Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Joni Mitchell at 71: Always attending to her imagination

Joni Mitchell / Self portrait of a true original 

Last weekend, I read with great interest an online interview with the singer-songwriter-artist Joni Mitchell in Maclean's, the Canadian national weekly current affairs magazine. In it, she confessed: "I don't watch news. I'm not a fish so I don't want to get caught in the net so I'm not on the web. I only use my iPhone as a camera, I don't even know my number."

Interviews with Mitchell are rare. However, the Canadian-born Mitchell has surfaced from her Los Angeles residence to drum interest in her latest project, a box set called Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced. Released this week, it combines her career as a Grammy-winning musician with being a painter and a dance enthusiast in collecting 53 songs from her 40 years of recording. Mitchell curated the collection, designed the package which includes six new paintings, and wrote an autobiographical text illuminating her recording process.

I've been fond of Mitchell's music going way back to my university days as a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and as a disc jockey for the college's WMCN-FM radio station. While I have an appreciation for Mitchell's folk music roots -- her 1970 album Blue is a must-listen -- I've always been attracted to her jazzy side, which surfaced in 1974 with Court and Spark and a year later with The Hissing of Summer Lawns, my two favorite Joni Mitchell albums.

During her Maclean's interview with the writer Elio Iannacci, the 71-year-old Mitchell referred to the younger generation as the "push-button generation of today." She was asked: "What is impairing us the most?" She answered matter-of-factly: "Everything is about channel changing. It has ruined attention spans. I spaced out in school but I didn't develop attention-deficit issues because I placed attention on my imagination and ignored the curriculum," said Mitchell.

"I didn't have a million news feeds to contend with. It is just like when I have people to my house to watch a film -- it's like living in a Robert Altman movie! They are always talking over each other. We are all losing the plot. It's an addiction to phones and too much information."

Speaking of an addiction to our phones -- and, by extension, to too much information -- in last Saturday's The New York Times, contributing writer Timothy Egan hit upon a theme of digital narcissism in his opinion article "Grand Tour of the Self." He wrote: "Technology, when it shrinks the globe, or makes life less burdensome, or provides easier access to knowledge, is a wonderful thing. The smartphone has dramatically changed the world, mostly for the better. The jet aircraft opened far reaches of the planet to average people. And the selfie stick, as a simple device to take a better portrait, is largely harmless.

"But when technology changes the travel experience itself -- from immersion and surprise to documentary one-upmanship -- it defeats the point of the journey. We travel to freshen senses dulled by routine. We travel for discovery and reinvention."

Thanks to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we've allowed everyone to become the star of their own movie in their "twenty-teens." Additionally, foodies have become obsessive about photographing what they eat -- especially when dining out -- and posting it online for instant gratification.

Maybe, we have become victims of "nature deficit disorder," so called because in the words of Egan, it's "a symptom of being connected to everything, while being unable to connect to anything."

Which brings us back to Joni Mitchell and the repercussions that future generations face now that everyone spends so much time on their smartphones. She told Maclean's: "My grandson and I were sailing on a boat and he said, 'It's boring.' I asked, 'How can you say it's boring? The sun is shining, we're going across the water so fast...' And he said, 'Not fast enough.' Technology has given him this appetite."

Fortunately, spending half of each year in the province of British Columbia enables Mitchell an opportunity to escape American culture and step away from the "star-making machinery behind the popular song" while returning to her Canadian roots. "I just drop off in the bush. My life has been somewhat overstimulated so I'll never get bored.

"I don't belong to this modern world and I'm out of it, but I don't want in."

Joni Mitchell self-portrait courtesy of jonimitchell.com.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Grace Cathedral at 50: Defining beautiful architecture

A San Francisco sacred space / Grace Cathedral turns 50 this week.

How does one define beautiful architecture?

"Space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture," the 20th century Canadian architect and urban planner Arthur Erickson once said. "It is not the physical statement of the structure so much as what it contains that moves us."

Grace Cathedral is the third
largest Episcopal cathedral
in the United States.
One of my favorite spaces in the entire world -- and one that I've experienced many times during the past two decades -- sits tall atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. The vibrant city's famous cable cars pass by it on the California Street side of this sacred space. It's a place that I return to often on Sundays, especially during Lent for Easter Sunday and in the season of Advent to worship on Christmas Eve. 

That space is Grace Cathedral, a place to explore; a place to go deeper in one's faith. It is the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation, and this week, Grace Cathedral turns 50.

Each time I climb the staircase that frames the cathedral's entrance on Taylor Street and enter this sacred space, I am moved by the beauty of the cathedral's French Gothic architecture, designed by Lewis P. Hobart; the Ghiberti Doors that are opened for special occasions; and the vaulted ceiling arches. There is much to admire in this exalted sacred space -- and photograph, too.

The Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.
There's the lyrical Rose window above the main entrance with its the colorful prism-like reflections of light beaming through it and through the stained-glass windows, bathing the pillars and indoor labyrinth in beautiful colors.

There's the historical aisle murals that were painted by Polish painter Jan Henryk De Rosen between 1949-1950 and composed in a style blending the stylistic elements of early Italian masters Giotto and Mantegna.

And, there's the Keith Haring AIDS Chapel altarpiece.

Colorful prism-like colors beam
through the stained-glass
windows onto the indoor
labyrinth at Grace Cathedral.
Cathedrals have long been places of pilgrimage, and Grace Cathedral is celebrating its past, its present and its sustainable future. Work was begun on the present cathedral structure in 1928 and its completion and consecration took place in 1964. Duke Ellington performed his televised Concert of Sacred Music inside Grace Cathedral on September 26, 1965.

I enjoy worshiping at Grace Cathedral, absorbed by its sacred space, which is defined by the beauty of its art, including its medieval and contemporary furnishings. There's also the echoing sound of the majestic Æolian-Skinner pipe organ; the 44 bell carillon, and the harmonious voices of the Choir of Men and Boys.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Of course, the homilies are meaningful, whether delivered by the Dean of the Cathedral, a visiting theologian, or by a guest homilist such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall or the playwright Anna Devere Smith.

And, they are always thought provoking, too.

Marcel Proust wrote how "Love is space and time measured by the heart." 

In Grace Cathedral, a house of prayer for everyone, I find solace here each time I visit.

And I know God's generous love awaits me.

To learn more about Grace Cathedral:

All photographs by Michael Dickens, © 2014.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Laughing out loud: Remembering Tom Magliozzi

Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers / For 25 years, brothers
Ray and Tom Magliozzi hosted NPR's Car Talk together.

During a 1999 commencement speech to the graduates of M.I.T., Ray Magliozzi, the longtime co-host of NPR's Car Talk with his older brother Tom, shared this bit of wisdom and advice: "I just want to encourage you to never get so involved in your work, whatever it is, that you forget to have fun."

What great advice that each of us should heed, no matter our age. Simply, have fun.

At the same M.I.T. commencement, Tom Magliozzi shared his research that he claimed provided evidence that “being unencumbered by the thought process” leads to greater happiness.

Each week for 25 years, through some 1,200 hour-long episodes each beginning with mandolinist David Grisman's bluegrassy theme song, "Dawggy Mountain Breakdown," Tom and Ray Magliozzi (pronounced mal-YOT-zee) shared not only their happiness, but also a lovable crankiness, plenty of good self-deprecating humor and a whole lot of uncontrollable laughter with their nationwide NPR (National Public Radio) audience that numbered in the millions here in the United States.

Come Saturday morning, we turned on our radios religiously and were treated to a good soul cleansing. 

While the premise of their radio show, Car Talk, was about cars and mechanical repairs, the warmth and humor exuded by Tom and Ray -- not to mention their expert advice about the importance of cars and an appreciation of life -- was timeless and enduring. 

"Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers" as the personable Magliozzi brothers were nicknamed, became like family to us and we trusted them and they welcomed us into their "home" via the radio each week for an enjoyable hour of banter and good jokes. From it all came a lot of memorable one-liners like their signature "Don't drive like my brother," spoken by each at the end of each Car Talk show in a distinguishable Boston accent. The affectionate Magliozzi brothers grew up in a large Italian family in East Cambridge, Mass., and both graduated from M.I.T.

Tom Magliozzi / Enjoying a
good laugh.
On November 3, Tom Magliozzi, 77, passed away from complications from Alzheimer's disease. He died at his home outside Boston.

In a letter to public radio listeners of Car Talk, Ray Magliozzi wrote of his brother: "We can be happy that he lived the life he wanted to live; goofing off a lot, talking to you guys every week, and primarily, laughing his ass off."

Although Tom and Ray (who is 12 years younger) stopped making original episodes of Car Talk in 2012, we are fortunate to have "classic" episodes of Car Talk we can listen to each weekend via NPR and through podcasts, too. The show and its infectious laughter lives on. 

In a remembrance of Tom Magliozzi that aired on NPR's All Things Considered last weekCar Talk's executive producer, Doug Berman, said that when it came to cars, the brothers really did know what they were talking about. Yet, it's not why people listened to the show. "I think it has very little to do with cars," said Berman. "It's the guys' personalities. And Tom especially -- really a genius. With a great, facile mind. And he's mischievous. He likes to prod people into honesty."

Magliozzi's NPR colleague, Peter Sagal, host of NPR's weekly news quiz Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, writing for Time, said that laughter "was Tom's great gift. All that raucous, distinctive laughter -- who knew you could laugh with a Boston accent? -- was genuine. Whether he was laughing at his brother or a caller with a car problem or his own silly jokes, his pleasure was too immense to be kept private. Everybody knows that Car Talk wasn't about cars. It was about Tommy Magliozzi and his little brother Ray, as they continued their life-long refusal to take each other, themselves, or anything else seriously. And by sheer force of will the self-regarding gray edifice known as public radio eventually did the same."

Sagal added: "Tom was opinionated, passionate, and occasionally profane, but very much the man he seemed to be on the air. He leaves behind his brother and a large family, but also millions of listeners he convinced -- if only for an hour a week -- to just relax and enjoy themselves as much as he did."

While we all share in the sadness of Tom Magliozzi's passing, just like we do when there's a death in our own family, one thing's certain: While he was alive, standing tall, bearded and friendly, Ray's big brother never forgot to have fun.

We should all be so fortunate. 

God rest ye merry gentleman, Tom Magliozzi.

Photos: Ray and Tom Magliozzi, together, courtesy of Google images; Tom Magliozzi, courtesy of Car Talk Facebook page.