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Strange As Ever

March 26, 2015

The line extended out the door Wednesday night at the Marchesa Hall & Theater, whose beautiful art deco interior is concealed in an unassuming strip behind Highland Mall. On the marquee in plain black capital letters: Stranger Than Paradise, a 30 year old indie film by celebrated American director Jim Jarmusch. But it was Richard Linklater who drew the crowd. The film is the first in a series of four movies – #JewelsintheWasteland – curated and emceed by the self-described dropout punk and Academy Award-nominated director. The series is sponsored by the Austin Film Society. IMG_rick

Linklater’s “wasteland” points to the state of American cinema and culture in the 1980’s, characterized by quick MTV cuts and blockbuster hype, set within a decade of Reagan politics and yuppie greed. During his introduction, Linklater placed Stranger Than Paradise within a genealogy of minimalist cinema starting with Andy Warhol, and celebrated its release as a watershed moment for moviemaking. Attendees were treated to a projection of the original 35mm reel of the film; the celluloid images were romantic but revealed 30 years of abuse. The early apartment scenes writhed with squiggles and grain.

It was my first time to see Stranger than Paradise, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a very charming story about coincidence, family, and identity. The story begins with the arrival of Willie’s cousin, Eva, from Hungary. She stays with him in a postage stamp of an apartment in the Lower East Side of NYC. With a bit of pride, he shows off his American assimilation: TV dinners, baseball, lots of television, and Chesterfield cigarettes that “taste the same everywhere you go.” Despite all this, Willie has no taste for America’s contribution to music: the R&B performer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose record Eva plays over and over on her portable cassette deck.

Her presence rekindles his sense of family, and when she leaves, he eventually follows her to his aunt Lottie’s place in Cleveland. There he gleefully puts away bowls of goulash and spends the evenings playing cards with his Aunt. “Doing nothing” is how his buddy Eddie sees it, who comes along for the trip. After they have their kicks, the three of them drift south to Florida on a whim, to see “paradise,” but they end up in a crappy motel not unlike where he lived in New York. They spend the morning betting on the dog races instead of going to the beach. Eva buys a beach hat and takes a walk. Up until this point the movie trundles along, like a black and white relic from the late 1950’s (During the Q & A after the film, Linklater mentions that Jarmusch’s black and white is not the sexy silvery kind of vintage Hollywood, but has a different crappier vibe. I agree, and I really liked the rawness of it). The two emotionally opaque lead characters wear vintage clothing and even their form of hooliganism seems vintage: card sharking. But then, there is an interesting moment in the film that rips the viewer out of this false perception.

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Eva enters a simple beach scene in a long dark trench coat and her new hat, like a female lead in an old French drama. She comes upon a quick-talking drug dealer who sports Levar Burton shades, a patterned winter cap with hanging tassles, and baggy clothing. He feels like an impossibility, a time-traveler, in this movie that already feels 30 years older than it really is. His first line as he approaches her is, “hey, where the fuck you been at, man? Shit, man.” He thrusts an envelope of money into her hand, “here take this shit, man.” He mutters his way out of the scene and is never heard from again. Suddenly, Eva is rich, after being mistaken for a drug pusher. It’s an absurd scene that juxtaposes the urban maximalist style of the 1980’s with European sophistication. It’s like a statement on the times, a visual metaphor for how the inherited tradition of French and Italian cinema does not mesh with the new world of the 1980’s: its graffiti, poverty, neon clothing, and street slang. With this scene, Jarmusch seems to say goodbye to the simple, white-washed world he creates in Stranger Than Paradise right in the middle of the film.

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Anyway, I seriously loved the movie. One of my favorite scenes was when they show up as tourists at Lake Eerie, and the air is so thick with snow they can’t see a thing. “It’s beautiful,” Eddie says with awe. If you don’t know, you don’t know what you’re missing.

How to Do SXSW in 1 Day

March 23, 2015

My annual relationship with South By Southwest goes through phases. There’s the (1) initial sensory overload after the lineup announcement (imagine finding an efficient way to filter an alphabetical list of 2,000 bands), the (2) curmudgeon phase when I feel like “sitting this one out”, which is overcome by (3) my friends buzzing about hot shows, and finally (4) my submission to the tornado that is the 10 day festival. March is about the time that I emerge like a grumpy bear from the mild but dreary Texas winters. After months of cold and house-bound dormancy, months spent in scratchy sweaters dreaming of swimming and pints of beer on downtown patios, I forget how generous Austin is with warm weather and good times. Every year, I take to the budding spring city anew for SXSW without any expectations, and I have an amazing time reconnecting with its streets, its natural spaces, and with its weird and wonderful people. I’ll remember my SXSW experience this year for the spontaneity of incredible street art and fireworks, visceral performances from hungry artists on the come-up, seeing old friends and meeting new people.

But bad vibes were in the air for this year’s festival before it even began. Is SXSW too big, too dangerous, too corporate, too far up its own ass with “innovation”, overreaching for the millennial buck? These questions hung in the air for weeks and were blogged to death. I was skeptical.

Patricia and I begin our adventure at the parking garage of Brackenridge Hospital on 15th St. (file under work perk, not pro tip). While walking south on Red River towards the masses, we were caught off guard by a wall of fresh paint behind the Brick Oven pizzeria on 12th.

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The street images evoked the themes of the festival: the coupling of technology and life, public perception, food, creativity, transformation. I suspect the second image was inspired by Austin artist Tim Doyle, whose knack for creating massive, comic book creatures earned him a memorable cover on a special edition Austin Chronicle a few years ago. The image of a bionic, sickly whale, branded “SXSW” and struggling in chains against an anchor, was a foreboding start to the day. It was a clear reference to the swirl of public doubt about the viability of the festival. But it’s amazing how the world can prove you wrong when you’re pessimistic. We walked the last few blocks, through the containment barricades and into a sea of people.

We burned the afternoon at Red 7: The Brooklyn Vegan showcase, reluctantly plunking down fivers for cans of Lone Star and moving in and out of doors for the two different stages. We arrived in time to see a few songs by Basecamp, an electronic music trio from Nashville. The singer’s clean R&B vocals were pushed far forward in the mix, accompanied by soft synth loops and crisp beats pounded out on a tabletop electronic drum kit. They had a nice radio sound that had heads bobbing in the dark bar.

We moved outside after they finished up and camped out beneath a huge canvas tarp strung up for shade. Women in short skirts and glittering tops floated by, handing out free samples of Swisher Sweet cigarillos and branded koozies. Between performances, we moved to sideline benches and watched the crowd thin and swell with punks and industry types, old hippies and nervous kids, international travelers. People-watching during SXSW is literally a world-class activity.

A group out of Dublin called Girl Band took the stage and unpacked their gear, looking like kids who skipped class to be there on time. I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the chaos that they wrought on the crowd of 50+ people. The bassist and drummer conjured up a doomsday thunderhead of noise, and the front man, a blonde haired J.Bieber doppelganger named Dara Kiely, began to scream as if he was burning alive. The bassist played like he was trying to destroy the instrument, bending strings and violently sliding a beer bottle up and down the neck. The melodies were patterned with the bass, giving the guitar player free range for his glitchy riffs, or shrill, almost violent tension-building, reminiscent of Daughters or early Dillinger Escape Plan. He had a pedal set on the ground that looked like a Boeing control panel, and his chords were filthy with distortion. Girl Band pulls together elements of noise rock, no wave, even the buzzy bass of dubstep; but with its nice pop structure, it’s like Diet Brutality.

#girlband earlier today @red7austin #bvsxsw #sxsw #brooklynvegan

A photo posted by BVAustin (@bvaustin) on

They punched out a few 30-second songs between the longer tunes, and ended with one that had the singer drowsily intoning a nihilism of “I could but I won’t” over and over again. Kiely’s vocal dynamic alternated between Fugazi meets Pissed Jeans-style mumbling and wide-eyed heaving screams that seemed to exhaust him. I recall one lyric in which he calls out some asshole who “starts every sentence with ‘I know I’m not a racist, but…” It was really good fun to see such young lads put on an explosive and downright killer rock ‘n roll show. Check out the VHS throwback music video for their 2014 single Lawman here. I know I’m keeping an eye out for a full-length release from them.

The next band on our list was Broncho, a garage rock band out of Oklahoma and a bit of a darling of local radio. The group played a loud, sweaty set under red lights which ended with their single “Class Historian” to the delight of the crowd.

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At 5:00 PM, Red River Street, the unofficial Music Row of Austin, was packed and the air was rich was with the smell of smoked BBQ and fried noodles. With the addition of over 100,000 customers into the local scene, trailer food is a profitable enterprise and a bit hit every year. But we skipped the line of food trucks and opted for BestWurst, a local favorite and what could be called an institution of sausage. They make a mean two-handed bratwurst with fried onions, sauerkraut and spicy mustard that you don’t even mind wearing on your clothes when it inevitably slides out the back of the bun.

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With full stomachs, we headed east on 6th Street, past the ever-changing rows of bars, past the artists hawking CDs on the corners, the stern crossed-arm officers on horseback, the hobo playing Dylan covers on an acoustic guitar, a percussion group in African tribal digs, a man in a wolf’s mask playing violin and collecting tips in a plastic jack o’lantern. Sixth Street is a kaleidoscope of human spectacle.

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Mr. Wolf playing for tips

Beer bottles, plastic wrappers and discarded swag had accumulated along the gutters of the street. The air is supercharged with the energy of thousands of people already drunk, stoned or just happy to be off work in the capital city. If the dollar collapsed and society crumbled, downtown Austin would look about the same as it does every year during SXSW. Our destination was further south – the Lady Bird Lake stage at Auditorium Shores – for the long-standing consolation show intended for native Austinites. This year’s lineup featured Charles Bradley, Ryan Bingham and Spoon.

We stopped at a Congress Avenue liquor store for some sodas. The clerk, a quick-talker with a ponytail, chatted us up and revealed that he had been attending SXSW for over 20 years. He even let us in on a “secret” website showlistaustin.com, which is a no-fuss user friendly way to filter upcoming shows. He spun the monitor of his computer around for a demonstration. Neither of us had heard of it. In Austin, it’s best practice to talk to everyone you can. The city is full of great stories, and the people who are mixing your drinks, manning the pedicabs, or even asking for change outside the Driskill almost always have something to say that’s worth hearing, even if it’s a tall tale from the glory days of the Armadillo World Headquarters.

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With renovation complete on a $3.5 million dollar improvement project, Auditorium Shores looked fresh and ready for visitors when we arrived before sundown on Thursday. The 17 acre park is a frequent host to public events, and the music is staged in the foreground of a big photo-op view of the skyline. The renovation project was enabled by a donation from the Austin based event group C3 Presents, which puts on the annual ACL music festival in Zilker Park. This partnership has been a controversial one, but it was refreshing to see bright green Bermuda turf in a city park that had endured constant abuse before the renovation. We met up with some friends in time for Charles Bradley who, at 66 years old, looked as rowdy as ever. As the drums crashed and the guitars shrieked a final crescendo, he ran out into the crowd, slapping hands and wrapping his arms around his fans. It was pure magic.

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Austin’s own Spoon were the final act of the night. The group has been crafting thoughtful, consistent rock albums for over 20 years, seemingly unaffected by the ups and downs of a music industry in crisis. Singer Britt Daniel opened things up by saying he was proud to play a show that was free for the people, “as it should be during SXSW” to thunderous applause. The group worked through their hits, “Do You,” “Inside Out” and “Rent I Pay” from their 8th and latest album, They Want My Soul, the unofficial Austin summer soundtrack of 2014. They reached into the past for fan favorites “I Turn My Camera On,” “The Way We Get By,” and “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb.” As the construction cranes disappeared in the darkness, the city lights came on, and Austin’s iconic indie rockers had a crowd of 50,000 on their feet and dancing, everything was as it should be.

The last surprise of the night was a long and fantastic fireworks display dedicated to the memory of Brent Grulke, the first production manager for SXSW and the festival’s creative director for 20 years. His two rules are the backbone of the festival: music for all, and all are welcome.

Is SXSW big, bad and dangerous? I don’t think so. Although there were noticeably less superstar acts this year, I think the real festival spotlight has always been independent artists on the come-up. Dangerous? In my opinion, last year’s tragedy was not an symptom of SXSW over-indulgence, but rather an isolated incident that coincided with the festival.
Is SXSW too corporate? Probably. But corporate presence is not unlike a highway billboard; it disrupts the big view but everybody keeps on driving. Besides, big companies are what make the festival happen. Period.
Most importantly, is it a hell of a lot of fun? Absolutely.

Greta (1918-2015)

February 28, 2015

Greta, you nearly lived a century. I know that your 36,500th day on the planet would have been full of grumbling. You were a first-rate grumbler. Those with the gift for a good grumbling are real charmers; you were like Woody Allen that way. But where is my head at? Why am I starting this way? I guess I’m not sure how to talk about you, and the impact that you had on my life. You were a remarkable, authentic person and a bon vivant. I can say that now, where I wouldn’t call you a bon vivant to your face because you would find in my French some nuance of mispronunciation. Maybe I’m comfortable teasing you even in death because you were so dear to me.

When Greta’s son-in-law, Tom, asked me to speak at her service, I wanted to find some way to capture her spirit, to describe the rhythm of that sprawling composition that was her life, of which I only knew the final years. An impossible task. But I was able to find this journal entry from December 31st, 2010:

I arranged flowers tonight with Greta. Once a month, a man from the local grocery store comes by to donate the wilting or otherwise unsellable bouquets to the senior community where I work. I took her the best of the bunch: bright orange lilies, light roses and daisies in a white basket. She had no use for the lillies, and she hated the basket (2 out of 4 is not so bad when you’re dealing with Greta) so we broke up the arrangement and put the flowers into separate vases together.

5308705163_d24bac7d90_b As we worked, she talked about her beautiful wild garden at her old house, and the jerk who moved in and destroyed it because he thought it was a bother. She shows me a picture of her smiling in sunlight with a dark blue beret, behind a lantana bush that nearly dwarfs her. She heckles me to bring her more of my poetry, probing especially hard for something about Greece after my recent trip. I brought her back a pillowcase with a hand-knit scene of the white rooftops of Santorini, which she has draped over her armchair in the living room. She accepted it guiltily and told me I should have given it to my mother.

She has an appetite for mischief. She has decided that the violas that grow in front of the building are the best for her infamous hand-made cards. She dries and presses the petals in her dictionary. In the cover of night, armed with a pair of scissors, I have been sent many times into the gardens around the building to retrieve them for her.

Tonight, she asked me if I read Dylan Thomas, that peerless Welshman, and she told me that she saw him read poetry in the 1940’s when he toured America. She recalled wonderful details: how his voice trembled, how he mopped his brow with a sweaty rag that his white knuckles curled around atop the podium. She marvels at my height, and insists that my legs are too long for my body, which is why I’m given the privilege of reaching her mailbox for her every evening at 5:45, right before supper. She is one of my favorite people, and a dear dear friend.

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“I thought you were my accomplice…”


I met Greta in 2010, at the retirement community where I’ve been employed in various capacities for nearly 6 years. She used a walker at first, and her legs were always wrapped in a fraying edema bandage from knee to ankle. She made very small, meticulous steps through the hallways and the dining room. She may have had slowest pace of anyone in the building, and she would curse her legs with each step, as if they were uncooperative beasts of burden. The image seems like a terribly sad one, but somehow Greta deflected sympathy without a word. She had this tenacity that just wouldn’t allow it. I often joined her on the walk back to her apartment after dinner because her antics and her sass made me laugh. When we reached her apartment, sometimes she would give me some ginger snaps, or a New Yorker magazine that she had finished reading. She always had an opinion about the cover illustrations. “What is this guy thinking? They put this on the front!? Look at this junk!”

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Her apartment had a jumbled, creative vibe. The dining room had been converted into a card-making workshop with piles and piles of stuff. Everything was a valuable resource to Greta; magazines, construction paper, lace, flower petals, fabric. During her service, her friend Pam described her as a “magpie with an artist’s eye.” I loved that. It’s very true of her.

A crowd of potted plants, either flourishing or long dead, were always huddled together beneath the window. Impressionist prints and artwork from various friends and neighbors hung on the walls. She had a network of pen pals all over the world- Japan, Oaxaca, Paris- who sent her little presents of postcards, pictures, baubles. She was fond of each item, and always found a place for them on shelves, or between the pages of books. Because I helped her get her mail, I was always at the right place at the right time to witness her excitement at receiving a postcard or a letter with those exotic marks of international postage. She told me that for years she wrote long letters to her Parisian friends in an effort to teach herself French. Using only a translator’s dictionary and rudimentary grammar, her letters were always savored by their recipients for their malapropisms and unexpected turns of phrase. Her dearest French friend would celebrate them as “poetry,” while her friend’s husband thought them utter nonsense. Greta of course was always certain of their quality.

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Greta with my dog Otis in 2011

She finally got a power scooter a year or two after moving into the community, which was a godsend for her. Her legs soon went out completely and she could no longer stand for very long. I started doing her dishes when I came over, and I loved the complete randomness of the treasures in her cabinets. One might find a Victorian teacup with a gilded handle nested in a chipped coffee mug, a mason jar, a stack of various plates as cohesive as the cover of Let It Bleed. She just liked stuff, by God, all kinds of stuff, and she kept every bit of it without any regard for convention. I’m not one to be surprised by bohemian digs, but I can’t stress how uncommon this is where I work, a place where every “proper” woman has a complete set of china and all of her crystal birds and porcelain angels fussily arranged in a curio cabinet. Greta, on the other hand, was lovably and unaffectedly eccentric. It set her apart.

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My hand-made cards from Greta

We wrote silly notes back and forth all the time. She made me cards for every holiday, every trip I took, sometimes for no reason at all. I brought her books to read, cooked for her okra and tomatoes with lots of garlic, and tried to connect her with other kindred spirits who lived at the nursing home. As the wife of a Professor of Aesthetic Philosophy, she traveled all over the world to attend seminars, gallery openings and exhibitions at international art museums. Her taste for beauty was untamed and broad; she was charmed by Cezanne’s apples, by fresh flowers, by patterned Mexican fabrics, by the novels of Flaubert. She once told me that as a young woman, she would prepare for herself the food, cocktails, or other indulgences consumed by the characters in the novels she was reading. She showed me a picture of her seated in a French cafe on the street, dressed in white from head to toe, a cigarette perched between her fingertips. It was like an image from LIFE magazine. She had this quality that Tom Waits has, where every photo of her makes it seem like she is not “real” somehow. Like she is so immersed in her environment that the photo is lying to you somehow by conveying her image.
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Greta cursed like a day laborer. It was amazing. If I spent more than ten minutes in her apartment, she was guaranteed to reverse her power scooter into a piece of furniture, denting it horribly and groaning, “Godammit!” or worse. Never before had anybody earned my respect with their skill for composing profanity. I guess I had it pretty good, because the worst thing she ever called me was a “dumb-bell,” which happened pretty often. Aside from French, she spoke pretty good Swedish as far as I could tell. She taught me a Swedish nursery rhyme traditionally accompanied by some knee-bouncing of a little one: “Rida rida ranka, hesten heter Blanka.” Ride Ride horse, it’s name is Blanka. …Guess it works better in the Swedish.

She lived in Sweden until she was a young girl. She told me her father was a harmonica player and a wonderful singer. When he came home late from the tavern, it was his singing that woke up the whole house. She loved to sing as well. I remember her reciting long passages of Gilbert & Sullivan songs. She also would sing this Bobby Darin song quite a few times (it must have been a favorite of hers):

Ooh … the ER-I-EE was risin’
And the gin was gettin’ low
And I scarcely think
We’ll get a little drink ‘
til we get to Buffalo….

Hear the song .

She would sing as she scooted through the lobby, sing in the hallways, sometimes even burst into song as we were speaking. Her voice was unrefined and her singing had this defiance to it that I loved. It was for her pleasure alone and nobody else’s. As someone who loves to sing and has no real ability, I can relate to the joy of it. I recognized a compatriot when I saw one.

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I shared my poetry with her, at a time in my life when I did not share anything with anyone. She was encouraging, and I almost regretted it, as hard as she pressed me for more material throughout our friendship. She especially enjoyed a poem that I wrote about my own grandparents, and she would recite lines from it with admiration. It was unbelievable that such an amazing person would enjoy my work. As she taught me more and more French words, she began telling me I had an aptitude for language. It was her persuasion that pushed me into the local community college for a semester of French.

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Greta had an amazing impact on my life. She listened to me. She encouraged me. She called me out when I was wrong. She was deliciously impolite. You never had to guess what she was thinking because she always spoke her mind. And she showed me a different mode of being alive, one that I’m so glad I found in her at that time in my life. She radiated positivity and strength; and whether she knew it or not, she shared it with everyone. She was celebratory of the things that charmed her; she loved to gush. “love, Love, LOVE” is a phrase she used in her cards, because just one “love” did not capture the way that she felt. One love does not capture how her friends and family felt about her either. She savored her life, and she lived it with an almost reckless joy. She wore freaking berets to dinner. Who does that?!

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I shared this poem with her in the last few months of her life. She loved it.
She made me a Valentine note as thanks that I’ll treasure forever.

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Her departure is a great loss to the world. There will never be another spirit like hers. If I could live as long as her, and know her joy, see the world like she saw it, I would be such a lucky soul.

Rest in peace, Greta.

A Host with the Most?

February 11, 2015

Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible podcast is the bright spot of my commute, a half-hour lurch through the orange and gray of ongoing highway construction. I am completely charmed with the refined and creative radio production of 99%, and I’m not alone! Mars has been recognized as one of the 100 most creative people on FastCompany.com. I’ve listened to most of the series, and I can attest that the show’s thoughtful structure and organic flow is a salve for the psychic wound inflicted by years of television news.

Although Roman Mars is the program’s figurehead and central voice, to call him a host would be a narrowing oversight. He has all the hallmarks of hostship; he is graceful and charming; he keeps things moving, and maintains the interest of the audience. But his real contribution to podcasts, a media for which he is infectiously enthusiastic, is the way he arranges the content. There are clear principles of clarity and organization. 99% Invisible succeeds because of Roman’s principles, his production, and his inclusive, humanist tone.

What are these principles?

Keep it short.
Keep it clear.
Keep it loose.
Keep it fun.
Imagine everyone is listening.

Roman keeps it short; he whittles away at interviews for concision and content. He uses his own voice to summarize, as opposed to allowing long-winded sources to wander all around the all-important point. In this way, he is like any decent journalist, except he has no obligation to fill the page. The episode structure, unlike a news report with details that are ranked by importance, is artfully fluffless. The initial phase of the show featured episodes that rarely eclipsed five minutes. It served as a soundtrack to a minor house project one weekend, and I found to my disappointment that I had coasted through over ten episodes. I had to listen to them again- the agony!

Roman keeps it clear; he interjects for the purposes of clarity, elaborates on the credentials of an interviewee, or explains historical significance or perspective.

Roman keeps it loose; he does not scrub the script so much that it feels like recitation. It’s not so refined that it lacks a pulse. The episodes always feature jokes or callbacks to previous episodes, unedited laughter, and statements of the obvious.

Roman keeps it fun; his voice comes in unexpectedly, in omnipotent parentheses, to add an editorial note, a self-deprecating joke, or just to prepare you with a word of caution before his source slanders a public figure or tells a dirty story. You can feel his presence in the production, in each musical backdrop or relevant sample of spoken word. Because it’s all so seamless, it’s easy to overlook the creativity behind the show, to forget that a snippet of sound must be dug up from an archive, a piece of music spliced, mixed, and timed to perfection.

Roman imagines everyone is listening; the inclusive tone of the show is refreshing. There is no posturing, no hipster exclusion. No one is damned for their taste. Roman’s attitude towards his audience, his colleagues and his source material is always generous, transparent, and above all, grateful. Modern media really deserves more of his sort of kindness. It’s reminiscent of the warm fuzzies you get from old P.B.S. shorts that thank “viewers like you.” In later episodes, he employs his two boys, Maslow and Carver, to promote the show’s sponsors, and this tiny voice will produce a charming non-sequitur or a bit of unexpectedly profound kid wisdom.

The beauty of these principles becomes especially clear when you compare his program to something like an evening news panel. I’m talking about the standard situation you might find if you turn on your TV after dinner: a host and 3 people at a table or on a split screen, discussing policy. A hypothetical evening news interview might feature somebody like Oyle Derrick, Head of the Council on Trans-Aquatic Petroleum Indulgence, who has “joined us to talk to us a little bit about why the taxpayer is better off without this expensive regulation.” Why Mr. Derrick? you would be right to ask. Once the dialogue begins, Mr. Derrick has the difficult task of legitimizing his presence on the show as he answers each question. There is always the tension of the tightrope act happening during live television, and the audience is always prepared to grow bored and throw popcorn. The audience demands not only entertainment, but secretly hopes for some disaster that they can “respond to” on Twitter. Tweeting cleanses us of the urge to participate before we can act in any substantial way. On nightly news, because it’s live or relatively so, even the most well-coached guests stammer and grope for a strong answer. Television news commentary does not feel credentialed and it’s not transparent, which is why the concept of trust is so often used in its branding. Trusted news network. Fair news network. It is an untrustworthy person who insists that they can be trusted. Live television could never aspire to the sort of organization and smoothness characteristic to 99% Invisible. In the Information Age, unfiltered information, like unfiltered vodka, is the crudest on the market.

The beauty of these principles stands in defiance of social media content (although to be fair, there is no real oversight there). I have watched social media turn into a constant roar of negativity over the years, an endless mega-cycle of attack pieces, vitriol and self-congratulation. Even legitimate outrage, the kind that spawns twitter campaigns and targets outrageous celebrities, draconian policy, and injustice has come to feel exhausting. There is pressure to echo the outrage, to join in and participate in public anger, shaming, to generate and direct negative energy towards some person or thing. To F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out) has been added this new sin for a generation of millenials: F.O.U.S.: the fear of unfashionable silence. The F.O.U.S. is why we have memes like KONY and ALS hit with megatons of force and retract into the ether like a wave. I have spent much of my time as a young man being outraged, and I don’t feel like it’s very good for my soul. Maybe I’m losing my edge.

So thank you Roman Mars for your contribution to media, for the bravery you showed when you created this little show about toothbrushes and state flags, the skyscraper, the fire escape, the elevator, the buildings of New York blog, the asterisk, the quatrefoil, the cul de sac, the pneumatic tube, and all of the other curious contributions of humankind. You’re more N.P.R. than activist, and I guess a lot of old fogies like me happen to be into that stuff. Godspeed, man!

Mary

January 10, 2015

My grandmother Mary Cady Priddy was a saint. She passed away on December 22, 2014, two days before what would have been her 90th birthday. Although quiet and humble, she was a fiercely intelligent, compassionate woman who lived a full and interesting life.

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She spent her childhood climbing trees, playing with the cows, and stomping in the creek behind this dairy farm in Richburg, NY. I went there once as a young man of maybe 13 or 14, to visit the family and friends that still lived there. Richburg’s people are the salt of the earth. They work hard, smile wide, and look out for each other. Hardships are endured through faith in God, and their emphasis on education and connection to the natural world is a source of true wisdom. Life feels very different there, elemental: wood, metal, glass, and snow everywhere, always with the snow, blowing around and stinging you. It feels like a step into the world of John Steinbeck and Robert Frost, that defining epoch of American history, one that I think with some sadness that we have moved too far beyond. Mary grew up in a time when virtue, faith, and community were real words that had sanctity.

She attended business school in Ohio. Her own writing from her early life indicates that she was incredibly bright, adventurous, and self-aware. She knew what she liked- traveling, reading, helping other people- and she built a life of her interests. To her, being alive was as plain as that.

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This is a photo of her in New York City, with her cousin Betty. The giddy expression on her face which I so love is a little uncharacteristic.

When she was 24 years old, she left America to pursue missionary work in Lahore, Pakistan. Lahore is the capital city of the Punjab region of northeastern Pakistan, and had a population of around 800,000 in the late 1940’s when she moved there. Although my brother, many of my cousins, and I have moved to bigger cities for work or education, in Mary’s case, there’s the unthinkable degree of complexity that comes with a non-Western culture and language. Although she benefited from the resources of the Christian Mission, I am eternally awed and impressed by her willingness to take on this challenge as an unmarried woman of the WWII era. It was there that Mary met Clyde Orville Priddy, a fellow Christian thought leader, and they were wed in Lahore before meeting each others’ families.

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This is one of my favorite photos of her, looking svelte, defiant, and fascinated with the world, walking through a market.

This was probably taken by my grandfather. I feel very fortunate that he was a talented photographer, and that he kept for so long the boxes and boxes of slide images from their time in Pakistan. Aside from Mary and his children, he took pictures of the local people, the mosques, and the markets. Their passion for the world is what I most admire about them both. I see it in all of his photographs, and read it in her letters.

During their time in Pakistan, Clyde and Mary were well known for providing messages of faith in English and Urdu. Clyde’s most famous work was the translation of the story of David and Goliath to the native language. They were blessed with three children in Pakistan, Philip, Isabelle, and Grace.

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I remember some of her stories. I wish I knew more. She once told me about a local cafe, where the patrons refilled their cups by dipping them over and over into a common vat of tea. She used it as tool to teach the people about disease prevention. My grandfather wrote of a night when he saw, to his excitement, the Telstar communications satellite passing overhead in the darkness. Airstrikes during the a regional conflict in the late 1960’s forced them back to the States after 14 years away. I sometimes wonder if they would have lived there forever.

When I spent time at her house as a boy, she was always playing games with me. Scrabble, Dominoes, Chinese Checkers, and Parcheesi were a few of her favorites. We also built cabins and towns with Lincoln Logs, or made crafts out of beads. She taught me songs on the piano, and evaluated my playing. She was tough on mechanics; even if my fingers found the notes, she’d scold me when my thumb failed to roll beneath the other fingers toward the next octave. Sometimes her and I would join Clyde in the living room to work a crossword puzzle together. I remember that the linoleum tiles in front of Clyde’s favorite spot on the sofa had worn out completely, like wooden steps in an ancient church. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him for hours, and he’d enter the house in a sweat from a long walk, with a new fossil or piece of petrified wood in hand. It animated him for a time, these discoveries. As a boy from the suburbs in an era of stranger danger, I remember being amazed and more than a little nervous at the idea of walking through town for hours alone. I wish I could have joined him on one of these walks. I understand now the joy of solitary walks, and like him I’ve put footprints all over the neighborhoods and surrounding natural areas where I’ve lived.

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Clyde in 2010

Mary’s time in Pakistan was evident in her cooking. She used to fix me white rice with Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup as a snack. I imagine these items were readily available to an American living in Pakistan, and I realize now that I was probably eating a staple dish from her time there. Sometimes she fixed popcorn in a popcorn making machine. She would send me to the microwave with a knob of butter to melt for flavoring. She always seasoned her chicken and other dishes with cumin, a spice that is seldom in the front of an American spice cabinet for easy reach. Aside from cumin, I remember that specific rich smell of tomato plants, and birdseed scattered everywhere in the backyard. Although I can also remember the smell of her old Honda with its cloth seats, I can’t recall the two of us going out into town together. It seems that if she left the house, it was for church on Sunday, or a major event like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Her only indulgences were from the bowl of orange candies in the kitchen, and she was the farthest thing from a consumerist. It wasn’t like her to prize a pair of shoes or a piece of jewelry. I didn’t think anything of it as a child, but I admire it so much now.

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Mary, with all of her grandchildren (2007).

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With me (2010).

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This is her typewriter. My mother brought it to Austin once during a visit, and I took it to a local shop to learn more about it. It needed a little oil, and the man who worked there really admired the model. Although her mind at that point was badly damaged by dementia, and she was hundreds of miles away, I experienced a surreal moment of connection as he demonstrated its features. I felt as if she sent a message to me from his fingers. I raced home and wrote this small tribute.

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Later, I used the old Royal Manual to expand upon these lines an entire collection of haiku. I loved the physicality of the process. Typewriters require creative decisions to be made BEFORE they are typed, whereas a word processor allows for the editing and writing to happen simultaneously. It feels flimsier somehow. Typing a page is a gesture of commitment; it takes moxie to use a typewriter, moxie or ounces of white-out and the patience of Job. When I pressed the keys, it felt like I channeled her strength, the strength that sent her halfway around the world and sustained her through New York winters, civil unrest and violence in Pakistan, four rounds of childbirth, and a life of duty to God and husband. My poems never really made it into the world, but they were given to a few people in books that I stitch-bound. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, now I feel sure the entire project, even the binding, was inspired by her typewriter and the dexterity of her hands.

Mary was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Never once did she gossip or say unpleasant things about other people. She loved every one, especially children, and did not expect anything in return. She knew no grudges. As an adult, I realize how hard it is to dissolve negative thoughts and to respect and honor all people, despite the way that they treat you. She is one of the few people I’ve ever met who clearly and truly had faith in God and practiced the teachings of Christ. If kindness is a quality I have, I know that it was gifted to me from her. In a capitalist society where kindness is met with suspicion, even decried as a weakness, I am proud that my grandmother was such a purposefully kind woman. I see her kindness and her love for the world as a legacy. She will be dearly missed by everyone who knew her. I wish she could have seen me grow out of the shifting and often silly phases of my youth, and talk to me today as a man. I would love so much to be inspired by her one last time. Rest in peace, Mary.

Naive Love

December 14, 2014

Love is a topic that David Byrne avoided so consistently in the music of the Talking Heads that it feels like a gesture of opposition toward the music industry. In 1978, when the BeeGees were still yodeling and strutting in sequins, Talking Heads put out their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978). The title suggests a glorification of the mundane. I can imagine a record executive scoffing at the idea of getting radio play for a bunch of songs about concrete, glass, spinach and pasta. Of course the album is not quite so ridiculous, and the songs are killer. The pioneering spirit of the Talking Heads, and one of their contributions that I find so interesting is how much they say. At a time when the horizons for pop music seemed pretty narrow, they proved that there was so much to explore. And if the lesson of Buildings & Food was lost on the industry, I like to think of the songs on their next record Fear of Music- Paper, Cities, Air, Animals, Drugs, to name a few- as further creative calisthenics from Byrne; he’s literally throwing anything against the wall (even the literal gibberish of “I Zimbra”) to see what works. The dude’s a friggin capital-A artist on a mission to prove that love is not the only profitable language of pop.

So Byrne and the Heads eventually get around to the subject of love, but in their own subversive style. Their one romantic hit, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” has a self-awareness that’s clear just by looking at the title, and was pushed to the end of the record’s B-side. The lyrics are mostly nonsense, and the music is saccharine: soft chords, high-pitched fiddly organ bits and the occasional cornball shimmer of chimes. As the lyrics gets sappy (Love me til my heart stops, love me til I’m dead) and the music swells at the song’s conclusion, he ends with a plea to be put out of his misery that makes me smile: “oh, hit me on the head.” I ain’t hating on this song, seriously. It’s such a good tune, and one that I come back to again and again.

In Stop Making Sense, David Byrne dances with a floor lamp during the song’s musical interlude. Like all of Byrne’s dancing, it straddles this line between hokey and care-free, and is super fun to watch. I would even go so far as to say that this affection between man and light fixture is strangely touching.

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Just as Talking Heads music challenged the standards of the music industry, Stop Making Sense challenged the norm of musical performance. The band members are introduced one at a time throughout the first half; workers are plainly seen moving set pieces around, and no effort is made to conceal the cameras. Amp stacks, scaffolding, floor tape and other “unsightly” features of the stage are plainly visible.

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Only at its conclusion does Stop Making Sense reach any conventionality, with theatrical lighting and a full band performing in an arena setting. Byrne focuses on the visual aspect of performance, and (quite brilliantly) takes the audience along on a dynamic, artful journey from start to finish. Like the rest of Stop Making Sense, a good deal of thought went into the visual impact of the segment with the floor lamp. It compliments the tone of the song so well. It’s not lusty or passionate but a naive joy- the way that Thumper closes his eyes as he smells a patch of flowers in Bambi. And of course, Byrne’s dance with the lamp is a bit of a parody of love, just as “This Must Be The Place” is a bit of a parody of a love song.

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Bravo, David. You’re a visionary, and I’m always having fun whenever I listen to your music.

Shitting on the Classics: Stale Champagne

May 21, 2013

This is a recurring segment, where I deride the work of much more talented and successful human beings out of personal bitterness. If you’re a hateful sort, I’m inviting you along with a gentle pat on the sofa cushion beside me. Join me, dear friend.
I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, for the first time since it was assigned in high school. I remember Eckleberg’s eyes over the Valley of Ash, and the ceiling being described as a frosted wedding cake. I remember the teacher discussing the literary devices in the description of the house with the French doors. I didn’t know what French doors were of course, so it damaged the visual impact (I just thought they were doors from France, doors that cost a pretty penny to ship overseas). I remember my literature teacher’s visible excitement. But I don’t think I really read the book. And it’s strange, because as much as I thought this second reading would flesh out the novel for me, it did not. It’s a novel with few footholds, and little meat on the bone. Despite all the high school discussion fodder I remember, now the novel seems resilient to examination.

There seem to be two novels present in The Great Gatsby: the novel Fitzgerald has given us, and the novel he thinks he has given us. Needless to say, Fitzgerald thinks he’s written a shining star to put on our town Christmas tree. But when the dialogue and the scenes start, they’re full of gossip, boredom, and self-indulgence. Or if there’s a party scene, there is gossip, drinking and dancing. The disconnect happens when majestic paragraphs unfold between these trivial scenes: Nick gets carried away with thematic words that clash like big brass cymbals! Love! Obsession! Idealism! It’s like you’re getting the novel and the literary criticism at the same time.

When the characters get together in one room, like a gossip magazine come to life, they bicker about who’s sleeping with who, or how in the world they’re going to get more cigarettes, or did you hear the new rumor about Gatsby? Occasionally Tom prattles on about some racist book he just read. to my mind, these scenes are not written very well. Or they are written well, and they’re just well-written scenes about uninteresting people. if this was a stage play, it would fall apart. there’s nothing… exciting that happens in these stretches of dialogue. And for a story full of infidelity, there’s really no suspense.

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Daisy and Gatsby’s intimate reunion is immediately out in the open as soon as it happens, and the tense showdown in New York City between Daisy’s husband and her lover is silly. This scene is positioned as if it were the centerpiece of the story. But it left my very cold. As violent as Tom proves himself to be in earlier chapters, i was very surprised he didn’t take a swing at Gatsby. Instead, the two men sit in a room in front of everyone, discussing whom Daisy loves more. This continues for what feels like hours. More surprising still than Tom’s lack of violence, is that at the height of his rage, he just lets Daisy leave the city in a car with Gatsby. None of this behavior struck me as human.

Daisy’s lack of agency in this scene is painful to read, as Gatsby and Tom try to use Jedi mind control on her. They pretend to know all of the inner workings of her emotional mind, which they have no knowledge of, and instruct her what to do as if she’s clueless (“She’s leaving you.” “No she is not.”). I know this sort of thing may have been typical of the time period, but it’s silly and disgusting to read. It doesn’t lend any credit to Gatsby either, who’s supposed to be a gentleman.

From the argument in chapter 7:
Gatsby: “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved any one except me!”
“Even that’s a lie,” said Tom savagely. “She didn’t know you were alive.
Gatsby: “You don’t understand. You’re not going to take care of her any more.”
Tom: “She’s not leaving me!”

Charming.

Kathryn Shulz makes a great point about Fitzgerald’s untimely misogynism in her write-up on Gatsby, which appeared recently in New York Magazine. She claims Fitzgerald has an “unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characters—single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin. (Don’t talk to me about the standards of his time; the man hell-bent on being the voice of his generation was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, not to mention the great groundswell of activists who achieved the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here he is in A Short Autobiography: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.”)” BOOOO…

So of course there are powerful, creative women doing important things during Fitzgerald’s era, just none to be found in his novel… It’s convenient that Schulz brought up Virginina Woolf also, because the prose styling that is so admired in Gatsby really plays second fiddle to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Also, Nick’s narration is suspect. His sentimental intrusions into the story feel like cheating by the author. They are little course corrections made by Fitzgerald, to remind the reader how (s)he is supposed to feel about the events and the characters. I haven’t read a novel with a bona fide narrator in so long that I’m unsure about what their purpose is, but Nick didn’t seem to help the story. Seeing the events through his eyes felt like looking at the entire story through a dirty window. Aside from being voyeuristic, Nick is supposedly an honest everyman, a faithful messenger for the audience. But his fanboy attitude towards Gatsby is distracting, and when he eulogizes him for the last few pages, I simply could not muster any sadness. Gatsby is a shallow obsessive, a profiteer, and most damning of all: he shows no compassion for the victim of a murder which he is an accessory to.

Lastly, this is a very bourgeois story. Rich people doing rich people stuff throughout. This is all well and good, but it represents a very very small percentage of American life for a novel that is hailed as the great American novel bar none. I don’t think Fitzgerald knew how to write a working class character. George Wilson is sort of close, but his shop is in the middle of a valley of ash. The suburbs, the farmlands, a blank expanse where nothing happens except the migration of dust clouds, it’s all the same to ol’ F. Scott, it seems. There’s old money, there’s new money, there’s the city where the two go to mingle, and everything else is ash. if this is supposed to be an ironic anti-capitalist message, as in… the rest of the country has been destroyed by industrialization and brute capitalism, for the benefit of the wealthy and indulgent, it’s genius. but i don’t think that’s Fitzgerald’s perspective. I don’t even think this is meant to be a cautionary tale about greed, because Gatsby is revered by Nick, and he seems just as bad as the other rich people that Fitzgerald dismisses as “careless” people who “makes messes.” As much as he seems to speak out against the ills of the Jazz Age, refined F. Scotty put on his suit and drank champagne with all of ‘em. If he is a satirist, he is also, as they say, a poser, dude.

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