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Monday, April 24, 2006

"[T]he art of writing--the test of the artist--is to resist the beguilement and cleave the subject." (Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays "In Search of History," 13, Knopf, 1981.)
Best of luck to JK on his tryout for the Houston Astros!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

No matter how unique your relationship crisis, you can always take solace in the fact that it's happened to someone before, and that they've written a song about it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Brief Essays on Favorite Songs

Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run” (from Born To Run, 1975)

There are few things I think are worth fighting for in this world, and Bruce Springsteen is one of them. I discovered this about myself a couple of months ago when I tried to pick a fight after hearing some idiot call the Boss “an overrated hack.”

I had a Bruce Banner moment. “What did you just say?”

“He’s just lame,” the guy said. “He’s cheesy and annoying—and he’s a crappy songwriter.”

My brain melted in my skull and pulled itself back together in time for me to see red, and behind that, the image of the offender two inches from my nose, the distance I was throttling and cursing him from. Things didn’t escalate much further than that—I was detained by friends with foresight—but I learned something about the depth of my feelings for Bruce Springsteen’s music that I may not have even recognized the first time “Born to Run” really hit me.

From the first second of the explosive introduction of “Born to Run,” I always find myself enthralled by the energy Bruce and the E Street Band muster—this song is recorded with guts and sweat and wild innocence. Rock critic Greil Marcus once described the song as “a ’57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records”—the perfect metaphor for a song as ambitious as this one. The Boss describes an overblown teenage melodrama with every word holding the weight and passion of The Wild One and Romeo and Juliet; when he shouts “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness/I love you with all the madness in my soul” I feel like the world could end and I wouldn’t mind.

I gathered a handful of friends for my 24th birthday last year for a night of karaoke. After a few songs, my friend Matt noticed “Born to Run” on the song list and excitedly punched in the number. When the song came on, the anticipation on our faces dropped when we heard the cheap electronic excuse for what we were hoping for. It only lasted a second. The wonder and fury of the song was so burned into my brain that I couldn’t help yelling out the words. A few moments later everyone in the room was standing and screaming and fist-pumping—the room was filled with the same delirious passion and youthful exuberance the song was recorded with. “Born to Run” is now a staple in our karaoke set, but I’ve never experienced the energy we felt that night—for that I have to listen to the album.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, “Girl from the North Country” (from Nashville Skyline, 1969)

“Girl From the North Country” originally appeared on Bob Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On that album, it sounds like a traditional song from the 20s. Formal phrasing (“Remember me to one who lives there”), sparse guitar-picking, and Dylan’s memorable sand-and-glue voice make it sound more like a tribute to the folk music of days gone by instead of a song that was written along side “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” (With good reason: the tune is taken from a traditional English song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, “Scarborough Fair.”)

In 1969 Dylan re-recorded the song as a duet with Johnny Cash for the first track of his country album Nashville Skyline with very different results. Dylan had recently quit smoking, and put on a hollow croon that is heard for the first time in the new version of the song. Dylan sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well. His haunting wistful tone braids so well with Cash’s reverent tenor that their missteps are hardly noticeable.

I listened to the later version of “Girl from the North Country” for the first time in 2001, when I picked up a used copy of the album. The first time I heard it I was so surprised to hear the difference in Dylan’s voice that the song didn’t affect me until the second time around. I listened to it a dozen times after that, and didn’t get to the rest of the album until the next day. A few days later I excitedly played the song for my girlfriend and found myself crying the moment Dylan began singing. From then on I only listened to the song when I was alone.

In March of 2005, the later version of “Girl from the North Country” was played at the bar I worked at, and a fellow co-worker noted his distaste:

“They’re so sloppy,” he complained, “listen.”

I hated him for it, but it was true. I had been so moved by the song that I didn’t even notice how many screw-ups they’d allowed themselves. Cash sang the third verse second; the fourth verse disappeared entirely; and when the two singers combined to repeat the first verse, they sang different words in the third line, Cash improvising “Please say hello,” while Dylan stuck with “Remember me.” I was disheartened and a little annoyed with how unprofessional it now seemed.

Later, when I was alone, I put on my headphones and listened to the song again. Being that close to it, I figured, would bury the song for me by bringing out the imperfections further. But in my solitude, Dylan’s ghost-voice still spooked me, and Cash’s intonations still resounded with the strength of a stone wall. As I listened, I didn’t feel more disappointed, I felt encouraged by how much it still moved me. There was something about “Girl from the North Country” that was invincible to its flaws; it exists in a smoky spirit that pushes its threshold for technical perfection beyond other songs. Letting the music wash over me released me from judging it. Some things, I realized, are better felt than understood.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A few months ago I had a conversation with Ben while we were browsing for used CDs at Waterloo records during their annual sale.

"I just can't get excited about music anymore," Ben said.

"Uh-huh," I said absent-mindedly. "Have you heard this new My Morning Jacket album?"

"Nah. It's like I've heard it all before. There are some interesting twists on the standard tricks, but overall I just get bored."

I couldn't relate. I wasn't sure what to tell him, so I just walked up to the register and paid for my nine albums.


I go through cycles with that feeling though. Sometimes I feel like I've heard it all before, but often I'll hear something new or undiscovered and it'll hit me like a pillowcase full of bean cans. For the last few weeks I've been able to relate to Ben's sentiment, and no matter how much new music I've heard, I can't help but feel jaded or indifferent. Animal Collective, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Wolf Parade--these bands are sit somewhere between mildly interesting to typically overrated in my mind right now.1

One hope though, is Dr. Dog, a five-piece rock 'n' roll band from Philadelphia. According to their Myspace page, Dr. Dog is interested in "three-part harmoies, the out-of-doors, hoagies, vegetables and diminished chords." I saw them twice over SXSW week and was blown away both times. What excites me most about them, I think, is how earnest they are about their craft, but also how whimsical and light-hearted they are at the same time. Listen to "The World May Never Know" on that Myspace page to see what I mean:
Someone's alone, fell asleep on the phone
Waiting like a dog for a bone
How can it be that a fish in the sea
Can feel like it's completely alone?
The world may never know
My biggest fear, when I saw them, was that their incredible live performance wouldn't be captured in a recording. This is true from what I've heard so far (I haven't bought their albums yet; I'm waiting to get paid), except for on the above suggested track. Great use of Spector-like drums, charming melodies, and wacky-but-wise lyrics. Your thoughts?

1It's important for me to note that I'm not saying that these bands aren't any good just because I'm not excited by them. Some people are creaming their jeans over Clap Your Hands--should I be jealous or annoyed? I'm not sure.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Rate Me Nude

The revolution, if you aren’t aware, is over. Wide-eyed idealism has evolved into a slight droop of the shoulders in the face of paying bills and raising a family; ponytails have been cut off in favor of more acceptable ’dos; Woodstock ’99 was hardly Woodstock ’69. And you have to pay ten bucks to get into Hippie Hollow.

“Have you ever been here before?” asks the woman who trades me a parking pass for two fives.


“But you are aware that this is a clothing-optional park?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And are you all over 18?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Have a good time.”

I park the car just a few rows back from the entrance to the park, but by the time I get to the gate all four of us—me; Jackie, a female friend; Maggie, a friend of Jackie’s; and Scott, a boyfriend-type of Maggie’s—are already sweating. I met Maggie and Scott for the first time a few minutes earlier. I pass the time walking toward the park by imagining myself asking some of my well-established guy friends to come hang out with me at a nude sunbathing park, and I find it impossible. The best associates for a visit to a nude park are people who you know very well, or not at all, I decide.

“Are you gonna get naked?” Jackie asks, grinning.

I am about to tell her that I hadn’t quite made up my mind yet, but before I can, we see our first inhabitant of the park: chubby guy, late 30s. He’s wearing a blue ball cap, glasses, a too-small green polo . . . and nothing else. What looks like a skin-colored Hacky Sack bounces around just beneath the hem of his shirt as he walks. I clam up and fix my gaze to the back of Scott’s head. Jackie pokes her head into her big shoulder bag like an ostrich. Scott and Maggie continue chatting amiably, and I’m confused as to why they’re not as uncomfortable as we are.

“Maggie used to be a stripper,” Jackie whispers to me later. “She and Scott come out here all the time.”

This becomes even more obvious once we decide on a spot to lay down on. Maggie unties and removes her top with expert technique and then, just as swiftly, steps out of her bikini-bottoms. I’m not sure where to look, so I stare at her breasts. I wish I had sunglasses on. By the time I turn around, Scott is completely nude as well. Both of these people, it’s important to note, look great without clothes on, which perhaps explains the speed with which they undress. I force myself to observe men’s-room/locker-room etiquette with regards to Scott.

“Clothing optional” is how the woman at the front described this place, but I’ve decided that that’s not really accurate. “Nudity expected” is really more like it. In the five minutes it took us to walk to our spot, we’ve seen about 30 people or so, and they were all naked or mostly naked. (They were also mostly what appeared to be gay men.) Jackie strips her top off, and suddenly I’m overdressed.

“Wanna go swimming?” she asks.


The water is clear and refreshing, and I’m relieved not to be standing there wondering if I did enough squats last month to legitimize baring it all. We swim around for a good half-hour, and on the way back I decide that I can do it. I untie my bathing suit and slip out of it as we head back to the shore. Jackie is naked too, and quickly climbs out of the water while I loiter around, waist-high, pretending to still enjoy the lake. Finally I suck in, climb up the rocks, spread out my towel, and sit down.

I’m not body-conscious necessarily—I work out and ride my bike as often as I can. It’s not like that matters anyway; almost everyone here is pretty out-of-shape. But I don’t really compare myself with the cluster of potbellied senior citizens standing too close to each other; I compare myself with the group I’m in: a former stripper; another young athletic female; and a guy with abs you could grate cheese on and—it’s impossible not to notice—a penis the size of a child’s arm. I am suddenly very aware of the position of every part of my body.

What to do? How to alleviate this burgeoning awkwardness? I consider a bottle of cheap whiskey that has been sitting in the sun and opt for the SPF 30 sitting next to it instead. I squirt some lotion on the parts of me that have never seen sunshine and rub it in quickly—but not too quickly, lean back, close my eyes, and soak in the sun. While I listen to Scott and Jackie chat, something strange happens. I suppose public nudity is like a new pair of underwear: uncomfortable at first, but as time goes by, much more agreeable. Before I know it, I’m not thinking about the best way to squeeze in some crunches unnoticed. Fast-forward 15 minutes and I’m traipsing around the rocks like I’m a five-year-old on summer vacation.

We all do some more swimming, and when we get out, Jackie produces her camera. Scott and Maggie are excited and begin posing lewdly. I once read that you should never have your picture taken with a drink in your hand, and I wonder if there’s a suggestion about nude pictures. Propriety waves goodbye when Jackie and Maggie pose on either side of me with their breasts in my face.



The scenery on the way out the view is very similar to the scenery on the way in, but I take it in with very different eyes. Two overweight naked Mexican guys kicking around a soccer ball? No big deal. It takes me a few minutes to really register that the guy walking in front of us in the running shoes is tan all over and completely hairless from the neck down. Three or four hours earlier I might have detached my retinas by turning my neck away while straining my eyes toward the spectacle. We put our clothes back on when we reach the edge of the park, which now feels like a line between fantasy and reality. After having my clothes off for so long, my t-shirt and shorts feel itchy and constricting. The sign posted at the exit is standard:


Scratching at my uncomfortable collar, I wonder how many people I can cram in my car for next time.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

From Mark Gongloff's most-recent piece in the Wall Street Journal:

If you happen to be awake at 1:02:03 a.m. ET on Wednesday, April 5, you might want to reflect on how rare that particular moment is. Or you might just want to get some sleep. On some digital clocks in the U.S., that precise second will be reflected as 01-02-03-04-05-06, something that doesn't happen all that often. If you want to celebrate the moment at a more reasonable hour, you can use Universal Time; 1:02 a.m. Universal Time comes at 9:02 p.m. ET.
Cool, huh?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Very strange:

In a Technorati search for this blog, I found that I was linked by a right-wing religious blog called The Sheep's Crib:
Propaganda has always been the tool of the lying fascist ... and he will use whatever means available to propogate it. For example, Aljazeera, the Arabic language news network, has become a mouthpiece for Islamic militants ... (sic)
I linked this blog in the quote in the same way The Sheep's Crib does. I'm confused, and I blame Ben.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Fortune Tony received yesterday: "Husband is boss if wife allows."
Title of a piece of spam e-mail I received this morning: "Does Your Wife Think Banana is Harder Than Your Penis?"
When I read Marquez or Tolstoy, I feel a sort of removed awe; reading them fills me with appreciation and a vigor for writing. When I read something so obviously brilliant by a peer, however, I feel resentful. I feel depressed. I feel threatened.

Kelsey Innis' paper this week for 325M--a love letter to San Fransisco--is, quite simply, stunning. Since reading it yesterday afternoon, I've found myself trying to mentally list her faults--she's often loud and pushy, she's not the most observant technical editor--it does little to make me feel better.

Kelsey will never care about this sort of praise, because she'll never believe it. Part of that, I think, is the insecurity that seems to go hand-in-hand with being a born artist. The other part is the seemingly contradictory fact that she can innately sense that none of us know, really, what the fuck we're talking about.

My reaction to her prose is admittedly stronger than most people's in the class. Is it because I have unrecognized insecurities with my writing? Possibly. It seems likely though that her mastery digs deeper into me not just because I think her writing is much better, but because it's so obvious that her talent comes intuitively, while my success, if I have any to speak of, comes only through stubbornness. She's no Mozart, and I'm no Salieri, but the relationship--and my frustration (at least as depicted in Amadeus)--feels the same: we're colleagues, but we're still miles apart. What's the solution to this? Bitter acceptance, I suppose, is the first step. The next is to take a deep breath and enjoy reading the work of my classmates as a reader.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Friends and Lovers (Part 2)

We left off a few days into an e-mail conversation between Robin, a friend of mine who was trying to get a dog of hers adopted, and Tami, a potential adopter.

From: Robin
To: Tami
Date: 6 Feb, 2006
Subject: Meet?

Let me know when you're available. I am off today, but I have 3 tests next week I am studying for. A little hectic but I can run him down there if you want to see him today. There are lots of types of worms here. Generally, unless you suspect something, deworming him once a year when he gets his rabies shot should be often enough. He has been dewormed recently so he should be fine for a year or so. Thanks, let me know if you are up for today.

Tami didn't write back immediately, but she did respond the next day:
From: Tami
To: Robin
Subject: Re: Meet?
Date: 7 Feb, 2006


I'm sorry that we couldnt make it last night. My friend never got here until almost 9pm and that was too late to even think about dogs so we just stayed in and *&%#@ !! So it was great from that view but not for seeing Odin so I hope you got lotsa studying done and feel good bout your testes! Maybe this weekend will be OK to get together. Do you ever go to the clubs in downtown Austin? I've been down to 4th/5th etc a few times and I'm thinking bout going down there tonight, or at least this weekend. I think I wanna go without Brian and maybe check out the Texas man inventory! hehehe There's a girl I met last weekend that I think would be lotsa fun to hang out with an we chatted on IM ... so that might be awesome! Any suggestions for the fun clubs (if you know any)? Ever time Brian is here... I feel so much closer to Roxie and thnk of Odin! have a great day!
There were a few e-mails of little interest between Tami and Robin after that conversation, but none of them ever resulted in Tami seeing the dog. Robin eventually adopted the dog out to someone else.

To: Tami
From: Robin
27 Feb, 2006
Subject: Re: Re: Meet?

Hi Robin,

I had a voicemail from my hubby that you had the dog (Odin) and only adopted him out very recently :(

I'm sooooooo sorry, cuz i got kinda busy while he was outa town and I thought you were meeting with someone else and had already rehomed him. I think I misunderstood but I hope he's with a good home. On another note, I think I have now made it to all the clubs downtown that you mentioned :) and overall I've had a fabulous time! thanks for the advice


From: Robin
To: Tami
27 Feb, 2006
Subject: Hey


Yeah..I found a good home for him and everything is going really well with them. I'm not sure if I ever mentioned all of the cats I was fostering also, but I have found homes 3 out of 5 of them too....a good few weeks! I'm glad ya had a good time downtown. Take care!
When she called Tami's husband to let him know, he mentioned that Tami told him that she had been "hanging out with Robin a lot lately."

"I've never met your wife," Robin told him.

"What do you think she's been doing then?" he wanted to know.

"I'm not sure."

Finally though, it seemed as if the bizarre conversation had come to a halt. But Tami sent two final e-mails that topped it all off:
From: Tami
To: Robin
Date: Sat, 11 Mar 2006
Subject: Re: Hey


You sure have a lot of pets! We're not really cat people even though it would work ok for our condo. I was visiting my friend with the python and that's still kinda exotic and exciting for me... and he's a good %&$# so I'm still considering getting something like that... but a dog would be more fun for J.

BTW, I think I need to say "thanks" to you cuz J's voicemail seemed happy about talking with you and it didn't sound like you told him anything 'bout me fucking so much when he was gone! THANKS! He isn't really the jealous type, but he for sure would have asked me about it... and probly about details if he had known. It wouldn't have been a big prob, but sometimes its easier not to tell the hole truth!

OMG, I've had sooooooo much fun since we moved down here :) I was at a place called the Blind Pig last night and it was a lot of fun. Have you been there? I think it was on 6th and I met some boyz there and had a huge time! The bars are a lot more fun here than in Seattle, but some other things were more fun up there, AND I have yet to meet anyone that's really really big... so i miss that too a little. J gets home this afternoon so tonight will probly just be low key ... dinner, playing, etc! Hey, have you ever been to Darwin's on 6th? I laughed cuz before SEattle we lived in Anchorage and there is a dive up there called Darwin's Theory. I mean totally a dive... but sooooo fun! The owner has a scrapbook of all the titties of girls that would lift their shirts for a pic.... its thousands! Mine were on like page 623, I think... it was soooo funny.... it was like a thing of noteriety to have your tits in his book :)
Hey do u have myspace? I have the same ID there but haven't updated my profile there in months, and not many pics... I have a huge pic album on my yahoo ID, I can send ya an invite to see cuz they're protected... but please don't tell J cuz he doesn't know bout them (some are a little naughty!). K, I better clean up my messy home
"What was weird to me about this one is that she thanked me for not telling her husband that she was fucking around on him--her husband was the first one to tell me that she was. I don't know why she thought I was trying to protect her. It was just weird."

The icing on the cake was the photo album she later sent:

Click the photo to go to Tami's photo album.

Note: This photo album appeals to the prurient interest, depicts sex in a patently offensive way, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.