Wednesday, April 18, 2012

she's a mover and a shaker

I'm realizing just what a role motion plays in our lives.

When we first brought my daughter home, she didn't move all that much. The occasional stretching, yes, but not more. Soon, she began to flail a little bit. Then she got more playful. The more she moved, the more work it was to take care of her...but the more fun she got.

The books (quite rightfully) tell you that children need to play on their as much as I wanted to just hold her, go gaga over her, and talk to her in a voice which, it has been said, resembles that of Fozzy Bear, I started to occasionally set her down...where she would flail a little, but on the ground instead of in my arms. The books also warned we would need to have her play on her stomach, so I would do "TummyTime" with her...but in the beginning, her neck wasn't strong enough to hold her head up for more than a moment, so she hated it and would scream about twenty seconds in.

Eventually, she got more strength, but she still didn't care for TummyTime. One day, I put her down for TummyTime, and she flailed just enough to flip herself over on her back. It was a nice milestone, so I recorded it and sent the YouTube link to my working spouse. It led to much celebration. And interestingly enough, once she was able to flip herself over, she then loved being on her stomach.

Pretty soon, my girl realized she could flip herself over repeatedly as a form of locomotion. At first, it was just short trips from one toy to another. Shortly, however, she started rolling over the house. One afternoon, she rolled from the living room, down the hall, and into her bedroom, where she lay on her back, kicking her cabinets, a cute as hell grin on her face.

She got very adept at the rolling thing. My mother-in-law informed me that as a kid, my spouse used to roll all over the I started to wonder if the desire to roll was genetic. I then found out my spouse never actually crawled. She just rolled right up until she could pull herself up...then she started running. I wondered if my girl would be the same.

A few weeks ago, my daughter began to crawl. Not a proper crawl, mind you, but more of a military crawl. One friend saw the military crawl video and joked that my girl needed a mini AK-47 strapped to her back. It would, to be sure, complete the image. She also goes at the military crawl with real gusto and speed. She throws everything she has into moving for about seven feet, before she has to stop and catch her breath in long pants.

The crawling is the most fun of all the motions to this point. Not only is it amusing for being such a weird crawl, my girl is also very loud when she crawls. She grunts, groans, and generally makes a racket...but has this weird grin on her face while doing so. Stealthy she is not. Hilarious? Absolutely.

It has also changed my duties. Instead of just setting her down and going about my business, I now have to immediately close the bedroom door, put up the baby fence in the kitchen doorway, close the shoe closet, and generally prep the house. Where I used to be able to stay at my desk as she rolled from one end of the living room to the other, I now have to be in total Sylvia awareness mode...because she can sneak into the bathroom or her room in an awful hurry. Rather than just talking to her or playing with her, I now have to be on electrical cord watch...because my girl apparently has a burning desire to electrocute herself by eating cables.

More work? Sure, but it's really fun work. My girl is quite hilarious as she moves. She's quite sure of where she wants to be, what she wants to play with. She's become so much more interactive.

There's been a lot of things which have surprised me about being a father. The biggest surprise, though, was how much fun my kid would be.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

listenting to the cosmos

When I entered college, I tried to become a fiction writer. I took a creative writing class at my community college...and everyone in it was tremendously unsupportive. I tried writing on my own, but as a brief overview of the abandoned drafts would attest, I didn't know enough about life or people to pull it off. When I started my four year university, I took another creative writing class and focused on poetry. I wrote a ton of them, sent many of them to journals. My best one was published by an online journal (which seems to currently be offline), but another one was accepted by a print journal. A year after its acceptance, I hadn't heard anything about when it would actually get published, so I contacted the journal. It seems they were sold, and sometime after the new staff took over, their place was flooded, and they had lost all their submissions...including mine.

I took this as a clear sign that the universe did not want me to be a poet.

I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2003. In every year since, I applied for a ton of academic jobs (save the one year I started my current teaching gig). It was my dream to be a scholar; why else would someone dedicate five years of his life and lots of money from major creditors? I had a number of interviews. I was flown down to a community college in Florida, where I was asked to lecture for twenty minutes on some point of grammar. I had a campus interview with a school in Georgia. They were a two year university. The department chair told me that within two years, they would become a four year university. No one else in the college had heard this prediction. I had several phone interviews, including one at a really cool Catholic school in a barbecue capital. During the interview, I heard from the committee two phrases: "That's what we were thinking when we wrote the job description" and "Gee, I'd love to take that class." They never called me back. The last contact I had for any of my applications was 2008.

I took this as a sign that the universe did not want me to be in a tenure-track gig.

I've written a lot of scholarship. I have nine articles on my CV...more, I'm told by a former boss, than many Assistant Professors over the same timespan. I've been published in anthologies, in really good journals, and in the academic newspaper The Chronicle of Higher Education. The last two articles I wrote were the best things I ever finished. One of them you might recall was "the paper that would not die" (blogged about in more posts than I can recall). The other was a great analysis of sports, race, television, and post-Katrina New Orleans. I was and remain fiercely proud of each. I could place neither. A highly prestigious theory journal wanted to publish the Paper That Would Not Die. Five other journals rejected it with form letters.

I took this as a sign that the universe did not want me to be a scholar.

I've seen so many of these cosmic signs in my past that I'm conditioned to look for more. Someone makes a snide comment to something I say that a sign? No one wants to hang out with me for a few that a sign? I start seeing signs in the mundane. Is stubbing my toe a sign? Is the sudden burst of wind on a day where I am sans-hoodie a sign? Is my boss mailing out login info for the MLA joblist a sign? And in spite of knowing all signs do not pan out (see the myriad of early posts about how I was never going to be a professional musician, play in a band, play out), I still assume the worst case scenarios whenever possible.

This probably explains more about me than I care to admit.

Friday, April 06, 2012

my changing relationship to music iv

he "has always been certain of everything.
Even when he's totally wrong"
--Neal Stephenson

I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember. I have been playing music since I was 11, guitar specifically since 14. I now how to manipulate my instrument to make a bevy of sounds, to hit a range of emotions, to make it scream, to make it weep. I write complete songs in the shower. My first and last thoughts of the day are usually about music.

Over the last few years, though, I have come to a harsh realization: almost everything I thought I knew about music is wrong.

Case in point 1: Several years ago, my sister asked me if I wanted to go to see REM and Wilco with her. I was (and still am) a Wilco fan, so I agreed, in spite of having no real desire to see REM ever.

A word of context: I grew up as a hard rock/heavy metal fan...and while I did expand out of that genre even in high school (liking southern rock, blues, big band), REM just always rubbed me the wrong way. When friends of mine would play REM, it was stuff like "Radio Free Europe"...full of jangly guitars not doing that much at all. To my mind, that was what alternative music was. Moreover, it seemed an example of the "I don't really know how to play, but I'm gonna be in a band anyway" school of musicianship. I was actually learning my I was not, to put it mildly, a fan.

Anyway, we got lost on the way to the concert (which happens more often than I care to realize). We actually showed up right as Wilco finished their set. The band I went there to see? I got to see them tear down. Wee. REM, however, was utterly fantastic. It was a pure rock show. I really wasn't expecting this band, which I still associated with jangliness, to rock like that.

Case in point 2: Whenever our satellite TV provider has one of their free preview weekends for the premium movie channels, I scour the listings and set the DVR to record anything which looks interesting. One time, I saw It Might Get Loud, a documentary about a meeting between Jack White (guitarist for The Raconteurs), Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame), and The Edge (U2 guitarist). Of course, I recorded it....and sometime during the "birth of my daughter" event, I sat down to watch it.

Now, remember how I used to feel about REM? I liked U2 even less. To me, they were a gimmick band. Vocalist uses every "I'm dramatic" gesture in the book to hide the vapidness of his lyrics. Guitarist uses digital delay to hide the fact he doesn't know what he's doing.

The longer I watched It Might Get Loud, though, the more I was really starting to like and (more importantly) get The Edge. He seemed cool. His work sounded innovative. I quickly asked a U2 fan friend of mine to put together a compilation for me, and she obliged by sending me fifty songs. I still haven't waded through them all, but I'm really liking what I've heard so far.

Case in point 3: By now, my prior overall disdain for most things which have the "alternative" label has to be obvious, and how wrong I came to realize I've been also has to be obvious. There are many other examples I could bring (like the day I found out all punk wasn't juvenile noise). The final mind-blower to date, however, happened several months ago.

I was jamming with my singer, and a friend of his came over. My singer introduced me as "the J. Mascis of the band." I took this to be a complement, although I didn't know what he really meant. I was dimly aware that he was in Dinosaur Jr. (from an old Guitar World article I'd read decades prior)...but that was the extent of my knowledge. Then my singer lent me a Dinosaur Jr. album. I listened to it a week later. I spent the next month or so picking my jaw off the floor. Why didn't anyone tell me alternative music had room for solos? I'd rarely heard much alternative rock with good guitar solos...most of what I knew was either minimalist in scope (such as Soundgarden's least on their hits) or noise-oriented (cue the chorused-out Nirvana "Come as You Are" lead break). Mascis, however, was all over the place. Distortion upon distortion. Lead upon lead. The songs were good, but the solos...rather than being slight addendums, they were central to the tune. It's exactly the way I'd always wanted to play. Why didn't anyone tell me that the alternative genre was not mutually exclusive to virtuosity?

What else must I un-learn? Please don't tell me that hair metal is secretly great.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

my changing relationship to music iii

I'm a guitar player, so I can tell you honestly the first thing you need to know about guitar players: we're weird.

To get to be good at guitar, you have to practice. If you play a guitar-centric form of music (as do I) and if you have clutzy fingers (as do I), you have to practice a lot. While rock bass guitar is relatively quick to get up to a reasonable skill level (which says as much about the standards for bass as anything), the zero-to-sixty for hard rock guitar players is not fast. You have to play. You have to practice. You have to have a finger-warmup regimen. You need to run through your scales (or at least patterns). You have to be as precise as possible...which was always a particular challenge for one as sloppy on the instrument as I.

This means that you end up sitting in your bedroom, in your garage, or on your couch a lot. You do a lot of study and practice...which isn't particularly fun to do or to listen to, but it is essential nonetheless. This also means you are probably not the most socially adept person in the world. In fact, you probably fit the stereotype of anyone who stays in their bedroom, reading and studying. You are probably, to some extent, a nerd. I am certainly no exception in my own mental music issues.

It is a great contradiction in music that musicians, in order to perform, have to be on display, yet they are not people with the right personality to be presented to the public. They are not generally good in crowds because they are not social animals. Yeah, drummers might be party animals...but bear with me, because I am talking about musicians.

In spite of not really being suited for it, guitar players do tend to want the spotlight. It is one of the reasons behind guitar solos. Also, it tends to lead to a certain (I don't want to say macho, because I've also seen it in female and non-masculine guitarists) attitude towards their craft. Some brag about using the heaviest thickness of guitar strings. Some swear by obsolete instruments which cannot stay even in sight line of being in tune. Many of us play harder than needed, breaking strings, picks, and even instruments in the process.

Aside from my brief period of using a galvanized steel guitar pick, my hard-headed attitude was most manifest in my complete and utter disdain of effects pedals. I saw them as a crutch. "Real guitarists," I told myself, "plug straight into their amp." Effects? They were to hide the fact you couldn't play that well. This also translated into my playing, where my guitar became a blunt instrument I used to bash notes into the listener's head.

I stayed in this mood for a long time. About six years ago, I did decide to get a multi-effects use as a practice amp/toy. While I found it cool at first, it didn't take me long to start hating it. I had to program everything. Need to change a setting? You have to enter a menu, scroll down to the proper area, hit some buttons. It was a royal pain in the neck. Moreover, while some of the effects sounded okay, others (the chorus in particular) were trash. And when I finally tried to plug the thing into my amp, it was "you like excessive buzz and hum? Here you go."

Then I started playing with Analog Revolution. Part of me realized I needed a boost for my solos, so I started looking for a good overdrive. "After all," I told myself, "some of my favorite guitarists used a distortion pedal. Hell, if Micah from Two Cow Garage could use a Tubescreamer, a distortion pedal couldn't be all that bad. I can still be tough with a distortion pedal." And after some moderate equipment struggles, I got a good distortion pedal...and fell in love with the resultant creamy sound.

Then I found myself at a used music store, and I spotted a cheap phaser pedal. I had no real need for it, but I tried it out anyway...and it sounded kinda coolish, so I incorporated it into my music/effects worldview. Then I decided to use my old wah-wah pedal (which is it didn't violate my no effect rule in some way), but it broke on I replaced it with an envelope filter. Then I got another pedal...and another...and another.

Eventually, I admitted to myself that I had become an effects pedal addict. I had a friend help me build a pedal board for all my effects, and it is mighty. It contains:

(warning: geek content ahead)

  • a Boss TU-3 stage tuner (which should be mandatory for all performing the word of someone who sucks at tuning yet hates out of tune guitars)
  • into an Electro-Harmonix micro QTron envelope filter (as I'm too lazy to actually rock a wah wah back and forth)
  • into my Joyo Ultimate Drive distortion pedal (an OCD clone, my newest toy, which I use for my low-end distortion)
  • into my Fulltone Full-Drive 2 (a two channel boost/distortion pedal from hell and my main workhorse)
  • into my Electro-Harmonix Octave Multiplex (an analog octave divider)
  • into my Joyo Ultimate Octave (octave multiplier/fuzz)
  • into my Quyatone SV-2 Slow Volume (a touch-sensitive volume swell pedal)
  • into my Rogue Tremolo (my new fave effect...I can duplicate surf music!)
  • into my original Chinese phaser
  • into my Electro-Harmonix Slow Clone (the only chorus pedal which doesn't sound phony or 80s metal to my ears)
  • into (finally) my Delta-Labs DD-1 Digital Delay (which really needs to be replaced, as the stereo out hadn't worked since I bought it).

(end of geek content)

It is massive, I admit. In fact, a friend of mine (who plays keyboard for Kitty Glitter) told me he now uses my pedalboard as the measure by which he judges all others. I'm sort of proud that, much like 7-11 has become synonymous with convenience stores, my pedalboard has become on some level synonymous with the de facto guitar effects collections.

I didn't become an effects head overnight. It was not, however, just a matter of buying more stuff. I moved away from seeing the guitar as a sledgehammer to use during solos. Instead, I started to become interested in sound textures. I started to think about my role being to add emphasis, to add dynamics. Rather than just beating people over the head with my guitar, I started to really think about improving the song, and in the process, my guitar became a much more multifaceted instrument, capable of so much more. I started to let both the guitar and the song take center stage.

Of course, there are downsides to my new approach. I have to carry more car is packed when I transport my gear, and when I can't leave my stuff in my practice space, my tiny house looks even more crowded than normal. I take much longer to set up and tear down my rig...even the drummer beats me off stage. Some people seem intent on using my pedalboard as something else about which to mock me...which is especially puzzling when such abuse comes from, say, U2 fans.

I don't care, though. I love my pedalboard. I love my effects. I love the textures they add to my playing. I love how I can enhance the song.

And my love for effects cannot at all be attributed to a quest to prove my manhood in a "hey, I got more pedals than you." Nope. Not at all.