Ai Weiwei, Cosby milestone, new Leonard Cohen

A few summers back, I remember coming home from work in the still-light evenings to read John Cheever short stories in my bedroom, maybe with a gin cocktail in hand, until twilight forced me to use an electric light.

This summer proved quite different. Most of my writing energy was focused on contributions to a series on race and faith that my friend Amy Julia Becker planned, in an extended response to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic cover story on reparations. I got involved after telling her about the June Project Peace event on race and faith, which I initially planned to write about. Instead, I ended up writing a piece on confession and then helping to develop a Lord's prayer for reconciliation intended for churches to use.

I say all that both to commend Amy Julia's series to you, but also because my small contributions to it stem from an important shift in my creative process this year. I know those reading this are in various places spiritually -- and artRecs probably emphasizes art more than faith -- but I've found prayer to be an incredibly powerfully influence on my writing, especially in recent months.

For the past two years, several of us at Christ Church have been meeting monthly to practice what's variously called listening/healing prayer. These can be separate practices, but I find it rare that I listen to God without old wounds coming up. Through the listening/healing prayer process, I then ask God to show me where the pain started, what I came to believe (usually a lie or distortion) and what the truth is.

Up through this point, it's probably not so different from some counseling/therapy methods, but you then go on -- if you're comfortable doing so -- to renounce and repent of believing the lie(s), which I find incredibly powerful. Sometimes you may also find that you need to deal with other related issues, like unforgiveness of others, yourself or God, etc.

Prayer always improves my writing, but praying through my sin and baggage with a topic before I start writing seems to make an even bigger difference. If you're interested in trying listening prayer for yourself, the next meeting is Oct. 4 at the Christ Church Berkeley site (2138 Cedar Street), 10 a.m. to noon.

Whether or not you can come this month, I'd encourage you all to think about it. Generally I avoid promising "results" from any given spiritual discipline, but everyone I know who's tried listening prayer has had something really good happen. Many of us even consider it life-changing. To get on the event-reminder mailing list for listening prayer, email heal.pray.ministry@gmail.com. You can also get an overview of the basic listening process here.

:: events ::
:: your stuff ::
  • Dave's new mural in downtown Oakland was recently filmed for a segment on ABC 7. No link to the video yet, but I'll be sure to share it when it's posted.
:: poetry ::
:: visual art ::
  • Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz: In The New York Times account, this looks to be one of the most exciting shows in San Francisco this fall. The show will include Lego portraits of "176 portraits of prisoners of conscience and political exiles." Because of government-imposed restrictions on travel, the Times reports he relied heavily on assistance from the curator and dozens of volunteers, those this raises questions "to what extent are installations like this — which required more than 100 volunteers in San Francisco and For-Site staffers on Alcatraz Island helping with assembly, as well as Amnesty International contributing research — truly Mr. Ai’s work?" In another special arrangement, the National Park Service opened part of Alcatraz that's usually off-limits to visitors for a sound piece that includes the music of Fela Kuti, Pussy Riot and others.
  • Ronnie Goodman's art: I think his website's fairly new, but you can now see more work by the homeless artist who ran the San Francisco half-marathon.
  • "Incredible photos of secret abandoned palaces": I really dislike headlines that tell us how to receive the subject matter, but I have to admit that Polish artist Patrycja Makowska's interior photos of abandoned buildings really awed me. I daresay she's done a lot of Photoshop work -- which sometimes seems quite heavy-handed -- but some of her photos stirred a keen wonder and a new desire to visit this part of my past. I assume my Polish ancestors were working-class people, but I've never really explored that line of my forebears; maybe it's time I explored it more. View more of her photos here. She's definitely strongest with the palace interiors, but she also has some interesting shots of Iceland.
  • Repurposed records: Paste reports on one artist's creative reuse of old vinyl.
:: dance ::
  • WSJ interviews Pharrell on his musical goals and runaway single "Happy": "I want to make music with something extra to it—a holistic property. I want to make it feel good. I'm not the only one doing this. Kendrick Lamar's music feels amazing. Adele's music feels amazing. Alicia [Keys]'s new album feels amazing. The distinction between sounding amazing and feeling amazing—that's the thing. People, I think, are looking for a feeling." I confess I've only paid attention to Pharrell recently, but I'm so intrigued by the joy that comes through in all the fan videos. See for instance the "Supercut" video embedded in WSJ's piece. The joy reminds me of that viral video a few years back of the guy filmed doing his crazy dance all over the world. And musicals where people break into dance. Is there another art form that conveys joy quite like that? I'm not sure. Only dance requires we use our whole bodies like that.
:: tunes ::
  • Leonard Cohen's new album Popular Problems comes out Tuesday. Stream the album on NPR for a few more days.  Ann Powers writes, "The tarpit-voiced raconteur's songs unfold like dirty canticles, with room for both jokes and profundities."
  • I've never really gotten into hip-hop, but this NPR interview with Cormega had some fascinating discussion of changes in the industry -- especially the expectations for artists -- and in his own perspective as he's gotten older.
  • Musician Blake Mills' second album got a pretty positive review from the New York Times ... and then part-way through this piece, I realized Carolyn and I had seen him on his tour with Fiona Apple! I guess I should finally listen to that CD of his I bought.
  • Despite Beck's emphasis on fan interpretations of his sheet-music album Song Reader, he recently contributed to a complete recording that features Moses Sumney, Jack White, Jack Black, Norah Jones, Fun., Tweedy, Laura Marling, Lord Huron, Swamp Dogg and, yes, one performance by Beck himself. To their credit, the album even includes the two instrumental songs. Stream Song Reader on Spotify or buy it on Amazon. I'm liking it the more I listen to it.
  • The latest videos from Postmodern Jukebox include a soul version of Radiohead's "Creep." They're posting about one song a week now and touring the U.S. later this fall -- so far, mostly East Coast date, but they're promising more shows.

  • No Depression
    explores the house concert trend from the perspective of local house-concert organizer Kevin Oliver. I've yet to attend one of the Olivers' shows, but I always appreciate the human element of house concerts.
  • Arhoolie Records founder and the owner of my old neighborhood record store, Down Home Music, is the subject of a new documentary that looks at his role in exposing music fans to many unknown blues and other musicians. I haven't heard Chris compared to Alan Lomax, but he's evidently quite a legend. This Ain't No Mouse Music opened at select Bay Area theaters this weekend and runs one week. Some shows include live music.
:: film & television ::
  • Jimmy Fallon continues to make good use of his musical chops, as couple recent clips attest. 
  • Robin Williams' death prompted an outpouring of comedy and remembrance. Though I'd seen more of his films than I realized (if not classics like Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting), I appreciated this NYT tribute that pulled together several notable television appearances and clips. We didn't have a TV growing up or see many movies, but Aladdin has always stood out as one of my favorite Disney movies (and, actually, I'm not sure there's any other Disney film that made anything close to the same impression). In retrospect, it's clear my attachment was far more to Williams' work than Disney's. He even did his own singing for "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali."
:: reading/food for thought ::
  • A few years back, I tried to get a co-worker to pull a prank on our boss and claim he'd given up email for Lent. (He wouldn't do it.) But as part of work on his new book The End of Absence, author Michael Harris quit the whole internet for a month. As he told Quartz magazine, "One of the things that concerns me about a media diet that is overly online, is that we lose the ability to decide for ourselves what we think about who we are.” If the book's anything like the interview, it sounds like a thought-provoking read.

  • File under just plain fun: Readers of The Toast know that Mallory Ortberg periodically imagines the texts of various famous authors, including William Carlos Williams and William Blake. The results are usually hilarious. This fall, she's releasing a book version, Texts from Jane Eyre. Christmas gift idea for some of the literary sorts in your life?
  • "That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards." - Michael Crichton on what he learned from working with legendary editor Robert Gottlieb. (This from a long, but excellent, 1994 interview in The Paris Review.
  • Christianity Today has launched a new biweekly publication, The Behemoth, focused on marveling and pondering.
:: comedy ::
  • This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Cosby show's launch, prompting a new Bill Cosby biography by Mark Whitaker and a highly praised assessment by the The New Yorker's Kelefa Sanneh. Even as I've heard some sobering recent stories about Cosby's life off mic, it hasn't shaken my deep affection for his comedic work. Sanneh's piece encompasses both the brilliance and clay in Cosby, providing an almost biblical portrait of him. Some snippets:

    "It’s a shame, in retrospect, that Cosby had to spend so much of his comedy career making records, which forced listeners to focus on his lines, instead of on the facial expressions that he uses to animate them. them."

    "Cosby was skeptical of sitcoms, too. He hired the psychiatry professor Alvin Poussaint, a frequent collaborator, to make sure that the scripts weren’t too jokey. 'Sitcom writers like to use a lot of put-down humor,' Cosby told him. 'I don’t want any of that.' "

    "It is tempting to think of Cosby as a comedy idealist, insistent that his act should remain unsullied by the dirty business of politics. But, if anything, it seems that he took politics more seriously than comedy. Whitaker relates an explanation that Cosby once gave to Poussaint: “‘The Cosby Show’ was a comedy, and he didn’t want to trivialize serious problems by trying to make them funny.” Unlike Pryor, Cosby didn’t believe that a routine could encompass all of life’s joys and sorrows. For him, comedy was smaller than life."

    I've already binged once on old Cosby Show episodes; I may end up working my way through the whole series on Youtube. Related: Hear the song Cosby wrote with Quincy Jones as the theme for The Bill Cosby Show.
  • The New York-based comedy show Sweet has only reached its 10th anniversary, but as someone there for the first few shows, I wanted to share this write up and slideshow of the recent 10th anniversary show. I didn't love all the bits I saw at Sweet, but Seth Herzog's line-up always gave a sense of the camaraderie among New York comedians. Even those starting to see greater success (notably Paul Rudd and Eugene Mirman) weren't above stopping by to do a short bit in their friend's show.
:: food ::
  • The New York Times has launched a new cooking section, in which they're evidently making all recipes from their archive available. It's got a great, apparently mobile-friendly new layout, too.
  • The next City Church artists dinner is Sept. 28. RSVP to Minna Choi to attend.

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