...Wind of Change podcast: I was at the grill last weekend, flipping my marinated chicken, a glass of Dalmore in hand, when I played the debut episode of this podcast, which asked two bizarre questions: Did the CIA write the Scorpions' 1990 mega-ballad "Wind of Change"? And if so, why? For nine years these questions obsessed Patrick Radden Keefe, the best-selling author who hosts this audio series (and who appeared last year on a podcast you listen to). That first episode of Wind of Change led me to the second and the third and I binged all eight in a single night, stopping only to eat the chicken and tupperware the leftovers.
Wind of Change is fascinating. The Cold War-era CIA believed propaganda campaigns that countered Communism were most effective when they doubled as artistic expressions. In other words, Radden Keefe's obsession isn't absurd: The Paris Review has always been a great literary magazine but was founded as a CIA front by covert agent Peter Matthiesen, who was outwardly a novelist (and a very good one). Radden Keefe talks about the international music festivals Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone headlined in the 1960s, and how Simone in particular was unaware the whole shebang was financed by the CIA. So it's possible covert agents wrote the lyrics to "Wind of Change," which came out just after the Berlin Wall fell and just before the Soviet Union did.
The better question is, Why partner with the Scorpions? They were low-rent Guns N Roses, their biggest hit before Wind of Change one Rock You Like a Hurricane, which include the lyrics: The bitch is hungry/she needs to tell/So give her inches/and feed her well.
But the band, like the best CIA agents, are not as they appear.
...The Overstory, by Richard Powers: I'm not yet finished but I can tell you already: This book has changed my life. It's about trees. Ridiculous, I know, a 500-page novel about trees, and even now it feels strange to say a fictional account with chestnuts and redwoods as central characters could be compelling, much less life-altering. But I'm highlighting passages on nearly every page of this book. I'm writing notes in the margins, endless notes, that when I review them all carry the same theme: Wow.
So, yes, The Overstory is about trees, and because it's about trees it's also about people's response to them, and science's, and industry's, and technology's, et cetera. This story about trees is a story about everything, and this story about everything rises, like a forest, into one true and beautiful thing.
Reading about Stoicism and applying its principles has reoriented my life, especially in the last few years. The Stoics believed there is no such thing as bad news or good news. There are only events, and you have the ability to interpret those events however you see fit. You can see a setback as an opportunity to learn. You can live your life by an adage that to me is so very Stoic: Problems don't happy to you; they happen for you. This self-reliance cuts the other way, as well, and can moor you when a smattering and maybe a whole crowd of people praise your work. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and student of Stoicism, once wrote: "It never ceases to amaze me...you want praise from people who kick themselves every 15 minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves." Abide by your own exacting standards and you will never plunge too low or fly too high. That's Stoicism: a study of temperance and wisdom and courage and justice.
Stoicism is not a religion but a sort of workaday philosophy, and in its humility and resolve I find the tenets of my own Christian faith. Read the story above—especially if you're struggling now. Seek out the books discussed there. They might help you as they've helped me.
Have a great Memorial Day Weekend. I'll be back next week.
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