Song #6 // Hey Rosetta!, “Soft Offering (For the Oft Suffering)” [Second Sight]

Hey RosettaWhere do personal affinities come from? Favorite colors? Desire for rainy vs. sunny days? Preferences, likes, and inclinations? Are they learned? Passed on? Associative, or aspirational?

Is my daughter–18-months old at the time of writing this–forming her affinities right now? Is her city upbringing instilling a desire to be around people and noise? Am I informing some other proclivities? Did her early liking of sweet potatoes ultimately lead to my eagerness to buy and make sweet potatoes which further enforced her liking of sweet potatoes?

Chicken or egg stuff, I suppose.

I don’t mean to wax philosophic. Far from it. It’s often been said–and rightly, I think–that we are what we like. Our favorite music, books, foods, types of friends, surroundings, etc. are more “us” than the DNA in our cells and the look upon our faces. We don’t just inhabit the lives we live, we cultivate the lives we live, constructing them over time and growing annoyed or despondent when they fail to live up to our internal image.

My life, of course, is filled with such affinities, some that can be traced back to upbringing, or to a nostalgia for my upbringing, and some that come from other place, some place I can’t seem to visit or understand.

That place, I’ve always known, is on a rocky, foggy shore overlooking an angry ocean. Such a scene is painted in many hues of gray: the sky, weathered woodwork, dampened roping, and salty mist is all from the same palette. As a result, I love everything associated with maritime (including, it should be noted, the very word maritime): the songs, the smoke, the culture. I read about ships and shipwrecks, gravitate toward smoky meats and fishes, prefer days where I’m rained in, prefer walking in the rain, took my honeymoon in the Canadian Maritimes, eating our first week of marriage through mussels, oysters, salmon, and lobster. It was love amongst love (even if my wife didn’t necessarily share the same loves.)

So I’ll always dream of retreating one day to the sea, or as close to the sea as I can to spend the rest of my days in that damp, ghost-given memory that I’m either reaching toward or back for. It’s in me as much as it’s something I’m longing to attain. Either way it’s me.

And so this video comes along. Against the smooth, cracked boulders at the end of the world, or Newfoundland, it’s good to know that this band is out there doing God’s work. Or something like it. For me. For all of us.

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Song #5 // Bahamas, “Stronger Than That” [Bahamas is Afie]

Bahamas

Like most people, I spend my free time indulging in revenge fantasies.

Most of them are situational, and not directed at any one person. They’re also not really about revenge so much as they are about being wronged. As in: I’m the one being wronged and no amount of car-horn honking, head shaking, or generalized tweeting of displeasure is enough to assuage the wrong that’s been done to me and the righteous anger I feel.

You know, like how most people feel and react.

Among the short list of things that elicit these moments of quiet indignation, I include:

  • Uber, Lyft, etc.
  • Anyone who patronizes Uber, Lyft, etc.
  • Teach For America
  • Drivers who roll through stop signs
  • People who read magazines (except magazines I like, which are usually about sports, but not the NFL or NBA)
  • The NFL and NBA
  • People who use the word “bitch” (with the exception of the few people who still say “bitchin'”)
  • People who make more money than me
  • Drunk people when I’m sober
  • Sober people when I’m drunk
  • Walmart
  • Anyone self-consciously choosing to be gluten-free
  • Politics
  • Bros, dudes, etc.
  • Beautiful women when I’m feeling ugly
  • Budweiser, Coors, etc.
  • Litterers
  • Non-religious people who complain about religion
  • Religious people who complain about non-religious people
  • E!, TLC, etc.
  • People who aren’t me
  • Passengers seated in First Class
  • Politics
  • Facebook
  • Those who use Facebook
  • Slate, Salon, etc.
  • Dudes who walk around naked in the locker room
  • Late mail delivery
  • People who don’t move their bags off of vacant seats for people on the bus and train
  • Buses and trains
  • Rude people (in general and to service workers in particular)
  • People who don’t smile at little children
  • Year-end lists

This list isn’t meant to be funny. Not really. It’s true a lot of times. Too many times. I don’t act on it. It passes. I’m annoyed and selfish and feel like everyone’s wrong but me. I know all of this. It’s dumb. But still, there are moments every few days where it just seems like the world is out to get me, or my very basic modicum of a decent approach to living is being ignored. Which it is. Which is fine. Really.

This song is sorta like that. Uplifting. Fun. A moving target. When I saw Bahamas in concert this fall he introduced this song by saying it was one of the first he’d written, and for years it just never worked. Not as a rock song. Not as a Celtic song. And in concert he played it, in his words, as a Bonnie Raitt version. It was great, but not the version below. Nothing’s perfect. And sometimes things just never completely fall in line.

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Song #4 // Ray LaMontagne, “Ojai” [Supernova]

SupernovaTo get from my house to the beach you need only travel a few mostly-flat miles, but you also pass through at least 500 years of human history, including arguably the oldest remaining building in the city of San Francisco (the present-day Presidio Officers’ Club; the contested “second” oldest building in SF being Mission Dolores a few miles south.) Though the Spanish established the military/religious outpost known as El Presidio in 1776 (which subsequently passed into Mexican and then Californian/American hands before finally being ceded from the U.S. Army to the National Park Service in 1994), the local indigenous people, the Miwok, were the first to call the sandy dunes and coastal scrub home at least since the 1500s (when Sir Francis Drake’s men first accounted for them) but possibly as far back as 4,000-5,000 years ago. Many people don’t realize that Miwok descendents still reside in the Bay Area.

After driving down Greenwich, turning right onto Lyon (the infamous Lyon St. steps are now a few blocks behind you), and left onto Lombard you pass into the main artery of the military post. On the right are recent, but historically evocative, office buildings comprising the Letterman Digital Arts complex. Its main tenant, Lucas Film, is largely credited with making the current Presidio financially viable. Lucas (who named his Star Wars Ewoks after the native people) was the first major tenant of the park, helping to raze the defunct Letterman military hospital and putting in its place a group of office buildings, beautifully manicured landscaping, and a Yoda statue and fountain that many unknowingly pass by each day in their tour busses and rented bikes.

As you curve deeper into the Presidio you pass by remarkably competitive residential flats and the main post’s long-standing hospital, which now houses non-profits and an incredibly tasty (and, again, hidden) cafe. The original post hospital is just down the road–on the left, after the newly daylighted stream through Tennessee Hollow and the YMCA–and is self-proclaimed as the oldest modern building in the park. The closest outcropping of the building is shaped like a hexagon; it was in this relatively well-lit part of the building where surgeons operated by daylight. At the bottom of the building, sticking out from the natural hillside, is where the morgue used to be.

The Main Post is next, which is what many largely consider “The Presidio” for all intents and purposes. Its large grassy area is the old parade grounds, and was all asphalt and concrete until just a few years ago. Now it hosts film showings, weekly food truck gatherings, and ongoing archeological digs as it’s sheltered from the strong winds coming through the Golden Gate by 100-year-old barracks.

After passing between one of these red buildings, the only remaining cemetery within city limits is on your left, housing soldiers and their families from Civil War times on. Cemeteries once dotted the city, but following the 1906 earthquake, only this one–later deemed a U.S. National Cemetery–was allowed to stay. That, and, of course, the nearby Pet Cemetery that still remains.

You then pass briefly through the man-made forest of the Presidio. Home to at least a dozen major trails, the forest–mostly Monterey Cyprus and Pine, and Tasmanian Bluegum Eucalyptus–is entirely man-made. It was part of the single biggest conservation effort in U.S. history, and is what many locals even today still consider to be “natural.” The truth is, this outpost was naturally so barren (with only scrub, low-slung native oaks, and blowing sand dunes) that the U.S. army planted the forest first out of necessity for protection from the elements, and only secondarily to separate the post from the nearby city, and to beautify the surroundings. It was never really meant as a long-term solution, and so the Monterey Cyprus in particular, which have a lifespan of about 100 years, are all set to come down at any moment. Fortunately, the park is aware of this, and planting more to strike a balance between what’s natural and what’s “natural.”

Onward past Fort Scott (actually a completely separate fort from the Main Post) and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge that is so close you feel as if you’re practically on top of it, you curve left and finally get some views of the Pacific Ocean. Even though it’s just a few miles from my house (and from the city, in general) the ocean can feel far away and foreign. Now, with it on your right, just below the batteries installed for land defense between the Civil and Cold Wars, it feels like a natural extension of the park’s beauty. You drop several hundred feet now, passing trails and more contemporary barracks on your left, and toward the entrance of Baker Beach.

The beach here is nestled within its own small cove. At one end is Land’s End, a excellent trail (and where I proposed to my wife), that towers over breakers where surfers sometimes take the plunge for a short and choppy ride. Curving inward past the Mediterranean vibe of the Sea Cliff mansions you cross over the only remaining natural spring in the city that still flows to the ocean year-round. A young Ansel Adams lived nearby, and supposedly honed his love of nature and perspective near this spot. The actual beach then runs until it hugs WWII-era bunkers on the right, a kinda-sorta nude beach, and giant cliffs that rise to meet the Golden Gate Bridge. Foggy and confused ships once wrecked here. The original Burning Man was held here.

Though this past May, on the morning of my birthday when I drove out here by myself (a present I’d given to myself), none of that was on display. In fact, alone, with a coffee, pastry, and journal in hand, none of the history explained here was on my mind.

Instead, I was able to take a seat on the cool sand and look out over the gently lapping waves of the Pacific and into the Marin Headlands, still primordial like the clouds and sky above them. It was then as if time had stopped, or as if time had never existed. What, really, could anyone ask for beyond that for a birthday? To be alone and timeless. At peace with memory and with looking forward?

The entire way out to the beach that morning I listened to Ray LaMontagne’s “Ojai” on repeat. Its fuzzy, bouncy bassline rolling like a story being told back to me. Its honkytonk piano and outlook suspended like a hopeful pragmatism. Its joy like a promise I was making to myself.

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Song #3 // Sharon Van Etten, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” [Are We There]

sharon_van_etten_are_we_there-500x500Here’s my theory for why the podcast Serial is supposedly so popular: (1) People love true crime dramas, and they love them even more when they believe a main character may be innocent, it’s the American spirit of rooting for the underdog and believing that the system is flawed, but ultimately works; in short, people want to believe Adnan Syed is innocent, if for no other reason than we’re hearing this story through his perspective, and (2) Most people had never really listened to podcasts, or had only done so intermittently like a DVR for missed episodes, and suddenly it was socially cool to do so, it was on trend; listeners very quickly realized the potential of a new medium despite the fact that the medium wasn’t new at all.

Serial is a good podcast. The journalism is expertly done, and should make us all miss what great reporting (whether on the radio, online, or on TV) can do to/for us. The voices of the characters are varied, engaging, and always surprising. Describing why she should start listening to the podcast after I was already seven episodes in, I told my wife “because literally every person they talk to has a differing view of what happened.” Like great pieces of literature, such divergence makes us question everything. And, of course, a podcast has the advantage over print literature that the production can be professional and slick. The sound editing is well done, the balance of commentary versus evidence is well timed, each episode goes along at its own pace, ending delightfully with cliffhangers that keep us coming back.

But beyond that, for regular podcast listeners like me, it’s just a good, solid podcast. No more no less. Well, perhaps with a slightly better than average story. Despite this, it’s nothing revolutionary. The idea of telling a story over several episodes over several weeks is nothing new (see Dan Carlin’s meandering, epic, and ongoing series Hardcore History). There are no bells and whistles, either literal or figurative, to supplement of the minimal narration (staying with history, see the contagious BackStory with the American History Guys). There is a clear storytelling element, with an uncertain narrative arc, but again, nothing new (see The Truth.) And even the host program—This American Life—seems to me have jumped the shark years ago, yielding the top spot of “best podcast” to the loved-or-hated brilliance of Radiolab.

(Though to be fair, I saw Ira Glass give a talk two years ago and he spent a considerable amount of time detailing how Radiolab was his favorite podcast, too, and how he’d love to make his show that good if only they had the time. That being said, it was also during this talk that I realized that I didn’t really like Ira Glass. He talked for two hours and swore like a pre-teen who was trying to impress the big kids. It was these and other observations that made me glad he was confined to public radio in hour-long segments; sometimes all-you-can-eat still isn’t worth the price.)

I say all of this not to be cynical. Nor claim any ownership over the apparent podcast phenomenon we currently find ourselves in. After all, if/when there is a second season of Serial will people still be interested? Will a less sympathetic main character translate into the same public professions of passion and binge listening? More than anything, once it goes dark at the end of the year, will people suddenly take an interest in other series? Other podcasts?

We don’t know. I don’t know. And, again, I’m trying not to be cynical. But this is all very curious, and I have a feeling that the podcasting class I’ve been teaching for years will get a lot more looks this coming winter. All for better or worse. It’s all entertainment after all.

Which is all to say that I’ve resisted reading most articles about the series, especially the blogs and commentaries where relative nobodies explain what they think about the show (insert self-aware irony here.) But I’ve likewise resisted looking up any background information—like photos—about the main “characters.” I’d rather they exist in my mind, between my headphones, mostly on the bus, train, or car ride home from work. Like for most radio voices, my imagination has been set free by missing stimuli. Without fully being able to articulate the details, I have rough sketches of the people’s faces, wardrobes, and surroundings. It’s a landscape at once blurry and fine-grained. It’s mine, and mine alone, without the interference of fact.

Which is perhaps a third part of the theory I haven’t mentioned yet: (3) For all the talk about the cultural phenomenon of Serial—of people listening to it together, talking about it with friends, being on trend for downloading it—it ultimately is a very intimate experience; it’s mostly us, alone, with our thoughts and these outside voices. Everything else—all the things that are ready-made for us day to day, from TV programming to web and Word templates, to predictable status messages—in our modern lives is prefabricated in all its shiny detail, giving us at best only an illusion of surprise. This, though, is undefined. We don’t know the history (really.) We don’t know the future (and I’m not sure we really want to.) And, for people like me, we don’t even know exactly what the people look like beyond their voices.

This all relates to Sharon Van Etten, I swear. When I first became aware of her two years ago, I was likewise listening to her on headphones on rainy cross-town bus rides. She was brooding, moody, and dark. She was a badass who at once was singing my story, but also taking it to a much deeper place where even I in my worst days didn’t dare go.

And then I met her. (Well, actually I met her with my friend Christian, who it should be said, is also a bigtime podcast listener.)

She was so small. So cute. So welcoming and funny.

You might expect me to say that the seeming contradiction in aural persona and in-person character was disappointing, or disarming. But that’s not quite it. If anything, I liked her more. She was so much more complex for this gap in perception. She was more like me: a real person, which—even though I always thought I wanted a caricature of someone strumming my depression—turned out to be exactly what I wanted.

And she was still a badass. In concert, when I first heard her play this song, she drawled, “I washed your dishes/ But I shit in your bathroom” and people kind of laughed. Not because it was funny, but because it was such a juxtaposition. Such an honest juxtaposition.

Neither one thing nor the other. Both.

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Song #2 // Beck, “Morning” [Morning Phase]

BeckThere are things I remember. It was April 1, a Tuesday. It was the first day of a new semester, and I was in a good mood. It might have been raining, or dark. I don’t recall. It might have felt like spring. I got the call on my way home. Most nights it takes two hours from campus to my front door, and it had been about an hour and change when “Mom Cell” appeared on my screen. I didn’t answer. The bus was in Chinatown. It was packed. Loud. I was crammed into a side seat in the back. They were supposed to be in Europe, and if they were back by now, the call was just to tell me they were home. I let it go to voicemail. They weren’t. For some reason I checked the message. My heart stopped. I remember that. I felt forced to stay put. I wanted to jump and scream, but I had to keep waiting till the bus slowly unloaded over several miles, and I was home.

It’s a blur, but it must have been the next day. It couldn’t have been that night. I bought a last-minute red-eye and I was on BART in the early evening, making my way down to SFO. I needed something to focus on and so I listened to Beck’s Morning Phase in its entirety. It was perfect. It was the exact soundtrack for this exact moment, especially as I looked across the carpeted car and the faces downcast or outcast. I remember thinking to myself, “I am a son going to see his father die. This is what happens in life, and now it’s happening to me.”

It was as clear as that. As emotionless as that. I felt no judgment nor any need to judge. BART took exactly as long as it needed to take, and I was at the airport, trying to enjoy the melodrama of ordering my dad’s favorite beer at the bar. It cost $9. I drank it too slowly, and soon enough it was time to board. I don’t recall speaking to anyone, nor anyone speaking to me.

I landed in Newark the next morning. It felt like New York, but forgotten. Things seemed loud and foreign, even in the near-empty ground floor. My bag arrived but my mom didn’t answer her phone. I waited for an hour as I looked out into the morning and wondered if my dad had passed through those doors as he was rushed to the hospital. The details are, of course, his business, or our business, but it’s no secret that it was bad. He was, very nearly, dead. Both when he was taken from the airplane and this morning, when I was only a few miles away with no one else to call and no idea where to go.

I eventually found a cab. He didn’t talk to me, though he overcharged me. I half-heartedly found myself and yelled at him, or lectured him, about taking advantage of people. He didn’t care. I don’t remember if I cared. I was out $20, but money meant nothing. Not much meant anything. I was at the hospital, and far from coming to see things end, it felt as if things were just starting.

I remember my mom looking older than I’d ever seen her. And smaller. I remember my father’s bloated body. The many tubes. The breathing machine. Time runs together. He woke up at one point, and I’ve never–in my life gone by, nor in anything I ever hope to encounter again–seen any living creature as scared as he was as he looked at me. He suddenly had strength and pushed himself up in bed. Away from me. Seeing me raised something in him. He shouldn’t be here, he was thinking. I was thinking. I remember, over the near-week I was there, him slowly getting better, not dying, not recovering; two steps forward, one back. Being alone in the room with him. Not sure what to say. Feeling protective, but also like I should be protected. As if by reverting to a needy child, I could bring him back. I remember going alone to visit him in dialysis. I sat next to his bed as his blood ran through a humming machine next to me. This was near the end of my stay (I had to get back to work, and my family) and he seemed strangely lucid. We talked, but eventually he was too tired. And cold. I urgently asked a nurse for a blanket, hoping that that would be the cure to everything.

Months later he revealed that he didn’t remember anything about that day. It was, perhaps, my one calm memory from that time. Once he told me this, the details began to fade for me, too.

Meanwhile I cared for my mother, who was injured in an unrelated fall, and could only move across the linoleum floors at a snail’s pace with the help of a walker. We were staying in nurses’ old rooms. Thin blankets and stained floors. There was nothing to eat and seemingly nothing around the hospital. We ate in the same small diner on premises for every meal. Late one night needing to escape the inevitability of sadness and frustration I was feeling in my father’s room I went down to get a coffee. The young woman who worked there saw me, and when I waited at the counter for the chef to come out and charge me my meager sum, she waved him off, saying, “He’s fine.”

It was the single most generous thing anyone’s ever done for me. I wanted to cry, but as was the case for that entire week, I didn’t. The next week, when my mom was still there, essentially sentenced to the purgatory of fluorescent lights and waiting room TVs, the same woman walked her to her table. I can only imagine she wouldn’t let her sit down until she had wiped the spent salt grains from the formica. My mom, no doubt grateful, still eased herself down and ate alone.

Personal tragedy is difficult to communicate, especially in hindsight, especially when ostensibly everything worked out. People lived. We all went home. We joke about hating Newark. It’s a distant, if forgotten, memory. But in those days, I felt like I could see for the first time in 360-degrees. I saw myself simultaneously as a child and as an adult. I saw myself living the life that I had only seen in movies or through a telescope lens. I saw control and chaos, and the utter despair in realizing how fragile love is. How temporary life is. How alone we really are.

It would be weeks before I’d give in and let myself feel all of this. It would also be weeks before my dad was let go from yet another hospital. Weeks before my mom could feel a relative peace. Spring slowly slowly turned into summer, but not without a bitter fight. It wasn’t easy or quick. It felt like a tantrum.

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Song #1 // Wild Cub, “Thunder Clatter” [Youth]

20140123_wild_cub_91Three years had passed since I first heard Keegan DeWitt in a Michigan barn and when I heard him again on the radio while driving in San Francisco. My immediate thought in the latter scenario–as I listened to KFOG while driving down the sharp crest of Divisadero atop Pacific Heights and into the waiting valley of the Western Addition–was along the lines of, “Hey, I know this song…” After all, I had only heard it once while alone and buzzed on cheap beer when I was still a student. Now, though, I was driving my wife and daughter to some friends’ house on a Sunday morning. This was so much more real.

Eventually I realized the song as one of DeWitt’s, but as the DJ announced it by the band Wild Cub, my only thought was that he had sold it and they were doing a note for note cover. “Good for him,” I first thought. Followed by, “I carried that guy’s guitar.” It was weeks later before I realized Wild Cub was his new band, and that as poppy and sunshiny as it was, I was allowed to like this song. Maybe it was for teeny-boppers. Maybe it was for dads who still used the term teeny-boppers, but either way, I had something akin to cred that gave me the right to like this.

It’s OK just to be happy sometimes. To just like things that are slightly embarrassing yet just make you feel good. Make you want to roll down the window before rolling it back up at a stoplight. Though maybe I’m being too hard on them, or on myself. Either way, I didn’t see any harm in tapping along to this last January, and I still don’t nearly a year later.

Post-Script: I’m two years removed from writing these reviews. I write this as I have to finish grading, prepare for jobs interviews, and do a host of things to simultaneously close out the year and prepare for a new one. An excuse for mediocrity? Perhaps. But I just explain it here so that no future mea culpas are necessary. From now on when you read another snoozer like this you can have the internal debate of “Man, that sucked,” on one hand, and “Give the guy a break, he’s busy, and he already apologized once,” on the other.

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2014 Year in Review

It’s that time of year again: time to attempt the impossible and post a short story for every song that composed my playlist for the year gone by. Like in years past, the annual Year in Review playlist is both a chronicle of the songs that made up my previous year, as well as the playlist for a compilation that will be given to my sister as a Christmas gift. Along the way I’ll try to write a brief (sometimes related) story for each. Last year I didn’t get very far, but this year…this year…

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Director of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric – Search

It gives me great pleasure to share the following job call for a new Director of PWR with a joint appointment in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Affiliated with PWR since 2005, I am now the lone representative from PWR on the committee (as a non-tenure-track lecturer, to boot), and so I’m happy to answer any questions about the Program and/or the projected relationship we hope to cultivate with the GSE. Feel free to share with interested colleagues by the deadline, December 15.

The job application can be accessed here: https://academicjobsonline.org/ajo/jobs/5029

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