Author Archives: James McRay Johnson III

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

As a child, I didn’t understand this metaphor of “the shadow of death”. I suppose I had some vague notion of God protecting me from physical danger. With time I came to understand the truth. My confusion was not simply that of a child. Metaphors and parables are trickier than they seem. They touch on something innately paradoxical about us, and about the way we think.

It is said that we are defined by our choices. The problem is, most of us spend most of our lives not realizing how many choices we make every day.

Carl Jung spoke of the persona: the face that we present to the world, the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self we want others to believe us to be.

One lesson to take from Jung’s writings: lying to others is really only possible if you are already lying to yourself. That is a dangerous game, and one played by far too many people.

Another lesson Jung offers is this: good actors are doing something magical and self-transformative. The wearing of masks, or the donning of other personae, is an ancient and honored part of human culture. The urge to do so lies somewhere near the oldest part of our human brains. The trick is to wear the mask consciously and conscientiously, not in an ongoing state of existential panic.

Carina Chocano writes:

In starting to lay out the possible uses of regret, [Janet Landman, author of Regret: The Persistence of the Possible,] quotes William Faulkner. ‘The past,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Great novels, Landman points out, are often about regret: about the life-changing consequences of a single bad decision (say, marrying the wrong person, not marrying the right one, or having let love pass you by altogether) over a long period of time. Sigmund Freud believed that thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc, are never entirely eradicated, but if repressed ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression’. The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that people’s greatest regrets revolve around education, work, and marriage, because the decisions we make around these issues have long-term, ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.

The take-away: whistling in the dark is no good if you are trying to distract yourself from how scared you are. Only whistle in the dark as a means of echo-location, as a way of finding your way through the darkness. Pretending everything is okay when things are clearly wrong is not bravery: it is cowardice.

Jung also believed that people are at their most hopeless and most desperate right when they are ready to shed an old version of themselves and start anew. But that is precisely when most of us refuse to let go of our older selves, and so avoid the process of change. That is “the shadow of death”, the feeling of dread that you are about to be extinguished, that all the things you are, and all the things you hold dear, are about to be ruined.

So: put on a face for the world, but fill it full of you, not of the self you imagined as a child. Wear your mask with full awareness of what you do. Let it be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped by the idea of who you thought you had to be.

And don’t tell yourself that you are not afraid of the dark, or that the darkness is not even there. You’re not fooling anyone.

Pynchon and Paranoia

From Justin St. Clair, in a recent book review:

“Suddenly you’re wondering what the hell Pynchon was doing in the Quad Cities.”

I know the feeling well. Not that I was ever in the Quad Cities myself: I’ve always skirted the Midwest in my travels. But it seems that the reclusive (yet peripatetic) Thomas Pynchon has been there: he included a tiny detail about it in his latest book, “Bleeding Edge”. That’s one of Pynchon’s hallmarks, to throw a bewildering array of real-world details at his works of fiction. The word for that trick, or nervous tick, is “verisimilitude”, which is the idea that if a narrative artists includes in their work enough bits and pieces of the world as they themselves have experienced/seen/imagined it, then that will give their art the feeling of “being real”, of being grounded in something resembling consensual reality. This is a trick Becker and Fagen used to great effect in so many Steely Dan lyrics.

Thomas Pynchon gets around. Or he used to, back in the day. He is, by all accounts, a bit more settled now. But perhaps he has notebooks full of little vignettes, tiny bits of set and setting left over from his rambling days, stacks of “scenes” jotted down years ago, all carefully filed away for future use the way an old professor stores notes and observations in a filing cabinet near his desk.

And so some arcane little detail about Mr. St. Clair’s home town makes its way into a new book by one of the greatest legends of modern fiction, and Mr. St. Clair is a little creeped out by it. I have no sympathy: one should know what one is getting into by now, if one has any sort of relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Some things are not for the faint of heart. You but your ticket, you take the ride.

I read “Gravity’s Rainbow” years ago, very quickly the first time, then again at a slower pace. It was mind-blowing, the searing kaleidoscope of words, the staggering amount of imagery and detail and insight cascading into a blur of cognition and buzzy confusion. There were patterns to it that I discerned but didn’t quite grasp , patterns that I still don’t know to be entirely comfortable or even safe to comprehend.  I got truly paranoid at one point, lurking in the library in old Savannah, looking over my shoulder once or twice to see of anybody saw me sifting through old books and periodicals. I was trying to verify how much of Pynchon’s outrageous yarn was “true” and how much was “fiction”. This sounds odd, I know, but only if you’ve never read that particular book.

“Bleeding Edge” is at the top of my reading list, at any rate. I hope to finish with school by summer semester, 2014, and then maybe I’ll have time for the odd bit of pleasure reading.


The Beach

We went to the beach in late July. It looked like this:


It was lovely.

The whole family was there, so it was lively, too.

I got stung by a jellyfish, no big deal. I hear it gets worse, depending on the jellyfish. I spend a lot of time in the water when at the beach, so I was bound to get stung sooner or later.

Jonah gradually acclimated to the vastness of the ocean, and by the end he was pretty comfortable. But you can’t blame a tiny man for feeling a little intimidated by such a deep, noisy beast.


That’s my head out there in the waves. I like it out there. It’s soothing. Except when getting stung by jellyfish, of course.

Jonah soon learned the wisdom of being prepared. Or of being accessorized. Whichever.



And we finally got a pretty good family portrait.


Glory Days

I was born in 1970. That was an odd time to be born, I think, what with the Culture Wars and the Vietnam War and earth-tones and Ranch-style houses all being such a big deal.

All the bits and pieces of culture that we reflexively associate with that time were not then cartoonish and laughable: the hair, the clothes, the shape of automobiles, the look of so many modernist buildings, they were a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

But here’s a very nice article from Hendrik Hertzberg on being a young Newsweek reporter in San Francisco in the late-60’s, a period that bled seamlessly but traumatically into the time of my childhood. I especially liked this bit:

Newsweek finally got around to doing a cover story on hippies some nine months later, for the issue of October 30, 1967….My surmise was that some of the sons and daughters of some of the editors of my former magazine had turned on, tuned in, and made it their mission to drop out. In any case, the headline on the cover was ‘TROUBLE IN HIPPIELAND.'”

It’s shocking how naive the major movers of that scene really were. Well, Bill Graham wasn’t naive. But a lot of the folks who played in bands or who danced in front of the stage at the Fillmore that year were very naive, back in 1966, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were still local celebrities unknown outside the Bay Area, and it was still a rather exclusive club of people gyrating deep into Friday night, all of them convinced that there was something IMPORTANT happening, and not just right in front of them, but IN them, as the LSD sizzled across their synapses and the pulsing light shows reflected off the walls.

Life had gotten complicated in America by then. I remember it well. I was just a child, but it seemed to me that each individual’s naivete and confusion about who they were and where they were going was all bound up in everybody being naive and confused about who we were and where we were going, as if the whole country was experiencing a collective adolescence. Now, whenever I see mention of Ronald Reagan in an article, I always think to myself: whatever else he might have been, whether real or pretend, for the people who voted for him he was an honest effort to un-complicate their lives, to feel sure of something again.

I wonder what happened to all those dancers.

Like School Online: No Class

When I made the decision to go back to school and study computer science, a very dear old friend asked me to let him know what I thought of online classes.

This old friend of mine (we’ll call him ‘D’) is something of a legend in my very small circle. He got his start in IT right out of college as a teletype boy for the local paper, and subsequently spent most of his adult life in the newspaper business, herding various publishing-centric computer systems through their daily paces. ‘D’ was one of the earliest civilians to be “online”: he participated in lengthy discussions on the early pre-Internet networks like ARPANET and Usenet back in the 80’s, at a time when there were only some tens of thousands of people in the world with access to those networks.

I’ve never talked with ‘D’ at any length about his early online experiences. I do get the impression that some of the more difficult or annoying things which we now routinely associate with online discussions were already present in those earliest iterations of the Web, for instance the tendency for people to feel overly-emboldened by the inherent disembodiment of the online social experience, along with the concomitant likelihood that any small disagreement might escalate into an aggressive argument. Then there’s the fact that the military and intelligence communities had their fingers in the online pie from the start, which is interesting in light of the recent Snowden Affair: we are shocked, SHOCKED by the idea that our intelligence agencies might be observing our online activity, without ever giving much thought to the fact that the Internet exists precisely because the military and intelligence communities were highly instrumental in helping to invent it.

But I digress.

So, my old friend ‘D’ has been a computer geek since before anybody ever heard of such a thing, and he still keeps his ear to the ground vis-a-vis all things computerized, even though he’s retired and living in the woods near our ancestral stomping grounds in the foothills of North Carolina. And, seeing as I have been taking several of my classes online as I pursue my degree in computer programming, he was interested to hear my take on the growing trend in online college courses.

To which I reply: compared to what? This whole college thing is very new to me, and I am reluctant to expound upon things about which I am so naive. I’ve had some online classes, I’ve had some classroom classes. There’s good and bad with both.

But I will say a few things:

1. It’s a lot easier to get to know people in person, in the flesh, in the same physical space. We are physical animals, and most of our social cues and signals are not linguistic at all. Using only the internet for all relevant, school-related communication, as I have done for entire semesters, is like trying to force a waterfall through a straw: spills are bound to happen.

2. Schools still seem to be figuring out just how much actual work these online courses require from instructors. My online instructors have generally seemed overworked and harried, whether due to juggling other classes or other jobs entirely. Of course, “overworked and harried” describes most adults I know, not just the teachers…

3. Online classes are generally considered a real test of one’s self-motivation and self-discipline. After all, it’s just you, your laptop, your textbooks and the instructors’ hasty notes and emails. But then, if you’re doing it right, any rigorous study regimen is going to be a whole lot of you, alone in a room, working like someone who is terribly afraid of idle time.

4. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’ll be driving to and from Gwinnett Tech this semester, one hour each way, three days a week, on top of a full-time managerial job in Athens and a very young son who I adore and want to enjoy while he’s still such a tiny, funny little man. All those hours I’ll spend driving this fall could be spent studying, or sleeping, or playing with my son. Online classes make this sort of adulthood-intrinsic scheduling a bit easier.

There’s one question that many college kids are not accustomed to asking themselves, much less answering honestly: why are you in school at all, and what do you aim to gain by being there? How one answers that question will certainly offer strong indicators as to how one might handle online learning.

If your primary intent as a student is to learn, then you’re going to have to study. A lot. And that involves thousands of hours of careful reading and reams of homework. The majority of my learning takes place in solitude, with my laptop and a stack of books in front of me.

But the other reason for attending school is to make connections, with instructors and with fellow students. That’s how you find jobs. It’s all about connections. It’s all about the impression you make as a person. Or that’s what I’ve always heard.

Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to make honest connections and good impressions in person than online.

I expect that future college students will become accustomed to a combination of both.

How Did Everything Get So Flat? – Part 1

Some of my favorite memories are of hearing a popular song for the first time.

Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, for instance. It was the summer of 1984. I was 14, living in a small town in South Carolina. I was doing yard work for a neighbor down the street. It was a beautiful summer day. I was wearing a Walkman clipped to my belt, tuned to a pop station out of Columbia, the little black foam headphones over my ears.  As I walked towards the street carrying a cardboard box full of clippings to dump on the curb, the song started: out of nowhere, all by itself, an electric guitar started pealing off that ripping torrent of notes; followed soon thereafter by that drum machine pattern with the weird, pulsing kick drum; then a strange, filtered, moaning vocal sound; and finally those minimalist syncopated keyboards.

Right around the point where Prince started singing, I sat down, involuntarily, right in the middle of the yard, with the sun shining on the green grass and on the leaves of the trees and on top of my head. I just plopped down on the ground with my box of clippings in my lap, and I listened to that song. I think my mouth was hanging open a little bit.

For anyone who knows anything about the history of computers in music, the Linn LM-1 looms large. It was the first drum machine to use digital samples of real drums. It had individual analog outs for each sound, and each sound was individually tunable and mixable. It also had a built-in digital sequencer, which included Roger Linn’s now-legendary “swing” function. And you could swap out the memory chips, for a price, giving the machine a whole new set of sounds. All of this was quite revolutionary, and very expensive: $4,995.00, or around $14,000.00 in today’s dollars. Only 500-700 were made, and they were quickly snapped up by leading names in the recording industry, artists and musicians and studio engineers with the money to spare on such cutting-edge gear.

Linn LM-1

Prince used his LM-1 a lot back in those days, but “When Doves Cry” was singular. The sheer weirdness of the song is due in great part to the way he used the drum machine, sending the drum sounds (from their individual outputs, remember) through various guitar effects pedals on their way to the tape machine. The effect was one of pulsing, undulating cycles, round and round, with no release from the tension of the groove.

Again, at the time that the first digital audio gear came to market, only wealthy people could afford it. And the wealthy people interested in such products tended to be musicians who had already enjoyed a measure of success, ones who were prone to adventurousness in their artistic pursuits: people like Prince, or Peter Gabriel.

Here, let me show you adventurous:

The Flower

That’s Peter Gabriel during his time in the prog-rock band Genesis. He started wearing outlandish costumes because his singing couldn’t be heard above the band during their early gigs. He soon realized that the costumes helped to further the narrative preoccupations he was trying to address in his lyrics.

Hey, it was the ’70s.

Gabriel was one of the lucky few who got their hands on a Fairlight CMI before any of the rest of us had even heard of sampling. He had already enjoyed a successful career with Genesis before going solo, and he had made some money, so he spent some of it on this:

The Fairlight CMI enjoyed a brief but beautiful (and influential) time in the musical sun. It was a full music workstation: it sampled, it synthesized, it sequenced, it even allowed you to alter the shape of waveforms by drawing on the screen with a “lightpen”. And it had a sound, a breathy, wispy quality that was, ironically, a side-effect of the programming the creators had done to deal with the limited processing power of the computer components available at the time. It cost $35,000.00 at the time (or $90,000.00, adjusted for inflation). That’s a lot of money. You can buy three cars for that kind of money.

So, again, only wealthy artists could afford one. But listen to what they did with it: Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”, Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (hello, Trevor Horn). Something new and very exciting was happening in pop music.

Check out Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock putting Herbie’s new Fairlight through its paces, circa 1984:

What you’re witnessing in the video is two of the most talented musicians in the world getting really excited about something technologically extraordinary, but something that only wealthy people like themselves had access to. Just a few years later, that basic technology would become much less expensive and rather commonplace, available at any local music shop.

Today, you have only to open your laptop in order to have access to computer programs (and processing power) that make the LM-1 and the Fairlight seem quaint by comparison. The barriers to entry have fallen. And yet most people agree that pop music is not what is once was.

More on that in a bit.

Music as Experience, Music as a Means to an End

Here’s an interesting article on Madonna’s early career, and on the people who helped her make her first album and then present herself to the world for the first time:

Madonna’s Debut Album at Thirty: An Oral History | Music News | Rolling Stone.

I love getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the music business. I like getting a little taste of what it was like to be in the room while cultural/artistic/musical history was being made.

On that note, I heartily recommend the Classic Albums series of documentaries. You can get them on Amazon for cheap. They chronicle the making of some of the finest musical works of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s amazing to hear iconic musical moments explained. It’s inspiring, it’s educative, and it’s titillating, all at the same time. And it helps to demystify things that were carefully crafted to be mystifying. I like that. It’s okay to enjoy the spectacle, I think, but it’s important to understand just how much work goes into making something so difficult seem so easy.

Madonna, by all accounts, worked really, really hard to make difficult things seem easy.

Back in the day, the barriers to entry were high. Just getting a song recorded was a challenge: the technology required to do even a decent job of it would fill a small room and cost a small fortune, never mind paying someone who knew how to use that technology.

And in order to get into that recording studio, in order to spend time there with people who knew what they were doing, you had to impress someone at a record company: they opened the doors, they provided the money, the connections and the access. And in order to impress the record company you had to have something they could sell, something they were willing to take a chance on, something that made them want to call every musician, producer, songwriter, stylist and photographer in their Rolodex.

According to everyone who was there at the time, Madonna had “Star Power”, and in spades. Nobody thought she was a great singer. She was only a pretty good dancer. She wasn’t quite gorgeous. But when she walked into a room, everyone turned and stared. She had presence. She was sexy. She was smart as a whip. And she maximized everything she had in the service of her ambitions. Nobody who met her doubted her.

What was she after? She charted a number of fine pop songs, but it’s difficult to make the case that her music demands careful attention, or even much respect, the obvious exception being some of her work with Nile Rodgers on the album Like a Virgin. Rather, music seems to have been a means to an end for her, a vehicle to carry her to fame and fortune. Fair enough. She earned it.

They say it’s impossible that we should ever again see the rise of a celebrity as huge as Madonna was in her heyday. That seems a safe bet: pop songs aren’t as clever or as catchy or as musical as they used to be; the record companies are shadows of their former selves, with only traces of the money and power and influence they used to wield; and our pop stars are smaller now, too, with less talent and less charisma.

But my point is this: Madonna’s primary talent was not musical, though she made (with a lot of help) some very good pop music. Madonna’s singular gift was for self-presentation.  And she exacted a profound influence on our culture, at a time when our culture was ripe for that sort of influence.

More on that in a bit.