devices and the impact their mere presence has on our focus, our concentration – our very consciousness.

I can’t find the source now, but I’ve read several times about a recent study where one group was asked to leave their phones in another room while the other group kept theirs beside them; the group that left the phones outside demonstrated better focus and concentration because they were less inclined to glance at their gizmo in search of some random new input.  The other group’s attention was, how shall we say, more fragmented.

I know the feeling.

Dozens of times every day – especially when I am trying to write something, or in the midst of editing photos, or learning/practicing something on guitar… I will fill a momentary void by flipping over to my browser; all I have to do is enter the letter “f” and Facebook appears…

When I went into my self-imposed Facebook exile back in October, I did two things that I thought would make all the difference: First, I removed the Facebook app from my iPhone; second, I  removed the permanently pinned “Facebook” tab in my browser – which was, until then, the first tab in the line-up of ten permanently pinned tabs I keep open.  That way (I told myself) I was keeping Facebook at arm’s length.  This, I now realize, was the alcoholic’s equivalent of locking the liquor cabinet but keeping the key.

Then I tried to adopt a routine of only posting things to my own website, and using a social media plugin to “toss” those posts “over the wall” into “Facebookistan.”

But jeez, who was I kidding?

Looking back over the past few months I realize how I let my weakness prevail: What I didn’t do was remove the Facebook app from my iPad.  I must have fooled myself into thinking that was safe because I don’t have the tablet with me all day like I do the phone.  But whenever I did open the tablet, like on a break at work, too often the first thing I did was open the damn Facebook app.

Turns out was my ‘gateway app.’

And while I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone,  after a few weeks I got into the nasty (and very inefficient) habit of opening Facebook in the phone’s native browser – all the while telling myself the compulsion was under some kind of control because I wasn’t using the app.  And as I said, even though the permanent tab is gone from my desktop browser, Facebook is still just one or two clicks and the letter “f” away…

There is a pernicious cycle at work here: even when something is posted “indirectly” as I was doing, the immediate impulse is “has anybody seen it?”  “Does it have any Likes yet?”  “Are there any comments that I can reply to?”  And before I knew it, the whole damn sickness had crept back into my life.

My favorite line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (of which I have been an inconsistent member for over 30 years) is the line that says,

“half measures availed us nothing.”

I took that mandate deeply to heart 30 years ago when I stopped puffing and sipping and snorting.   I probably owe my continued existence to my adherence to that one clause.

Now, to the extent that it is fair to say that the Internet/Social Media/Facebook engagement bears many of the qualities of classic addiction, I’ve got an even better sense or just what that “half measures” business is really about.

I tried “half measures” with Facebook – much as the alcoholic tells himself “hey, I can have a beer now and again” or “this glass of wine with dinner is no problem…” – and like that alcoholic, over the course of a few months, I now find myself once again lying face down on the floor of the digital saloon.

It is a strange time we find ourselves living in. In the 20th century, “celebrity” – a public persona – was the exclusive enclave of people who had achieved some demonstrably high level of achievement.  In the 21st century, anybody with a keyboard and screen has a platform and access to a potential audience of billions.  Before there was Facebook or Twitter, only the most deserving  (or the most notorious) lived in the fishbowl of celebrity. Now we all have a public persona.  Some are better developed than others.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had an interesting email exchange with a friend with whom I also often interact on Facebook.  Let’s call him “Ken” (because, well, that’s his name..).

I shared with Ken my frustration over, “the effective integration of Facebook into my life” and this sense that it’s just a habit that can’t be knocked.  Ken wrote back,

I don’t struggle with FB quite as much. It’s a tool for me, one that I’m pretty good at using, and pretty good at staying away from when needed or warranted.  And I think I’ve gotten over the ‘likeitis’ wondering who or how many liked something witty.  At this point I know I’m pretty witty and folks are going to respond to it that way-and quite honestly I just don’t care anymore who or how many like anything I do or say.

That sounds much healthier than whatever is that I’m doing with Facebook.  But I also think I’ve come up with a clue why that is.  Bear with me, it gets confessional from here…

The word “struggle” in Ken’s message triggered the sardonic voices in my head, whispering “Facebook is life.  I struggle with life, therefore I struggle with Facebook.”

By ‘struggle’ I mean: I wrestle daily with fundamental questions about my identity, my abilities, and WTF am I doing here?  My father died at 37, my brother at 62, and yet, here I am at 67, still fumbling from one day to the next, trying to find some semblance of my own shit to hold together (and don’t even start me on the existential crises of the past two years, though I suppose they are all inter-related…)

I think Ken has the advantage of a much healthier perspective: He found his life’s purpose (he’s a brilliant instrumental guitarist) a long time ago and everything about his “public persona” flows from that.

I, on the other hand… still struggle to narrow it down, or even define my life broadly.  Consequently,  my “public persona” is a perfect reflection of that inner turmoil.

As as kid, I had all these creative things I could do: write stories, play guitar and sing, and at various times over the years make pictures (but only with the help of lenses – I discovered in the first grade that I had no talent for actual ‘drawing’, which is probably when my estrangement from the word “art” as a means of personal expression began…).

But for one reason or another that not even a lifetime of therapy has managed to unearth, those abilities languish, never fully developed or manifest. I still feel like there are all these things I can almost do. So I am probably not going to get an effective handle on any kind of “public persona” until, like Ken, I’ve got a better sense of what actual purpose I’m using all these “tools” for.

Until then, I rail against the futility of it all, particularly in the face of collective tragedy.

And so, like the Big Book says, I just have to admit that “I am powerless over Facebook and my life has become unmanageable…”  And then, I guess, seek the counsel of a Higher Power (or a new therapist?).

Meanwhile, we have come full circle:  another bullet-induced national calamity (deep in the midst of the broader calamity that befell The Republic a little over a year ago) and the cycle is back to its full, flaming, alcoholic fury: tens of millions of outraged citizens of Facebookistan spilling into their public personae while just trying to get a grip on imponderable madness.

But wait: Do I have any “Like”s yet?  Any comments??

Winter Footwear

I confess, I don’t quite get a lot of what passes for women’s footwear.

Which is what was going through my mind last Saturday at the Downtown Art Crawl, where I have a wall of my photography on exhibit at Erabellum,  a coop gallery in The Arcade.

The temperatures were in the low-20s that night, but one woman apparently thought that open-toed pumps were entirely suitable for the occasion.

Brr.

But what do I know about women’s fashion (or women, for that matter….)

Let’s hear it for sensible shoes.  And David Lee Roth…

A Modest Proposal for “The Holidays”

… or whatever you want to call this time of year – also my first actually thought-out, direct-to-Facebook post in several months. I’m sure this one oughta win me lotsa new friends..

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This is what I’m thinking about in the early evening of a cold Sunday in December:

First of all, this thing we call “Christmas” starts out as a religious holiday and as such has no business being on the “official” calendar of a nation that honors that other tradition called “the First Amendment.” But never mind, it’s a nice tradition (even if it does come in the dead of winter, and for some reason coincides with the not only the worst weather of the year but the worst traffic as well…).

Coming as it does on a Monday this year, I’m thinking the tradition could use an updating. Call it “XmasOS2017”:

For starters, the date is entirely arbitrary since nobody really knows when Jesus or Emmanuel or whatever his actual name was was actually born. It could just have well been in March or August. The only reason a date in December was chosen – back in something like the 4th century – was to co-opt the Pagan traditions around the Winter Solstice.

So how about – instead of a religious holiday on Dec 25, we declare a religiously-neutral holiday for friends-and-family gatherings and gift exchanges on the Monday following the last weekend in December? Then every year we’d have a three-day weekend at the end of the year.
I’m trying to think what to call it. How about…oh, I know…

FESTIVUS!
(damn, why didn’t <I> think of that…?)

OK, that’s my contribution to the occasion. Now, please don’t lecture me with “…. but this is a Christian Nation!” Oy, don’t start me…

And in case your wondering, Thomas Jefferson pretty much agrees.