My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.

I’ve written before about why I am not a conservative (Link here), but now I want to point out that neither are Republicans.

What is conservatism? Through the centuries, it has been defined by two central guiding principles.

First, that tradition is the best guide for governance. The wisdom of centuries of ancestors has winnowed the true and lasting from the meretricious and ephemeral. We should not make ill-considered changes in the functioning of society, but only those absolutely necessary, and even those should never be done quickly, but only with judicious deliberateness.

Second, that a strong central government is necessary for the smooth running of society. A Hobbesian Leviathan to control the powers of crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature.

This sort of conservatism has been both a strength of such lasting governments as those of Great Britain, and a weakness, when entrenched interests use its tenets to prevent the furtherance of justice. In America, we have seen this most maliciously in the retrenchment against Civil Rights and the enforcement of segregation.

So, a faith in keeping things running smoothly as it has been running, and in a strong central government are what define conservatism. But this is almost 180 degrees from what those who now call themselves conservatives believe. In fact, they seek to promote the crime, greed, violence and selfishness that are the core of basic human nature. All checks removed. Yea!

For them, the central government is too strong, too invasive, and such segments of the Republican Party as the Tea Party, seek to blow up two centuries of established patterns of governance. What happened? Conservatives are meant to be wary of change.

These once-fringe elements of the Republican Party are much closer to Anarchists than to Conservatives. As Grover Norquist famously said about the Federal government, “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Once again: This is not conservatism. It is anarchism.

In recent decades, the Republican Party has been the conservative party, from Barry Goldwater, through Ronald Reagan and into the 1990s, but that has all changed. There is precious little conservatism in the party these days.

Of course, parties have changed over the years, over the centuries. When the Constitution was written, it was the fervent hope of all those participating that the government would be able to function without the pernicious effect of factions. That didn’t last long, as almost immediately, the Federalists began feuding with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

But, while the parties were originally formed on ideological grounds, they soon became something else: competing teams of political power-seekers. They might as well have been football teams. They existed on patronage and party machinery. In the 19th Century, occasional third parties arose, based on political philosophy, but they either soon faded, or were absorbed into the system. Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings.

The one that survived and prospered was the Republican Party, begun as an anti-slavery party, and, after the Civil War, the party of Reconstruction and then the party of Big Business. The logic of this evolution is not clear, except as the party was led by power-seekers who gravitated toward money.

But it was also the party fostering conservation in the natural world, and the party that undertook the breaking up of corporate monopolies. Nowadays, that is hard to credit.

Through most of the 20th Century, the contending Republican and Democratic parties were simply teams vying for power. There were liberal Republicans and quite a few conservative Democrats. Both parties contained a spectrum of inclinations. They were just teams competing for power.

But, since Goldwater, the parties began a process of ideological cleansing, with those calling themselves conservatives drifting ever more to the Republican Party. Some were motivated by genuine governing philosophies, but many were pulled toward the right by the rise of Civil Rights. There was a conscious strategy among some Republicans to appeal, mainly via dogwhistle weasel words, to abject racism.

The Republicans claimed to be conservative; they excoriated the Democrats for being “liberal,” as though that were a pejorative term.

But just how conservative are current Republicans? Not much.

It has been pointed out by many observers that the leaders of the Republican Party have made a devil’s bargain with these fringe groups to gain and keep power in Washington, but that now, the monster has begun to kill its own creator. As a smaller and smaller faction of radicals enforce their will on primary elections, otherwise sensible politicians have had to curry the favor of the nut-groups, leading to a wider and wider division between the two political parties, and into that divide has seeped an element so toxic, it could destroy the whole thing.

Donald Trump is not a conservative. He isn’t anything. There is no philosophy of government, no thoughtful consideration or principles. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Heck, he can even contradict himself within a single sentence — if you can acknowledge those utterances of word salad as sentences.

Trump is a creature unfit for the office, unfit even for human company. A “short-fingered vulgarian” and self-promoter, he makes me embarrassed to be an American. And not because of his politics — which are bad enough — but because he is such a poltroon. I needn’t enumerate his gaucheries, insults, lies, distortions, self-aggrandizements, arm-twisting handshakes, bilious lip-poutings, shuffling gait, knee-length neckties, blatant nepotisms and the creepy things he has said about his daughter — all these and more can be found by the thousands on the Google.

But, because the Tea Party has controlled the Republican Party, and because a minority of voters in a crowded primary managed to win Trump the nomination in 2016, the party finds itself having to defend and support the unsupportable and indefensible.

And now, no grown-ups have gotten what they wanted, or thought they wanted. Only the immature, thoughtless and xenophobic have got what they sought.

I have no doubt that many a Republican congressman and senator would be more centrist, if they did not face rabid primary challenges in their now gerrymandered districts.

Some Republicans no doubt would like to promote genuine conservative ideals, but they have been backed into a corner, and now face defending tariffs instead of free trade. They have to campaign against the very institution they are members of. And they have to excuse behavior from their party leader that they would have salivated over being able to use against any Democrat. Did Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky? A threat to our nation. Did Trump lie about Stormy Daniels? Well, he’s just being Trump. No big deal.

They are caught, not merely in a round of hypocrisy, but hypocrisy so blatant and toxic it may well end up disintegrating the Republican Party. And most of the country  — a majority of voters — will find it hard to lament the demise.

If you were to name the greatest composers in the Western musical tradition, three or four names would come up uncontested.

Yes, you might have your favorites beyond these, and good arguments can be made, but by consensus, you would have to name Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and …

Bach, because he is the source. He towers above everyone in his emotional power and technical brilliance. Different composers can fill the needs of various moods, but you can listen to Bach in any mood. He is universal.

Mozart, because no one ever had such fluency of expression or more immediate melody. Music seemed to grow from him like peaches from a tree.

Beethoven, because no one ever strove higher or struggled more painfully to find the exact note, the exact emotion, the exact nexus of human and transcendent.

And …

You might nominate Richard Wagner, or Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms or Claude-Achille Debussy. Stravinsky or Schoenberg. All good choices, in their way, but the name that comes up more than any other as worthy of the company of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is Franz Joseph Haydn, yet he is so often overlooked. His name does not spring up with the alacrity of the Big Three, but is almost always mentioned: And yes, there is Haydn.

Why is he given such short shrift? He is one of the Big Four. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet; at least gave them the form we have encountered them ever since. And the wealth of his invention is mind boggling. He wrote 104 symphonies (depending on how you count), with almost as many minuets and yet, not one of those minuets  could be mistaken for any other. How can you create that many third movements and yet make each one emotionally, melodically and rhythmically distinct? And memorable.

His music has never left the repertoire, but is so often played as a warm-up piece to start a quartet recital, or tucked into a symphony program before the Big Piece after the intermission. We pay him lip service, but seldom really listen. Mostly, he is a pleasant bit of music before we have to wake up for the Mahler or Sibelius that will follow.

I believe the reason is that for many of the more popular composers, you don’t actually have to listen: You can let the music wash over you in emotional colors and flavors. You just float downstream with the tunes. (I don’t mean that if you do actively listen, you won’t find a logical argument, but that for most concertgoers, the musical argument is beside the point; Tchaikovsky swells your heart whether you recognize a sonata form or a polonaise).

But Haydn is music meant to be listened to actively, because what he does in his work is to give you a pattern of notes, and then take you on a journey of wit, through the permutations afforded by that pattern of notes. Your ability to follow all the clever things he does is the key to your understanding — and your pleasure. Yes, there are some good tunes, but they are the grist for his art, not the point of it.

Certainly, all good composers do this, but none to quite the degree you find with Haydn, or to quite the point. Through most of his career, he wasn’t writing for the common public, but for a sophisticated audience, who could follow his clever construction and deconstruction of the sonata form, or the variation form. In other words, they listened actively. I.e., they got the joke.

Nikolaus I

His boss through most of his time at the Esterhazy estate was Prince Nikolaus, an avid music lover and himself a performer on the baryton — a now obsolete instrument, a sort of combination cello and guitar. Haydn wrote 126 trios for his employer to play on that instrument.

Because the prince was musically knowledgable, his court followed suit, and it meant that Haydn could inject his music with many a musical in-joke his audience would enjoy. I use the word, “joke,” but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be overtly funny. No, the “joke” was some catch or punchline the audience was meant to pick up on, like an odd key change, or the turning upside-down of a them. Some of them are funny, but the point is the wit — the cleverness.

Wit is a word that meant something different, larger and more important in the 18th century than it does now. We tend to use the word as synonymous with “comedy.” We expect to laugh at wit. A witty saying, a witty remark.

But in the century of Haydn (and before, to some extent), wit was an entire class of thinking. It meant, as Sam Johnson expressed it, “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Or in his other formulation: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”

An easy example: his Symphony No. 60 in C, called “Il Distratto,” or the absent minded, or distracted. The first movement is a pile of jokes, from the very first notes: a pompous introductory fanfare that goes absolutely nowhere, followed by a spritely tune. In Haydn’s style, a first theme is usually followed by a second theme in a contrasting key and mood. But here, the second theme also goes nowhere; it consists of just one note and its ornaments, over and over, losing speed and energy until, as if the orchestra has forgotten where it is and what it is doing, suddenly wakes up and charges ahead with renewed energy. (Link here).

The conductor Kenneth Woods describes it as funny and modern. “Possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written”, going on to say that “Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”

And at the very end, the orchestra stops, mid-phrase, and retunes the violins, before getting back to business. Yes, that is musical slapstick, but no one did it any better before PDQ Bach.

Or the finale of his Symphony No. 61, a sprightly prestissimo punctuated throughout by comic oboes playing the same two notes over and over again. Never changing; over and over. Da-dah. (Link here). Da-dah. (Click on the timing listed in the dooblydoo for the last movement).

Or the opening of final movement his quartet, Op. 76, no. 5, which places the kind of cadential chords used to punctuate the end of a movement instead at the very beginning. (Link here). And, of course, the movement ends with the same final chords.

Fugue theme, Symphony No. 70

My favorite is the finale of Symphony No. 70, which begins with a joke: Five repeated notes, quietly played, repeated several times, lulling you into a reverie, then, the same five notes blasted at full volume, waking you up. It does this again, and you figure, this is going to be one of Haydn’s great jests, then, just when you think you have it figured out, a great, furious and very serious fugue breaks out, occupying the center of the movement. Finally, back to the five-note joke, ending with a forte crash of those notes. Light-hearted, or deadly serious — you can’t tell. (Link here). That is yoking heterogeneous ideas together by violence.

But it all depends on an audience with some knowledgable expectation of what is likely to happen, so when it doesn’t, it comes as a delightful surprise. If you don’t have this background, it just becomes pleasant tunes.

The string quartets came with a knowledgable audience built in. They were not meant so much to be heard by an audience, as played by amateur musicians at home, and so the pleasure in them is as much in the playing as in the hearing. And the wit is there for the musicians to enjoy.

When Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn was freed to travel and make his reputation outside the estate. His music became more public, and instead of his symphonies being made up of cleverness piled on cleverness for the delectation of connoisseurs, he made them bigger, louder and gave each one at least one great joke for the middle-class audiences to remember, like the most memorable scene from a movie they could talk about over coffee after it was over. So, there is the tympani bang in the “Surprise” symphony, the Turkish military band in Symphony No. 100, the tick-tock in his “Clock” symphony and the righteous, bumptious fart joke made by the contrabassoon in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 93.

This is not to imply that Haydn was all punchlines and gags. There is great depth of emotion in many of his works. Take for one, the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical piece, originally for orchestra and later turned into a piece for string quartet (the version most often heard today). It is eight great adagios, one after the other, meant to evoke an introduction and the last seven utterances of Jesus on the cross (Link here). It is Haydn’s genius to be able to write them so distinctly that you never have the feeling of one long slow piece, but rather seven great, separate meditations.

Or, the Piano Variations in F-minor, written over the death of his closest female friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger, one of his most sober compositions.

Sometimes Haydn’s wit is funny. Sometimes, it is profound. It is always surprising. It is meant to surprise.

And Haydn’s wit can be found in some of his most serious works. The opening of his oratorio, The Creation, depicts primordial chaos in a disjunctive series of phrases and fragments in disparate tonalities (Link here). And when, after that, the choir sings, very quietly, “And God said, let there be light, and there was …” all heavens break out in trumpets and kettle drums  in a great C-major chord” “LIGHT!!!!” (Link here). It is a simple, even naive effect, but in live performance can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Wit can also render the sublime.

Of all the great composers, Haydn seems the most sane and even-tempered. Bach could bluster to city officials and get into fights. Mozart could squander his money. Beethoven had his heaven-storming bouts of choler. But Haydn found decent happiness on this earth and expressed in his music a satisfying sense of order and sanguinity, if occasionally a touch of mischief. His is the happiest music I know that is not also simple-minded.

I spend this much time on Haydn, because I love him. As I get older, I find that Haydn’s music has a staying power that sustains me. I can confidently turn to any piece and find deep and abiding pleasure.

The committee of gods met once again. They decided to make something.

“It’s been a long time,” they said.

It’s something they do every once in a while, or every once in an aeon. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. They began again.

They made a person, two arms, two legs, hands and feet, and as an afterthought, a head.

But something wasn’t satisfying about this new thing they made. Or rather, the new thing wasn’t satisfied. It sat in the middle of nothing, nowhere to put its feet. Nowhere to look, nothing to hear. Nothing to eat.

Then they decided this thing was not enough, so teased the creation into two, pulling here and there until there were separate beings. The pulling distorted their bodies here and there, making one with wider hips, and leaving something pulled long and dangly between the other’s legs.

Half of them thought this was just fine; the other half recognized that even that now there were two things, they had no context. They just sort of floated there.

So, the committee decided they would have to work harder. They built a cube for the beings, with four walls, ceiling and floor, so they had somewhere to put their feet, and something to look at. There was a window in one wall, and a door in the wall opposite.

But, still, there was nothing outside the window to see, and nothing to eat. The room just floated in space, no up, no down, no sideways.

The gods hardly noticed this detail, but they did decide to provide something to look at out the window, So, the committee approved a motion to make some animals and some plants. This seemed to work well, so they made more and more of both.

The problem seemed to be that although the plants and beasts gave the people something outside the window to look at, and, if they had figured out how, something to eat, there was still something inchoate about this new creation.

“The last one didn’t work out quite right,” the committee agreed, “so we need to think this one out more thoroughly.” A motion for further study was passed and a subcommittee formed.

Having the beasts float aimlessly through nothingness gave them nothing to stand on, and while a floating cow might pass some floating grass and grab a bite, it was hardly working out efficiently.

“I think they need somewhere to stand,” said the chairman.

“I second the motion,” said the CEO (actually, in heavenly terms, the DEO), who was the first goddess hired for the post.

And so, they decided to make a world. It seems obvious to us, but when it’s all brand new, you don’t always spot the simplest things. So, they made a world.

There were problems, however. The first world was flat, which made a large plain for the animals to graze upon, but also meant that, without something to support the flat earth, it could easily tilt and dump its cargo back into the emptiness. So, they rested the disc of the earth on the back of an elephant. But with only one as a pivot in the center, the world still wobbled. So, they made four elephants, one at each 90 degrees of the clock-circle of the disc. Oh, the problems — the elephants were then given a very large turtle to stand upon. You know the metaphysical problem here, and yes, it was turtles all the way down.

Next, the committee decided to separate the dry land from the waters. This led to a cock-up, because with the earth being flat and all, the water just poured off the edges, leaving the earth with nothing to drink.

“Perhaps if we put a ring around the edge,” said one.

“Like a dike or a dam,” said the CEO.

So they took some of the dry earth and built a circular berm around the perimeter of the thing they had made. They refilled the seas and took a long look at what they had made. It looked good, so far. Good for a day’s work.

“We’ll convene again tomorrow.”

The next day, they looked at what they had made.

“But, it is all rather dark, isn’t it?” So they put a light up above the earth. They didn’t quite think this one through, though. The center of the earth was closer to the light than the edges, like a chandelier over a table, and so, the center began to whither and burn up.

“We’ve got the geometry all wrong,” said the DEO.

“Wait, I know,” said the gruff head of the Board, shifting a cigar in his mouth, “We’ve got the geometry all wrong.”

“That’s what I said. Oh, never mind.”

So, they took the earth and balled it up like a tablecloth headed for the laundry, and created a globe. To keep everything from falling off, they put a great graviton at its center, and made everything cling to the surface of the ball.

“That seems to be working,” they said. “But what do we do with this lamp? And how do we keep it from burning the part of the earth closest to it?”

“I know. Let’s make the ball spin, so no part is always facing the light.”


But someone accidentally bumped the ball and sent it rolling away.

“Put some of that gravity in the light, too.” And so the rolling, spinning ball started to revolve around the light. It made a pretty sort of machine that delighted the board members.

The problem now was, that the man and woman, in the room on the planet buzzing around the sun sat in the middle of nowhere, a simple toy for the gods, like the giant pecking bird that dipped its beak into the water they made some aeons ago, or the hanging steel balls that knocked each other back and forth. That was Vulcan’s idea, and they ultimately decided it was utterly useless.

So, they began to pack the emptiness. If one ball was good, a handful of others must be better. Toss in some smaller rocks, like chocolate sprinkles, and let them wander around the big light.

They saw it was good and knocked off for the day. The next two days were the weekend, so the office was dark.

But come Monday, they began to dot the emptiness with more lights, enough to make a galaxy. That was fun, so they made more galaxies, making sure to load them all up with the magic gravity. This was exhausting, so they took the next day off, too.

Come Wednesday, it began to dawn on them that the operational manual for this new cosmos they had built was getting rather long, like a Congressional budget bill. There were rather a lot of rules governing how everything functioned. While it seemed to be running like a top, they worried that if anything went wrong, they might not be able to fix it.

“I remember when I had a VW,” said Phaethon. “I could fix anything wrong with a hammer and a screwdriver. This is all getting out of hand. I miss the good old days.”

Well, things did start going wrong. The first man developed an enlarged prostate; the woman eventually had to have a hysterectomy. The gods had to admit, they had rather botched the design of the human nether parts.

One of the planets they made sideswiped the earth and ripped off a chunk.

“Hey, we’ve got a moon. Why didn’t we think of that ourselves?”

Gravity got out of hand, too. Chunks began falling into each other, sometimes so much detritus that it all collapsed into a dark hole.

“Hey, we’ve created black,” said one of the gods.

“We had that before we started,” reminded the DEO.

“Oh, yeah.”

The whole thing began wobbling, like an elephant on a beach ball that had lost its balance and next thing you know, it seized up. No amount of grease could get it unstuck. Then, it began collapsing, faster and faster, until it shrunk into a singularity — an infinitesimal dot, like the one you used to see when you turned off the TV. Then, boink, it was gone.

“Damn it,” said the god at the far end of the conference table. “Why can’t we ever get this right?”

“I blame the Titans,” said Jupiter. “The previous administration should have addressed these issues more forthrightly.”

“The shareholders will not be happy,” said Neptune. “I believe we need a change at the top. I move that the DEO resign.”

She resisted this suggestion, saying it was all a design flaw.

“We started at the wrong end,” she said. “We went about it all backwards.”

“I have an idea,” offered a nervous intern, afraid to speak up in such august company. “Perhaps next time, in the beginning, we should start by creating the heavens and the earth. The rest should fall into place.”

The gods looked at each other, gave a passing thought and in one voice responded, “Nah.”

Many years ago, when I was still a student at Guilford College in North Carolina, my Classics professor was one of those friendly, inviting pedagogues who invited students to their homes for dinner or conversation. And one of the things she said at the time that has stuck with me is the idea that we all have some “ideal” age we always remain.

It might be an age we have not yet attained, or one we left behind long ago. She said that although she was then in her late 30s, that she had always felt 25. It was her internal age, the age at which she thought of herself. She said back then that even when she was in high school, she thought of herself as 25.

She is now 88. I met her again recently, but I forgot to ask if she still feels the same. From other things she mentioned, I take it she does.

My wife always said she thought of herself as her nine-year-old self. She always maintained that openness to the world that she had at nine.

I have had a different experience. I cannot find an “ideal” age. That is because I can’t think of my mind as having any age at all. I am not philosophically a dualist. I don’t believe my brain is separate from my body; I believe my body generates my mind. But while my body bumps through time, my mind sails on frictionless.

I recently wrote about this concept of “self” for my other gig, a monthly essay I write for The Spirit of the Senses, in Phoenix, Ariz. (link here).

Last month, I turned 70, but my brain doesn’t feel any older. It isn’t that my brain feels young, but rather that mind exists in a consciousness that takes no note of age: It simply exists. My mind feels no different now from when I was young, except perhaps a bit more full (sometimes I feel like I need a metaphysical Bromo), but it is aware that it occupies a body that is losing its vitality, whose knees hurt, whose eyes are rheumy and whose hams are weak.

Several people have asked if 70 feels any different than other bookending birthdays.

Oddly, yes, 70 does feel different from 69. I don’t know why. The only two odometer clicks that have had any meaning are first, when I turned 21 and believed against all evidence that I was genuinely a “grown-up” — I could drink, vote, sign contracts, and brag — and second, a month ago, when I turned 70.

When a car’s odometer flips from 69,999 to 70,000, it can happen on a trip to the grocery store. It is that meaningless. The car knows no difference. On Jan. 11, I was a mere 69; a day later, I was Methuselah. The flow of time is steady, but our clocking of it comes in ticks. That most recent tick was loud.

The fraction through which I see my lifespan has flipped upside down: The numerator is now the denominator. In other words when I was 20, I was one-fourth of my allotted life expectancy — a 1 to 3 ratio — and now seven-eighths of that time — a ratio flipped to 7 to 1. The numbers are hard against me.

I can count a number of people my age who aren’t my age anymore because they stopped aging. Others are in the process of winding down to the final broken watchspring. It’s one of the universal experiences of getting old: reading the obituaries of those you have known, those you have cared about. I keep losing context.

All this is psycho-mological,  because, except for the weakness of hams, I’m in relatively good health, and I was handed decently good genes. But 7 to 1. The math is solid.

So, pace Professor Deagon, pace dear Carole, I do not feel mentally 25 or mentally 9. I feel physically 70: the same a-chronological mind in an unquestioningly aging heap of meat.

As Stephen Colbert says, “I don’t know if these are actually sins, but I do feel bad about them.”

I have a seven-decade long reputation to maintain as a dour, serious-minded  stick-in-the-mud, with no time for trivialities. My theme song is Party Pooper. My favorite color is gray. My wife used to call me, “The man who can’t have fun.”

I argued back that I have lots of fun, but for me fun is reading Gilgamesh or Xenophon, listening to Beethoven piano sonatas while following along with the Schnabel edition of the score (including reading all the footnotes), listening to lectures on the Indus Valley Civilization or the Black Death from the Great Courses Plus, watching C-Span Booknotes and waiting with great anticipation for the C-Span bus to visit Sheboygan or Wilkes-Barre. These things give me great pleasure and fill my life with great joy.

Yet, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my guilty pleasures — bits of pop culture that I partake of on odd occasions. There are times I switch away from the PBS Newshour or online lectures from M.I.T. and let my hair down. You won’t tell anyone, will you?

Here, then, are five guilty pleasures that I recommend to you. (There are more, but my quotient for mortification is limited).

Drunk History — It would be hard to find anything sillier than Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Created by comic Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner, it asks various, mostly D-list entertainers to drink themselves goofy and attempt to tell the story of some historical figure, while various, mostly A-list actors and comedians lip-synch costumed re-enactments of the events.

The camera switches back and forth between the drunkard, in a home with an equally plastered Waters, and the beautifully photographed recreations, in which the actors perfectly mime the words of the storyteller, right down to the hiccups and incoherence. A fair number of the drinkers wind up finishing their tales while driving the porcelain bus; others pass out on the couch.

A few for-instances: Actor Eric Edelstein tells the story of Elvis and Nixon, while we see the re-enactment with Jack Black playing Elvis, Bob Odenkirk as Nixon and Jack McBrayer as H.R. Haldeman.

In another, Tiffany Haddish (they’re not all D-list) tells us about French Resistance fighter Rose Valland, who saved and helped retrieve hundreds of art treasures threatened or stolen by the Nazis, with Busy Philipps playing Valland in the dramatization.

For most of the half-hour shows, three stories are told, with the first two taking up 5 to seven minutes each, separated by annoying commercials, and the third filling two segments, with annoying commercials in between. (As usual, the best solution is to Tivo the show so you can fast-forward through the muck).

One of the best shows recently was when Lin-Manuel Miranda got himself pie-eyed and tried to summarize the life of Alexander Hamilton. He got the whole half-hour. Blind-casting adds extra confusion to the show: Hamilton was played by Alia Shawkat; Aaron Burr was Aubrey Plaza; Bokeem Woodbine was George Washington; and Tony Hale was James Monroe. I am astonished that Miranda would risk reputation, alcohol poisoning and brain damage to take part, but it was a scream.

And one can actually learn things from this show, although you will want to verify what you find out by actual reading and research. Sometimes the drunks get confused.

Climbing Mount Washington, N.H., in Stanley Steamers

Jay Leno’s Garage — I’m old enough to remember when Jay Leno was funny. Before the Tonight Show de-clawed him and turned him into a toothless shill for Hollywood celebrity backslapping, Leno was edgy, took chances and snookered the very thing he later became mouthpiece for. Now retired from the daily grind of pleasing his corporate masters, Leno, now 67, is still a workaholic, but it seems now he can put his energy into something he actually cares about: cars.

With Gabriel Iglesias and his 1966 VW bus

Reportedly, he owns 286 vehicles, both cars and motorcycles, and has a garage that could double as a museum. In his current show, on CNBC — a network that as far as I can tell, is watched by no one — Leno gets to play with his toys and his enthusiasm is infectious.

As someone who does not care about cars — I think of them as being appliances, like washing machines on wheels — I am surprised myself at how much I enjoy watching Leno enjoy driving Maseratis, Bugattis, Abrams tanks, fire engines, monster trucks, drag racers, and a 1939 Ford pickup truck loaded with the radial engine of a Cessna airplane.

He often has Hollywood friends show up with their own favorite autos and bikes. Keanu Reeves manufactures high-end motorbikes. Comic Adam Corolla has been collecting race cars once owned and driven by actor Paul Newman. Tim Allen plays “Stump the Car Nerd.” Arnold Schwarzenegger shows off his electric Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen conversion.

It is less the high-end muscle cars that interest me and more the peculiar vehicles he encounters, like the Mars Rover, the Ripsaw EV-2 civilian tank that can reach 60 mph, the two-story tall dump truck that carries borax from the mines, the wienermobile, a convertible filled with water and turned into a mobile hot tub. There are a lot of these.

But mostly, it is the obvious pleasure Leno takes in his toys that makes this series a joy to watch.

Young Sheldon — This never sounded like a good idea. A spin-off from The Big Bang Theory, this show follows the 9-year-old genius, Sheldon Cooper, as he negotiates life, neuroses and high school.

The parent show has long jumped the shark (although I continue to watch it because, even worn out, it has more energy — and more smarts — than most things on TV).

Many years ago, when the Colbert Report first broadcast, it was sharp and funny, but I was sure — and most people I knew were sure — there was no way to keep this up. But it kept up for nearly 10 years. In the same way, I don’t see how Young Sheldon can keep it up. But I was wrong once; maybe again.

Young Sheldon is quite different in tone from its predecessor. Big Bang is a three-camera, live-audience show and written to showcase gags and caricatures. (This is not a complaint: It has done that very well for many years). But Young Sheldon is a one-camera show, with no laugh track, which allows it to be more real.

Zoe Perry and Laurie Metcalf

And, while it is hard to actually care for the Big Bang characters — they are all there to be laughed at — Young Sheldon has so far given us warm, three-dimensional human characters. None more warm or more human than Sheldon’s mother, Mary Cooper, played by Zoe Perry, who happens to be the daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who has long played Sheldon’s mother on Big Bang Theory. The physical resemblance is striking, but more so, the personalities. There is a harried, confused wisdom in her character.

Just as good, 10-year-old Iain Armitage plays the 9-year-old Sheldon without ever being cute, without downplaying his atheism or his neuroses. Or his innocent bafflement at the complexities of the human condition.

The core of the show is Mary’s relationship with the gifted Sheldon and with her mother, the cantankerous Meemaw (Annie Potts). If there is a flaw, it is that the rest of the family, father George, sister Missy and older brother George Jr., are rather less developed, although Lance Barber brings warmth to a blustery father George, who we know from Big Bang, will die of a heart attack. That gives added resonance to the show.

Please excuse me if I sound like a critic writing a review. It’s what I am; I cannot shake it.

But, I recommend Young Sheldon. It really surprised me.

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — Ferguson left the Late Late Show in 2014, after nine years behind the desk. But segments of the show are all over YouTube, uploaded by several perseverant chroniclers.

When the show was live, I often watched (via Tivo the next day, so I could fast-forward through those damned Shamwow and boner pill commercials) but even I have to admit there were bits of the show that proved tedious. I could never enjoy the e-mail and tweet segments, and the monolog was often rather shaggy. And when there was a musical guest, I just turned the thing off.

Sarah Paulson and Craigyferg

But Ferguson must be the best late night interviewer there has ever been. The purpose of late night TV is for celebrities to come on, pretend to be regular people and plug their latest project with the assiduity of a used-car salesman. The whole set-up is unashamedly artificial.

Ferguson, in contrast, didn’t interview his guests so much as have a conversation with them. It was not unusual for them never to get around to the current “project.” Oh, there were guests who were duds, who wanted to coerce the talk back to their sales pitch, guests who did not seem to understand the nature of Ferguson’s self-described deconstruction of the late night talk show.

But there were many guests who got it, and they often came back over and over. Kristen Bell appeared 28 times. William Shatner 25, Regis Philbin 25, Betty White 22.

Ariel Tweto, one of his regulars

I am old enough to remember Jack Paar. Paar had a stable of regulars who came back over and over and took part in witty conversation. Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley, Oscar Levant, Hermione Gingold, Genevieve, Jonathan Winters, Dick Gregory.

Ferguson had his crew, too. They were those who obviously adored Ferguson, and understood the subversive nature of the broadcast. They often showed up with nothing to promote. Just to be there and talk. Bell was prime among them, but so, too, were Rashida Jones, Michael Clark Duncan, Paula Poundstone, Larry King, Kathy Griffin, Carrie Fisher, Mila Kunis, Lauren Graham, Jeff Goldblum, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard.

Ferguson in Scotland with Rashida Jones, Ariel Tweto and David Sederis

This was a fabulous stable of personalities, including several that had obviously been previous amours of the host, and they hinted furiously at it.

The advantage of the YouTube videos is that you can see the interviews, often strung together (the set of Kristen Bell interviews lasts 4 hours, 41 minutes). Among the most infectious: Rosie Perez’s 8 visits;

Ferguson is also obviously intelligent, although he did his best to downplay that. But he has had many authors on, spent an entire hour with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (for which he won a Peabody Award), and another hour with Stephen Fry — and once had as a guest a professor of moral philosophy (who happened to be Claire Danes’ father-in-law).

Bob Steele

Cowboy movies — I use this term instead of “Westerns” because I mean a specific type of film: the cheaply made series films from the late silent era through the 1930s with stars such as Buck Jones, Col. Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, William Boyd and, of course John Wayne.

Buck Jones

I was born at roughly the same time as television, and in those early years, stations scrambled to find content to fill those broadcast hours, and reams of old cowboy films were re-released cheaply to the stations and ran constantly, especially on the independent channels. I saw a ton of them through my pre-school years and into grade school. I loved them.

So, it is with some nostalgia that I watch them again as a grown-up.

I am not talking here about the legitimate Westerns by John Ford or Howard Hawkes, but of those films pumped out week-by-week from tiny studios such as Monogram and Republic. They were “programmers,” with repetitive plots, recognizable landscapes and often acting just this side of organic when compared with a dead tree.

Hoot Gibson

Not that there weren’t some good actors. Boyd, as Hopalong Cassidy, had a natural screen presence and a comfortable way with dialog. And John Wayne was magic on the screen, even in those early films when he was saddled with playing Singing Sandy, the singing cowboy.

And the secondary actors and the villains were played by what was almost a stock company of real pros such as Earl Dwyer, Charles Middleton, Harry Woods, Charles King, and Roy Barcroft. Dependable, every one. It was mostly the heroes who were stiffs.

But what most impressed me in these movies was their settings, the imaginary West of the cowboy, kicking up dust galloping through the Alabama Hills of California, with the glorious Sierra Nevadas in the distance, or the Santa Clarita Valley. Those backgrounds show up over and over again. I almost memorized them.

In the Alabama Hills of California

Alas, such a golden age couldn’t continue. Singing cowboys invaded the screens, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in movies much slicker and emptier than the earlier ones. And worse, the rising need to include a boy sidekick. Cowboy movies gave up on adults and became pabulum for children. In the ’30s, even grown-ups watched Hoot Gibson. He was my late father-in-law’s favorite actor.

Some good B-Westerns continued to be made in the early 1940s, but by the time Eisenhower became president, we had descended to Lash LaRue and Whip Wilson and the most stolidly oaken of all of them, Tim Holt. The lighting flattened out, as it tended to do in the TV-influenced ’50s, and no one really seemed to believe in what they were doing.

The quality of many cable channel Westerns is atrocious, all grainy and contrasty, and at least one S.O.B. has added synthesized music to the originals. But a good print is as beautiful and professional as anything else the studios pumped out in that wonderful era of film. Luckily, one can still occasionally find a good print on Turner Classics, and the Hoppy movies are usually in good shape, thanks to the foresight of Boyd, who bought them all up in the late ’40s and curated them carefully.

So, there you have it, the pleasures I am embarrassed to admit to. I have no defense. But I know I share some of these sins with some of you.  

This absolutely astounded me.

I was surprised enough, when researching the art history of images of Adam and Eve, to find so many — I found at least a hundred, although I couldn’t use them all in my blog entry (link here), and amazed at how many Cleopatras there have been (link here). But nothing prepared me for the contemporary onslaught of actors and supermodels coiled up with pythons, boa constrictors and other serpens photogenica.

I believe the current flood of these images began June 14, 1981, when, after Vogue editor Polly Mellen asked model and actress Nastassja Kinski what she liked and she said, “Snakes,” a Burmese python was corralled for the scheduled photoshoot with Richard Avedon.

Avedon took to the idea, and asked if Kinski would consider posing nude with the beast. She said yes.

In a PBS interview, Avedon said, “Nastassja spent two hours on a cement floor naked.”

“They anchored the snake around her ankles,” and waited to see what would happen. Shot after shot did not work, he said. Then finally, after many takes, the (snake) undulated across Kinski’s hip and slowly made its way toward her head.

Richard Avedon

In a Washington Post interview about the shoot, the story continues:

“ ‘Natassja, this is it,’ Avedon said in a hoarse whisper, ‘Just try to relax!’

“Seconds later the snake came to within inches of the actress’ ear, then almost languorously extended its tongue, as if in a kiss.


“Another classic; another Avedon moment.

“ ‘She [Kinski] rose to the occasion,’ Avedon exulted, grinning, ‘the snake rose to the occasion. I rose to the occasion’ – all in a moment that would have been impossible to plan.”

Mellen said she did regret one thing. “I wish I hadn’t put that bracelet on her.” The Patricia von Musulin bracelet reminded us that this was, after all, a fashion shoot. Mellen said she had wished for it to transcend that.

The photo, first published in  the October Vogue that year and in a second incarnation became one of the most popular dorm-room posters of all time.

But like the face of Helen and the thousand ships, the photo launched a thousand imitations.

Perhaps the most notable came 20 years later, when Kinski’s daughter, Sonja — not yet born when her mothers’s iconic photo was taken — posed with an albino Burmese python for photographer Michel Comte. The photo was commissioned for the 400th edition of the European magazine, Photo. It was published in June, 2003.

But that was just one of a flood of similar photographs. Most notably was the set-up by French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier on July 29, 2014 of actor Jennifer Lawrence. It was published in the Feb., 2015, issue of Vogue.

They are hardly alone. Among other actors and models photographed with giant snakes are Elizabeth Hurley, Jenifer Bartoli, Irina Shayk and Rocia Guirao Diaz. You will notice in the picture of Bartoli, she is wrapped with an albino Burmese python.

Clockwise from upper left: Elizabeth Hurley; Irina Shayk; Jenifer Bartoli; Rocia Guirao Diaz

The yellow snake is striking, and has become the go-to snake for such photographs. (Perhaps too much: The mutant yellow python is one of those now terrorizing the Florida Everglades, having been set loose by exotic-animal collectors who kept them as pets until they got too big and unwieldy to keep around the family cat.)

The history of art is full of tropes, or memes, that get reused and developed over the centuries. I wrote about several of them in a 2014 blog entry (link here) in which you can see one pose progress from a fresco on the walls of Pompeii through the millennia to Manet’s notorious Olympia.

Tatjana Patizt; Devon Aoki

Supermodel and Playboy’s Miss November 2016, Ashley Smith upped the ante, with six shots by Giampolo Sgura in the fall/winter 2011 edition of Antidote magazine. She is selling snakeskin shoes and handbags.

Snakes and naked ladies have a long history. It began with classical images of goddesses, through countless paintings of Eve and the serpent, into Baroque paintings of Cleopatra and her asp and down to Victorian Orientalist fantasies feeding the prurient interests of its respectable bourgeoise audience. It reawakens with the artistic ideas of Avedon and flows down to advertising snakeskin handbags. For pop stars like Britney Spears, it becomes a stage accessory.

Could it go any lower? Well, how about pornstar Kristina Rose, star of 2009’s immortal Gluteus Maximass, and her own snake photo.

One could go on. Naomi Campbell got into the act (another yellow python), and so did Czech supermodel Karolina Kurkova (upper right), best known as a former Victoria’s Secret “angel.” And transgender model Andreja Pejic sidled up to the snake when still known as Andrej (lower right).

The horizontal pose isn’t the only one to become overused. There are plenty of vertical snake ladies. Sonja Kinski did one of those as well, along with Kate Moss — both yellow snakes — and Rachel Weisz.

Rihanna gets her photoshoot, mixing metaphors as both Eve and the Medusa. International models seem to love the pose, too.

Rihanna; Carla Ossa; Ellie Gonsalves; Petra Cubonova

There are really just too many to keep up with.

Then, there are the portrait heads.

They usually use smaller snakes, but many so beautifully colored, they are practically jewels.

You think that’s all? Well, it goes on.

And on.

Yet, all this is really not so new. This spate of snake ladies is only a more modern and glitzier version of the familiar snake lady of the carnie and freak show.

The snake charmers and

the tawdry end of the entertainment business that used to travel from town to town hoping to gather a few bored gawkers into their tents.

Then, there a million tattoos with the trope. One sees a long, slow descent from goddesses to dockside ink parlors.

But I don’t want to leave you with a sour taste in your mouths, so I will end with a flourish, from the camera of photographer Mike Ruiz and Zink magazine, in which Miss Piggy harks back to the immortal Nastassja.

Click any image to enlarge