Thursday, July 31, 2008


********This blog post contains sweeping generalizations and philosophizations (yes, it's a based on limited and perhaps insignificant observations.*********

I've notice that my friends have been using the phrase "I feel like" as a replacement for "I think," in everyday speech. For example, instead of saying "I think that media's coverage of this presidential campaign is biased," they would say "I feel like the media's coverage...." It happens in far less intellectual instances as well, for instance: "I feel like we should do the Matterhorn next, not Splash Mountain." It also seems that the phrase is more prevalent in spoken rather than written English.

Is this significant? Does it signal a sea change in how we express convictions? Are Americans becoming more driven by emotional decision making, rather than a reason-based approach? Was it ever reason-based in the first place? Does a emotion/reason dichotomy hold water?


One of the perks of being a parent is getting to watch your favorite children's shows on OPB once again. On the cusp of a little Reading Rainbow watching with David I saw a commercial that involves Super Grover writing his initial into an insignia. The message of the commercial was to support your child's progressive endeavors by pinning artwork on the fridge and constantly giving them support and approval. The tag line at the end, the "We are OPB and you need us in your life" message, was something along the lines of "OPB: preparing children for learning and life." It was here that I got lost in the message in that I dared to read into the distinction between the two.

Obviously the message was intended to use alliteration to drive the point in that this brand of television is good for you, but I found the example a little misleading. The first impression I got from this was that life was something different or removed from childhood, or that it was the next step away from childhood. It dared me to ask "Then what is it that children are living now? When does their life begin?" For one it insinuates that children are indeed not involved in life right now, they are instead in secular limbo, waiting for their turn to take rank among us. This, in my opinion, isn't a very constructive sentiment to make. It ignores the children that do have "real life problems," such as AIDS, abuse, hunger, social troubles, or a myriad of other troubles. It also manages to marginalize adults.

The question begging to be asked is "When does childhood end?" Does it end when you become a teenager? At your bar mitzvah? When you turn sixteen? When you graduate high school? What about college? When exactly are you no longer a "children?" Taken in perspective of education I am still a child, one who is two weeks away from entering the "real world." Is it then that my life begins? I've always had such a bleak picture of adulthood, usually painted for me by adults. Now that I'm here I can't say I'm too disappointed. I, for one, like knowing things, and there is no more efficient way of obtaining knowledge than through the passage of time. I also like being developed. I am no longer in a constantly-changing body with raging hormones, constantly circulating wardrobes, and the accompanying discomfort. I am now as I will be for a long time, and I am quite happy with that. It's one less thing to worry about (I'm the guy that shaves his head so that he doesn't have to dedicate brain power to the frivolity of hair styling). At this point in my life I have less interference in my personal freedoms (rather, I have less obvious interference, all of the covert assaults on my freedom are still well in tact and will undoubtedly trickle down to my children), and all things considered I am quite happy where I am.

What then changes? Part of the issue is that we characterize childhood in a certain way: play and education. Children are always at play, meaning they are completely devoid of seriousness, obligation, responsibility, or worry. Childhood is also largely defined by stages of the educational process. As often as children are asked their age they are also asked their grade. Probably more so. Age means relatively little in the face of grade level, which along with a gradated number also implies a certain level of achieved intellect. To me, these views of childhood are inefficient and damaging. I, personally, prefer to see childhood by merely one trait: learning.

If you look at how children play, they do so to learn. Their goal in play is not to torment mommy and daddy into buying them larger quantities of fancier toys. Play is a beautiful and wonderfully efficient mechanism that combines positive emotional reinforcement to acquired knowledge. Kicking a ball a long distance gives the actor a sense of pride or accomplishment that accompanies the knowledge of how to maximize the efficiency of acting upon your physical environment, however that lesson may be an equally profound learning experience if the actor were to kick the ball into a hornets' nest. The same valued learning is the reason we go to school. I will, however, impose a distinction at this point between learning and education. To learn is to adopt knowledge, whereas an education is a systematic approach toward inserting knowledge into the learner. My syntax should give you very little doubt as to which method I prefer and which I would exercise caution towards.

This brings up a socially demeaning concept though. When have I stopped learning? I love to learn. I love to discover things. I love reading books and experimenting and talking things out between friends. I have never abandoned a desire to learn things which, by my definition, must make me a child. But I've already been there, and I came to the conclusion that I've never left childhood. I was sitting in the bath the other day, examining myself (visually, thank you), to discover that I have chest hair. This is nothing new, I've had chest hair for years. But it seemed odd, somehow foreign. I look different, but I don't feel different. Inside, I'm the same person I was when I was ten, and somewhere in time I got big and grew hair. The child is never gone. I don't care what all of those discordant 60's folk tunes say, you never stop being a child. It's the same conundrum that accompanies birthdays. You watch the seconds pass from one day into the next and all of a sudden you are legally able to drink alcohol without the supervision of a parent or guardian. In that one second it is highly unlikely that your body or mind matured to a point that rendered you incapable the prior second and prepared in the next, yet that is the way we distinguish age in our society: through these rites of passage. The same goes for New Year's Day as well. A ball dropping signifies the infancy of a new year, in which case the entire planet undergoes a superficial baptism that will be soiled shortly after the third bottle of champagne is spilled. Such is the consequence for creating artificial boundaries of time. We are not satisfied to let the river flow into the sea, instead we need to dredge the land into a canal that functions by a segmented system of locks.

In the end, it helps to stop making distinctions between childhood and adulthood, as well as abandon the implied superiority of one over the other. For lack of a better word, I still see myself as that child, but I never felt like a child when I would have been considered one. I never felt myself pertaining to the negative connotations of childhood. In that case I would rather just embrace self. When we begin to tear down these notions of superiority through chronology we open ourselves up to learning from those younger than us. The lessons can be as simple as the culinary delight of mixing yogurt and peanut butter, or as profound as learning when to stop being a fascist disciplinarian.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


For many regular M&M readers, the blog is a healthy way to avoid work. Situated on our desktops, only a mouse click away, it provides us with a welcome distraction from what we get paid (or get degrees) to do. However, despite the hours that I've probably dumped into reading and writing on here in short spurts while the work clock is ticking over the last 6 months (yes, we've been online that long!), I've always felt that it actually improves my productivity to have a little online sanctuary like this. That's right. Being able to get away for a few minutes every hour or so is refreshing and allows me - and I hope all of you - to return to the regularly scheduled program with new energy, focus, and insight.

A fascinating article in this week's The New Yorker is such a wonderful validation of the above premise that I have to share the insight on these pages, the very source of my productive distraction. "The Eureka Hunt" examines how and why epiphanies strike us at the neurological level, and it reveals some very interesting things about the way we process "ah-ha!" moments. In a nutshell: epiphanies are a different breed of idea than one arrived at through concerted effort. We don't consciously produce them; they just seem to arrive like lighting bolts, and when they do, there is a sense of metaphysical certitude that they are correct. They don't need to be fact checked - we already know they are right, even as they are just emerging from the electrical storm of our brains.

Most of our rational, linear thought functions come from the left hemisphere of the brain. (I hope we get some comments on this from our resident neuroscientist Ben - I'm getting all this from one article!) Since much of rational thought and language processing originates here, people with damage to the right hemisphere can often seemingly function just fine. But when researchers look closer, it becomes clear that, despite functional use of language, reasoning skills, etc., those with right lobe damage suffer from an inability to read nuance into words and into abstract problems. To really get a metaphor (or a subtle joke), you have to have communication across the corpus callosum. And this abstract interpretive ability is precisely the engine behind insight. In fact, if people try to verbalize what they're thinking in the act of trying to solve a word puzzle, an act that will result in a minor epiphany when the answer comes to you, they do significantly poorer at solving the problem (a phenomenon called "verbal overshadowing"). In other words, focusing entirely with your logical mind on a problem stifles the insight that can crack the code.

A number of recent papers, drawing on experimental research using EEG and fMRI scans of subjects' brains as they attempt to solve riddles, show that very specific cortical areas light up when a "Eureka!" moment is involved. The basic finding is this: the left brain will process a problem as it does - linearly, logically - but the remote association that provides insight originates in the right hemisphere. Thus, if someone concentrates really hard on a problem without relaxing their minds a bit to allow the quiet right lobe to have its occasional say, their chances of genuine creative insight are considerably diminished. This finding, researchers say, is a problem for the stimulant-addicted academic community (stimulants encourage left brain concentration). Relaxation, then, is the key to epiphany.

I've always done my best cerebration at three times: while walking, while in the shower, and early in the morning, just after waking up. Amazingly, researchers have identified both the early morning and hot showers as common triggers for insight. (The positive mental effects of late night neighborhood strolls will certainly be discovered someday.) So next time you're stuck on something, put down the book and hop in the shower. (A coincidence that Archimedes was in the bath at the time of his insight?)

Einstein came up with his most brilliant ideas in moments of insight, not in front of the chalk board doing equations. Richard Feynman, Nobel-winning physicist, always came up with his greatest insights at the topless bar, where he would begin to shape his new ideas mathematically on his napkin. Henri Poincare's seminal reinterpretation of Euclidian geometry came while he was stepping onto a bus. Of course, these stories aren't to say that these famous people hadn't been deeply contemplating their problems well before the koan was answered; in fact, this is why scientists suggest that epiphanies come with a sense of certitude - the left hemisphere has already done the math, it just couldn't come up with the precise solution.

So, good M&M readers, a bit of validation for the day dreaming that has brought you here today. Next time you get distracted and your mind wanders, let it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thanksgiving in July

In the two years I spent living in Japan, I felt homesick only twice. Once while sitting at my desk on a rainy Thanksgiving morning, feeling conspicuously absent from the steamy bustle of my mother’s kitchen. And once upon finding a tiny plastic crate of blueberries in a rural Japanese supermarket.

The box held a mere handful of the round blue fruit, and was sold for an outrageous price. But the label -- a blue sticker bearing the familiar squiggly silhouette of my home state -- told me that these berries had grown in Oregon soil, and had made the long trip to this unlikely place, just as I had.

That little handful of displaced blueberries seems especially poignant today, given that thirteen pounds of their cousins have recently taken up residence in my freezer. It’s National Blueberry Month in America, and one of the great delights of life in this valley of ours is that all summer long, you’re never far from a treasure trove of fruit. That fact almost makes up for the deadly early-summer pollen count around here. Almost.

On Saturday morning, my boyfriend and I decided to score a bit of that fruitful bounty for ourselves. We drove out into farmland, following a road that narrowed, became increasingly windy, turned to gravel, and eventually deadended in a field where a few cows stood next to a sign reading, “U-Pick Blueberries, $1.25 a pound.”

A girl in a blue plaid dress handed us yellow plastic buckets and led us into the blueberry patch. “You can start on these two rows,” she said, indicating a swath of six-foot-high bushes. Jeff and I looked at the thicket of branches she was indicating, then at each other. Start? The berries were so plentiful here that we wouldn’t need to travel more than a few feet to pick more than our buckets would hold.

As fruit harvests go, picking blueberries is as pleasant an experience as one could wish for. There aren’t any thorny canes to contend with, no stooping to gather berries from the ground, no ladders to climb. Ripe berries were absurdly plentiful, and sifting through the shiny green leaves to reveal occasional caches of extra-large gems kept the task from becoming monotonous. But most importantly, as “U-Pickers”, we could quit whenever the sun got too high or we had enough berries to fill up our freezers.

Even this mild harvesting task, though, made me think harder than usual about the places where our food comes from, and the people and work involved in making it appear at our local farmer’s market, let alone supermarkets half a world away. As we stare down the barrel of this endless election season, in which we’re all shouting at each other about immigrant populations and the price of gas and economic recession, spending a quiet summer morning gathering your own food brings a new perspective to the whole endeavor.

Legend has it that the Native Americans and the Pilgrims might have eaten blueberries together at the first Thanksgiving. November’s a long way off, though, so as we wait for pumpkin pie and election results, I’ll give some thanks a little preemptively. I’m grateful for that North American native, the blueberry, and I’m grateful to live in a place where they can be picked beneath a clear blue sky while hawks circle overhead. I’m grateful for a new berry-stained viewpoint on the complexities of this society of ours. And I’m especially grateful that a few hours’ work means that I’ll remember all this when I’m eating July-sweet blueberry pancakes on cold winter mornings, when summer feels as far away as Japan.

(Originally published 7/28/08 in the Oregon Daily Emerald.)

Monday, July 28, 2008


As Barack Obama was making his fairytale trip through Europe and the Middle East last week, John McCain was flirting once again with the other extreme of political life: the gaffe. Below is an adumbrated list of a few things McCain (and his surrogates) have said in the last couple weeks (for a few more, go here):

- Confused the chronology of the "surge" and the Anbar Awakening (as discussed in the Keith Olbermann clip in Ruxton's last post).
- Campaign co-chairman Phil Gramm called our current economic woes a "mental recession" and Americans "whiners."
- Referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn't existed since the early 90s.
- Talked about the (nonexistent) border between Afghanistan and Iraq.

I've always thought that many so-called gaffes get way more press than they deserve. When you're talking publicly all day long and every word that comes out of your mouth is put under the microscope, it's impossible not to occasionally say something you don't mean (Bosnian sniper fire) or bungle a thought in a way that can be politically exploited ("I voted for it before I voted against it"; Bittergate). A gaffe, in this sense, is merely a slip of the tongue, a fleeting moment of mental or verbal fatigue/laziness. It is a higher order of gaffe that actually demonstrates a misreading of reality, and I believe that this is the species of gaffe we're talking about with McCain. I really wouldn't care at all if the GOP candidate confused Sunnis and Shiites, Lieberman stepped in to correct him, and that was that; what genuinely concerns me is the fact that McCain repeated this embarrassing misunderstanding again and again. Same with some of the other issues above. What this demonstrates is less a propensity for verbal slips and more of a failure of understanding.

Some people tried to wish away the Sunni/Shiite confusion as simply a "senior moment" back in March. But when a political candidate, surrounded as they are by an army of advisers, makes the same mistake twice, three times - this is a problem. Obama, of course, has had his fair share of gaffes too, but they've been quickly corrected. They were, then, in the truest sense, gaffes. McCain is troubling because the recent spate of faulty testimony is more than simply a list of gaffes: it is evidence that he might not really know what he's talking about.

This video is only slightly off-topic, but it deserves a place here:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ain't no Messiah

As a pre-blog appetizer:

I had a dream a few nights ago that I think is worth sharing.

I have a place in my dreams where I meet famous people. It's typically in Eugene, and is a run-down warehouse type of location. The first person I remember meeting here was Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, the second was Tom Waits, and in this particular instance the famous individual was Barack Obama.

There were a lot of twists and turns in this dream. Something about him moving to Eugene and making his campaign headquarters here because he liked it so much. There was a cute, "Gentle Ben" friendship that ensued, of course. However, there was one particular moment of profundity, when I asked Obama the following question:

"Honestly, what are you about? Do you really mean everything you say about change, or are you just in search of power?"

"What do you think? Everyone who is in my position is in search of power. I would like to think though that I have noble intentions for that power."

A lot of people have been too quick to bestow messianic status to Obama. His message has transformed him into the beacon of change that Americans so desire. From my observations this is the same obsession with symbolism that we all too often revere in our lives. The cross and the bible are more precious than the messiah it represents or the messages contained within, respectively. The wedding ring falls down the shower drain amidst tears and panic, yet the marriage spoils amongst petty bickering and a lack of communication. You may see Obama as change and a message of hope, but what does that mean? What kind of change are you looking for? Face it America, you can't even articulate what's wrong much less find someone to make things right. Sure, the economy is in spoils and we're amidst a not-so-legally defined war, but are those the ailments or the symptoms? There is something seriously wrong with the country and you need to accept the fact that no one person is going to have all the answers, or maybe even the one that will make things right. In essence, at this time, you are making a symbol out of Obama and in that obscuring your insight into Obama: the person.

Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? Try this: Businesses are shipped overseas where they can employ cheap labor, evade taxes, and have free reign over the environmental discrepancies that make their ship sail smoothly. The loss of these jobs in America generates unemployment, saturates the market with inferior goods, and does not lower costs for consumers, because although products are made cheaply, they are not distributed as such. The business that goes overseas offsets the local economies of the host country as well as ruin the standards of their environment. This causes unrest in these citizens due to reasons concerning health and wealth, so they matriculate to a more prosperous country. These people illegally enter America because their lands are worthless to them, where they supposedly take jobs from local Americans, create a lack of border security in a post-9/11 world, and import crime with them as well. The only one who prospers in this scenario is the board of directors and the CEO. YOU LOSE. The end.

It would be nice if the story ended so simply. All you would have to do is open the cover, go back to the beginning, and keep business practices clean. Insert the businessman, his money, and his desire to keep that money. Also enter the president, willing and able to make change. Money keeps the lobbyists at the president's door, his voters in constant scrutiny, and the crosshairs on his head. Tell me where change is going to come from. President brings the businesses back home, does not grant tax relief to factories shipped overseas, demands higher environmental regulations in all US-related businesses, and takes one to the head as a result. YOU LOSE. The end.

The point? No one man is going to fix the problems with America. That's what has bothered me most about this election campaign. Everyone's always talked about Hilary-this, Barack-that, McCain-something... no one realizes that these people are one person in an entire checks-and-balances government that cannot do it by themselves. The president, in reality, is not that powerful (assuming Bush doesn't pull a Pervez Musharaff and declare himself emergency rule). The question that hasn't been asked nearly enough is who these people will surround themselves with. We're now getting a glimpse into this variable because everyone is interested in the vice presidential candidates, but it's not the executive branch that determines the total prosperity of America. We need to elect the person that is going to surround himself with the best possible people of service. Only then can things start to turn out right.

And really, if you want to win the adventure, you have to convince the corrupt and wealthy that they're really not doing THEMSELVES any favors. It's much nicer to cooperate on par with your society and be able to sleep at night.

Friday, July 25, 2008


So this week I HAD to face a number of quandaries. Not least, a new study out of Pittsburgh (or some equally ignominious a setting) has revealed (for the thousandth time) that cellular telephones cause cancer. The quandary is this: do I start holding my cell phone an inch away form my face like those putzes who speak into their cell phones while holding them an inch away from their faces (lest they grow a tumor), or do I ignore it? I mean, really, there has to be a limit. There's salmonella in the tomatoes and the jalapeƱos, there's mad cow in the beef, there's anthrax in the mail, and there are gays in the agenda.

When does it end? Where does it stop? At what stage can I eat salsa, open my mail, chat on my cell, and watch "Queer Eye" (commensurate activities, by the way) without fearing for my life, freedom and heterosexuality?

I watch too much television, I admit. God only knows the condition of my retinas. And I eat high cholesterol snack foods. And I smoke. And I drink beer. And I ride my bicycle without my helmet (sometimes while smoking and having had a few beers). So, in a nutshell (WARNING: THIS NUTSHELL MAY CONTAIN PEANUT PRODUCTS!): I'm going to die. Soon. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe by virtue of a stroke caused by sitting here staring into whatever sort of rays are projected by this screen.

Which brings me to the real question: who are we to believe we deserve to live forever? What, really is the function of all the fear-mongering if not to vouchsafe our sense that we, of all people, are worth worrying about.

Worry with a capital "W".

Because we have it so rotten? There's so much that could go wrong? Because we have so much to lose? There's the aluminum in the coke cans, for one. We could go mad. And the drugs in the drinking water (God forbid that we should ingest a minute dose of antidepressant pissed out by some unhappy person). And then there's the mercury in the fish, the semen on the toilet seat, the mites in our mattresses, the germs on our dollar bills.

At what stage does all this start becoming an excuse not to worry about anyone other than ourselves?

So...this is a general survey, A genuine question: What is the ideological purpose of all these worries? What does it uphold? What does it DO? Do we buy it? If so, why?

Help me. I'm scared.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Visaless (Part 2)

I recently received the following email from a Finnish reader and friend in response to my last post. Russians and Japanese aren't the only ones made to jump through hoops to visit our dear country! As an American, this is truly embarrassing. I've provided links to some of the issues he discusses:

I was just checking out the blog, and reading the "Visaless in Vladivostok" piece. Seeing my situation as a desperate U.S. immigration hopeful, it is incredibly ironic, that the nation's biggest (well, one of them anyway ... there are quite a few big ones
aren't there) worries is immigration in all aspects. "Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life" -JFK. Another great quote states that the "nation was built on the broad shoulders of immigrants". So you would think...

Before heading to the States in January for my three month visaless visit, I tried to get a tourist visa for a year - the consulate denied it. The reason? My ties to Finland weren't strong enough according to the (American) consular, straight at the interview, I didn't even have to wait for the response. The fact that I was born and raised here, speak the language, have lived here all my life, and my family is here didn't mean anything, he said. I was furious, to say the least. And as in your Tokyo example, I felt like I'm not a terrorist cell member from Yemen, I'm a Finnish citizen with the cleanest of backgrounds, from modest ole' Finland. And I can attest to that too, that you indeed have to prove at every single point that you intend to come back with all sorts of paperwork - but even that wasn't enough: I had a letter from my then employer, who I would've been working long distance for by the way, so basically I wouldn't have even "wasted" your precious resources but instead would've come to spend my tourist money and help the economy! They even ask for a bank statement, which I feel is perhaps understandable in some sense, but still embarrassing.

And when I arrived in Chicago, the first officer asked me how much money $$$ I have, right now, right there. When I didn't really want to say in front of other people in the queue, they took me to the immigration room to be interrogated. Nice... Only did it resolve when I showed them an envelope I had with me that had $1200 in cash. But with the consequence that I lost both my bags and missed my connecting flight to Miami, but that's another story ...

Recently I also read in the news that some U.S. officials and bigshots were actually, seriously, considering the option of using an anesthetic to put the whole airplane cabin to sleep during the flight. They gave up on it because there's always a chance that you might not wake up! And I guess it was pretty recently also in the news that they are thinking of something called a shock bracelet or something, that would have all your personal and flight info in it, but would also be able to tase you with the touch of a button if you acted up.

[As a final insult to reason, I found this patent for an airplane trap door system that pilots can activate in the cockpit to drop would-be hijackers into a secure holding pen. This sort of thing would be funny if it didn't illustrate just how far we've drifted into becoming a police state.]

Monday, July 21, 2008

How happy are we?

The piece below appeared today in the Oregon Daily Emerald, the University of Oregon's student newspaper, where I'm a summer columnist. I'm re-running it here less as a means for shameless self promotion (no, really) and more as a way to gather more responses on the question it poses, which has become a minor obsession lately. Start asking around. You'll be surprised at what people say.

Take a second and answer this question: on a scale of one to ten, how happy are you?

I’ve been conducting an informal survey this week, asking friends, housemates, co-workers, and my family that question. There are several categories of responder, I’ve found. There’s the optimistic wiseass, who provides a high score to three decimal places; the cautiously hopeful, who decides on a number somewhere in the upper half; the blunt realist, who notes the big picture and scores in the middle; and the exhausted tool of ill fate, who has just been having a bad day/week/year and whose number is bargain basement low.

The numbers themselves are interesting, but what really fascinates me is what happens next: people want to offer an explanation for their score. Some get quiet, or defiant, and others think aloud at length about the way they arrived at their answer. But In every case, I learn something about the inner life of the people I’m surrounded by. Everyone has something to say about how they measure their own happiness, or lack thereof.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about happiness lately. Happiness and, well, death. You know your life has taken a bizarre turn when you find yourself spending three hours on a sunny summer morning writing obituaries. But such is my existence these days. My desk is covered with envelopes marked “In Memoriam,” often in shaky, elderly handwriting. Inside, newspaper clippings and notes composed on the world’s last remaining typewriters spell out the lives and deaths of people who graduated from the University long before my parents were born.

As the summer intern for Oregon Quarterly, the University’s alumni magazine, I’m in charge of reducing these already-brief life stories into even shorter sketches, a task that’s rather like making a topographical map of the Andes out of orange Play-Doh: the result feels ridiculously simplistic.

But like a map of the mountains, I put in the highest points, those easily quantified and admired. Degrees, jobs, awards, children, spouses, years of service. I write about ninety birthdays, fifty anniversaries, all those big round numbers.

Universities, like obituary pages, run on accomplishment the way I run on nonfat lattes. The march toward a degree, a professorship, an ever-longer list of awards and grants and big shiny research buildings is what consumes all of us here. Last week the Emerald had the heartbreaking duty of reporting student Todd Doxey’s untimely death. Our sadness, like at the passing of any young person, was in part made of the knowledge that he won’t compile his own list of the deeds of a long and fruitful life.

Binding up happiness too closely with that list seems dangerous, though. Ambition and joy are both important. A horizon, goals, something to work for and a sense of making progress are all important to my personal happiness quotient. But I keep trying to find the delight in small moments as well as big accomplishments. It’s not good fodder for obituaries, but it’s what keeps my own score on the happiness scale buoyant.

And when I think about Doxey, a young man I never met, I think he might understand that idea, too. Even though leaping into the cold river’s swift water on a hot afternoon ended so tragically for him, I hope wholeheartedly that in the moment he spent suspended between the bridge and the river, Doxey was filled with a profound sense of joy. I hope that if he been asked the happiness question in that brief midair instant, he would have yelled “ELEVEN” into the bright July air of his last day.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Critiques by an Overzealous Children’s Writing Workshop Instructor

Submission Title: My Ponies
Author: Becky Hindleson
Age: 8
Genre: Nonfiction

Becky, Becky, Becky. Alright. First off, your choice of subject matter was derivative, hackneyed, and insultingly unoriginal. It seems every eight year old girl is prone to profess her obsession with horses, ponies, and all things bearing fur. Your audience has read this before. Why can’t more eight year old girls delve into deeper literary fields of exploration? Take a cue from Virginia Woolf for Christ’s sake. Was she always writing about ponies? No! I can’t even remember the last time I picked up a piece of writing penned by an eight year old that moved me on a deep, fundamental level – and this is a failing you as an eight year old are jointly responsible for. I ask you: how hard would it be to incorporate some political commentary, literary allusions or cultural insights into your work?

Your language is flat. Take for instance the first sentence of your seventh paragraph, “I feed my pony carrots and apples and he eats them.” What if you spiced this up like: “The ebony ungulate mammal feasted ravenously on the simple edibles I procured, licking them swiftly from my pale, trembling palm.” See? Better right?

Why not incorporate some intrigue? On page six you write, “I ride him in the field.” Try: “My lithe form sat ridged in the saddle, all the while my brain preoccupied with two vexing questions: whose dead body was that laying facedown in the morning hay, and had the murderer escaped or was he nearby, watching?” It’s not hard.

One thing confused me. Towards the end you write, “I ride my pony all over town.” This irrevocably shattered the sense of place which you previously established to be “on the farm.” I ask you, how is the reader expected to follow these dramatic shifts in setting with nary a transition? Horrified, I could scarcely bring myself to continue reading after this jarring error in continuity.

Additionally, the title is plural, indicating your ownership of multiple ponies. And yet only one pony is mentioned throughout your piece. While reading this I was perpetually nagged by the question: Where’s the other pony, Becky? Where’s the other pony?

Submission Title: Max Magic and the School of Mystery
Author: Holly Jaspers
Age: 12
Genre: Fiction

Are you serious? You actually wrote a story about a putzy English kid who attends a magic school? While it is commonly said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, since your story is pure drivel, it is the one exception to this rule. I am tempted to eat your manuscript so that I may later have the symbolic pleasure of exiting it from my bowels.

Let it be known that you have absolutely no ear for the British tongue. No, contrary to popular belief, people heralding from the UK do not say “bloody” multiple times per sentence. For example, look at your dialogue on page seven: “This bloody magic trick is bloody spectacular! Bloody hell!” Indeed, it is unlikely that these words, spoken in any sequence, would ever be uttered by a native Brit (unless at the behest of an idiot American such as yourself).

While I appreciate your attempt at capturing dialect, make sure your dialog is still comprehensible to your readers. On page four, the school grounds keeper (whom you lazily describe as “…kinda like Hagrid, only much better…”) says: “Aye? Me gots a’ tubbl’ wh’ ‘he ol’ gar stick – me cun’t log it!” What the hell was that? Best I can tell your character is complaining about an STD flair-up, though there is no other textural support for this presumption. Also, don’t spell “can’t” with a “u.” It does not make the word sound more British – it simply makes it look more obscene.

It is improper to refer to all elderly people of Britain as “stodgy buggers.” A “bugger” is not curmudgeonly or endearingly eccentric as it appears you believe. Actually, in British vernacular, it’s quite unfavorable and crass. Please look it up and edit accordingly. (Unless of course you intend to state that all people of Britain over the age of 50 are practicing sodomites.)

I would also like to add that peppering your narration with words like “quite,” “indeed,” “odd,” “shall,” and “perhaps” does not make you sound sophisticated. You probably think D.H. Lawrence is sophisticated. Ha! I’d bet you even think Philip Glass is sophisticated! Ha redux!

Thank you Holly for the hearty laugh, but please, never put pen to paper ever again.

Note: “Potterific” is not a word so please, for the love of Christ, stop using it.

Singing Fish

The field of zoological musicology, touched upon intermittently here in the annals of M&M, has had a new breakthrough: the singing toadfish. Follow the link to read the story and see a video.

For another M&M posts on this thriving academic discussion, go here, or, if you have a minute, go here (but certainly don't go here, because it doesn't have anything to do with this topic whatsoever).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The painful sting of logic

Just for the sake of kicking the religious community off of its high horse, it is entirely feasible that homosexuality is nature's way of curbing epidemic population growth often times caused by the religious community's assumed duty to over-populate. Yes, the jury is still out on the myriad of reasons homosexuality exists, but my assertion can be stated simply as this: stop promoting hatred over something you obviously do not understand and likely helped to create.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Across the Universe

Cheap, I know, but I woke up with that song in my head this morning. I'm sure Yoko will get to me soon enough (who was, in her defense, a very prominent and respected figure on the Downtown scene until she had to devote her life exclusively to championing the impossible-to-determine wishes of her late husband).

I had a conversation with Zach awhile ago about my distaste for beats. Well, not necessarily my distaste, but my distaste for the abuse of beats. So much of our mainstream music is derived from simplistic percussion patterns that are, in my mind, equivalent to finger painting in Mrs. Oliver's AM Kindergarten class down in E hall. Don't let me downplay the basic rock beat, or finger painting for that matter. In the hands of seasoned professionals, people who understand the nuance of their craft, finger painting can be a welcome distraction in the hands of a pop-retro New Yorker trying to lively up the scene a bit. In that sense a solid and simple rock beat is sometimes tasty and the only thing that satisfies. All too often, however, the greater nuance of the craft is abandoned for the time-tested formulaic feeder-bar pellets that satiate the numbed mentality of the majority of the music-digesting public.

This led me to a series of conversations with Zach, percussion instructors, any anyone else who could put up with my rant for long enough. We've covered frequency spectra, social implications, and the simple unknowns, such as why you shake your ass when you feel the beat (my 2-year old is a perfect case study, being that he is as of yet not spoiled by mainstream media but has managed since he was able to shake a limb at any form of groove-based music I've thrown at him). Since those days... 4 months ago, I have since re-evaluated my stance.

A lot of the trouble in deciphering drums is context. Our most common context is the use of drums in relation to other sound producing objects. Popular music often pairs the drums with guitars, vocalists, keyboards, and most often the drums share a symbiotic relationship with the bass. We are all familiar with this role of drumming. If you stretch this paradigm into the realm of techno music it takes on a whole new identity, often becoming the carrier instrument itself. In the hands of artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher the drums become the primary voice where everything else, all other musical conventions we have inherited and love, is accompaniment. If you examine the orchestral tradition of percussion it is largely effect based. Bass drums signified cannon blasts, snare drums were in sync with military tradition, sheets of metal were used to insinuate thunder, etc. These ideas aside, all are completely separate from the traditions of cultures in Africa and Indonesia, where you often see percussion as non-accompanimental, and rather the only class of sound producer present. The polyrhythmic and interlocking nature of the musics of these people lend a different perspective into the role of percussion in human life. Among the Ewe of Ghana the use of interlocking percussion represents the structure of their social life. In various gamelan genres of Indonesia the cyclical structure of the gongan depict balance in nature and the universe. In that sense I have found a sort of home for what I see as a powerful means of expression through drums and percussion.

A necessary aside at this point. I cannot go further without first identifying a few traits of our society. First, we, after all these years, have still failed to abandon the antiquated dichotomy of good versus evil. That, my friends, is a bunch of medieval schlock that really has no place in the universe. The universe does not operate on terms of good and evil, only in cause and effect. For example, consider the 1994 collision of the Shoemaker-Levy9 comet into Jupiter. I use this as a common example, as it is a recent occurrence of a catastrophic event that people would likely remember. That event caused an unquantifiable amount of damage on Jupiter, that even if we could comprehend it could not be construed as evil, although the destructive magnitude of a comet hitting Earth would likely result in may cries of impending Armageddon. No, rather, at some point in the existence of the comet it was acted upon or reacted to a series of physical phenomenon that destined its trajectory to collide with, or rather its attempt to occupy the same physical space as Jupiter at the same time as Jupiter, in which case an event occurred. That is the nature of our universe. Nothing of peaceful coexistence, rather an infinite number of energy collections reacting to each other in a set of physical bounds. Sometimes certain states of energy collide, sometimes they coincide, and sometimes they exist hypothetically independent of other collections of energy. Occasionally the introduction of two collections of energy interact in violent means. I do not mean that by our social connotations (again, the good and evil paradigm), rather violence as a measure of magnitude.

In that sense you can see a clear path for the workings of a modern drummer. Sometimes you explain the interactions of sounds, sometimes you collide them, and sometimes you implicate an event of intense magnitude (putting a crash cymbal on beat 1). If you think about it our existence is nothing more than a series of relationships. The relationship between friends, the relationship between atoms, the relationship between time streams, or the relationship between the Earth and the Sun which it circles. The drums are a musical way of depicting the existence of, maintenance of, and evolution of such relationships throughout music. At least in the hands of a skilled performer they are.

This can all segue into a similar conversation I had with a friend last night about music being man's only viable attempt to play God. That comparison considered, David King is a deity.