Sunday, December 8, 2013


Sometimes it’s not about the quality of the music.  Sometimes it’s about the context.  And the power of the voice.

Before dying tragically in 1983, a month shy of her 33rd birthday, Karen Carpenter was part of a duo, The Carpenters, that achieved success in the 1970’s.  Karen and her brother Richard sang rather cloying love songs.  But syrupy as they were, their songs happened to be popular when, in my early teens, I began going to dancing parties.   And Karen’s voice was unique.  And magnificent.

Whenever Karen’s voice came on at a party it meant: slow dance.  So it was time to quickly find the girl you wanted to hold close, and take her out on the dance floor.  My first experiences holding a girl close with Karen Carpenter’s voice in the background were never to be forgotten.  Little did Karen know that she would provide the sweet soundtrack to unforgettable experiences, countless fantasies and wonderful memories.

I lived in Colombia at the time, but traveled to the U.S. often on family vacations.  To me, the United States was nothing short of paradise, and I knew that somehow, someday I would live there (happily it only took a few years).   In addition to being my de facto slow dance background, for some reason Karen Carpenter’s voice became the visceral representation of the United States.  I’m not sure exactly why it was her specific voice that became that, since I listened to all sorts of U.S. music during those years in Colombia, but it did.  Damn the radio network, to me, hers was the Voice of America.  As far as I was concerned, if the Statue of Liberty would suddenly burst into song, she would sound like Karen Carpenter.

So, Karen, wherever you are, you and your brother’s songs were sappy.  But that didn’t matter to the 12 year-old me.  And it doesn’t matter to the 52 year-old me either.  When I was feeling some pretty special things at 12, you were right there with me.  To this day your voice uniquely evokes those feelings.  And no one can ever take that away from you.

If I had been born in 1951, perhaps it would have been Judy Craig.  Or Leslie Gore.  If I had been born in 1971, maybe it would have been Bonnie Tyler, or Irene Cara.  But I was born in 1961.  So it was you, Karen Carpenter.  And still is.  Forever you.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dead End

In "Dave" (1993), Kevin Kline plays Dave Kovic, a kind, decent man who happens to be a dead ringer for the current President of the United States (also played by Kline), himself a corrupt, carousing, cynical politician.  When the President literally brings himself into a coma while sneaking a quickie with a sweet young thing, the chief of staff (Frank Langella), enlists Kovic as a temporary stand-in.  And stand in he does, eventually wresting control of the presidency from the cagey chief of staff, who has malevolent presidential aspirations of his own, and placing it in the capable hands of the vice president (Ben Kingsley), another kind, decent fellow.

“Dave” vividly illustrates a point repeatedly made by Stephen King, perhaps most obviously in the magnificent "The Stand": the world would be a far better place if led by those unassuming, decent people who would never, by their own devices, occupy positions of power.  In "The Stand", Stuart Redman, a quiet East Texan, is good with his hands and possesses loads of common sense, but never amounts to much.  However, when "Captain Trips", a superflu originating in a U.S. government biological weapons laboratory, fatally infects over 99% of the world's population and civilization ceases to exist, Redman's handyman skill set, considerate nature and unobtrusive intelligence make him an extremely valuable resource, a natural leader and a key contributor to the eventual triumph of good over evil.  If people like Redman would have been in charge to begin with, King implies, “Captain Trips” would have never even been developed.

"It is the man who does not want to express an opinion whose opinion I want", said Abraham Lincoln.  I would add (to coin a phrase), “It is the person who is not interested in power that I want in power.”  But although it was probably not difficult for Mr. Lincoln to elicit reluctant opinions, positions of power are rarely occupied by those who, like the fictional Kovic and Redman, do not actively pursue them but are most qualified to fulfill them.  Because the qualifications required to obtain power are different from those required to wield it fairly and effectively.  Besides, human nature is such that even fair and decent people who somehow attain power without seeking it will eventually end up abusing it since, in the words of John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

And that is our conundrum, our evolutionary dead end as a species.  We have evolved into intelligent beings and survived during the past 200,000 years, perhaps partly due to our greed and aggressive nature.  However, those same qualities seem destined to inexorably precipitate our downfall.   The combativeness, short-term thinking and callous disregard for others typical of humans in general and most particularly of those who attain positions of power have already come close to wiping out our species.  Even if we somehow avoid a large scale catastrophe, we will, due to those same qualities, make our planet inhospitable to us long before we develop the technologies necessary to either repair the damage or colonize elsewhere.  

Homo Sapiens, then, is one of Natural Selection’s duds: a short-lasting species that will destroy itself while the cockroaches, sharks, tardigrades and lingulas (among many others) live on, oblivious to the appearance and disappearance of a species that was only around for a miniscule fraction of their own time on Earth, and that, despite its promise and potential,  turned out to be nothing more than an inconsequential footnote in the history of the planet.