Tuesday, May 31, 2011

an evening in the dark

I will always be alone...to some degree

--Jesse Malin

I am, I hate to admit, a deeply insecure person at heart.

I wish I was brave. I wish I was self-assured. I wish I exuded a certain confidence, a certain flair, a certain panache, where my pure awesomeness drew people to me...only so I would always know I had friends.

I doubt myself constantly. I say goofy things to have something to say and do goofy things (such as order customized guitar picks) to give people some reason to remember me....because without a gimmick, who would pay attention? My darling spousal unit repeatedly tells me my fears are uncalled for, that I'm plenty good enough on my own, and at some level, I guess I believe her...yet I have doubts.

Yesterday, I joked in the morning with my 39-week-pregnant spousal unit that we should hold a massive cook-out/party/bash with everyone we know for Memorial Day. She gave me a look of...I don't actually wanna call it "withering contempt," but the term is in fact kinda accurate. However, about a half hour before band practice, she changed her mind. We had my band over for post-rehearsal hot dogs...and then a few additional friends joined us. We went outside to the back porch, a few of us lit cigars, and we hung out until all hours of the night talking about all kinds of random stuff...from pet ownership, to television shows, to critical theory.

It was awesome.

There's something about a dimly lit area, where friends can gather, hang out with no pressure to perform, see what conversational directions come up. Cigars and beer help...they act as a certain kind of social lubricant, an excuse for us to spend time together, to explore ourselves and each other, to look for points of connection...and often, this is exactly what I need.

An evening at the bar, at the porch, or somewhere similar always gives me a better outlook. It doesn't erase the doubts...hell, I have enough of them to last several lifetimes...but if I can have these friends, experience this level of connection, a night like last night will at least take those "you're not worthy" voices in my head down a notch...which is sometimes all for which a paranoid self-doubter like myself can hope.

Monday, May 23, 2011

academic belonging

I just read through the last two months of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I'm angry.

When I first entered the job market, online notifications were not as omnipresent as they are today, so a Chronicle subscription was a necessity if just for the massive job listings...so I subscribed. Along with the job listings, though, the Chronicle offers enough good entry-level primers for key debates in many fields of study, and some of these are, quite frankly, awesome. It was because of Duncan Watts 's piece in the Chronicle, for instance, that I discovered Six Degrees, one of my favorite books. And of course, when my job search did not go as expected, the paper's "Career" section kept me sane by letting me know that I was not alone in my struggles.

It's different now. When I started reading the Chronicle, I was certain it would be nothing but a matter of time until I moved on to a good job, one which would allow me to write more articles, get that book out, generally create and share new knowledge, maybe even make a difference. Now, however, I frankly know better...and that changes everything.

I'm angry at the job posts...even if I was able to apply for them, they would just lead to more depersonalized rejection. I'm angry at the narratives and analyses of the job market, of the state of academia, because they are all stories and takes that are that much more removed from my personal reality. Most of all, however, I'm angry at the overviews of disciplinary debates, the profiles of scholars, all those think-pieces. They just act as reminders that, not only is no one really interested in what I have to say, I will never have time to expand what I have to say into any form which people might eventually find notable.

The Chronicle of Higher Education used to inspire me and make me feel like a professional. Now, it's more a reminder that it's for academics, for scholars...and I really can't count myself amongst their ranks.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

bringing the arena into the club

All of these moves are carefully planned
--Inspector Clouseau

Lately, I've been thinking about space...in particular, arenas.

For the record, I am currently in what might I humbly consider a kick-ass band, with a great singer/guitarist, drummer, and bassist. Clubs are our environment...we've played pretty much everywhere there is to play in this town and made three forays into Toledo, playing with acts both national and local. Over the year plus three months we've been playing out, we've assembled a nice baker's dozen of pretty awesome original songs (three of which you can sample via the video clips on the right) and a few recurring covers. Our drummer, though, is leaving town, so our days are numbered (make sure to come to our farewell show on July 30th at Howard's after you buy some merchandise, end of plug).

Which begs the question: what next?

Once Analog Revolution is gone, I initially pictured myself just sitting on the couch, plunking on guitars while absent-mindedly reminiscing on past glory. Maybe, I supposed, I would record the occasional psychotic instrumental. It would be a far cry from playing on a cramped, sweaty stage, but the year plus in the band has miraculously made me conceive of myself as a guitar player again, and that's something I refuse to give up.

Life, though, has a habit of happening. Rather than reverting to a couch guitarist, I have instead been recruited by a friend to start a new band. My friend is in three other bands, but I guess that's not enough for this madman...he seems to like my playing enough to want to play with me, which is nice. Additionally, as he seems to like my songwriting and has so many other commitments, he has also given me free reign over much of the songwriting. This is perfect, because I have always loved writing as much as playing, and since Analog Revolution hasn't (for some reason) been using any of my stuff for a while, I have a backlog of material ready and waiting. It's even kind of thrilling, knowing I will get to hear my new songs finally performed.

What is most different about my new, yet-unnamed band, though, is that we have time to plan, plot, and scheme. I still have a few months of Analog Revolution, and my friend has his other three bands, so we're not hurting for outlets. Also, I have urchin on the way, so I have other commitments for the immediate future at any rate. We might as well take our time figuring out what our band is going to be. This means that while Analog Revolution was an example of evolution (we never really had a plan and just kinda grew into our identity), this band will be closer to intelligent design.

So, how does space fit into this?

A few sessions ago, we were blasting through a song (okay, more its skeletal framework than its complete structure, but you get the point), and, when we ended, we spontaneously broke into the endless bashing chords with solo guitar over top which is so common in many of the more self-indulgent forms of heavy music which I dearly appreciate. We both laughed, and my friend immediately suggested we end all our songs this way...which made me realize how much I'm gonna love this band. I then quipped that, when people ask us what we play, we needed to call ourselves "alternative arena rock."

This, however, let me into a tough mission. I then had to figure out what exactly "arena rock" meant...and then figure out a way we could possibly be an alternative to it.

I polled friends. I had cigar-based discussions. I drank and thought. Most people seem to tie arena rock to (surprise, surprise) rock and roll played in arenas...but this didn't really work as a set of conventions for me. When asked to get more specific, some people brought up theatrics, some brought up pyro, some brought up commercialism. One online friend said all our songs have to be about "beer and boobs." Others listed possible arena rock bands as including Foghat (which I can see), REO Speedwagon (sure), Styx (maybe early stuff), Motley Crue (hah?), Queen (nah), and WASP (ooooookay). Most people seemed to think a "corporate stooge" label was essential.

There were a lot of qualifications others brought up which I just didn't buy, of course. But through all the debate, I came away with this definition: loud, guitar-based rock and roll, with songs based on simplified (often blues-based) chordal structures containing big/catchy/sing-a-long choruses. This I can do. That arena rock tended to take place in arenas is evident, but I think it could also work in a club environment. Moreover, I know of many cool bands (The Hold Steady on a national level, and the Matt Truman Ego Trip here in Toledo) who are already doing this kind of stuff.

But I doubt they are doing it quite as weirdly as will we.

This means, though, I have to start figuring out how to apply this to the riffs which I have stockpiled. To this end, I have tried several approaches. I have started carrying around a notebook to record cool-sounding lyrical ideas. I have started to keep a recorder near my guitar for any riffs which might present themselves. I have started to, when plunking on riffs, figure out what bits sound more "chorus-y." I have started to try and sing along to said chorus-sounding bits...mostly in a "na-na-na" kinda voice, because I figure anyone can sing nonsense syllables. I have learned drum machine software so that I might construct structured demos. In short, I have been thinking about how to take the "we want everyone to feel the power" attitude of arena rock and translate that into something that will blast people off their barstools.

Moreover, I have been thinking about space: where to fill it, where to leave it open, how to slowly build. People might get crammed into arenas, but they don't need the entire space to be filled. No one wants to be in wall-to-wall humanity and get hit with a million beats. After all, if the band never shuts up, how will the crowd ever participate? It is, I feel, about strategically filling the space...knowing when to hit the damn instrument and when to simply let its vibrations ring out.

I'm still not 100% sure I know how we're gonna do this...but I got a feeling it's gonna be good.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

why box stores suck

When I got my full-time gig, I decided that I wanted to decorate my shiny new office with adult-level art. I didn't want to use Dali prints, movie posters, Christmas lights, or anything that would be at home in a college dorm...no, I had a full-time job, so I was now an "adult" (whatever that means). I went to a few art fairs, but the only things that were even remotely affordable were of the "horse" genre, "barn" genre, or the more experimental "horse in front of barn" school of photography....and while I wanted an adult space, I didn't want that space to be reminiscent of adult farmers.

Frankly, I felt I could do better. So, rather than return to my early love of fingerpainting, I decided my quest to take control of my artwork would be better served by buying a digital camera and learning more about photography via first-person experimentation. I got a decent point-and-shoot, started messing around, and eventually, I think I got pretty good for a hobbyist (although you can judge for yourself). My office, in addition to the "wall of band flyers" (of which I'm very proud), has some very cool shots, and my oft-oblivious and next-to-impossible-to-impress students have even complemented me on occasion.

For a fairly old (6 years at this point) point-and-shoot, my camera has done pretty well. However, there are things it does not do particularly stellar. The flash, for instance, sucks...it looks like someone lit a pile of magnesium on fire. I hate flash photography anyway, so I try to do low and natural light images...but people have to either stay perfectly still for several months consecutively (the shutter speed on my camera is essentially glacial), or the image just introduces a whole bunch of noise and blur.

So, when I found out I was gonna be a father, I realized one of my "father" tasks would be documenting Mighty's growth and development...so a new camera, I reasoned, would be a pretty reasonable investment. I asked friends for recommendations, did the research, and settled on a good model. And, for the last baby shower, my awesome sororal unit gave me a sizable gift card for one of the big box appliance stores...I won't say exactly which one, but they claim to have the (ahem) "best buys."

I sit down to purchase it online yesterday. I pull up the store's website, search for the model, and find it. Hey, they even are advertising free shipping! So I add it to my cart, and then it tells me "shipping is not available." Um, okay. Then I see it has "ship to store/pickup" as an option...so I entered my zip code, and it listed a bunch of stores. I click on the "add to cart" button listed for the closest one...and the page refreshed, but with "unavailable at this location." Grr. I then clicked on the next store...and the next...and the next...but the damn camera wasn't available at any store in a hundred miles (a fact the website decided to tell me only in annoying little increments).

By this time, I'm steaming. So, on the suggestion of the spousal unit, I call the company's 1-800 number. They put me through to a digital camera sales specialist. I explain my plight...and the sales expert informs me they only have a few of my cameras available nationwide. I ask if they can ship me one of the models, and they tell me they cannot. Um, okay. I ask them why the model is listed on the website, and they tell me that they've been meaning to take it off-line. Um, sure. I ask them if they're going to get more, and they say they should eventually. That's helpful. I ask if they can tell me when, and they say they haven't been given that information. Gee, thanks. I then ask if they can send me an e-mail or something when they do get some more in, and they tell me, no, for some reason, they cannot.

This is from a customer sales specialist?

I realize that this is the very definition of a first world problem...but hell, why is a store so determined to make it hard to give them money for a product they supposedly stock? If I didn't have the gift card, I'd go somewhere else, but I'm kind of locked in to a store which wants to make it very hard for me to give them my business. And this is not the first time this has happened...a little over a year ago, they refused to honor their price-match guarantee because their mp3 player model was (get this) a different color. I thought about just getting a different model camera, but the next best four options were also back-ordered or out of stock. Sigh.

Yeah, this is so much better than having a local, specialized, service-oriented retailer.

I'm trying to figure out exactly what the benefit might be of such box stores, and I gotta admit, I'm drawing a blank. It can't be an increased selection...because this company only claims a wide selection which they don't actually have. It can't be cheaper prices...because that's kind of a moot issue when they don't want to actually sell you anything. The point, best as it seems, appears to be to dumb down the average consumer to accept whatever crap service the corporations give you.

This is why, the older I get, the more I hate capitalism.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

first world problems

There is a ton of stuff going on in my life right now, but I haven't really felt like writing about much of it. You see, I have a fear...and it has to do with my face.

Let me back up. After the first time I took my spousal unit home to stay with my parents, she didn't immediately get our family dynamic. A couple of visits later, there was a night where she looked at me and said "you know, I think I have your family figured out...you express your love for each other by picking on each other." It's true...maybe it's the British in us, but sarcasm is a requirement if you want to survive.

Back here in the great white North, I have plenty of friends, people who love me. They too express their love (or at least a slightly lowered level of disdain) for me by picking on me. While they might do this with each other to a certain extent, I'm pretty sure I get picked on more than the rest. With my family, I could understand the picking as a result of cultural heritage, but save a few far flung friends, Britishness does not run in my circles. So why the biting interaction even emanating from those who, I'm pretty sure, seem to like me for some reason? I can only assume I have one of those faces that says "hey, put me down."

Couple this with my own natural tendency to focus on the elements of my life where foibles exist, where things go less according to plan and instead actively work against me to some degree (which some people, incidentally, interpret as whining), and the level of verbal warfare can become significant. And yes, as I've had this particular style of interaction for all my life, I'm generally used to being slammed, to being put down, to being burned. I can generally tell that it comes from love rather than hate. But there are exceptions, moments where I take things to heart more than I should. Particularly as I get older, as I experience loss and uncertainty more frequently, and I sometimes become hyper-aware of perception.

Particularly lately, I've been holding a lot of stuff in. Part of it is knowing, compared to many of my friends, my lot in life isn't really that bad. Part of it is having so many undeniably good things going on in my life (a beautiful spousal unit, a forthcoming package o' joy, an utterly kick-ass band), dwelling on the negatives I honestly feel might make me come off as at best a bigger whiner than anyone already suspects or at worst an ungrateful bastard...either of which might open me up to more verbal abuse than I can stand.

But if I can't talk about these things, they fester. If I hold in the shadows, it becomes darkness. If I can't write about my own life, my own feelings, my own fears, what am I doing?

I will be posting here more frequently. While I will try to have some kind of balance, at heart, it's really healthier for me to be honest, to work through some issues. And if it ever seems at any moment that I'm turning into one of those tremendously blessed people whining about my first world problems, please realize that I too am aware of my tone...and that I am also working on posts about happy stuff (like dancing baby sloths).

Be patient with me.

Friday, May 06, 2011

my friend Matthew

A friend of mine died last night.

Matthew was someone I was really just getting to know, but I was really enjoying getting to know him. He was working for his MA from the same place I got my Ph.D. He had an unabashed love for and knowledge of cheesy 80s hair metal and role-playing games. He was a fan of my band. He was funny, nice, bubbly, warm, and just willing to go out of his way for you. I hung out with him just Tuesday night, and we talked academics and comics. Afterward, he dropped me off on his way home.

These are only fragmentary recollections...but I guess they'll have to be enough for now. Tonight, my band plays out, and I am going to rip through our set in his memory.