Friday, December 31, 2010

media of the year

2010 Best-Ofs

  1. Two Cow Garage, Sweet Saint Me—My favorite band in the world does it again. With Sweet Saint Me, Two Cow serve up an amazingly complete collection of songs. The highs are tighter and more mature than anything else in their catalog. Sweet Saint Me opens up with “Sally, I've Been Shot,” which, lyrically, took my breath away from first listen...and continues do to so every other play; how can it not, with a chorus that includes “Hello, Mrs. Hayes, this is Holden, and I'm so sorry to wake you up, but righteous boys caught me down in midtown, and I'm choking on the blood. What's the use?” There are so many perfect songs on here: “Lydia,” “Soundtrack to My Summer,” “Insolent Youth”...and you gotta love any disc with a song title like “Lucy and the Butcher Knife” (which exceeds the promise of its totally bitchin' name).
  2. The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever—The Hold Steady somehow manage to constantly refine and improve themselves. While this might not have quite as much edge as their earlier efforts, it makes up for it with improved vocals (particularly “Weekenders), improved textures (“The Sweet Part of the City”), improved musicianship (the solo in “Soft in the Center”), and what might just be the perfect pop song (“Hurricane J”) with the perfect lyrics (“They didn't name her for a saint, they named her for a storm, so how's she supposed to think about how it's gonna feel in the morning?”). Even more impressive, The Hold Steady managed to pull it off live, not just in front of big crowds (at Detroit's Fillmore) but in small bars (Toledo's Headliners). These guys keep improving, and this could've easily been my top pick.
  3. Ghost Shirt, Daniel—This too could've been my top pick. I received Ghost Shirt's first album (Domestique) after much struggles with a horrible online retailer. By the time I finally got their first cd, though, Ghost Shirt had already topped it with Daniel. Daniel is not as polished as their debut, but that works in the favor of this collection of songs. It moves from clean to distortion, from control to abandon, from beauty to rage, and everywhere in between. Astounding lyrical depth is only boosted by Ghost Shirt's arrangements...this is already a band strength, but the unexpected orchestration here takes everything to new heights. I first discovered Ghost Shirt when in Columbus to see a Two Cow Garage show. I'd heard a few online tracks, but they were amazingly cool and solid live. If there's ever a band to prove that you don't need a music industry to have awesome music, it's Ghost Shirt.
  4. Sick of Sarah, 2205—To be honest, I didn't really care for Sick of Sarah's seemed like all the rock and all the edge had been produced out of it. That is definitely not an issue with 2205, which manages to capture both the edge and the sophistication of this band. Infinitely quotable (“I'll do anything you ask for, anything you wanted, as long as it's free”), infinitely hummable (I dare you to quit humming “Kick Back” [see the video at] or “Kiss Me”, while still capable of bringing the rock (“Autograph”). They are awesome live, so go see them if you have a chance.
  5. The Sword, Warp Riders—This is one of the latest additions to my list (thanks, Spicoli!). Utterly fun and cool metal that makes me wanna grow my hair long...and almost makes me want to go back to double coil pickups.
  6. Hemline Theory, For The Stranger—More proof that the music industry is utterly superfluous when it comes to good music. Bowling Green's own Hemline Theory describes themselves as “Cabaret inspired rock with sultry female vocals and evocative lyrics.” I just think they're utterly smooth and cool, awesome musicians and cool people to boot. Go to cdbaby or iTunes and give them a shot. We got a chance to play with them in December and they were great...and I'm not just saying that because they gave the audience cupcakes.
  7. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding—These guys are a new discovery for me...and I always love discovering anyone who loves distortion as much as I do, is able to pair it with good songs, and realizes that good musicianship and songwriting can and should be paired with raucousness.
  8. Glossary, Feral Fire—Glossary continues to get closer to where they need to go, and this album is the best thing they've done yet. First off, it's an amazing sounding album...Matt Pence does his usual brilliant job pulling the rawk out of a band. But it's also much looser and cooler than previous efforts. If the opening duo of “Lonely is a Town” and “Save Your Money for the Weekend” doesn't get you moving, well, you might have bedsores.
  9. Peter Wolf, Midnight Souvenirs—who would've guessed that, post J. Giles Band, he had become such a bang-on honest songwriter? Good rock and roll with swagger.
  10. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do—After a disappointing few albums (including the overwhelming sprawl of Brighter Than Creation's Darkness), the Truckers return with what is their best album since The Dirty South. Of course, the Mike Cooley songs, particularly “Birthday Boy” and “Eyes Like Glue” are awesome...proof that Cooley is cooler than you. However, Patterson Hood's contributions are better than they've been for a while...and “After The Scene Dies” is one of the best and most insightful DBT songs in ages.

Other album thoughts: I really tried with Titus Andronicus and Black Keyes, but I just don't get them. I really wanted to like Josh Ritter's So Runs The World Away; it certainly has some brilliant songs (“The Curse” and “Another New World” are both jaw-dropping), but it also has a lot of weak moments. I know I need to get Arcade Fire and The Henry Clay People, but I just ran out of time.

  1. Two Cow Garage, “Lucy and the Butcher Knife”
  2. The Hold Steady, “Hurricane J”
  3. Ghost Shirt, “Meds”
  4. Sick of Sarah, “El Paso Blue”
  5. Josh Ritter, “The Curse”

  1. True Grit—This has more mood and atmosphere than anything I've seen for a while. Plus a really wonderful performance both by Matt Damon (who continues to show more range than I'd imagine) and Jeff Bridges (who is simply cooler than anyone else).
  2. Toy Story 3—More exciting, frightening, epic, funny, and gut-wrenching than I tought movies (let alone children's movies) could be.
  3. Kick-Ass—People who found this too shocking completely missed the point...if you were not disturbed by this, you were not really paying attention.
  4. Red—Hellen Miren as a retired assassin? Utterly awesome.
  5. Inception—Wild, mind-bending premise that wasn't quite achieved...but gorgeous to look at anyway.

  1. Justified—My new favorite show. The dialog absolutely crackles, and Tim Oliphant is amazing.
  2. Castle—This continues to be one of the most clever shows on television, with the best cast chemistry ever.
  3. Leverage-A good, hip, cool show gets even better.
  4. Dollhouse—True, most of season two was actually 2009, but it finished in 2010...and it really showed what could happen when Fox took their hands off and let Whedon run.
  5. Big Bang Theory—Clever and painfully funny at times. Yeah, the characters are way far from reality, but the humor (an example: “You know, if they took the money they spent trying to make a decent Hulk movie, they could make an actual Hulk”) is “how do they think of this?” funny.
  6. Modern Family—One of the most consistent shows whose writing continues to deepen and add layers...all while being laugh-out-loud funny.
  7. Louie—Not 100% consistent, but when it works, whooboy, like early Woody Allen done better.
  8. Eureka-A show completely changes its back story via time-travel and leaves it that way? Cool!

I really need to catch up on: Doctor Who, Burn Notice, Terriers, The Walking Dead, Dexter. I've also been watching The Wire on DirecTV, which is better than TV should be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

forcing morality

The holidays might have many associations for you, but one of my prime memories revolves around Star Wars. It seems like, come Christmastime, there's always at least one cable network airing at least one of the movies. Yes, they are not technically about Christmas, but, through sheer force of habit, they have become my holiday normative movie experience.

(This is actually a complete lie, because everyone knows the ultimate Christmas movie is still Die Hard...but that's another post.)

I love the original trilogy, but, as I get older and more egghead analytical/academic/nitpicky, I've started to more readily notice its foibles. I'm not talking about the little things, such as why every large structure has an endless pit build into it; seriously, Luke falls down one in Empire, and the emperor is thrown into one in Jedi; throw in the pit where Darth Maul dies in Phantom Menace, and you have a galactic architectural trend with which a Freudian would have a field day. These are puzzling, but they are far from the biggest thing going on.

And I'm not even talking about the lack of blood. Seriously, tons of people (and creatures) die in these flicks. Is there an ounce of blood? Of course not. But I can always explain this away using fanboy/geek logic...after all, light sabers must also cauterize wounds, right?

No, the biggest issue with the Star Wars films is the lack of a coherent moral system. Throw in the prequels, and this becomes much worse, because, as a whole, it becomes impossible to even attempt to divine an operational or consistent meta-ethical structure.

Let's consider the Jedi first. Ignore for a moment that, what was a religion in the original trilogy became some weird relationship with microscopic organisms...we'll come back to this. Are they good or evil?

They definitely posit a Manichean. existence by dividing up the force (or at least the way it's used by its very practitioners) into the light and the dark side. They seem to put themselves as guardians of the light/good. This would mean binary, right?

Well, it seems that way at first, but as they go on, the films introduce contradiction upon contradiction:

  • In A New Hope Obi-Wan Kenobi emplores Luke to "reach out with your feelings." Yet the difference between light and dark is confused here, because if you give into these feelings you've been reaching out with, you will be succumbing to the dark least that's what Yoda warns Luke in Empire.
  • Admittedly, Yoda is talking specifically about anger, not all feelings...but by separating out anger from other emotions and making it a negative, this would seem to play back into the good/evil binary. So Star Wars as a whole buys into binary morality, right?
  • Not so fast. In Jedi when asked by Luke why he said papa Skywalker was dead (and not just wearing a kooky S&M costume), Kenobi tells Luke "any of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Does this mean that the Jedis embrace moral relativism? Unless I'm wrong, you really cannot have both points of view and absolutes on the same plane.
  • In the prequels, Kenobi says "only a Sith deals in absolutes"...and since the Siths are the opposite of the Jedis, does that mean that absolutism=Sith and relativism=Jedi?
  • Wait a can you define yourself as the opposite of another group AND as a relativist? Can one really be an agent of light over dark while still believing in moral relativism?
  • Consider the case of Qui-Gon from Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon was convinced that Anakin Skywalker would be a savior. Yet can you really have a savior if good and evil is, as Kenobi suggests, only a matter of perspective? Isn't salvation the move towards some kind of good? So Qui-Gon shows an operational absolutism.
  • Ignoring that he too is willing to lie to get his way, Qui-Gon dies convinced that Anakin will be a force of good. Is this why Qui-Gon is seemingly written out of Jedi history, for believing in an absolute that did not work out? When Kenobi sends Luke to Yoda in Empire, he calls the little green guy "the Jedi who trained me." Only problem with this is that Yoda did not train Kenobi...Qui-Gon did. Is Qui-Gon being written out of Jedi history for his false belief in a savior who would act as an agent of good? Or is Kenobi just a pathological liar?
  • Back to the Sith for a moment. If only Siths believe in absolutes, how do we reconcile this with the explicit statements of Chancellor Palpatine, who is (spoiler alert) the hidden Sith lord? When, in Revenge of the Sith, he is asked (by a conflicted Anakin) about good versus evil, he says "good is a point of view." Well, if good is only a point of view, that doesn't sound all that absolute. Moreover, Palpatine seems more interested in using all emotions...which again sounds more relative.
  • But if you flash forward in the trilogy, when C3-P0 is trying to explain to the Ewoks why they should fight the empire (this, incidentally, might've only been in the novelization...haven't gotten to Jedi yet this year), he talks about them in terms of good versus evil. To be sure, the whole Ewok versus Storm Trooper battle seems steeped in binary oppositions. Or is C3-P0 just wrapped up in the same pathological lying of Kenobi?

So where do the Star Wars movies lie in terms of Meta-Ethics? Frankly, it's all over the map. The prequels do confuse matters more, but even if we shove them into the Great Pit of Tarkoon where they belong, the original series still has some explaining to do.

I did read somewhere that George Lucas didn't like Empire all that much because it trafficked in moral relativism, which made it a dark film...and, one presumes, this darkness made it less merchandise-friendly. This is a shame, because it is that very lack of absolutism that makes Empire my favorite of the whole series.

Admittedly, though, that relativism might not be the best fit for Christmas, but I am willing to deal with it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

a cool ho-ho-holiday story

The other week, my band Analog Revolution (come see us play live soon, buy the shirt, end of plug) was playing our last show of the year with the awesome Hemline Theory, and I figured, hey, since it's the holiday season, I would get some candy canes to hand out to the audience.

The first thing you should know about passing out candy canes at a rock bar is that stage lights are very bright and shining directly into your eyeballs, so you really have to hurl them rather than toss. This leads to a certain percentage of the audience ducking and covering their eyes rather than catching the candy. Secondly, it's a good idea not to throw the canes with your pick hand...that is, unless you wanna lose your guitar pick in the process.

Hemline Theory played after us, and they one-upped us in the holiday audience-giveaway area. Where we passed out candy canes, they had homemade cupcakes...and they also had gifts for the audience. I didn't mind the one-upping, though, as 1) they've been doing this longer than us, and 2) I got some nice chocolate-filled almond cookies.

It also led to one of the best moments of the season.

After Hemline finished, I was talking to a friend who made the drive down from Toledo to see us. Partway through our conversation, someone I didn't know came up to our table.

"Excuse me," he asked, "but you're Mike, right?"

I assumed he just liked the show, so I shook his hand. After he introduced himself (sorry, can't remember who it drinking, you know) and complemented me on the set, he also said "I heard you and your wife have a child on the way...and I think you could use the gift I got from the band more than I can." With that, he ceremoniously presented me with a Santa Claus Mr. Potato Head.

This, my friends, is the kind of thing that I love. To round out the year, I got to play a show with my awesome band. I also got to hang out with a good friend I don't see nearly enough. Furthermore, I had a complete stranger give my unborn child a Christmas gift.

True, it may not be on the level of world peace, but it does make me feel awesome about humanity and life.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I hate holiday music. Utterly, terribly despise it. When I was in high school (and beyond), I worked at a variety of Little Caesars pizza places, and more than one location was in a shopping center which piped in generic, sappy, cheesy Christmas music starting immediately after Halloween and ending somewhere around Groundhog's Day...a year later. This insidious music dug into my brain, ripping out my insides...and not in a good way.

Each of those seasons was pure pain. I know this might get me labeled a "humbug" (see, even the Christmas insults are sappy), but let me make this clear: I don't really hate Christmas itself. I can even handle the consumerism and crowded malls; hey, I actually did all my shopping on Christmas eve one year, and seeing people go crazy trying to spend money on ungrateful brats is kinda funny. No, it's just the music that drives me batty. So I try and avoid it whenever possible.

Totally evading Christmas music, however, is unfortunately unavoidable unless you lock yourself in a closet and plug your ears up with a spare ornament or something. Much like oxygen, the communist conspiracy, and ugly sweaters, it's everywhere.

Case in point: I was doing some copying and scanning in my department office, and the student assistant was streaming Christmas music on her computer. Of course I control myself, because I am smart enough to know that office staff holds the true position of power. However, I still have to hear the damn stuff, and my snarkiness utterly refuses to turn itself off.

"Here Comes Santa Claus" starts playing, and I have pay some level of attention to the lyrics (mainly because my sleep-deprived brain is trying to kill me). I hear "Let's give thanks to the Lord above, 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight," and it dawns on me...these songs are often very, truly, epically stupid. Thank God because Santa Claus is coming?

The whole idea of Santa Claus strikes me as kind of insidious. Who thought it would be a great idea to create a massive lie and spread it to kids everywhere? Sooner or later, they will find out that Santa does not indeed come down their chimney to drop off the iPods and Gameboys his elves manufactured up at the North pole. After hearing that, how can said kids ever really trust anything their parents tell them again? And to directly connect the Santa Claus mass deceit into any idea of God just seems a really stupid move for churches trying to fight the evil liberal atheist agenda (or whatever they're calling it nowadays).

I will admit, however, that my thinking may indeed change when my child is born. I will also admit that, just maybe, I've had too much coffee this morning.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

after the rock show

I grew up with parents that didn't like music.

This, of course, I realize is a total lie. Of course, my folks listened to plenty of music, owned music, and incorporated it into their lives. Yet music, for my Maw and Paw, was by no means something with which to become consumed. I'm sure both my parents like music just fine, but the importance it has to their lives always seemed, from my perspective, nowhere near on the same level as it eventually became for me. It was more like background sound, or it was "that's nice" music.

As a result, I kind of drifted lazily into the world of music, picking up on some things I heard on the radio, some things I heard from my sister (most of either category was classic rock, like Styx or Foreigner). There were plenty of songs I liked, but for many of my early years, there was nothing that really grabbed me and refused to let go.

Then I heard AC/DC. AC/DC smacked me across the face. It demanded my attention. It did things to me emotionally that I had yet to experience. As I was a shy, quiet kid, I was completely unprepared for the power, for the energy, for the liveliness. In fact, AC/DC's If You Want Blood (You've Got It) was the first album I ever bought. And when I discovered Black Sabbath, my path was sealed. It's no surprise that Angus Young and Tony Iommi are the two guitarists who influenced me the most.

My first concert was Molly Hatchet opening for Triumph. Molly Hatchet was pretty horrible. They sounded like they were playing through mud, and I began to wonder what was the big deal with live music. But Triumph came on, and because of their tight playing, anthemic songs, and the biggest light and laser show in the business, I became a live rock show convert. They did much less a performance than an experience...which is now the heights which I expect rock and roll to reach.

I'm thinking about live rock and roll because this evening, the lovely spousal unit and I went into Toledo to see The Hold Steady. This is a band I utterly love. Everything about their live show screams "you must have a good time tonight." They might look utterly unlike rock stars, their singer might rarely if ever actually play the guitar slung over his shoulder, but their music is based on riffs that nail you to the wall. Lyrically, they are very much about rock and roll...about excess, about inclusiveness, about unattainable dreams, about good times, about what happens when the good times end. And personally, I think they give hope to all of us ugly, middle-aged rock musicians.

It was also my child's first concert. Yes, I realize the kid doesn't actually get born for six more months, but I'm going to stand by this claim...because womb concerts count, right? While I have fears that the urchin eventually will rebel against my tastes and listen predominantly to either new age or electronica, I hope that The Hold Steady show implanted at least a bit of rock and roll in the its soul. If not them, who?

Although it does occur to me that there will be an in utero Analog Revolution show or two...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

obsession and imagery

I was watching Aliens last night, when it hit me: the movie is more than just a cool action sequel to a horror's also the perfect metaphor for pregnancy.

No, I don't really expect the child to come bursting out of the Spousal Unit's chest and snarl. While the movie monster is cool, what strikes me more about the whole Alien series is how the appearance of the bugs cause everyone in the area to freak out in a different way, albeit one uniquely suited for their character. Businesses turn even more bottom-line obsessed/evil, risking not just imprisonment but human life (there own and others) on the chance for profit. Scientists turn more "let's dissect, and damn the cost to human life." Marines turn more "hu-rah" and "let's blow up everything in sight." And particularly in the second, Ripley, the narrator, sadly enough, goes into "she's a girl, so she's going to become the snarling protective mom" figure over her own safety. Aliens, in other words, prompt extreme behavior.

This is what seems to be happening around me. Sometime in June, I will be a father. While I am fully experiencing the typical trials, stresses, and expectations of the addition, this is not currently the most fascinating element of the process. No, the freakiest thing in the whole deal is how an impending child causes everyone in the world around you to freak out. To be clear: everyone seems very happy for us, and that happiness seems perfectly genuine. Yet within many reactions of joy, I learn a bit more about those around me and the things with which they are obsessed.

The spousal unit and I first noticed the gendered nature of most congratulatory comments, particularly with the vehemence of assumptions on our respective roles. Whenever spousal unit told anyone about the upcoming urchin, she was often asked "How does Mike feel about this? Is he happy?" When I tell anyone, a lot of people wonder "Is your wife okay? Has she been throwing up much?" For many people, that must be who we, as expecting parents, are: a vomiting wife and a depressed husband.

I have particularly noted how the "depressed husband" bit seems pervasive in not just some acquaintances but in society in general. What, according to the literature, is my job? Well, when you're part of an expecting couple, people give you lots of brochures and magazines, and according to New Parent, I don't really have much of any role in this child process. All of the articles are written by women, to moms, and the only mention of fathers is that "the husband may be confused on how to help, so write him a 'to do, dear' list." No wonder the father-to-be's supposed to be depressed...everyone thinks he's a neglectful moron. I'm also assuming that having to clean up all his wife's vomit might have something to do with his mood.

People also seem inordinately fascinated by the question of if we're going to discover the child's sex before the breaching begins. Right now, we're going back and forth (I don't care, while spousal unit has changed her mind at least once), but some folks are adamant that we should have either a boy or a girl...but they really should've submitted a request months ago. Both of our families are actively pushing for a girl for some reason and don't feel shy about telling us so. At this stage of the pregnancy, this line of conversation has morphed into a debate on whether the urchin's high heart rate means it's a boy or a girl. Personally, the level of obsession leads me to believe that most of my friends own stock in either blue or pink pigment manufacturing processes. Sorry, y'all, we're going with gender-neutral colors.

The biggest weirdness catalyst so far, though, has been the ultrasound photos. When my spousal unit took them to work, she was unprepared for the political ramifications they brought up. In particular, there were co-workers that, after expressing congratulations, made them into salvos in the pro-choice/pro-life debate and started to reach at-the-throat levels...that is, after they asked if the photos changed how depressed I might be.

I also shared the photos with my friends (ah, e-mail...the blessing of the lazy yet ambitious communicator), and, as many of them are academics, this naturally stirred up a theoretical debate. That there was a debate was very unsurprising to me, and that there were views I found reasonable, views with which I respectfully disagreed, and views that seemed beside the point was also expected. However, throughout many of the responses lay an intense and not-so-subtle distrust of institutions: of communicative institutions, of technological institutions, and of medical institutions. There was co-opting, devaluing, and erasing. And this made me realize: man, I know a lot of folk who are truly paranoid, but only in a theoretical sense.

And to think that it was Aliens that brought it all home to me. I should note, incidentally, that I personally don't find any of this scary in the slightest. Instead, I am amused intently by all of the reactions. I really haven't, for the record, found anything about the impending fatherhood to be scary at all...except the realization that I'll probably have to patronize a Babys-R-Us in the future. The horror!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the right metaphor

I have news...but most of the standard metaphors are kind of clunky and inappropriate. "Knocked up" makes me think of some weird zero-G mixed martial arts. "Bun in the Oven" is too Hansel-and-Gretel/cannibalish. And "expecting" makes me think that someone is never going to finish their sentence.

This is more delicate than you might think. I know that I have to maintain the dignity of the situation. On the other hand, though, I also have to communicate the joy, excitement, and potential of the event. While I am a professional writer and thus have to hunt for metaphors all the time, this one is relatively important, so I really hope this does it justice:

My spousal unit and I would like to announce that, on or about the 8th day of this upcoming June, the future master and potentate of the universe will arrive, and we, as a couple, are the responsible some of the "hails" should be for us.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

a new dastardly student trick revealed!

I've been teaching for a while, and I used to think I'd seen everything, in terms of papers. No, I'm not talking about stupid subjects or thesis statements (although, after "The Catholic church is the mother of homosexuality and should be banned," not much surprises me there either) but in terms of length stretching.

While I can't talk for all teachers, I personally am not really so anal that I desperately need a certain number of words or pieces of paper to sleep at night. When I set a length requirement, I'm mostly thinking about an appropriate level of focus and critical engagement, because writers think much differently about a topic in three pages than in six. So when a student tries to slip past inadequate thought, it kind of gets me steamed.

I have, like most teachers, seen students try a ton of different tricks, such as:

  • the use of Courier New, which stretches out a short paper
  • the use of Courier New on a Mac, which adds more space than on a pc
  • a slightly larger font, ranging from 13 pts. up to the fairly obvious 16
  • increasing margin size, up to an unsubtle 2"
  • increasing spacing, from the sneaky 2.25 spacing to the ridiculous triple spacing
  • adding extra spacing between paragraphs, up to 16pts. worth

By this point in my career, these are all relatively easy to spot...and when I do see them, I get angry that the student in question thinks I'm dumb enough not to be able to immediately spot their lazy attempts to stretch out a short paper.

Today, though, I discovered a new one. My spousal unit brought me a page which I was sure was triple spaced. When we opened the file, however, it was in double spacing. I opened it up in both Word and OpenOffice without difference. After puzzling over it for a while, I discovered the student trick: only the periods were in 18 pt....which stretched out the spacing while keeping it officially double spacing.

Pretty clever on the student's part. I still think, however, that it wouldn't cost too much more effort to just do the damn assignment. I am, however, pretty happy to learn another student trick. I have another bit of evil I can now effectively thwart!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

identity and hard truths

My dad was in the Air Force until I finished seventh grade. When he retired, we moved to Jacksonville, where he grew up. I entered Lake Shore Junior High. Strangely enough, it was not on a lake. It was on Bayview road. It was right next to Bayview Elementary...which was on Lake Shore Drive. Bayview Elementary did not include a view of any bay. In fact, there wasn't a bay or a lake anywhere near Bayview Elementary or Lake Shore Jr. High.

I found this confusing at first, but when I finally learned to quit trying to look for logic where it didn't exist (which, sadly enough, was public school's most enduring lesson), things got much more bearable...for a while. I dunno...maybe they thought the names created an exotic image or something.

I then entered Ed White High School on the heels of my brother, who had graduated the year before I got there. Nevertheless, he paved the way for me. One of the first things they did to incoming students was to herd us straight from homeroom into a line, where we would 1) get our schedule, 2) give you an id card, and 3) be assigned a locker. Lockers were of immense importance. Get a bad one, and any time you needed to grab a book or some homework, you would be doomed to a long sprint through the halls between classes, pushing over chess club members, hurdling over the shorter of the cheerleaders, winding through the labyrinthian hallways, towards your locker, and you would have to do it fast to avoid the dreaded tardy slip (and the inevitable accompanying detention). A good locker, though, was a status symbol...get a nice one, and you would be "da man."

When I got to the head of the locker line, the student looked at my id. "Hey! Are you Mark's brother?" I admitted I was while secretly praying my brother wasn't a jerk to this guy. Things worked out good, though, because I quickly found myself in possession of a front row locker. I joked that my locker was so cool, it would make me the envy of all my friends and help me woo babes. Strangely enough, within three weeks, the locker did become a chick magnet...I was sharing this locker with a pretty hot Junior ROTC chick (whom I have no idea how I initially met, nor did I (sadly enough) ever had the courage to ask out...and I have no idea what became of her).

My brother paving the way didn't just yield me the locker of my dreams. I also had an instant "in" to my brother's group of friends, which meant I had people from whom I could regularly bum cigarettes, I had an already-reserved before-school place in front of the trophy cases, and I had a ready-made peer group of cool kids.

However, the instant peer group did not turn out entirely to be the boon it originally appeared. Yes, there was a social circle waiting for me, but it was also a circle that came with a readily-defined (and in fact required) role: that of the little brother. My brother wasn't always around, but I was still tagging along in his footsteps. I had friends, but I always wondered if, to them, I was Mike or "Mark's younger brother." I always had possibilities for company, but whenever I was around (who I feared to be Mark's) friends, I always felt destined for the background.

So I compensated, and I did so in a fairly pedestrian way: I tried to be unusual. If I stood out in some way, I reasoned, I would be my own man. So, as I suspected I was already slightly weird as a kid, I became fully goofy...which, while it made me stand out, also locked me permanently into the role of comic relief. I also tried to adapt a rebel image, but I did so in fairly predictable and role-enforcing ways, by wearing concert shirts and growing my hair into an awesome heavy metal style (covered earlier)....which just meant I merely became the goofy heavy metal kid

And for reasons I still don't fully grasp, I decided to wear my school...the entire day...every day. Literally, whenever I was in school, I had on my sunglasses. Years passed, and when it came time to take my senior year book photos, yep, I was sporting the sunglasses. This did, in fact, have the effect of making me stand out, but it became more annoying than fun. Eight years later, I was in my bank to open a new account, and the teller stopped in the middle of a transaction, looked at me, and said, "hey, aren't you the guy with the sunglasses?"

It was then that I realized that the sunglasses thing, while it might've made me stand out, didn't make me cool. All it did was lead to yet another image I couldn't escape.

I would like to say that things got better, that I eventually became my own man, and that I became a person of substance rather than image. However, like the whole Lake Shore/Bayview thing, it's more complicated than that. Yes, I was playing the role of heavy metal kid, but I actually was a heavy metal other music really spoke to me. In addition to fitting the "goofy guy" role, I was genuinely goofy...not to the extent which people saw, but it was still there. After all, one of the lessons of the great hair-cutting-off of 1998 was that even without the trappings of my identity, I remained, to a large extent, the same person.

Maybe this should make me feel good, that I've in fact achieved the consistency which many people seek...that I know who I am. However, there are days where I wish I was just playing a role, putting on a front...because if I was, I could change who I was, become someone else, maybe someone with whom people would want to hang, connect, befriend...who would not grate on people's nerves and turn friends into reluctant acquaintances...who people might take seriously...who people would never underestimate or (even worse) dismiss.

If you've read more than one of these posts, you know I am not the world's most optimistic person. I might argue, with my spectacular lack of success on the job market, amongst other things, that my pessimism is warranted. I might also make great pains to be pessimistic in a humorous manner (after all, I do have British blood in my veins). But in spite of however ingrained (and thus inescapable) my pessimism is, I wish sometimes it could just go away...because I know it makes people find me whiny and high maintenance. People tell me as much to my face, and I don't know if they're trying to be helpful, pointing out the obvious, or simply letting me know that they find me annoying.

You also probably know, from being a reader, that I am in fact a little weird. Again, it is legitimate. I tend not to look at things from expected angles, and I try to be unique in my thinking. But however this skill might be a boon in my chosen profession (after all, would you want an academic who always took the expected path?), it also means that I am doomed to the role of the department weirdo. And while uniqueness is, I suppose, a good thing, it's also true that no one really takes the weirdo seriously. Even if the Shakespearian foole spouts the wisest words, he is, in the end, still a fool.

But what choices do I have? If these things are inside me, can I change them? Should I? Can I in fact temper my weirdness while maintaining the uniqueness that serves me well in my scholarship? Is it possible to minimize my pessimism and still have anything resembling my sense of humor? Ultimately, how much of what people see is me?

What is the cost of being yourself?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

beverage: the Candy Corn

Due to popular demand, here's another mixed drink, perfect for those autumnal feelings! As a word of fair notice, there is no actual corn in this beverage.

  • Chill a couple o' martini glasses
  • Fill a shaker most of the way up with ice
  • add

    • 2 measures of bourbon
    • 1 measure of triple sec
    • 1/2 measure of peppermint schnaps
    • fresh local apple cider to within an inch o' the top

  • shake well to combine while doing a light "cha-cha-cha" dance to remind one's self of summer days gone by
  • pour the mixture into said glasses
  • add a splash of grenadine to each, making sure not to stir
  • sip while contemplating how to carve an erotic design onto a pumpkin of your choice

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

clearing out the deadwood

Way back when I started this blog in December of 2004, I had a few definite thoughts in mind for what I wanted to do. First and foremost, of course, I needed to convince and remind myself that I found the act of writing to be fun. This is one thing that this blog has done extremely well. In large part to its existence, I love writing again. Indeed, some of the writing of which I'm most proud in my life ("Issues and Six Strings" and "On Exits") is on this blog.

There were a few other guiding thoughts, though. I was facing a fairly dire situation: I was long out of money, did not have any work prospects, no longer felt like a scholar, was uncertain about teaching, was a failed musician, and generally felt like I had failed at life. These are things that, if you can get past the rough (and frankly embarrassing) prose and the macho bravado applied to mask the deep depression into which I was sinking, come through loud and clear in those earliest of entries.

Things are different now. I have lucked into a steady job which I can (and probably will) do until I either retire or die (I can see it now...a hoard of students asking the chair (while the EMTs drag off my bloated corpse from in front of the white board) if they still have to turn in their essays). In spite of being pretty sure I will never land the fabled tenure-track job, I am very confident in my scholarly production and think I have done good, note-worthy research (currently under review in major journals as we speak). I play in what I modestly think is a pretty awesome band. I am slowly, ever so slowly crawling out of debt. So I live, in the balance, in a universe drastically better than the one I inhabited upon entering the bloggosphere.

I have not (and, I suspect, I never will) run out of things to say, which I wish to share with the world. But a lot of what part of me thinks is important in "The Quest to Understand Mike" are topics which I'm pretty sure I should not speak. I've never, for example, wanted to write about the highs and lows of teaching, because I cannot really do so without violating the confidentiality of my students (which is something I will never do). Everyone who has ever glanced at this blog knows I've been frustrated with the state of academics and the job market, so to say anything else would be to rehash. I am also pretty sure that no one really wants to hear any mid-life crisis rants either.

What is left? It's a question with which I've been struggling lately. The short answer is: big things. Big changes. Big realizations about my past, present, future. Big understandings about what is important in the world. Some of these might be vague. Some of these might hinge on the "to be revealed at a later date." But I can assure you: most of what is to come will be pretty important, at the very least to staying tuned isn't an entirely bad idea.

Mainly, it all has to do with the state of where I am and how I'm feeling about the world in general and myself specifically. I will admit that I have always been a melancholy kind of guy, and things like self-deprecating humor have always come naturally to me. I always used to think about such attitudes as being endemic to the state of TheMikeDuBose-ness. Lately, though, I have wondered about whether such an attitude is in fact an intrinsic part of me, and I have started to contemplate the cost of such a mindset.

If I'm to be honest with myself, though, I believe I've been (on some level) contemplating such matters for a while.

Back when I was a recent MA, I was finishing up the summer in my grad department office before moving to Ohio, when I suddenly decided to cut off my heavy metal hair. I had been growing my metal hair since really getting into ACDC, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden. I had gone from straight to Bon Jovi-ish perm back to straight, plowing through countless brushes and gallons of conditioner. By my last summer in Florida, my glorious hair had reached within a foot of my waist.

One day, though, I decided it needed to go. I joked about this with friends one night at a bar, and although most of them took it as drunk talk (sweet, sweet drunk talk), one of them suggested I make an appointment at the stylist where she worked. The next day, I did so, without telling anyone. I took a lunch break, drove to the stylist, got all my hair chopped off, and went back to work. The afternoon was filled with a whole bunch of "Hi, Mike...OH MY GOD!!!!"s. When I came home that afternoon, my own parents didn't recognize me at first. I went to the bar that night, and some of my own friends wondered who was this guy sitting at their table.

Most of the reactions were of shock and of the "oh, it looks good" type of surprise (with the exception of one professor with whom I was working who didn't even notice the change). There was one professor in particular, though, who demanded explanation, justification, and all that. He was strangely oblivious to my plea to lower shampoo bills.

I never was able to give him an explanation at the time. I can do so now. I was, at the time, wondering if my image made me me. Would I survive without the hair? Would I stand out? Would anyone notice me if there wasn't an intrinsic shock value? Chopping off all my hair, ultimately, was about trying to figure out who I was when all the trappings were removed.

This is, incidentally, what this blog will try to do from now on..and, if I'm honest with myself, I think that clearing out the deadwood in myself has been perhaps one of my main motivations from the start.

Monday, October 04, 2010

dreaming of the future

I awoke far too early this morning but in a shockingly good mood, better than 6:30 really warrants. I was having a very good dream, you see.

Me and some generic dream-friends had decided to enter this competition to see who could build the best science fiction-y device that actually worked. So we developed a hovering 30 foot rocket car out of pipes, mystery blue fluid, and more bottle rockets than you would conceivably fit on a semi. We took it to the competition center in downtown Bowling Green on the day of the show, and it worked...sorta. We really couldn't steer it, and it took wild, unexpected laps through the alleys and paring lots of BG, frightening conference judges and pedestrians alike.

In spite of our car not being 100%, we were giggling nonetheless...because it was simply so damn cool. Then, overhead, we saw another entry...a working replica of a Pod Racer the size of a soccer pitch. Our giggles quickly turned to laughter. Then, entering our town's airspace from the opposite direction, was an actual flying version of Lando Calrissian's cloud city double pod patrol cars, jetting overhead to the BG (s)mall, and our laughter turned to wild, insane cackling, mixed with unbridled applause.

Yes, we were building science fiction.

We were not really cheering because our creations worked all that well. As well as having no steering, our rocket car's brakes quickly failed, and the Pod Racer almost took of the top of city hall. And it wasn't just because we were watching science fiction come to life.

No, it was awesome because instead of some company like Apple taking our common sci-fi mythology, making it shiny and plastic, loading it with proprietary software, and selling it back to us at a significant cost, it was us. We built it. We ripped the science fiction right out of the guts of its corporate owners/overlords, made it real with vice grips, baling wire, and our own hands, assembled it right in our back yards, and gave it back to the world at large for the simple joy of doing so.

It was a good dream.

Friday, October 01, 2010

on exits

One of the least fortunate things about being a renter is that pets are problematic. I can't have pets now, so the best I can do is fawn over my friends' cat. It's a poor substitute, though, so I also just have to remember pets past.

We had a dog named Rusty when I was one, but I don't remember him at all. My dad was in the Air Force, and when he was assigned to Germany, we couldn't take Rusty with us. Instead, we left Rusty with a relative. I met him briefly when we returned to the US, but we didn't recognize each other.

We then had a Guinea pig named Snoopy. I liked Snoopy, but I don't remember much about him...Guinea pigs don't have an awful lot of personality, and I was quite young. We also had fish, but I always saw them as more decoration than anything else. As such, it was quite a while before I really understood the whole pet thing.

Tigerlilly changed all that. We got Tigerlilly when visiting my Grandmother. Tigerlilly was a Calico mix cat who I immediately loved. Tigerlilly didn't really care for me at first, though, and she would resist my efforts to hug or hold her. Eventually, when I learned to calm down a bit, Tigerlilly and I became friends. She was an interesting cat...she liked to sleep with her head buried in my shoe. She would also crawl into my violin case or camp out on my back when I was laying on the floor watching television. We also liked to play, in all the traditional boy/cat ways.

When she was about halfway through her natural life-span, though, Tigerlilly developed diabetes. We tried to regulate her blood sugar with insulin injections, but it was really a losing battle. I remember those last days, when Tigerlilly couldn't really get up off the floor. I petted her, told her I loved her, but when my father finally had to take her to the vet, I couldn't bring myself to go say a final goodbye...which still bothers me, to be honest.

We had another cat, a stray my mom named Muffin. Muffy had a hard life and was most likely abused before we got her. My mom was the only one who Muffy really seemed to like, and she rarely let me get close to her. She was always nervous and skittish, hiding underneath beds more often than not. Eventually, Muffy also got diabetes and didn't last long after the diagnosis. We were never friends, and I never understood her, but I was sad when she died, because I knew my mom did miss her tremendously.

Afterward, we eventually got two more cats, sisters from a litter in my Grandfather's barn. We got them when they were kittens. One of them was a tortoise-shell with almost leopard-like markings. My mom named this one Sheeba. The other was a long-haired Siamese my mom called Cleopatra. My brother and I, though, decided these cats deserved cooler names. Sheeba had massively long legs and tail, so we called her Spidey. The long-haired Siamese? She became Fuzzhead.

Both Spidey and Fuzzhead were great cats. They were generic cute kittens while young (I remember Fuzzhead falling asleep in my arms the first day we had them, which was truly an "aww" inspiring moment), but they both quickly developed strong personalities. Spidey was a talker, a yelper, tremendously loud, fast, and muscular. She really hated being held, but she was not shy about yelling "pet me! PET ME!!! NOW!!!!!" Fuzzhead loved to be held, but she would make you work for it...often, she would make you follow her for two laps around the living room and through the kitchen before stopping, looking back at you with her piercing blue eyes, and collapsing, almost as if saying, "Okay, you have now earned the opportunity to love me." That these two were sisters was also very evident, because they looked out for each other. One day, Fuzzhead fell into my parents' hot tub on the deck, and Spidey ran to the glass doors and pounded on them until she got our attention...and then led my Dad to the hot tub, where Fuzzhead was struggling to stay above water.

Eventually, we got cat number three, who decided to camp out on the street in front of our house in a torrential downpour, looking pathetic until my Mom finally brought her inside. This one was a black and white longhair, which Mom named Smudge after the white blotch of fur in between her eyes. Smudge wasn't very attractive at first, as her ears and eyes were way too big for her face, but she grew into it. She also never learned to meow, so she let out this weird grunt. Smudge also wasn't tremendously bright. She was, however, an awesomely sweet cat. She would run to greet me when I got home, and often, I would step out of the bathroom post-shower to see her sitting in the hallway, staring up at me like a long-lost friend.

Eventually I moved to Ohio. About a year or so after I came up north, Spidey developed a huge growth on her back. It was cancer, and although my parents had it removed, the cancer came back...and she died a thousand miles away from me. Smudge, who was very much my cat, also died of cancer when I was away. I often wondered what it was like for Fuzzhead, first seeing her sister disappear, then seeing her playmate (such as it was...Fuzzhead often just would whack Smudge for no reason) leave and not come back.

The last time I went to Florida, Fuzzhead still recognized me. She still looked beautiful, and she still purred like mad when I held her. But we knew not all was well. For starters, she weighed half as much as she used to, even though she ate constantly. She was also going deaf, and when I would sit down to pet her, I would surprise her...she had no idea I was near. Still, she seemed happy enough.

Before I left, I sat down on the floor next to her when no one else was around. She was laying on her side, so I gently started petting her. She snapped stroke head around, saw it was me, closed her eyes as if smiling at me, and let me pet her. I told her that although I wasn't around, I still thought of I still thought of her departed sister and of Smudge. I told her that she was always a great friend to me, and I loved the time we spent together. I reassured her that even though I was the other side of the country, and even though I didn't know when I'd be back or if we'd see each other again, I would never, ever forget her or stop loving her. She lifted her head to mine and rubbed our noses together, as if to say "I understand...and I feel the same way."

I found out this morning that Fuzzhead died last week. At age 19, her body finally gave out. She had a great life, though, and was loved to the end...especially by her friend a thousand miles away.

Right now, I am torn. I think of quotes from two of my favorite writers. One of them, in the course of a story, has a character that remarks "bringing home a kitten is, in one way, committing yourself to eventually burying a dead cat." The eventual pain, in other words, is inseparable from the pleasure of life. This might make one wonder if it's worth the separation, the suffering. The other writer, though, once said "Remember: every day here is a gift." This is the attitude I will try to take, as I'm sitting here, typing a memorial, realizing I'm totally cat-less, tears rolling down my cheeks, thinking of my departed girls.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

pushing and pulling

This morning, I got to get up early and go to my physical therapy treatment. I seem to have a case of rotator cuff tendinitis, coupled with mild bicep tendinitis and some impingement...which actually sounds a lot more impressive and bitchin' than it is in reality.

It's one of those annoying injuries, because I don't even know how I injured myself...I just woke up one day in pain. I've been trying to come up with good explanatory stories, such as:

  • I pulled it carrying my singer's amplifier (which has the benefit of picking on said singer and making me look like a self-sacrificing kind of guy--neither of which are, in reality, all that fair).
  • I injured my shoulder playing one of my band's particularly intense songs...meaning I put my physical well-being on the line for my art, man! Rock 'till you hurt!
  • I had to break up a gang-fight made up of perturbed supermodels, and one of them got some licks in.
  • I strained it holding up the very integrity of my species (whatever this means).

The problem, though, is that since no one believes or even listens to anything I say, such fictive explanations all go for naught.

I do hope that my upcoming P/T schedule will be beneficial. Ultimately, I want to be free of any pain, even of the lingering variety. At the very least, though, I do know it will be a learning experience. I even learned something today, in the first session. As I had my shirt off around two women, and as neither of them threw themselves at me, I learned some very hard truths about how well I'm aging.

Oh, well. I will try to focus on the least the sight of a shirtless me didn't cause any of the staff to become physically ill.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

battling the insect invasion

This morning, the spousal unit and I were carpooling. As a result, not only was spousal unit up ridiculously early, but so was I. I was finishing up my breakfast and e-mail, and spousal unit was putting on her face paint in the study. That's when I heard "wooooooo!"

It wasn't, I'm afraid, an excited wooo either.

"You okay, babes?"

"There's bees in here."



Sure enough, there were two bees in the study. Spousal unit killed one yesterday, but I suspected it just snuck in when we came home. That didn't explain why there were two more flying around by the study's light fixture.

We had to get to work, so we left the light on, in hopes that they would "walk to the light"...and hopefully fry. We planned to, upon our return, clear out some of the kibble from the study so I could call our maintenance man the next day.

When we did get home and start shoveling out the room, we found another bee on the floor. Then another. Another still. Spousal unit got to kill one, but we must've found about twenty of the dead little bastards.

This is, of course, fairly puzzling. We haven't had the window in the study open all summer. So where are they coming from? The attic, via the light? Is our window broken? Spontaneous generation?

We will find out tomorrow. In the meantime, just pray we can repel the invaders.

Friday, September 03, 2010

tuning out

It only took a few days for it to happen. And while I'm happy to have direct evidence of some religious doctrines, I just didn't think it would come when I was teaching.

The first week of school always means lots of adjustments. I have to wear pants, shave, and look presentable...well, at least as presentable as I ever get. I have to be prepared. I have to have notes. I have to reestablish the to-do list routine.

Then I get up in front of strangers and talk. I have to look like I know what I'm talking about, and do so while making them pay attention. Personally, I cannot succeed at this by trying to be entertaining or friendly. Rather, I slam them with information delivered in a "this is vital" tone of voice. Luckily, I do in fact know what I'm talking about, because otherwise, I would be scared out of my mind.

There is normally routine to help me through. I have my standard "first day of class" bits for my Comp I (which I have taught continuously since 2003). However, this semester, I also had a section of Writing About Literature, a course which I've never taught I had to develop a new first day discussion/lecture. So I pulled material from other lessons from other subjects, boosted the level of intellectual intensity (after all, I have mostly upper classmen), and I funneled it all into the study of literature.

Halfway through the first session, however, I realized my attention was wandering. My consciousness was worried about what I would do when I got home...when I hung out with friends, would I drink wine or bring beer? I screamed to myself, "Hey, idiot're in the middle of teaching!" Then I focused on the lecture I was in the middle of delivering to find out, much to my surprise, that I was actually firing on all cylinders in spite of paying no attention to what I was doing...and I didn't even have the "I've done this 1.7 million times" excuse to blame.

It's not the first time I've entered a trance state. When I do student conferences, I often find myself giving the exact same advice, over and over. And fairly regularly, I go on auto-pilot during these sessions. A few years back, however, there was a conference where I could swear I had an out-of-body experience and could not just hear myself carrying on this conversation with a student, but actually see it happen....from a position somewhere up in the ceiling.

Later that night, post-lit class trance, I was on a friend's porch, bottle of Merlot in one hand and a cigar in another. I asked mycolleague if she'd ever done the trance-state teaching thing, and she replied, utterly unsurprised, "Oh yeah, it happens pretty regularly."

Trance/fugue states? Alternate consciousness? Out of body experiences? I think teaching might be the new Eastern religion.

diversity, music, and art

Yesterday, I posted my internet meme post of 15 albums in 15 minutes. Yeah, i don't normally do these things, but I needed a mental break from conferences and class prep. Hey, at least I didn't tag anyone...which is important, because I hate coercion...unless I'm getting paid to do it.

Anyway, within a stupidly brief amount of time, a friend of mine pointed out (on some social networking site...apparently, she's too good to comment here) that I had a very "dudely" list. Yes, it's true...there were utterly no female artists on it at all.

After I saw this comment, I had to go off to my lit class. We had a bit of discussion on the general concept of heroes in general. When I asked what the first thing that came into my students' minds was with the word "hero," the answer was, of course, super heroes (hey, an area of specialty!). So we made a list and talked about what being a superhero (and, by extension, heroes in general) meant. After class, one student came up to me and asked if we were indeed going to talk about how heroes seem to be male and white. I assured her that yes, it was all part of my maniacal plan.

Of course, when I started driving home, the two incidents coalesced. When thinking about my lit course's readings, I did think about the general variety I tried to include (working class, Latino, different genres, and so forth)...but it still wasn't as diverse as I would've liked...there is only two black authors, for instance, but as this was my first time teaching this class, I had to pick from people I knew. I was constrained by my own experience.

Then, I started thinking of my albums. Of course, Aimee Mann (most likely I'm With Stupid) should've made the list. Caitlin Cary, if I had more time to think, would've also been in serious consideration. But what other female artists? No one came to mind. I also realized my list was very, very white. Yes, Living Colour would've rectified this (and, as they were one of my most important high school bands, they would've earned their place)...and Hendrix of course was a serious contender. And I love Motown, Sam & Dave, and Taj Mahal, but greatest hits albums and box sets seemed cheating. But there was no other Latino artists, for instance.

For music, there's a certain narrative at work which determines the music I've experienced. I started off with heavy metal (the British variety more than the American/glam-inspired variety), as I was particularly drawn to the virtuosity and power of the guitar-playing (undoubtedly because of my personal inadequate feelings of my own masculinity, or something like that). Yet metal is also a fairly non-diverse genre, so there just weren't a lot of non-white male options to chose from even if I would've thought of artist diversity at the time. At any rate, Vixen did nothing for me.

When I started to wane on the "shock value" and the "play it close to the genre conventions" aspect of much of the later metal I heard, I moved to Something about the Johnny Cash-meets-Replacements sounded more "real" to me (whatever that means) while still stressing the power and crunch of a guitar. But was it more diverse? Well, there were a few women, but that was about it. I then moved to greasy bar rawk, but it was pretty much, in terms of diversity, the same thing.

I like to think that when it comes to music, I'm not really constrained anymore by genre conventions, by labels, or any of that...but unfortunately, I still tend to move within predictable music styles. Yes, I'm more diverse than I ever have been in terms of the artists to whom I listen, but my friends can still easily point out "Mike Music." And unfortunately, what counts as MikeMusic is still mostly performed by a narrow group of people.

I know I should be diverse. I know I'm missing out by not following a wider variety of artists, and I do want to expand what I experience. However, in the music, I'm constrained by my tastes, and I just need to hear the power of a G chord. Diversity is a definite requirement of the lit class, so as well as wanting to include a variety of writers, I know I must do so. Music is different, though, because while I know I want diversity, I'm also unable to give up the sound of a raunchy guitar.

I only see one solution: a government grant to increase the diversity of rawk performers by getting a guitar and a distortion pedal into every child's hands! A Marshall in every bedroom! Loud noises as a government mission!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

15 albums in 15 minutes

So, I got tagged in one of those "15 albums in 15 minutes" things. Rather than use a social networking site, however, I decided to post my response here.

  1. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When I first heard this, I hated it...but, for some reason, I couldn't stop listening to it. There was so much variety, so much unexpected in the album. This disk had to teach me how to listen to it. In doing so, I had to rethink a lot of my conceptions about music. Plus, "Heavy Metal Drummer" still makes me want to dance (which I do not do).
  2. AC/DC, Powerage. Yes, it has absolutely no hits. Yes, it is the AC/DC album most people are least likely to hear. But this one is their blues album. It is loose, free, and cool. Moreover, it's very pissed off. "Down Payment Blues" alone wins this album a "desert island" slot for its snarky feelings towards poverty, in addition to having the best sounding guitar solo of all time.
  3. Slobberbone, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today. Slobberbone is one mighty live band, but this is their shining moment of studio glory. Forget that, because of its mix of country, rawk, Replacements-esque punk, and aggression, you can't really classify in most normal genre terms. It hits hard while being surprisingly intelligent.
  4. Two Cow Garage, Speaking in Cursive. Two Cow, as most readers know, is my favorite band. This album is good proof why. Lyrically, this album can be summed up as "What happens when you realize you will never be a superstar musician but still can't quit the music game?" As someone who has similar feelings about his chosen career, I can relate.
  5. Black Sabbath, Volume 4. Of course, Sabbath was gonna be here. This is a wall-to-wall album. Just listen to "Supernaught," which was doing what grunge tried (and failed) to do decades later.
  6. Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All. This is the perfect mix of humor, virtuosity, and attitude. I'm not sure it gets more beautiful than "Sofa No. 2" or more jaw-dropping than "Po-Jama People." Bonus points for the unexpected heart of "San Ber'dino."
  7. Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day. DBT is the band which made me rethink southern identity, and this was one of the albums which served as a main soundtrack to my adjunct "years of hell."
  8. Metallica, ...And Justice For All. It is impossible to explain the impact that Ride the Lightning had on sounded utterly like nothing else I've ever heard. Justice, however, is better...the band at their peak.
  9. Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo. Son Volt came along right at the time where the cliches of heavy metal were getting to me. This album felt somehow more real, more organic.
  10. The Faces, Ooh La La. Why did it take me so long to discover the awesomeness of this band? There's very few feelings better than riding with my spousal unit, singing "Just Another Honkey" while plowing through the countryside.
  11. Rainbow, Richie Blackmore's Rainbow. An album of startling depth and variety that is utterly uncontainable by genre labels. Neither Blackmore nor Dio ever showed this much range elsewhere.
  12. Judas Priest, Sad Wings of Destiny. Beautiful, sprawling, orchestral. This is where heavy metal should've went, instead of the shock value genre it became in the 80s and 90s.
  13. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds. The first album I played for my beloved (later to become my spousal unit).
  14. Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street. It actually took me ages to find this on cd, but when I did, whoooboy. The Stones had more range than anyone suspects. This whole album is a Saturday night party that stretches into Sunday morning a good way.
  15. Green Day, American Idiot. I'm one of those who think Green Day really never did a bad album (except maybe Insomniac), but this is perhaps their most solid effort. Moreover, I was astounded at how much it made my students think and question things they thought they believed. Plus "Letterbomb" is an awesome rock song.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

New York, escape to and fro

You know the saying "It's the journey, not the destination?" I would really like to find the person who said that and repeatedly punch him/her in the prefrontal cortex.

I had occasion this week to transport a vampire to New York City. We got up early for the long drive. Ohio was fine. Pennsylvania seemingly never ends. Seriously. It goes on forever. You enter Pennsylvania on I-80, travel 300+ miles, get in sight of the Welcome to New Jersey signs, and then you undergo an instant quantum transportation back to the Ohio border. Little known fact: remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise was caught in a temporal causality loop for several weeks? That was based on Pennsylvania's interstate.

Furthermore, about 35% of said never-ending interstate system is currently under construction and down to one lane. This adds even more time, but what can one do, other than raise a fist to the sky and curse Obama's communistical socialism? How dare he spend money on something helpful and productive rather than just give us bribe checks as did his predecessor.

At one of said construction areas, traffic stopped. After five minutes, I turn off the car. Five more, we get out and wander the interstate. Helpful truck driver behind us tells us there's a major accident ahead. We see three separate helicopter ambulances. Then, 20 minutes later, they begin to shunt all interstate traffic onto a back road. About 20 minutes after that, they let those of us past the exit turn around, go up the on-ramp, and join the endless flotilla of vehicles clogging the isolated two lane country road. Eventually, we get into a very small town where, no lie, people are sitting outside their trailers staring at the line of cars while drinking canned beer...for entertainment purposes, one would presume. Two hours after we initially stopped, we get back on the interstate, ten miles down the road. By this point, though, the interstate is open it would've been quicker if they would've just left us alone.

We wind our way into New Jersey and follow the handy online directions to the NJ light rail station...which is fun, because although said station was in a relatively affluent area, the township apparently doesn't believe in either streetlights or legible street signs. At said station, there is no mention of parking payment, meters, or anything else to suggest exactly how we're supposed to make sure my car didn't get towed. The train ride into Penn Station was uneventful, but Penn Station itself was about 128 degrees, with 98% humidity. This made hauling the vampire's suitcase over the top of the subway gates real fun.

For my solo trip back to Ohio, I woke early...around 6:30, thanks to the cars at the nearby intersection blowing their horns repeatedly and a neighbor moving what I can only assume is a piano out of the third-floor walkup. I walked the three city blocks to a bagel factory (recommended by our awesome hostess). While munching on a fresh out-of-the-oven everything, I:
  • walk the seven blocks to our original subway stop; they don't sell tickets.
  • I then walk one block to another entrance; their ticket machine is broken.
  • I stagger the two blocks to one of the Times Square stations, knocking tourists and schmucks out of my way. The station has a working machine, but you can't get on the line I need from that location.
  • One block away was the Times Square station that did grant access to my line. The building was closed for repairs.

So I crawl on my hands and knees the three blocks back to my original stop and actually got on the train. This ended up being a seventeen block walk (Manhattan city blocks, mind you) to get a bagel and a subway ride, which takes about an hour...and although it was early, I was tired, thirsty, and utterly drenched with sweat.

From that point on, though, the trip was relatively smooth. I negotiated New Jersey's mass transit with no problem. My car was still there, both untowed and without ticket. I found the interstate and drove westward, towards my beautiful spousal unit. Eventually, my sadness at the vampire parting just turned into anger and political activist resolve. I became road-weary, but it only caused me to do something stupid once (when I accidentally entered a YouPass toll lane and had to back out without getting hit). There was still a metric crap-ton of construction in Pennsylvania (which, once again, refused to end), but there was only one stretch where I averaged four mph.

Still, in spite of the good company on the ride into the city and the relative freedom of my return drive, I think the destination was far more momentous than the journey, which just annoyed me incessantly. I just wonder if Snake Plissken would agree.

Monday, July 26, 2010

on tissues and personal expression

When I pulled down the box of tissues, I was a little puzzled that the top informed me that the box "contains green tissues!" Gee, the box was green, so that was my first hint. However, when I looked at the bottom of the box, it advertised the company's new line of colored tissues, claiming that one could "use the color of tissue that says something about you!"

Damnit. I'm in the middle of quantifying my entire existence for a job application, and that's stress enough. Now I have to coordinate my tissue? Where might I list my tissue color choice on my resume anyway?

Freedom from choice, please!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

issues and six strings

We were playing last Saturday on the deck of a Toledo bar called Woodchucks. After a set spent staring at the stars, enjoying the smell of a deep fryer, and blasting through our set, we hung out, drank, listened to the other bands.

It's the end of the night. I'm hauling my equipment out of the patio, when the sound man and the drummer for one of the bands (a rockin' power trio from Detroit) see me. The sound man says "You guys sounded great." The drummer says "guitar god!" I was a bit stunned as I thanked them before hauling my pedal board into my car.

It's during Junior High. My brother's jamming with some friends, and I take my first guitar (a "Chicago" brand Les Paul copy) in the hopes that someone will let me play through a real amplifier. I plug in my guitar, but I can't stop it from squealing. I feel like an amateur.

It's high school, and a bass player friend is having a jam session at his practice room. I find out about it when I stop by randomly, in the middle of a long drive I only took so I could smoke. Everyone else looks like they're having a good time playing, I think, as I watch them from outside.

It's a year after graduation. Some friends of mine are in a band, and their guitarist quits. They ask someone else immediately to play with them. They don't even consider asking me, and when I realize, I sink a little more.

It's three years after graduation. I have been playing guitar for a while now, but I can't get anyone to play in a band with me. I've had some spectacular failures of band auditions (one group was playing AC/DC but switched keys in the middle of a song). I've had an ad up at a music store for weeks before someone finally calls. I go to the audition, and everyone in the band is a good 15 years older than me. We play, but they're upset with me because I don't know every pop metal song note-for-note. I pack my car in a torrential downpour, the weather matching my hope.

It's one of a hundred times where, frustrated by my lack of success with an instrument I dearly love, coupled with 40+ hours a week of work on top of being a full-time student, I haven't touched my instrument in weeks. That's when a friend will call me to jam, and, upon hearing how damn rusty I am, quietly remind themselves not to call me again.

It's a year before I move up to Ohio, when a "good friend" drunkenly tells me, "Mike, you really suck on guitar." I smile and laugh, trying to hide how much I believe him.

I have always loved music. I always "got" playing music on an intellectual level...I could always think music, see the layers, know what needed to happen. I never had that strong of technical skills...I was always (and remain) a sloppy player...but I had feeling. However, whenever I pick up my guitar, most of the above instances immediately leap to mind, and my confidence evaporates.

I do what I can to hide my embarrassment and insecurity...long ago, I learned of the real value of performing bravado...but it's always there. I'm not used to anyone thinking I'm good at guitar...and since guitar has always been very important to me, to who I am, this means that I've always had to fight the feeling of being a fraud and failure. And when someone complements me, I always feel uneasy, as if they're just trying to be nice.

These are my issues, though, and I will work to overcome them. For now, I just want to thank everyone who has come to see our show intently for your time and attention and tell you how much I appreciate you seeing us...particularly if my own embarrassment or bravado has hid my appreciation in any way. And I want to really thank my current awesome band for playing with truly is a dream come true.

I'll continue to be mentally screwed up, though...after all, my mental state is, by now, as big of a part of me as music.

Monday, June 28, 2010

metal and the academic mind

The smartest thing I ever did in my life (no, it's not finding and tying up a wonderful woman to a contractual obligation...that was pure luck) was my move up north to enter doctoral school. While the career thing hasn't worked out quite as I planned, the other benefits are too numerous to count. I have the best friends in the world, I love my job, and I love thinking about and figuring out my occupation! It's truly glorious.

There are, however, downsides.

I'm sitting in front of my computer, pulling out (as usual) all of my work-evasion tactics. I've already completed a full round of my daily web browsing, and neither Twitter, Facebook, or Reader has anything new to offer. I've done some audio editing on one of my band's demos. I've played enough games of Spider Solitaire (which is in a daily work-avoidance rotation with Tetris). And, notably (for the purposes of this e-mail) listened to music.

Today's pre-writing/avoidance music is Dio, which has been fairly regular in the playlist since the singer's death. I love Dio. I saw him on the Sacred Heart tour, and it was one of my first shows. It was awe-inspiring. They had a friggin' fire-breathing dragon on stage!

I always remembered Dio's lyrics as being one of the major draws. They were, as opposed to those from most hair metal acts, actually clever. They were actually about something.

But one of the dangers of being who I am, a trained academic with a culture and media specialization, is that the critical mental tools are always at work. When the song "Sacred Heart" came up, I started to pay attention to the words. The song start off with:

The old ones speak of winter
The young ones praise the sun
And time just slips away

Running into nowhere
Turning like a wheel
And a year becomes a day

The first stanza shows possibilities...a metaphoric examination of how the various age-related intellectual obsessions cause us to forget to see the true minute to minute joys as we live our lives? Cool. But then there's that damn "time turns like a wheel" cliche. Folks, bad Jungians have destroyed that as a legitimate phrase. It's simply hippie crap nowadays, and fairly uninsightful hippie crap at that. Moreover, hippie lyrics have no place in metal!

I still have hopes for something intelligent, though, if not a critical take on human existence. Later in the song, Dio sings:

You can see tomorrow
The answer and the lie
And the things you've got to do

..and I'm now expecting some good resolution. Hell, if I can see the answer and the lie, and if there's something I have to do, then it's gonna be notable, right? You're gonna tell me, and it's gonna be good...right? Right?

So, according to Dio, what do you have to do now that you know the truth of the world? Well,

Sometimes you want it all
You've got to reach for the sun

And find the Sacred Heart
Somewhere bleeding in the night
Oh look to the light
You fight to kill the dragon
And bargain with the beast
And sail into a sigh

It seems the grand answer, now that you know the answer and the lie of existence, is to lose yourself in a nice, long, geeky game of Dungeons and Dragons. Here's the truth of the world! Now use this knowledge to dream of living a nostalgic existence for a time where almost everyone was a slave and lived in filth, where people were repressed and killed for their religion, their national origin, for no reason at all! Weee!

Lest it seem I'm being harsh in my analysis, look at the next two stanzas:
You run along the rainbow
And never leave the ground
And still you don't know why

Whenever you dream
You're holding the key
It opens the door
To let you be free

Why do you dream? You don't know this, but the only real freedom you have is dreaming of a fictionalized existences you will absolutely never have! That no one ever had!

You see? This is what an academic mind can do to you. I guess it's better to realize this stuff than not, but it's still an interpretation I will now never be ever to not see when I listen do Dio.

Sigh. At least it still rocks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

drinking cures pain

I haven't even hit the ripe old age of 40 yet, but my body is falling apart. First, I have a rotator cuff injury (which comes, I suspect, from too much "rocking out"). Then I get tendinitis in my foot. And right after that starts to heal, I pull a muscle in my (until recently) uninjured shoulder. Grrr.

Naturally, there is only one thing I can do: create a mixed drink! I call this one "The Anti-inflammatory":

  • Take a highball glass and add several ice cubicles.
  • Add one shot of bourbon and one shot of triple-sec.
  • Top off with apple juice, stir, and dream of pain-free days.

I must add that this is one damn delicious drink. I sometimes amaze myself with my general brilliance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

doctoral advice

Another friend of mind just (successfully) defended his dissertation today. This is a version of the advice I gave him (and to many of my friends when they become new Ph.D.s):

Congratulations, and welcome to the club! Now, there's something you absolutely have to do:

As soon as you possibly can, write some scholarship that's not dissertation-related. Do that fun article you've had to push to the bottom of the "to-do" pile. At the very least, do a book review. But get something else, something new, something non-dissertationy under your teeth, and do it quickly. Also, do some personal writing. A blog is a good idea, but a diary works as well.

The big thing that happens to a lot of Ph.D.s is that, after their defense, they want to take a break from writing. They want to just sit and not think for a while. And while I understand these impulses, they are not in your best interest. It is very easy for your "a few weeks off" from writing to turn into a few months...or (as in my case) years away from writing. And when that happens, it is very damn hard to start writing again.

My personal experience bears this out. When I finished my Ph.D. process, I was already an adjunct...meaning I worked a hell of a lot, teaching things that were not my specialty. Adjunct work is really hard, and it's nigh-impossible to do it full-time and still write. However, you still gotta try.

I had the summer off, and this also became a long break from being an academic. What I really needed, I naively figured, was to recharge my batteries. Once tanned, rested, and ready, I believed it would be easy, during adjunct year two, to bust out an article. So I did nothing over the summer. However, the second adjunct year was even more nightmarish than the first (see the earliest of my blog posts), and all I ended up writing, in those two years of adjuncting, was a single 7 page mini-article. This lack of scholarship, I feel, undoubtedly contributed to my poor performance on the job market.

But this is more than just career advice. Trust me, I understand your current position. You are undoubtedly burnt out from the dissertation process. Everyone at your stage of the process is burned out. One friend, a week away from his defense, told me, "Mike, there's no one in the world who cares about my dissertation less than I." And this is understandable. Personally, all I really cared about was plotting revenge on a few "professional academics" who seemed intent on sabotaging my career before it started.

However, you have to remember that you got into this lifestyle for a reason. There were good reasons why, way back when filling out your grad school applications, you thought of yourself as a potential academic. Reminding yourself of this is now your next task...because I have seen bad things happen to those who forgot why they became Ph.D.s. Don't be one of those people who, upon thinking of the last half-decade of your life, forgets why you did it in the first place.

Trust me, you have passed a momentous milestone, the highest academic degree in the world. You need to feel good about yourself, about your work. You deserve to realize just how excellent you are, and how awesome is your accomplishment. You also deserve to think of yourself as an academic, as a professional.

So, by all means, celebrate. Have one hell of a time. Take a few days to relax...something I know you probably haven't done in quite some time. But then, jump back into the work...because it's the only way to remind yourself that both writing and thinking are fun...are good...and, most importantly, are what you do.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

my own toy story

In my heart of hearts, I've always wanted to be a writer. Yeah, I know I write now (been published, too), but that's academics. And although I am also a published poet, that's a lifestyle of which I never really aspired...too tortured. No, what I always wanted to be was a novelist.

Perhaps it goes back again to Twain. Although my parental units tell me that I liked to “read” at an early age, flipping through books as if soaking up the words via osmosis long before I actually knew how to read, the earliest books I actually remember reading were the children's adaptations/abridgments of classic novels...but I remember being so struck by A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (particularly the very gruesome scene where The Boss takes on all of England's knighthood, and soon the knight's corpses are surrounding his castle, their armor brushing against electrified fences) that I begged for the real version of the book...and I became a fan of novels.

I had some early attempts at writing a novel of my own, but they were really fragmentary and had no real concept of plot or character. The early works were horror novels in the making. Now, I'm sure that if you can get away with faceless characters and little plot anywhere, the horror genre is the place to be. However, I couldn't figure out what any of these nascent books were really about (a key factor for even a very young novelist-to-be), and they were all quickly abandoned.

I did have one fairly serious push to become a novelist in me, and that hit when I was in my early years of grad school. It would've been a good one, too. The novel concerned a (with a not too subtle autobiographical slant) a young man who couldn't grow up. This failure to mature was manifest in what I thought was a pretty interesting way. See, the protagonist still had his room festooned with many of his childhood toys and other such decorations from his past. One night, they came alive and, spurred by the efforts of two curmudgeonly gargoyle figures, started an active rebellion/open war against the protagonist.

The opening chapter, when debuted to my grad school creative writing class, got positive feedback. They thought it was lively and fun. They pointed out to me that the toys had more character than the protagonist, but that was a design the “war” between them progressed and the balance of power shifted, so would the characterization. While the protagonist started out with no character and the toys with tremendous personality, everything would reverse until, when the guy won the war, he would become fairly realized, while the toys would, in defeat, become mere toys.

Everything was going both swell and swimmingly. I busted out a few more chapters. I had real ideas on how to make the novel work. I finished writing chapter four, describing the aftermath of one toy-versus-man battle in the style of Red Dawn (particularly in the style of the Cuban general's letter to his wife) (also, Wolverines!!!!) (sorry for that). I had real hope that I'd actually finish the damn thing this time, and it would be good to boot.

Then one of my colleagues from the creative writing class asked me if I had heard of this new movie Toy Story. When they described the plot to me, my jaw dropped. Then I saw it. Granted, they were doing a very different story than I, but still, there were enough similarities between the two where everyone to whom I described my novel would ask, “have you seen Toy Story?”

So I gave up the novel. It's just as well, because even if the original Toy Story wasn't all that close in its specifics to my tale, the sequel (particularly in Jessie's flashback) came frightfully close. The rest of my academic life was also intruding, and I realized that, in between full time grad work and three different part time jobs, I just didn't have time to write anyway. And when I later found out that the movie was the product of such writers as Joss Whedon and Joel Coen, I realized that I could've never competed anyway. You see, my ego does actually know some bounds!

Flash forward to today. I've never written a complete novel to this point in my life. However, I do have yet another novel idea bouncing around my skull all summer. It would be a cool one, too, the story of an aspiring rock musician, colored with all sorts of anecdotes from my own playing experiences (and from my musician friends, who might recognize whole periods of their lives in the narrative). I could make it work. But I also have way too much academic writing left to do, and the very real timeline of this upcoming season being my last shot on the market (for at least a few years, but maybe forever) is lighting a fire under this novel too goes into the ever-increasing “I don't have the time” file.

And what opens tomorrow? Toy Story 3. I guess it's time to see how much of my planned toy rebellion novel makes the screen this time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the river rolls, rolls, rolls (final KY notes)

Cairo Cairo is a place I dearly love
Everything around me and the moon and stars above
--Lil' Son Jackson

Cairo, Kentucky is a town that's located near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Like most things related to the mighty Mississip, and even though I never actually have (until recently) stepped foot in the town, it's a name that resonates.

It is my junior year of high school, and I'm hiding in the back corner of fifth period history. The class is, of course, relatively boring. With hindsight, I realize how hard it must be to make any good sense out of “all the history of the world in the last five hundred years” in the span of a single school year. All I could tell at the time was that I was overwhelmed by nothing but bland, boring, faceless generalities. But even at the untested age of 16, I realize at some level that the specificities are where the real interesting stuff occurs...and without the quirks of history, I just can't force myself to care about the class even in the slightest.

I've long since tired of staring at my surroundings, and there are no close friends in the class to distract me. I've also long since bored of trying to perfect my hand-drawn renditions of various band logos and guitar designs...I suck at drawing anyway. As I'm sitting next to a shelf, I decide to quietly dig amongst its contents...just for something to do. The shelf is mostly filled with teaching supplies for various classes held in this room. After discounting a box of writing supplies and chalkboard erasers, I stumble upon two stashes of paperbacks, no doubt for an English class later in the day.

At the time, I didn't realize this was momentous, a sort of “monkey discovering the monolith” moment. But when I found those boxes full of copies of Animal Farm and Life on the Mississippi, something changed.

I dug Animal Farm, to be sure. Even in my inexperienced state, I was beginning to suspect (hell, I was a teenager—which meant I knew with every fiber of my being) that power and leadership were valuable commodities that should not be handed out to someone just because they desire them...which describes the point of the Orwell novel perfectly.

Life on the Mississippi, though, really captured me at a vastly deeper level. I plowed through that book at least ten times that year. The characters, the conflicts, the settings, all of them washed over me, taught a bored teenage version of me more than a droning teacher ever would. One image which always stays with me, however, is of some small village that, because of the river being the official state border, went to bed one night officially in Kentucky yet woke up the next morning as part of Missouri after the river decided to change course in the night.

I loved that book because it resonated with some of my deepest desires. I desperately wanted to escape my life of hardship and boredom, go out on the road, have a chance to not just reinvent myself, but to invent myself in the first place. I wanted to become an expert in something mysterious, I wanted to learn a new, mysterious, romantic way of life, learn it deep in my bones. I wanted to live where I had real value, and where that value had all come because I personally earned it, through hard work, perseverance, and innate ability.

In spite of these dreams, though, I stayed fairly pedestrian in my life for some time. I lived at home entirely too long after high school, took extraordinarily menial jobs, engaged in typically pedestrian irresponsible behavior, went to a community college that was in biking distance, and generally clamped down upon that fledgling Twain-inspired desire for adventure.

Flash forward to my recent Kentucky vacation. After days eating much smoked meat, drinking in lakefront bars, and holding many conversations both more profane and personal than expected, my awesome hosts offered to take us to a brewpub in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. On the way, upon hearing we would drive through the town of Cairo, Illinois, my mind immediately clicked onto Cairo's appearances in Life on the Mississippi, and I looked forward to staring at the river while reliving my memories of Twain.

Time, however, had not been kind to Cairo. What had once been a town of over 15,000 has dropped to under 4,000. What was once a fairly grand main street is now a monument of decay and abandonment, with windows boarded up, paint peeling, and (in one case) a thirty foot tree plowing through the middle of one building. Our host informed us that the citizens are quite used to us college-types slowing down to take photos of the deindustrialized, post-apocalyptic landscape. However, we were informed, we would not be leaving the car, because Cairo had become quite a center of crime.

Cape Girardeau, our ultimate destination, was a complete and utter whiplash-inducing contrast of a town. I had never heard of the town at all (not in Life on the Mississippi or otherwise), but it immediately struck me as somewhere I wanted to be. Although it boasts a university I've never heard of (who knew there even was a Southeast Missouri State University?), it had a wonderful midwest college town atmosphere, tons of good restaurants and shops, beautiful houses, wonderful views. It was a truly unexpected jewel

After our brew-pub meal, we even got a chance to wander down to the waterfront, past the flood walls, and stare at the mighty Mississip, much as I do whenever I get down to New Orleans, and it was (as always) glorious. True to form, it held all the mystery, all the nostalgia, all the Mark Twain memories I imagined as a kid, that I see every time I stare at its vast expanse and drift into my own dreams.

Because of the day's travels, however, there was an entirely new level of complexities to the river, which begged the question, How did the world fit in? Cairo, the town of which I dreamed, whose very name resonated with me on some deep, personal, and spiritual level? It was a mess, beaten up by forces beyond its control, pushed into obscurity and blight. But then there was the unknown town of Cape Girardeau, which was glorious and fun, which had been sitting there just outside of my realm of knowledge and expectations.

There were many lessons there, but as I was staring at the brown water of the Mississippi, most of them escaped me. Twain was still in my mind, but mostly as a counterpoint: how would Mr. Clemens, I wondered, respond to the dualities of current day Cairo and Cap Girardeau? What lessons of hard work, romance, and dreams would he find? How would the Mississippi of today stack up to that of his childhood?

As I gazed out at the river, I knew I couldn't answer for Mark Twain. More surprisingly, I couldn't even answer for myself. I have no idea where my expectations lie anymore, or even if I should have them in the first place.

The river was still there, though. It would always be there. It would just be me that's different, I thought, as I took one last glimpse at the water. We then left and went back to our host's house, where I prepared for the long trip home.