A teacher I had few years ago had a theory about “comfort foods.” She believed that the food you liked best as a child was a source of comfort as you got older. I don’t remember any foods in particular. But I do remember music.

Growing up in the 70s, I hated popular music. That is, except for the late-night FM stuff, where they would play songs that went deeper than three-minute pop tunes. I’ve always had a tendency to take things far too seriously, and I was genuinely outraged by disco, and most pop phenomena. I suspect I was far too humorless about the whole thing. My first long term relationship ended because “I wasn’t funny.” Having someone leave you for someone else is always traumatic, but more than the trauma I remember the way I discovered how to cope.

I’d heard a few Frank Zappa tunes on the FM before, like “Stink-foot” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Right after this woman left me, Zappa released a new album called Sheik Yerbouti. I decided to give it a try. It hit me at just the right time. As the needle dropped in the groove, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first song was a mellow send-up of syrupy AOR which parodied a recently released Peter Frampton album, I’m In You. Zappa’s version was “I Have Been in You.” I was amused, but when it got about halfway into “Flakes,” I was sold:

I’m a moron, and this is my wife
She’s frosting a cake with a paper knife
All what we got here’s American made
It’s a little bit cheesy, but it’s nicely displayed

It was so refreshing to hear someone make fun of the “American Way” with such humor. But still reeling from the breakup, when the next song kicked in I found strange comfort:

*Hey! Do you know what you are?*
*You’re an asshole! An ASSHOLE!*

Some of you might not agree
‘Cause you probably likes a lot of misery
But think a while and you will see . . .
Broken hearts are for assholes
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole too
So whatcha gonna do, ‘cause you’re an asshole . . .

What kind of artist calls his audience assholes by the third song? This was before I crossed over into punk, mind you. The remainder of the song is positively hilarious. The album traverses from incredibly complex modern jazz, to bone-crushing hard rock, the guy was just all over the planet. If someone this talented could take life a bit less seriously, maybe I could too. From that point on, I became a devout Frank Zappa fan.

I was watching a recently downloaded copy of the Zappa’s movie Baby Snakes yesterday, and decided to pull out Sheik Yerbouti for the first time in many years. It was perfect timing. Going to academic conferences, there’s a lot of smoke blowing about. People take me far too seriously. Yes, I’m passionate about things but that doesn’t mean I’m humorless. This record has always been a comfort for me in moments of tragic seriousness. It’s my version of “comfort food,” I suppose.

Yes, Zappa’s humor can be puerile. “Disco Boy” and “Jewish Princess” aren’t exactly politically correct. But as the saying goes, “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.” I also downloaded a Dutch documentary on Zappa from 2000, which has so much truth in it that I watched it twice yesterday. The closing lines are the most perfect description of the rhetorical concept of Kairos I’ve ever heard. Zappa looks gray and ill, as he emphatically states:

What something is depends on when it is more than anything else.

Gail Zappa also contributes a bit of Zappa wisdom that has been bothering me tremendously, as I attempt to write about the development of documentary photography in the 1930s:

He’s a guy who lived by the idea of “expect the unexpected” . . .

Or, judge everything simultaneously so that you’re not judging at all, in essence . . .

Always judge everything every moment or not at all.

Don’t stay fixed in the idea of a previous moment, because things can change and they do.

Unraveling history is difficult because of this. There was so much going on, from so many different directions that it is hard to write a sketch of the fabric of time. It’s so much easier to write about a single person than it is the confluence of events. Everything changes everything else, nearly simultaneously. It’s hard to create the concept of when, because it is not merely a linear series of cause and effect. But there are moments of comfort, when the confluence of events actually make sense, if only for a moment.

1 thought on “Kairos”

  1. hey left you a note on the rhet board……re:needing to pick your brain re lit/philo theory….come on now…don’t hide….lol
    very interesting website….read a little yesterday and today….really outstanding… not trying to butter you up just appreciate intellect when i see it…..
    started mcphee….have hid from him for a while…but actually enjoying the experience….although i think after finishing him i may long for a simple sentence.
    tah tah….gina

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