The frail beauty of curiosities without context

I wish I could regularly walk like I’m lost. I want to look up at the sky, meandering without purpose, instinctively slipping past the other people on the sidewalk – people who walk, like I do in actuality, like they had somewhere to be five minutes ago, especially if they didn’t. Walking like that deflects attention and precludes conversation. It’s practical, it’s easy, and it creates moments that are no sooner experienced than forgotten. Aware of the people around you, the storefront canopies overhead, and the incessant sounds of cars just a few feet away, nothing else registers. The noise is the experience.

With daily life often overflowing with nothing but background noise, I think about how constant awareness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Just be present, the internet told us a couple years ago, and your quality of life will improve. It certainly depends on what you’re present for, but I think in a lot of cases increased presence just means your head is filled with more debris than it would be otherwise. More context for a subject that has yet to reveal itself.

Because of the deafening level of white noise provided by 1) office life and 2) the internet, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of compelling things free of context (even ones designed to be that way). Iceland provided one such curiosity. In the gift shop of Reykjavik’s Harpa concert hall, I came across this beautiful boy, hilariously named “Fred.” There was nothing else – no indication of who Fred was or what intellectual property he was attached to. I knew nothing other than that I loved Fred. I was ready to believe that Fred was a standalone character that just existed to grace the three stickers in that gift shop, and nothing else. And the strange part is that the truth wasn’t that far off. Continue reading “The frail beauty of curiosities without context”

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Ten Foods You Should NEVER Microwave

10. Pizza

Pizza arrives at your door hot. This is not because pizza generates its own heat (it doesn’t). It’s because pizza is better hot than cold. Microwaved pizza is just one step up from cold. Use the oven!

9. Broccoli

The issue with microwaving broccoli is that broccoli is trash and your microwave deserves better. Continue reading “Ten Foods You Should NEVER Microwave”

It’s Still Real To Me

I never got to live in a world where wrestling was real.

It was the first prerequisite to be able to watch wrestling with my dad. Before I even saw one match, I was let in on the secret that most kids have to figure out on their own, or the thing that ruins their ability to love wrestling entirely. It was fake. The people in the ring knew how to do moves without hurting each other, everything was predetermined. The person with their hand raised didn’t get there by some triumph of the human spirit, by being the best in their craft, by having the most devastating finishing move, but rather because it was how the script went. I was in on the joke of wrestling and I loved it anyway.

None of my other friends were into wrestling, save for when we’d play WWF games on my Nintendo 64. I’d always chuckle to myself as they picked wrestlers that were clearly inferior to my favorites. They just didn’t know any better.  I took the advantage and smiled. I wasn’t the kid who ran around in branded merch talking about wrestling with anyone who would listen. It was something for just me and my dad

My dad and I spent every Monday night watching these larger-than-life characters throwing themselves at each other as if the fate of the world depended on it. We never ordered a single pay-per-view, but I’d wait with baited breath for my dad to come home the next day with a stack of printouts with the results from the show the previous night, trying to piece together what it must have looked like for one of my guys to win the title after working so hard.

My hero was Stone Cold Steve Austin, the surly redneck stand-in for every working man who hated his boss. When the bad guys would try to rig the story to go their way, I would almost shake with anticipation knowing that at any minute the sound of glass shattering would burst in through the sound system and Stone Cold would be on his way to the ring to dispense with some comeuppance. He wasn’t afraid to stand up to anyone and he never backed down from a fight. As a goody-goody, I was drawn to the way that Stone Cold Steve Austin was a BAD DUDE without being a bad guy. I may or may not have been grounded once or twice because I thought a friend needed a Stone Cold Stunner at a sleepover. I would get so mad when things didn’t go Austin’s way, even though I knew it was in the script. Even though I knew that everything would eventually end with my hero’s hand raised high and a title belt around his waist. Without fail, those moments came, and glass would shatter, and there he’d be. The winner and the champion. Dad and I would celebrate wildly. Well, mostly me, but Dad was never sad to see me enjoying myself. And in those moments, maybe wrestling had been real.

beat the champ

I write all of these old memories because one new song by my favorite band in the world just brought them all rushing back. The Mountain Goats just released “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” from their upcoming pro wrestling themed album Beat The Champ. John Darnielle tells the story of his childhood hero Chavo Classic, and most importantly, of himself watching Chavo bring justice into a world of uncertainty. Chavo, for Darnielle, was someone who would never let him down, even though others always did. In a triumphant 3 minutes that I’ve listened to probably 40 times since it was released this morning, Darnielle weaves a story of the importance of heroes, of hating everything that stands in their way, of the anticipation of triumph when you see someone you love ascend to the top rope, ready to win in spite of everything that says they shouldn’t.

Darnielle says that he wrote Beat the Champ  “…to re-immerse myself in the blood and fire of the visions that spoke to me as a child, and to see what more there might be in them now that I’m grown.” If this one song can take me back to jumping on my parents’ bed watching grown men in underwear pretend to beat the hell out of each other, I can’t wait to hear the rest of it. You can listen to “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” below and you can get Beat the Champ when it releases April 7th.

My third best friend was an author who didn’t know I existed

One of the many oddly incredible things about music is the relationship between the songwriter and the listener.  More specifically, a there is a relationship, despite the fact that the two people have never met and one of them is totally unaware of the other’s existence.

Like, I know I’m not alone in feeling that I know Adam Duritz or Eminem better than I know most of the people I’m actually, technically acquainted with.  Good lyrics resonate with listeners in a way everyday interactions never will, simply because of how guarded people normally are.  That defense mechanism isn’t there in music—an artist’s raw emotional story is there for the observing.

I’ve thought for a while that my generation will be defined by the struggle between doing things “manually” and doing them with technology, whether it be finding information, drawing, writing, or connecting with others.  The way we emotionally interact with music and musicians is a microcosm of this conflict.  The technology, mass distribution of everything, allows us to powerfully connect with people who will probably never know we existed.  And in some ways the connection is stronger than ones we have with people who do know we exist.

So maybe equality of the involved parties isn’t the greatest measure of how meaningful a relationship is.  Musicians, authors, even fictional characters can impact us in ways “real people” can’t, even when (or maybe because) information is almost exclusively flowing in one direction.  The lack of immediate feedback might be what allows expressions of music or writing to be so much more emotionally open than everyday interactions.  We can also identify with these expressions unashamedly, with no fear of what the songwriter or author with think of our doing so.

It’s different to think of being friends with someone you haven’t met.  But all of us are.

It’s an acquired taste

Whenever you tell somebody you don’t like something, one of the worst responses you can hear is a condescending “it’s an acquired taste.”  It makes you feel really small, just for having an honest and valid opinion on the worth of some food, song, book, or whatever.  As if not having that acquired tasted makes you less important.

As a person who doesn’t like coffee and doesn’t see any point in forcing myself to drink it until I do, I’ve always thought “it’s an acquired taste” was a euphemism for “it has prestige, but it’s bad.”  The fact that those two phrases can even be linked is potentially an ominous symptom of a greater societal problem, but that’s not a question for this space.

I think acquired tastes are an unintentional conspiracy (we need a word for a conspiracy that’s not actually a conspiracy at all, it’s just something that happens that if someone consciously planned it’d be really shady).  Most people aren’t pretending to like coffee, but I do believe that once people have forced themselves to like it, they have an incentive to maintain its status.  If coffee loses its prestige, all the work people put into making coffee bearable was for naught.  So people unconsciously propagate the idea that coffee is the cool, mature, working-man’s drink.  They naturally want to preserve the sense of satisfaction they get from having acquired a taste.

Of course, not everyone has to go to great lengths to enjoy coffee, just like some people actually liked The Scarlet Letter the first time they read it.  These people get a free pass in some sense, because they get all the perceptual benefits of having an acquired taste without having to go through the arduous process of acquiring it.

There’s really no point to this observation, other than it’d be nice if everyone could just like what they like and not worry about how sophisticated it looks.

Talking to Myself

There’s a certain arrogance involved in podcasting. From the moment you sit down and decide to record you have made the following assesment: people who are not participants in this conversation either want or need to hear this conversation. Chase and I just recorded the first episode of the Irrational Cast (name pending) and though we hit some rough patches, I think it went really well. But there was a sense of dread in the back of my mind.

“What if no one cares?”

This quickly transitioned into the,  “No one cares!” panic.

We salvaged it, and even managed to make jokes about it throughout. Example: “Welcome, Future Jeff and Future Chase, the only people still with us at this point”.

I think the problem with podcasting when you’re not comfortable with it yet is the removal of the feedback loop. The audience that you’re recording for is not present during the recording. You can’t gauge reactions and adjust accordingly. In fact, corrections can’t really be made until the following episode since by then hopefully someone will have commented on the content.

It’s the same principle that governs the fact that I’ve never left a professional sounding voicemail. From the moment I get the notification that I will not be speaking to a real person, all of my conversational aptitude goes away. I’m sure if you’ve ever listened to one of my messages, you’ve heard me stammer through a one-sided conversation desperately trying to get out all the necessary information so I can hang up and be done with it. It was so bad at one point that I would barely speak at all before hanging up, resigning myself to call again later.

People like the cast of The Comedy Button continually astound me because of how well they exist without the immediate feedback loop. They tell stories and jokes and can know that people are laughing along with them, even when common sense dictates that no one would want to hear raccoon facts or stories about their trip to the zoo. They become a highlight of the week without having to try too hard to be funny.

Maybe one day we’ll figure it out and we’ll have a story too.

Two Moons

I’m tired of being told I feel invincible.  And I’m confused by who’s doing the telling.  It’s parents, teachers, mentors—the generation that’s raised mine.

I don’t get it.  My generation doesn’t feel invincible and we never have, and you, our predecessors, should know that best of all.  We’re the ones you had to console when we woke up terrified in the middle of the night because the world went on forever.  We’re the ones who now hide behind facebook and twitter because our real selves feel so breakable.  We’re the ones whose harried feet fall heavy on the accelerator because the wind whispers rush rush rush as we run away from the dangerous everything.

We’ve grown up watching sensational news that constantly reminds us: everyone is expendable.  The message has hit its mark.

We feel so vulnerable that we appear to believe we aren’t.  The world is hazardous enough that nothing can keep us safe and it’s barely worth trying to be.  It’s not that we feel invincible; we’re just thoroughly resigned to how fragile we are.

So it’s a tough blow to take, to always be told how arrogantly confident we are in our own right to exist.  The smirk and reproach don’t help us deal with our existential insecurity.

As in many situations, I’m not sure what would help, but it’s not that.  Cross it off the list and keep looking.

Cellf Importance

First of all, I must apologize for the terrible pun in the title. I couldn’t stop myself.

I woke up Wednesday morning in a panic. On my bedside table I saw my cell phone unattached to its charger. I had neglected to plug it in overnight. As I furiously tried to will a charge into being, I saw that I was going to miss my bus if I didn’t leave soon. I shoved my lifeless phone into my pocket, more out of habit than anything else, and headed out the door.

The whole time I was at school that day I walked around worrying with a newfound sense of self-importance. The thought that kept running through my head was “What if somebody needs me?” In my mind, this was the voicemail waiting for me when I got home:

“Hello, Jeff. It’s Barack. Still had your number from the 2008 mailing list so I figured I’d give you a call. Was really hoping you could help me with some last minute preparations for tonight’s debate. Uh, give me a call when you get this. Thanks.”

Obviously that is ridiculous, but having no way to communicate with anyone gave me this feeling of importance that EVERYONE needed to speak with me that day. Because I became so used to being interconnected with everyone else, the fact that I wasn’t for a brief period of time was almost like a bit of culture shock.

Here’s what I probably would have used my phone for that day while I was at school: Meticulously checking Twitter for news about injury reports for my fantasy team, texting Chase for a second opinion on whether I, as an unathletic white guy, could pull off a “Ball So Hard University” hoodie (Don’t worry, we ended up exchanging Facebook messages on the subject. Signs point to yes!), frantically seeing what time it was, and texting various people about various non-urgent things.

Truth is, I was at work for most of the day where I don’t get cell reception anyway. The mere fact that I couldn’t call anyone if I wanted to made me feel like a much more necessary cog in the universal machine. The interconnected nature of our world is incredible, but when we take that away, it tends to inflate our own self worth because we know people absolutely need to be able to get a hold of us at all hours.

And for those of you wondering, when I finally plugged my phone in, nothing was waiting for me.

Lighthouse

For a couple weeks as a kid I wanted to be a lighthouse operator.  On days when the world feels too big or too dark I still wonder what it’d be like to spend your nights up in the light room, calling out over the water to other lost people and making sure they get found.  In my mind’s eye the days are brisk and cloudy, the wind sweeps sand and brush like in a painting.  Where lighthouses are, there’s room to lose yourself in music or in a book and room to find yourself when you’re done.

I’m not even sure if the job exists as I imagine it, but it should.  The idea that someone’s whole purpose is a sailor’s rescue is comforting.  The idea that someone’s whole purpose is anyone’s rescue is.  The world and the water put us in danger and lighthouses exist to guide us to safety.

Waves assault
A fragile wharf
A bitter saline army
Storms the fragile earth.

The panes are grimy
The hardwood bare
But through the night
Her light’s repair.

Fog envelops
Stars blotted out
But through the haze
Her brilliant route.

“Those who cannot do”

Within the past year or so, it’s come to my attention that “those who cannot do teach” is not meant as a compliment.  To readers, that probably seems obvious, but somehow the context clues never added up for me.

It’s noble, to me, to accept your own shortcomings.  And in realizing them, to channel your passion into making sure that others take up the mantle of what you care about.  If someone loves English, but doesn’t have the skills to be a writer or an editor or whatever you do loving English, I think the best thing he can do is try to instill that love in young people in the hopes that someone more talented eventually does what he wanted to.

Maybe that’s an overly rosy view of teaching, but one that’s far more productive than the one that belittlingly tells us “those who cannot do teach.”  I think the phrase ought to be a compliment, and acknowledgement of dedication.  It would be easy for failed engineer to bitterly abandon her love of math and seek a career in an unrelated field, but the humility and honesty involved in teaching math, I think, is admirable.

Of course, not all or even most teachers teach because they’ve failed at anything, but the fact that this phrase is out there means that the perception is.  I think that both the premise (teachers teach because they can’t “do”) and the connotation (that this is a bad thing) are wrong, but the connotation is actually more troubling, since it’s a perceptual issue and not a factual one.

Some of our most beloved figures are teachers, like Mr. Rogers or Bill Nye, but that respect doesn’t carry over into the everyday.  It should – most of what you know was taught by somebody, and anything you teach yourself is built on things taught by others.  Let’s give teachers their due.