Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thirty Day Hiatus

The winter intersession at my school was bullshit. That is just too much time for me to not be doing anything.

Tonight was one of those nights where a little bit of sleep went a long way. That happens to me about ten times a month. Does that ever happen to you, you get three or four hours of sleep and then you're good for the day? I woke up somewhere between 4 and 5 after hitting the sack around 1, maybe a little earlier. I figured I might as well make the most of my time.

First of all, those of you clever enough to effectively follow me from my old URL to this one deserve an apology. I change URL's, post a rather negative piece about someone I really do love and respect like a brother (though I wish his negative attitude about everything would subside), and then disappear for thirty days. Let's just pretend this was a voluntary hiatus and not me being a lazy turd.

Second, January has been a busy month. It's felt like it couldn't have gone by any slower. Makes me dread February. In spite of Shelley's birthday, my brother's birthday, and Valentine's Day, I've always hated February. Hideous weather, grey skies, and the painful aching for verdancy and the distinct smell of spring all make February the closest thing to Hell one can experience in life.

I won't lie, I've also been a little depressed of late. At the airport, amid her tearful goodbye, my mom told me if I couldn't land a job by semester's end I would have to go home for the summer. Look, I love my family and I love seeing them, but I hate everything about that region of the country. I hate the backwards politics, I hate the fact that religious diversity out there means Presbyterians breaking bread with Methodists, and I hate the soul-crushing reality of the job market in the pseudo rust belt/agriculture-heavy economy. There isn't even a bookstore.

The things that really make being home worthwhile is the interactions. Those little conversations with Dad when nothing good is on the TV that turn into long discussions of life, culture, and art; the late nights when Eric and Maddie would be over, Mom and Dad had gone to bed, and we'd just sit and talk. Even the little things, like when both Joe Boxman and Joe Bray knew I was going to be back in town I get texts from both of them saying "Call me, we need to hang out," or Forrest asking if our yearly tradition of China Buffet for lunch on either 12/24 or 12/26 was still on. My answer was a resounding 'Hell yes.'

Aside from a brief (too brief) encounter with my old middle school friend James Hare and his wife Jackie in the Wal-Mart parking lot, I didn't see anyone else. Just seeing him had me thinking about the old gang from middle school. I don't know what happened with me and James, we just sort of stopped hanging out. We never had the same lunch period or something. Regardless, he finally joined Facebook. So did Josh Bowman. He was the ringleader, daredevil extraordinaire...made me look like the Cowardly Lion by contrast. This kid would streak in the dead of winter if it meant he'd get a laugh. He would...and he did. But then he moved away before high school. He's now married with a kid and living out in Arizona. Mutual visit offers have been extended.

Then I think about my high school friends, and how despite my Facebook status advertising my return home for the first time since August, not even so much as a "Scott Johnson likes this" or a post from Brett saying, "Cool, man. Give me a call." People I'd shared so much with for so damn long...I bet Shelley that Johnson wasn't going to try and get in touch. She plead no contest. And he didn't.

This all sounds like me playing a violin into the wind, but all last summer no one from Seymour seemed to appreciate or understand that come August, I would be gone. The exceptions to this standard were the usual suspects, people like Joes Boxman and Bray, Forrest, Crowley, Jordan, and Graham. Hell, those last two were home (CA and MA, respectively) the entire time I was home. That blew.

Just another one of those things, you know? Realizing your true friends. We had fun with Boxman and his lady Jocelyn, and seeing Forrest was great. Catching up, talking about our latest plans and projects was a blast. Crowley coming down for New Year's Eve and spending the night was awesome, too. I wouldn't have guessed in a hundred years he would have had breakfast with me at my parents' house, but behold the mysterious ways of the Great Magnet.

Still, as with my rather harrowing week and a half home in August, the MVP award goes to Joe Bray. Ever since the summer of 2006, he's been one of those guys who's always been there when I needed it. Our bond doesn't stem from the shared experience of high school. We had different experiences then. Maybe we'd be in a class together (10th grade geometry) and raise some Hell, but we never hung out. Never ate together at lunch.

To start, he and I have in common a key factor that has made the other Joe and Forrest such good friends in the time that's passed since 2005: we all grew up. Whether we learned our lessons early or just knew better, it wasn't all about sex, booze, and rock and roll. (It can be, mind you. There's a time and place, sure...just not all the time.) We all took our work seriously. College wasn't just unsupervised freedom, it was a new period of growth.

They're all different sides of me, too. With Boxman and Forrest, we have our in-jokes, we have memories, we have similar tastes (and can agree to disagree otherwise). Boxman is the quintessential bohemian, Forrest is the unheralded talent of a writer who is proud of his roots but ready for the world, and Bray is the cosmopolitan who knows how to make a mean sandwich and mix a cocktail to wash it down with.

What sets Bray aside, though, is that we're both intensely spiritual people. Do we agree on everything theologically? No. Not on a lot of points. He is pursuing Orthodox Christianity, and me...well, we'll get to that later. He can make crass jokes and is capable of bad behavior as much as the next guy I chalk up as a dear friend, but when it's philosophy time hang on to something. Beyond that, he was in the know regarding my situation(s) at home, having me over to get me out of a bad environment, not just to share company over wine. To that end, you can look at him and see God.

It's one of those things probably best left unspoken. The kind of compliment you'd give after your third glass of wine, certainly not something said while reveling. Unless of course stopping all activities in the middle of the evening to say, "You know, I really value our friendship. I see God in you, my friend!" is your idea of fun.

Back to my original point, about jobs and shit. I have full confidence in landing a job. Let's face it, between my experience in retail, DJ'ing weddings, my video editing skills, and the academic junk I have under my belt, I'm not a bad catch on paper. I guess it's just that even as a graduate student, a week before turning 23, my mom can still put the fear in me.

Speaking of turning 23...I know I'm not old. Nowhere near it. But I'm sensitive about aging. I worry about things unaccomplished, projects unrealized, dreams waylaid. The whole day, I was just kind of depressed. I spent the afternoon finishing one of my dumb little pieces in my PC game The Movies. Snicker if you'd like, but I'll have you know as someone who once dreamed of a career as a filmmaker, it's not only a great outlet creatively, but my own little way of pursuing a pipe dream I thought I'd buried in 2007. Shelley wanted to take me to Chuck E. Cheese, as sort of a sweet half-joke. I passed, citing that they probably serve really bad pizza.

It wasn't just that, though. I just wasn't in the mood. She kept asking me what I wanted to do to celebrate...and I couldn't conjure up anything. Nothing that was realistic or feasible. A day off someplace with good food and tropical weather? To have a massive box in my front yard, open it, and have the six guys (Joe, Joe, Forrest, Graham, Jordan, Andrew) from back home worth a damn to me jump out and say, "Surprise! We moved here!"? A visit from my brothers, my sister-in-law, and my parents?

That's what I wanted.

I settled for Vietnamese food in Chelsea and some bush-league sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. The best part was that I figured we could go to the grocer's next to the theater after the show, get some cake or something. As per my tradition of searching the drink aisle in hopes of finding Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, there it was. In an electric green can with mustard yellow lettering. I might as well have been stumbling upon a photograph of the second gunman at the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza.

I don't even remember what Shelley got me...a CD and a DVD, I'm wanting to say...but the can of celery-flavored soda I guzzled down as we walked through Chelsea was wonderful, second only to a good ginger beer as the best fizzy drink of all time. Bonus points, though, to Andrew Crowley for getting me something, never mind Television's Marquee Moon and The Replacements' Let It Be.

We both got a little fussy waiting three and a half years for the goddamn 2 train somewhere under the city...and that was it, aside from a phalanx of Facebook wishes and a check-less card from my grandparents. Not that beggars can be choosers, but the yearly tradition used to be a birthday card and a check ranging from $25 to $50, maybe some t-shirt or sweater I wouldn't be caught dead in to boot, other times a surprisingly thoughtful bio on Lennon or The Beatles. But this year? Just a card.

I don't even want to talk about my gift from home.

Eric claims he sent his presents my way. Frankly, I can't wait. We have the sort of connection where we know just what to get. We had a polite discussion that while gift cards are nice, I had thinking someone else's hard-earned money is going down my gullet in the form of coffee and/or pastries. This inevitably led to us revealing to one another that we still look at certain CD's/DVD's/books and go, "Oh, yeah, I got this from so-and-so, Christmas of 2004!" I'm cooking up something nice for him on what will be his 26th.

Maybe it's the weather, being nervous about jobs, new classes, but my own personal happiness is infrequent. Makes me a real joy to be around, I'm sure. My great fear is that I'm becoming anhedonic...but then I put on some music (lately it's been The Clash, although there was plenty of Zappa in my ears, especially the Sleep Dir LP - NOT the CD mix, though) or see the sunlight and I crack a smile.

Both watching Anthony Bourdain on Netflix and the late-night drama was a fascinating way to pass the time, though, I must say. As a culture junkie, I pretty much have to write an essay on it, right? I will later. I promise. Till then, I love how Conan ended it. Beyond taking the high road, he said in his farewell speech what my entire generation needed to have told to our jaded little asses, never mind something I was desperately yearning to hear:

"Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism, it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen."

Anyway, it's been 90 minutes. I shouldn't spend much more time here. I need to shower, as Shelley and I have someplace to be this chilly late January morning. We are going to a Sikh worship service in New Jersey. One of our friends at the Sikh Coalition offered, so we wouldn't be blindly showing up at a gurdwara not knowing what the Hell was going on. So, yeah, thank you Satjeet!

That all said, after a dipping of the toe into Liberal Quakerism (too quiet!) and the Baha'i Faith (again, another entry for another day, friends), my urge to further inquire about Sikhism led to a slot volunteering my services as a video editor with the Sikh Coalition in Manhattan, plus my own cautiously-paced investigation of what gradually revealed itself to be a philosophy I completely and utterly agree with. The only conversion is a simple declaration of faith. I'm not there yet...but close. More on all that later, too.

Word of the day: sahajdhari.


Friday, January 1, 2010

If A Bitter Man Complains On The Internet, Does Anybody Hear It?

Although my own callous and distant demeanor might strongly suggest otherwise at first glance, I really am a fairly optimistic kind of guy. But like all people, I will admit that other people's moods can affect me, for better or for worse. If people are giddy, those good vibes are passed on. That's great. For me, that is one of the great reasons to be alive.

Similarly, if someone is perpetually in a rotten mood, it is contagious as well. I've said before that the whole "looking back on a decade" pieces are silly, but I also wrote at great lengths about why this decade was not an infliction from the bowels of Hell itself. Anyway, I stumbled across a retrospective on the best albums of the Aughts written by someone I used to know. His list was prefaced with an extended ramble about the sad state of the music business compared with the 1990's. There are hyperbolic absolutist (yet incorrect) claims, close-minded (and almost entirely baseless) accusations, and a strong hint of bitterness. It's a bunch of codswallop, but this actually passes as journalism in some circles:

"In the 90s, music was everywhere – bands like Nirvana could still command the monoculture, MTV still played videos, and in that rarest of pop-cultural moments, interesting music was being consistently made at both mainstream and subterranean levels. In general, music still made for water-cooler discussion."

In this writer's version of history, the 1990's were a golden period where MTV never censored videos, didn't bend over and censor Beavis & Butt-Head, either; this was a utopia where everybody lived the grunge lifestyle - even the author, who is only two years my senior - and listened to Nirvana. There was no such thing as drab mainstream music, no Top 40 or AOR playlists that consisted of insufferable muzak, and - AND - everyone talked about music. Everyone. No one ever "just listened to the music," no one ever listened to music as "something to have on."

I love the music he's insisting was all that people listened to in the 1990's, but what he's saying is just not true. Since popular music splintered in the late 1960's and early 1970's, can we even really say there was a mainstream? That's the problem with so many arguments in favor of or against certain bands or even genres. Get a whole bunch of Who fans together in a room and you'll be convinced that they were the most important band of their time, possibly even of any age. And yet there are jazz-rock fans who might thing The Who are irretrievably stupid and try to convince you that The Mahavishnu Orchestra was the only band that mattered.

There's plenty more I could say, but it would get redundant. He even goes so far as to admit he sounds like an old man telling kids to get off his lawn, but that doesn't stop him from hammering the point home that modern music is inauthentic, and that the music he celebrated in the idealized version of his youth is the greatest music that ever existed. It's like someone who acknowledges they're an alcoholic, making no bones about their addiction, and then turns right around and downs a bottle of Jim Beam.

There was an older gentleman - a retired professor - who sat in all semester long in one of my classes on American Popular Song. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Tin Pan Alley songs and can spot melodies like no one else I've ever met. However, he also doesn't think much of anything that has come out since the mid 1930's. I can assume that this was the music he grew up loving as a kid...does this make his perspective right?

Well, no. But he was able to express his opinions without insulting the very intelligence of those with different sensibilities.

I'll skip ahead to the end:
"Boomer critics like Dave Marsh remain hopelessly out of touch, unwilling to conceive of a post-Springsteen music world, while younger critics tend to dismiss out of hand anything that didn’t spring from the minds of bearded faux-troubadours or scrawny Brooklynites."

It's offensive, but it's also stupid. It can easily be re-worded into...
"Bitter Gen X / Gen Y straddlers like [Writer X] remains hopelessly out of touch, unwilling to conceive of a post-Nirvana music world, dismissing new music as springing from the minds of bearded faux-troubadours or scrawny Brooklynites."

You could read this guy's essay and assume that the decade-long party that was the 1990's came to an abrupt end with some untold catastrophe, resulting in a desolate landscape of artificial music and a massively dumbed-down populace. Don't be discouraged by shit like this. This is nothing more than the writing of a bitter man who has tasted more defeat than victory in what was supposed to be the decade where he took over the world. Most of us learn the realities of life (everything we were told in high school was a lie, college is a great place to learn but hardly a simulacrum of the real world, and nothing - but nothing - is sufficient enough to shake up the world) in college, we process the information, and then we move on.

Unfortunately, some of us clearly haven't.