Monday, November 23, 2009

And The Music Came Back On

Last week I fell back in love with music. I was listening to the podcast of NPR’s All Songs Considered from two weeks ago – which opened with “Do You Realize?” by the Flaming Lips then going to “Stan” by Eminem – and the host and three of the show’s producers were trying to sum up the last decade of music, which mostly meant they joked about how they couldn’t. They dissected the ways MP3s, the shuffle feature on iPods, and YouTube had fundamentally altered how we experience music. They voiced nostalgia for record stores and mix tapes. They demonstrated how hip-hop transfused itself into so many styles. They acknowledged the importance of the “O Brother, Where Art Though?” soundtrack. They said Sufjan Stevens was disappointing, in a heartbreaking, where-have-you-gone sort of way, and played “Casimir Pulaski Day,” maybe my favorite song of the decade. Ultimately they agreed this was music’s best ten years ever.

More than anything, though, they made me giddy about music again. Since college, my music choices have stultified. I worry it portends crotchetiness to come. While I still find new bands and sounds, what used to be a life altering discovery every month or week morphed into one just every so often. Part of this, without my realizing it, has been a rejection of buying music online, which is tied to my general internet frustration. (I should have been born in the 1930s with Gay Talese for a name.) As a writer, I place great weight on lyrics and word play: That’s why folk singers like Damien Jurado hold my heart though their guitar playing rarely makes me soar. The problem with buying some zeros and ones is you don’t get a lyric sheet with gorgeous drawings and layout, so though David Bazan sings, “This brown liquor whets my tongue,” you hear “wets,” and the message and the power dies. Just compounding the problem: At the same time physical albums became nonsense, I’ve become a poor twenty-something who can’t buy ten albums a month. It’s a double-wammy to music discovery, which, indirectly, is a knock, not hyperbolically, to my soul.

But this show might have changed that. It ended with a song by Arcade Fire, a band I’ve known about but for some reason ignored, probably through a combination of indie-hype avoidance and if-it’s-on-the-radio-I-don’t-listen-to-it snobbery. The track was great, and it capped an uplifting hour listening to people talk about their love of songs for. Maybe that’s what I’ve missed since college, maybe that’s what’s made me lose my music-hunting instinct: I’ve misplaced that communal gathering around song.

So in the spirit of hoping that the next decade will be better than the last, and that the musical joy I brought with me into the last decade will come along into the next, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite albums from the 2000s. And to rekindle that community of song I want back, I’ve asked friends to put in their own lists and to ask their friends to add theirs. The lists’ criterion is up to each person. It can be favorites, or best, or most important, or single-genre, as long as they’re albums released since 2000. If you want yours up, send me an e-mail and I’ll post it for posterity.

I hope you enjoy reading them, but mostly I hope you take the lists as recommendations, search out this music, and fall into the music. (Album title first, then artist.)

My List

1. Come On And Feel The Illinoise! - Sufjan Stevens

2. Toxicity - System Of A Down

3. White Blood Cells - The White Stripes

4. Ghost Of David - Damien Jurado

5. A Grand Don’t Come For Free - The Streets

6. Curse Your Branches - David Bazan

7. …As The Eternal Cowboy - Against Me!

8. Quality - Talib Qweli

9. Takk - Sigur Ross

10. Relationship Of Command - At The Drive-In

Beau Bailey

1. Toxicity - System of a Down

2. Elephant - White Stripes

3. Rooty - Basement Jaxx

4. Miss Machine - Dillinger Escape Plan

5. Demon Days - Gorillaz

6. Reroute to Remain - In Flames

7. Marshal Mathers LP - Eminem

8. Searching For A Former Clairy - Against Me!

9. Self-Titled - Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards

10. Dog Problems - The Format

Shane Knox

1. The Way Up - Pat Metheny Group

2. Quartet - Metheny Mehldau

3. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust - Sigur Ros

4. Perceptual - Brian Blade Fellowship

5. Dear John - Loney Dear

6. Radiance Keith - Jarrett

7. Speaking of Now - Pat Metheny Group

8. Art of Trio Volume 5: Progression - Brad Mehldau

9. Elegiac Cycle - Brad Mehldau

10. Soviet Kitch - Regina Spektor

Bill Oram (with explanations!)

1. American IV: The Man Comes Around - Johnny Cash, 2002: Mostly covers by one of the most-covered artists ever. "Hurt' gets the pub, but "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "I Hung My Head" make this somber album a fitting farewell to Cash, as well as the my best album of the decade.

2. The Long Way Around - Dixie Chicks, 2006 -- Triumphant return of shunned group who remained unapologetic for standing up agains the Iraq War, as evidenced by "Not Ready to Make Nice."

3. Stay Positive - The Hold Steady, 2008 -- Lord, I'm Discouraged might be one of my favorite all-time songs, and is complemented nicely by stand-out tradition alt-rock.

4. Soul Caddy - Cherry Poppin' Daddies, 2000 -- The fact that it sells for $.99 on Amazon is proof that nobody loves this album like I do.

5. American Idiot - Green Day, 2004 -- Ironically smart rock opera that asked a lot of questions about our society people weren't asking yet.

6. Genius Loves Company - Ray Charles, 2004 -- Yeah, maybe Norah Jones stole the show, but it's still the best "duets" album ever.

7. Graduation - Kanye West, 2007 -- Only rap album I've ever liked. Sharp missives buffer sentimental coming-of-age rap ballads.

8. Put the "O" Back in Country - Shooter Jennings, 2005 -- You come for "4th of July" you stay for the grungy, bitter rockabilly narratives. Money line: " Well, my old girl was a cadillac/She was long and sleek and dressed in black/But I caught her cruisin' with another dude/So I shot 'em down with my blue .22." (from "Daddy's Farm")

9. Love Is Hell - Ryan Adams, 2004 -- Listen to the Wonderwall cover.

10. Chicago (the soundtrack) - Various, 2002 -- Crashed my mom's car listening to Cell Block Tango.

Daniel Torres

1. Involver - Sasha

2. Black Sails in the Sunset - AFI

3. Miss Machine - Dillinger Escape Plan

4. Live From Stubbs - Matisyahu

5. Far - Regina Spektor

6. Speak for Yourself - Imogen Heap

7. Deja Entendu - Brand New

8. Gutter Phenomenon - Every Time I Die

9. Tear from the Red - Poison the Well

10. Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses - Atreyu

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Party's Over, The CD's Skippin'

Either the final meal of my adolescence was cow tongue tacos with onion and cilantro at two in the morning or it was home-made braised pork butt, collared greens, baked beans, and dill, cheddar cornbread at eight p.m. And the final party of my adolescence included either twelve beers, four cigarettes, one wood-tipped Swisher Sweet, a funky couch, and a moldy blanket or two six-dollar beers, two glasses of 18-year-old Scotch, my bed, and the smell of my girlfriend’s hair. And either I was wasted or I was sober. And either I told adolescence to die or I grasped at it. Either way, at twenty-five my last bit of adolescence vanished. I guess that makes me a man.

This final stripping of teenageness surprised me, mostly because I thought it had already happened. I entered adulthood several years ago – graduating from college, struggling with debt, working a real job, eventually moving in with my girlfriend – and I was the vanguard among my friends. One went to graduate school, postponing real life. Another ran away from a diagnosed psychotic girlfriend, never did deal cards professionally in Vegas, and then moved toward adulthood by training to become a firefighter and EMT. A third head-faked at the idea, engaging some girl two months after returning from his mission then calling it off. I didn’t look down on them. They let me shuffle into manhood while keeping a finger on the wall of childhood, and no one, including me, could call me out.

It’s a popular role. This Peter Pan syndrome is now so celebrated in America (see: every Judd Apatow movie, or don’t) that Hemingway’s adolescent-men, those Americans mocked by somehow more mature Europeans, seem almost hyper-masculine. I was a man acting, and believing, like I didn’t enjoy playing a boy’s game. The problem was my friends were finishing the game and I couldn’t keep my hand on the wall and stretch any farther.

The first sign of dissonance came a year ago when my friend got engaged for real. Three months after meeting her, they married, their families demanding offspring before congratulating them. Three months later, they were expecting. It was big, I wasn’t alone in adulthood anymore, but it didn’t foster any realizations. It was later, about the time his son was born, that two things clarified my dilemma: One, I learned my best friend, the grad student, was being flown to Montana for a job interview; two, I was outside the age group swine flu was killing. Before this, I was comfortably a twenty-something. Then that virus newly divided the world. There where those it liked to kill – infants to twenty-five-year-olds – and those it didn’t – the rest of us. Mortality-wise, my girlfriend was grouped with the newborn and I was with my grandparents. That’s hard to take when your drinking buddy is moving three big, western states away.

I had these things on my mind the first night of the last two nights of my adolescence.

By the time I reached Corvallis, Oregon State University’s home, the Beavers had lost, again, and I was the only sober person in town. The house two of my friends rented resembled the frat in Animal House, but crappier. No outlets worked on the main floor, so extension cords snaked downstairs and around the floor, connecting to TVs, computers, game consoles, stereos, but not the fridge, which belched a hellish stench whenever a new partygoer looked for beer. The party matched: the sticky kitchen floor; the vodka shots; being told water’s for pussies; that same guy puking in the kitchen sink then saying second wind, baby, second wind, as the host unstopped the drain; the near brawls; the distillation of every college house party I’d ever staggered through. I was in the party but apart from it, watching from corners, looking down.

Somehow the house cleared of everyone but me and my two friends, and we salvaged the night with tongue tacos from the nearby taqueria. Driving home to my girlfriend late the next morning felt like an escape from the house, from college past, from a younger, drunker, louder, dumber, me. I felt so much older, in that way a college student visiting his old high school does. It felt good.

My friend got the job, so a month later my girlfriend and I hosted a party. An adult party. A party with great food. A snottily select party. A throw-up free party. I can remember all of it, and it was great, sort of. This was the last time my best friend and I would hang out for a long time, and, because most of my post-high school friends were his friends at his college, it might be the last time I would hang out with the whole group, so I didn’t want a dinner party. I wanted a wake. I wanted to get smashed, tell old stories in old ways, crank up the punk rock and sing a blubbering chorus of “Pints of Guinness Make You Stronger,” the saddest song ever recorded.

We did none of that. We stayed up late, we had good, bond-building conversations, we realized this wasn’t a last-ever party. But when I went to bed I felt like a neutered dog or, even better, like the last drop of adolescence had been wrung from me. It hurt.

I wanted it back. Even though I’d kissed it off a month earlier, I wanted that boorish, unfettered self back. At least, I wanted access to him, to don that costume at the right times. I didn’t, and I don’t, want to re-become that person. The getup is funny for about five hours. Any longer and you look ridiculous.

Why the hold then? Why the nostalgia when I can quantify how much better life is now? Even as I type I run through the yearning-to-mockery cycle over and over. Remember the greatness of your study abroad? Yeah, the drunkest year of your life. College was fun, especially living with inconsiderate jerks and eating rice every day. This is growing up, I get that, and growing up is really just a series of funerals for your former selves. This is the self that just doesn’t die as easily. It’s as annoying and brash and indestructible and selfish as a teenager, as the kid I was.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Heirloom

The heirloom just never took. Some fruit grew, but not much and it never seemed right. Even a healthy heirloom tomato, no matter the variety, needs a motherly or maybe an artist’s eye to appreciate: They fold on themselves, their skin is mottled, they grow obese on one vine and cylindrical on another, some carry parasitic twins. Mine just split, from the beginning, at the top, leaving deep, woody gashes in the meat, which was rock-hard. I waited and waited for the blackish-green (the black was in the variety) to turn a black-topped red. Even worse, only five tomatoes grew.

Ten feet away, a roma plant patiently fought its partly-shady upbringing, showing regular signs of growth that only the fall could stop. Next to it, in the sun, a sweet million cherry tomato plant produced fruit faster than Krystal and I could eat. The other plants in our makeshift garden, which was Krystal’s evil plan and my task, all thrived under my novice care. Sure, like the roma, half the tomatillos will probably die with the first frost, but who knew the plant needs a mate to get knocked up? Not us, until halfway through July. Now, dozens of green Chinese lanterns hang from the two plants. The Anaheim chili bush won’t stop, and even the late-coming bell pepper plant performed. The herbs – basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, mint, my babies – have saved me so much money. But the heirloom never thrived.

Every morning this summer, I would walk down the creaking wooden stairs from our second floor apartment to the back space, a gravel square surrounded by flower beds we share with the other tenants and the restaurant below. When I went out, I usually had just come from my computer. I usually had just checked if editors had responded to my pitches or requests to visit. Rarely. And before I headed out back, I deleted the e-mail my calendar sent me saying, You have no events scheduled for today. Watering the plants, as much as I complained to Krystal, gave me a twenty minute rest after confronting my empty e-mail and before beginning the work to send another round of never-to-be-answered letters. Watering was a chore that became something like meditation. I could see progress in the world and taste it sometimes.

Then I would come to the last plant in the line. If the heirloom never grew at all it wouldn’t have been a tragedy. But it had hope. The thing sprang up fast, overtaking its wire cage and sprouting dozens of yellow flowers, then it slackened and the flowers wilted greyly. The fruit came and bent the limbs. As I tried to tie one up, to keep it from snapping as it lolled heavily over the cage, it ripped. I worked to fix it, but the more I tried the worse it got until the tomato, the best of the bunch, fell and cracked on the dirt.

I didn’t even want to eat the tomatoes. I hate raw tomatoes. I would never cherish fresh slices of the heirloom or stack them, simply, with my basil, fresh mozzarella, and olive oil. At best, the heirlooms would become a spaghetti sauce or salsa. Still, I wanted them to flourish. I wanted them to prove I could make something flourish. I wanted a big basketful I could take to all the magazines I wanted to write for and splatter their windows until they noticed me.

All of the tomatoes are gone now. Some went into the trash and some rolled behind the surrounding bushes, too far away to bother retrieving. The other plants are winding down. The sweet million is wilted but looks more like a winning marathoner than a sad old man. The herbs are retreating into hibernation. I don’t have that twenty minutes to burn these cold mornings. I check my e-mails, swallow the frustration, and hope I learn how to nourish these fragile things by summer.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

High Country News

I have a profile at High Country News, a great news magazine that covers the western United States. The front page link is here. If that doesn't work, try this direct link here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Inaction: Or, I’d Help the World if it Didn’t Have so Many Problems

When I walk to my neighborhood’s shopping area midday, weaving between the hipster couples with their rare purebreds and the gutter-punks with their pit bulls, passing the busker playing for change next to the rack of coats on sale for $300, I steel myself, and breath deep, and try not to get angry. This has nothing to do with wading through the gulf between poverty and affluence, or bemoaning the onslaught of gentrification, which would be hypocritical since I, in all my middle-classness, moved here less than a year ago. I enjoy that movie stars and internationally reclusive comedians eat and shop here while a disheveled man surrounded by street kids and smoldering bunches of sage sits on the sidewalk burning a pattern into a staff with a magnifying glass.

No, the reason is that the horrible, horrible, beautiful smiling Green Peace woman is going to talk to me. “Hey, you look like you want to save the planet,” she’ll lie because I look like I want to burn down a house. “It’s a beautiful day to save the world.” “A polar bear can use your help.” It doesn’t matter what she says, it infuriates me.

My intolerance for street petitioners and fundraisers and voter registration crews goes back to college. Legions of these people squatted outside the University of Oregon’s student union building. Getting to class meant running a gauntlet of pie-eyed kids who quit school because, man, the world needed them. After being suckered into a couple conversations every student honed their ability to ignore. When I realized environmental groups continuously canvassed my new neighborhood, and outside my favorite bookstore no less, I thought about moving. The guy who said, “You know, you can help the planet today” as I walked up then said, “Jesus, yeah, or not,” as I passed and the guy who grabbed my hand, shook it, and wouldn’t let go ensured I reverted to my old, hateful state. I remained resolutely unreflective – these people were, end of story, guilt-tripping jerks.

Pretty girls have a way of changing your mind.

After walking past her for the second time in a week, and being undeniably angry, my sane self slapped my crazy self and told him to shut up. First of all, Sane argued, any other time a pretty, thin, well-dressed Indian, maybe Sri Lankan, woman with impossibly huge and deep brown sub-continental eyes talked to me it would count as a daily highlight. Second, she was sweet, with no snide darts thrown at my back, so if I’m angered that I now feel guilty about not saving the world maybe it’s because I’m not doing anything to save the world. And that, Crazy admitted, was where the anger came from. It’s similar to liberals who get huffy when accused of not being patriotic and their sole defense is a Dissent is Patriotic bumper sticker. My contribution to global salvation is a public radio donation.

Why is that? Why don’t I, an avowed bleeding heart, donate a few dollars to a charity or volunteer at soup kitchens? Beyond being selfish and stingy, there is a chunk of research that says we humans have a problem dealing with massive tragedies. Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, argues in a forthcoming essay that the gut sensations of horror and empathy toward the loss of life, which make us do something about it, fade as the numbers rise. He writes, “It can thus explain why we don’t feel any different upon learning that the death toll in Darfur is closer to 400,000 than to 200,000.” He didn’t title the essay “The More Who Die, the Less We Care” for nothing. (Sadly, the essay discusses several studies that show if the number rises from one to just two, people lose a lot of empathy.)

Several years ago, Slovic and a few colleagues conducted a study on people’s willingness to donate to a charity called Save the Children. In one test, the researchers made their pitch by showing people a picture of a seven-year-old African girl named Rokia – a good gut-wrenching, heart-strings-pulling approach. The second group was presented with the statistic of millions of Africans who they could save from hunger – statistics and evidence to help a rational decision. The donations from each person were twice as much for Rokia as for the millions. When the researchers combined the two approaches – here’s Rokia, she’s one of millions of Africans you can help – the results were only slightly better than the second pitch.

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and undisputed empathizer of the world, argues this is why humanitarian and environmental organizations never gain traction. (His column, here, inspired this public soul searching.) When your average person is asked, “Hey, do you want to save the world?” his conscience immediately imagines Darfur, dying polar bears, New Orleans, the tweaker a block back, foreclosures, and orphanages. His sense of empathy curls up in a sobbing, snot-nosed ball before he can say, “No,” a little too aggressively.

This would be a tidy way to absolve myself into inaction, except now I know I should just pick one group that presents me one person I can help. Now to find a worthy organization among the thousands out there… oh, wait, my will to act just assumed the fetal position.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

World Hum

An essay of mine is up at If that link doesn't go to it, click here. World Hum is a great online magazine, and if you like travel writing, you have to check it out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Neda and Helplessness

My good friend Crispin called two days ago, her insides knotted up by the events in Iran. She’d obsessively watched Youtube videos and read reports, blogs, and even entire comment sections that flow for pages after articles. Something about it grabbed her and shook her and kept her looking. In a fit of helplessness she knitted a green wristband, the color of Mir Hussein Mousavi’s opposition campaign and now the color of reform and justice, maybe even a new revolution, in Iran. Empowering the color even more, green was Prophet Muhammad’s favorite color.

The night before, at a dinner party, Crispin wore the wristband, which clashed with her outfit. Another guest asked why she wore it, and she said it was to show solidarity with the protestors risking their lives in Iran. No one knew what she was talking about.

So she called me, her Middle East-knowledgeable friend. She probably knew more than me. My direct connections with anything Iranian are two friends (one a Brit, one an American) who have visited the country. Oh, and I walked by the only Shia mosque in Sharjah while working in the United Arab Emirates. I do pay attention, though, and I thought I stood rationally above Crispin’s helplessness. During the conversation – one of those that reveals more about you than you wanted – I realized I knew exactly how she felt.

It took a while for it to envelope me. For the first day or so after the election I was incredulous toward the reports that, for sure, the election was a fraud. Most likely, I thought, Western reporters attended a few too many rallies in the affluent boroughs of Tehran and got drunk on the hope that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would lose. Then I learned that Mousavi, the main opposition candidate and impetus for those gigantic campaign rallies, earned the same percentage of votes in his home district as he did everywhere else in the country – about thirty percent.

Well, my mind argued, who cares? Mousavi was president in the eighties, remember, during the war with Iraq when Iran’s army used kids as mine detectors, so how great would he be? Plus, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, would still be in charge. The elections showed that Iran’s pseudo-democracy, which allows unelected clerics to vet presidential candidates, was plain sham-democracy, but not much else. I agreed with the protestors going into the streets, and I wished that they might change their country, but I also agreed with President Obama’s stay-out-of-it response. The best way to discredit the protestors would have been to openly support them (read All The Shah’s Men for a great account of what caused Iran to hate America) and after Hungary’s revolt in 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, and Iraq’s Shia uprising in 1991, I don’t think we should voice support for dissidents we have no will or way to help.

I mostly pondered this one question: When the protestors shouted, “Death to the dictator,” did they mean Ahmadinejad or Ayatollah Khamenei? It was a nice, clean intellectual exercise.

Then I watched Neda die.

In high school I had a teacher who told us two stories. In the first, he said he had never empathized much with the destruction of Native American culture until he found out he was, like, one-sixty-fourth Sioux. Then he took great offense. In the second, he told us that he had agreed with the war in Vietnam until one of his friends died there. The stories were supposed to show us that we can change our minds about major issues, but I always took them as examples of personal connections or heart-wrenching events forcing emotional instead of rational decisions. I wanted to despise genocide because it was genocide and an unjust war because it was an unjust war, not because of an anecdote.

Then I watched Neda die.

Neda Agha-Solton was killed by a single bullet fired by a member of the Basij, a militia group that supports Ahmadenijad. The cell phone video of her death lasts only forty seconds, but it changes everything. (The link is here and understand it is someone bleeding to death. Roger Cohen’s article is a good report of the event. The Guardian reported what has happened to her family here.) Before the video I had agreed and empathized with the people in the streets. I didn’t get what they were hoping for, though, when they said they wanted freedom; I didn’t understand the price they were willing to pay. I still believe the best thing my country can do is stay out, but now I am in solidarity with them, halfway around the world and helpless.

How do I connect this way with someone that far from me, in miles, culture, language, life? I don’t think it’s too much too say that, while watching Neda die and then watching and reading the reports about her life, I fell in love with her and that allowed the memory of her death to break my heart over and over. No single death has ever done that too me.

What makes Neda’s death resonate so forcefully is that, really, she wasn’t heroic or brave. She and her teacher left the sweltering heat of his car while they were stuck in gridlock. They walked around. They didn’t move with the intent of demonstrators or the violence of rioters. In the video that happened to capture them before the shooting, they aren’t even chanting or marching. Her teacher is pointing to events off camera; he could be telling her this was exactly what it was like in 1979. She was simply there, and then she was dead on the sidewalk. That could happen to me, to anyone. I may not have the courage to throw a Molotov cocktail at a roadblock or stand in front of a tank, but I do have the curiosity to mill around a crowd, to witness history. That day that was all Neda did. Her murder didn’t reveal her courage, it uncloaked a wanton regime

Neda’s courage came before getting out of the car, when she took singing lessons, an activity Iran's government forbids. That was her defiance that was her stand against repression. I’m brave enough to wear a green wrist band, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to sing.