Adult Entertainment

I’ve noted before that the Financial Times — the British equivalent of the Wall Street Journal — isn’t reticent about treating readers as adults and using four-letter words when appropriate.

The latest example from today’s edition is in a wonderful review of the Womad festival where they mention French singer Camille did a cover of the Dead Kennedy’s song “Too Drunk to Fuck”, and, yes, the title was printed in the British financial newspaper in full, not F*** as most newspapers would, leaving us to guess: Too Drunk to Feel? to Flow? to Fake?

Perhaps, as someone once told me, it’s because with a British accent even “Fuck” sounds profound.

FT Womad Review

Click picture to enlarge..

Anyway, here’s Camilla, clearly not too drunk to sing.

Book Review: The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, by Robert Love

The Great Oom - CoverLong before Lululemon, Bikram Hot Yoga and the ubiquitous downward facing dog, yoga was being taught in small studios in San Francisco, New York and the Hudson River Valley. Just as Lululemon struggled to contain the reputational damage of the ‘sheer pants’ scandal and Bikram Choudhury became embroiled in lawsuits, the man who opened the first yoga studios in the nation back in the early 1900’s was a lightening rod for controversy.

The story of how yoga as we know it came to America is told in a fascinating and very readable book, The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America by Robert Love.

The man the tabloid press of the day branded ‘Oom the Omnipotent’ was born Perry Baker in small town Iowa in 1876. Before he was 20 he’d changed his name to Pierre Bernard, met an Indian mystic named Sylvais Hamati, and attained notoriety by subjecting himself to tongue and lip piercings (allowing his lip and nose to be sewn together!) while apparently feeling no pain in a self-induced trance.

Bernard became a serious student of Hatha yoga derived from Vedic and Sanskrit teachings at a time when most Americans were even more ignorant of religions other than bedrock Christianity than they are today. This was even more remarkable since British India regarded Hatha yoga, with its well-known asanas or postures, as declasse.

Bernard fully embraced the Tantrick (or Tantric) forms of practice that included sacramental sexual union: a massive reputational risk in the Puritanical climate of the 1900’s (or even the more tolerant 1970s, as other teachers were to discover). Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of his teaching in helping society ladies and the idle rich find purpose in life, he was pursued in court and hounded in the press.

Nyack YogaHe moved from San Francisco to Seattle, and eventually settled on the East Coast, first in Manhattan then in the rural Hudson River Valley village of Nyack, where he became a landowner and opened a country club offering members everything from daily yoga to enemas, circuses and all-night parties.

He counted several members of the Vanderbilt family among his patrons. Among his detractors were blue blood families convinced their daughters were being seduced by a charlatan. Charges ranged from indecency (holding classes where female students shed girdles and garters for something more free form, although a world away from Lululemon tights) through to running a white slavery operation (one of the pet fears of that age).

The man who Alan Watts — perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit — described as a “phenomenal rascal master” influenced the next generation of yoga teachers. These included Ida Rolf, the founder of ‘Rolfing’, and Bernard’s wife Blanche DeVris, who taught yoga to Anthony Quinn and Henry Fonda among others.

Bernard died in solitude in 1955, having made and lost multiple fortunes, created a private zoo, sponsored baseball teams, built the finest library of esoteric literature of the time, championed the study of Sanskrit, and much more.

Robert Love has written a fascinating, exceptionally well researched book. He notes:

…what intrigued Americans about Bernard was not merely the Oom notoriety and the flamboyant weirdness. It was the question of whether these trappings of wealth, his fantastic life — elephants, tigers, circuses, Vanderbilt heiresses, and everywhere the scent of sex — might actually be the result of an intense and authentic spiritual pursuit.”

It was, and is.

The Atomic Hobo Thinks the Unthinkable

Nuke posterFiona Sturges has a great weekly column in the Financial Times reviewing podcasts. This week she highlights The Atomic Hobo by British journalist, cold war specialist and self-confessed “nuke geek” Julie McDowall.

Julie has an engaging Scottish accent, which adds a degree of surrealism to the subject of her regular podcasts: the ways in which Britain and the US prepared for nuclear attack during the cold war. So far, themes have included the disposal of the dead (in Britain, councils stockpiled shrouds); how to keep survivors calm in the bunker (pills, mostly); food distribution; and the fate of family pets.

Certain speechwriters are employed to draft ‘red file’ talks that will be delivered in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Thankfully, those statements have, so far, remained filed away.

To hear how the threat of nuclear war has influenced people to date, check out Julie’s great podcast.

The Year of the Sahasrara

An wonderfully acerbic column by Jo Ellison in the Weekend FT alerted me to the fact that the good folks at Pantone have announced that the ‘Color of the Year’ for 2018 is Pantone 18-3838 Ultra Violet, which is subtly different from the Blue Iris (18-3943) that was color of the year 10 years earlier. It replaces the shade of green that was the color of 2017.

Pantones’ executive director waxes eloquent about the relevance of this for 2018:

Pantone Quote

Ellison is having none of this. To her

It makes me think of wizards and wacky shed-dwelling craftspeople and the type of people with gnarly toenails who congregate at sunrise to take part in ancient ceremonies involving runic stones. It’s the colour adored by “open-minded” people who move out of London to give their children better educational opportunities, and end up whittling nose whistles in Brighton.

The Queen in PurpleThere is, however, a long association of purple/violet with higher purpose, being both the color of Royalty (not known for nose whistle whittling) as well as the sahasrara or crown chakra. As I wrote back in 2006, the crown chakra sits on or above the physical top of the head. It relates to consciousness as pure awareness. It is our connection to the greater world beyond, to a timeless, spaceless place of all-knowing. When developed, this chakra brings us knowledge, wisdom, understanding, spiritual connection, and bliss.

SahasraraBack then, I asked speechwriters to consider to what extent does anything in your speech really mean a damn in the big scheme of things? It’s refreshing to see that Pantone is asking the same questions today.

Kombucha makes it to Middle England

KombuchaI was amazed to hear mention of kombucha on the August 31st edition of the long-running English radio soap The Archers. Two of the village women are in a competitive keifer (pronounced “kaa-fear” in an Ambridge burr apparently, not ‘kee-fer” as in the USA) making competition and a neighbor who’d been visiting farm stores in and around Boston (Mass) made a reference to the “fermented tea” he’d sampled Stateside.

I’ve long anticipated kombucha becoming popular in England, especially as it tastes rather like Scrumpy. Maybe mention on The Archers heralds the start of more general availability.

I’ve brewed my own ‘booch for over five years can heartily recommend it as a healthy option to all those pints of Shires they drink down at the Bull.

Queen for a day

Sex PistolsI enjoyed a wonderfully eclectic article by Douglas Coupland in the Weekend FT on the Queen.

Since I make no secret of my age, I’m proud to say my life has been almost exactly coterminus with that of her majesty’s reign (with only my first four days on the planet spent when her father was on the throne, albeit on his death bed).

Coupland muses on the strangeness of the word Queen: ‘seemingly engineered by Scrabble technicians to allow players to shed excess vowels while at the same time affording them a well-deserved buzz while they deploy the Q-tile they’ve been hording…’. He recalls a time when the Queen waved at him, and him alone. On the relationship between punk rock (God Save the Queen) and the monarchy in British culture. On the differences between transvestites and drag queens.

But it is a wonderfully inspiring thought experiment that caught my eye, which is worth quoting in full:

I have this theory that there exists another universe which is just like ours except in that universe, different people became famous than did in this one. Jodie Foster is a Denny’s waitress in Bakersfield. George Clooney repairs engines at an Airbus facility but is off for a month because of a bad back. And so on. If you visited that universe, you could bump into Jodie and George and then . . . well, what would you do, really? Ask for their autograph? They’d call the cops. Ask them if they ever thought of acting? Stalker. There’s really nothing you could do except stare like a twit with a faint smile while you creep them out. If you ever want to make the world seem more interesting, just assume that everybody you see is a movie star in some other dimension.

Sometimes, I’ll see 90-year-old ladies and wonder if they’re actually the Queen in some other universe. What would I say to one of these women? “Hello. You look very regal today.” Clueless. “Like some tea, Ma’am?” Freak. The truth is that there’d be nothing much you or I could say, aside from platitudes and pleasantries — and then we’d sigh and realise that that’s pretty much what it would be like meeting the real Queen in our own universe. But one has to admit She’s done a magnificent job of maintaining an aura of mystery armed only with a signature hand wave and a roster of secret handbag codes used in conjunction with her security staff.

This would be an interesting executive communications technique.

Imagine

Imagine, for a moment, a speech by a senior leader that asks the audience to assume everyone in the company is a top manager in some other dimension. Treating everyone in the organization with the deference afforded top management would undermine many cultural norms, perhaps for the better. It could, for instance, relieve CEOs of the dysfunctional behaviors Rod Thorn identifies (a lack of honest conversations, too much political game playing, silo thinking, lack of ownership and follow-through, and tolerating bad behaviors). It would certainly, if carried out literally, put meat on the bones of the rather tired assertion that front line employees are more important than the CEO (which is clearly why they earn 331 times less.)

It might lead to greater empathy for the burdens the powerful bear, and the challenges underlings face, and overcome limitations in left-brained thinking that Daniel Pink has identified.

It might also help to develop the speech as a vehicle for constructive fantasy (‘what if?’), which speechwriter Brian Jenner lists as one of the jobs of the speechwriter (‘to manipulate the steady going, because we’re in the business of reconstructing the world with ideas’).

It would certainly take people out of their comfort zone, and, as ethnomethodology teaches, help everyone in an organization understand what’s going on when people in meetings pander to the CEO’s sense of humor and are more willing to laugh along at his jokes than they are with people of lesser status.

Abbey Road

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day

I want to tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a bellyful of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah,
Someday I’m going to make her mine.
– The Beatles

A not so distant mirror

Donald j TrumpEleven years ago today I launched this blog with a posting about the cultural differences between England and America. Back then George Bush was President, Barack Obama was an ambitious Senator, Donald Trump was hosting Season 5 of The Apprentice, and Alistair Cooke would be broadcasting his Letter from America on the BBC for another eight years. It was on April 27, 1990 that Cooke made an offhand, but eerily prophetic, statement:

Throughout the 1980’s, the non-fiction lists were headed by the autobiographies of self-made men, by titans like Lee Iacocca, the phoenix of the automobile, by Donald Trump, the young, bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities — why not the country? — appear to be boundless.
(Letter from America, 1946-2004, p. 339)

Cooke did not live to see the day.

Of the people, by the people

I wonder what that cultured Englishman, who was an outstanding observer of America throughout his career, would make of President Trump? No doubt he would have commented on Trump’s obvious eccentricities as a sui generis political phenomenon. He would also, I’m sure, have visited the red states to talk to some of the 63 million who voted for him. As the French philosopher said “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” And the people have spoken, there’s a new sheriff in town.

What the millions wanted was a change. And change is what we’ve got. They expressed a forceful desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ (now a Twitter hashtag #MAGA). Trump reflects these desires. He mirrors them.

Mirror, mirror

I can remember back around the millennium being in the audience at an avant garde theatrical performance where a series of photographs were projected onscreen, accompanied by loud music. Meanwhile, elegantly dressed young women walked around in the audience holding large mirrors that reflected us, watching the screen, back to ourselves. When a woman happened to stand both behind and in front, then , like in the barbers chair, an infinite series of images of the audience cascaded around us, simultaneously distracting from, and supplementing, the images on the screen we were reacting to. The light from the mirrors illuminated the audience, brighter than the screen was illuminated by the projector. We reacted to reflections of the reality we’d come to see. Watching ourselves watching. Like Narcissus at the pond, we were entranced by our own reflection.

Just so, Trump has taken the image voters have of themselves — channeling their anger and frustration with established politicians — and superimposed it onto the political process. He has ridden their waves of their frustration from the Rust Belt to the Beltway. And he has illuminated politics with the re-tweets of his 20 million Twitter followers.

Trump Tweet

He assumes the voice of ‘the people’, claiming to speak for them, as only a billionaire on his third marriage can.

He reflects the Americans who are about to get the President they deserve. His supporters are illuminated and emboldened by the reflected glory of his success.

As time goes by, following his Inauguration on Friday January 20, this light might fade, or, heaven forbid, it might shine brighter than a thousand suns.

A Distant Mirror

Some have compared the rise of Trump to other demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini. Others see parallels in the transition of the Roman Republic to an Empire.

Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a compelling narrative of the 14th century that highlights how, in a time of chaos and pestilence, rulers found opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, enjoying an opulent life while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants. They had their 1% back then. Other periods of human history are distant mirrors to our own.

Thing is, they did not have the nuclear codes.

All the news…

Now in my 8th week of fasting from the daily news (for reasons I explained back in October) I’m nevertheless fascinated by the stories I hear people around me discussing (many of which seem to involve the surprise election of a New York property developer). It’s obvious that most of my family and friends are caught up in the drama that is played out 7×24 on multiple channels.

Here’s a great infographic courtesy of Jeff Herrington that David Murray posted to his awesome Writing Boots blog that helps make sense of the available options.

The one world-class news source he omits is the Financial Times which I would place firmly in the top ellipse on the ‘Mainstream: minimal partisan bias’ axis — or perhaps ever so slightly to the liberal side (at least when compared to the WSJ which in my opinion skews further to the right than this graphic shows).

News Outlets

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Past provincial life

Half asleep on the evening ferry after a long day at work, half listening to a podcast of a recent episode of Start the Week, I was startled awake by a remarkable poem:

In Wales, wanting to be Italian

(from Over the Moon, by Imtiaz Dharker)

Is there a name for that thing
you do when you are young?
There must be a word for it in some language,
probably German, or if not just
asking to be made up, something like
Fremdlandischgehörenlust or perhaps
Einzumandererslandgehörenwunsch.

What is it called, living in Glasgow,
dying to be French, dying to shrug and pout
and make yourself understood
without saying a word?

Have you ever felt like that, being
in Bombay, wanting to declare,
like Freddy Mercury, that you are
from somewhere like Zanzibar?

What is it called? Being sixteen
in Wales, longing to be Italian,
to be able to say aloud,
without embarrassment, Bella! Bella!
lounge by a Vespa with a cigarette
hanging out of your mouth, and wear
impossibly pointed shoes?

Mod on his Vespa

I knew that truth in my own life, back when I was sixteen and looking for a way to shake the dust of Crewe off my heels, sitting on the back of my friends’ Vespa’s, looking for a way out. Which came for some of us, didn’t it? When we went off to Universities (even ones in Wales), and on to other places in the world than that dirty old town, where we’d met our love, by the gasworks wall n’all.

Trevor Noah on the language of Donald Trump

Trevor NoahIn a wide-ranging interview on Fresh Air, late night TV host Trevor Noah comments on the appeal of Donald Trump, specifically the language he uses. This is worth quoting at length since it confirms what Bob Lehrman writes about, Kate Peters advises, and I’ve observed about Trump’s rhetoric:

I came to realize the power and the importance of language.

It’s more than just language and the way we perceive it. If you look at this election, I feel like Donald Trump was speaking a different language to Hillary Clinton. Y’know it’s not dissimilar to what we saw in South Africa with our president Jacob Zuma.

I remember sitting with people laughing when they would watch the debates, and they’d go “This guys a buffoon. Oh man, he has such a low word count, he’s got the grammar of a five-year-old, the vocabulary of a toddler.” And I said, “Yeah, but do you know how many people find that appealing right now? He’s up there and everyone understands what he’s saying.” Like: “Can you imagine this guy as a President?”

And I said, “Yeah, but think of how many people who, for the first time, are listening to a Presidential candidate and understanding every single quote and policy that he puts forward?” And sometimes that’s a thing that, I will call the elites, not even liberal elites, just people who are educated, forget sometimes.

Communication is more important than your grasp of language.

Can you communicate effectively as a person?
.
.
You’ve got to be careful in deciding what your intention is. Are you using language as a flourish or are you trying to communicate effectively as possible with another human being? And that’s what Donald Trump, in my opinion, did very, very well.

Truth is: Trump’s communication style resonates with many Americans.