Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Guaranteed Personality

The Search for authenticity as related by one of the greatest bands you've maybe never heard of and by one of my favorite writers.  The song starts at 8 minutes in and is one of my favorite covers.... ever.

I was leaving a show last week and they were playing this song as I walked out the door of the club.  It stuck in my head.  I listened to it at work the next day and for the first time really heard the lyrics.  This is probably because when I heard Marah play it, my ears were close to bleeding.  They spend the entire first half of every set I've ever seen them play trying to get the sound guy to make everything louder.

If you don't have 11 minutes to listen to the entire essay and the song that follows, I will include some of the best points from Nick Hornby's essay below:

"I would have paid good money out of my grant for a little authenticity and credibility but now I was selling and I didn't know how to buy it anyway... "

"I didn't know that I was acting out one of punk rock's most pointless conversations with itself: who was the punkest and what did that mean anyway?... Could you be a punk if you had hair like this, trousers like that, a guitarist who could play, a keyboard? Could you be a punk in fact if you never read a book?..."

"[The Clash] were trapped inside the cartoon that punk had become and that they had helped to draw... The angrier the band got the more the crowd loved it because being angry was what punk was all about. "

What strikes me, really listening for the first time, is the truth and relevancy.  One of the greatest untold longings in our culture today is the search for authenticity.  The Clash sum this up in "Lost in the Supermarket".  You get the sense from the first verse that they feel boxed in from a young age in suburbia.   And now as adults they are in the supermarket and still feeling that same urge to break free of the uniformity and the life that most people say they want.  Nick Hornby says that he could feel as much from the stage when he saw them play.  It must be a pretty palpable feeling and the anger that Hornby says emanated from their stage presence wasn't put on, it was real!  They were angry, at least a little lonely, and felt misunderstood.  Maybe that's why the punk movement was so welcoming and infectious; everyone feels at least one of those at any given time almost and many of us two or three.  But it helps alleviate those feelings being around other people who feel the same way, which is what the punk movement became: a way to find identity while at the same time saying you didn't need one and you defied anyone that tried to give one to you.  And yet most walked away with one anyway.

Strummer and Jones, co-writers on this track, say that hearing people fight in the flat above them is one of their first ever feelings and in the next line that that feeling has never diminished. They still see it all around them.  That is scary and would be cause for anger which is a natural outgrowth of fear.  Then that cuttingly brilliant chorus: "I'm all lost in the supermarket.  I can no longer shop happily.  I came in here for a special offer - a guaranteed personality."  This song was written in 1979 and nearly 40 years later still holds water.

The things we buy in some way identify us.  And it's so easy to get lost in the forest of products we have to choose from on a daily basis.  14 different kinds of peanut butter, 27 different kinds of bathroom tissue, 50 kinds of cheese.  To say nothing of the larger choices we make: buying a house, what neighborhood we live in, what car we drive, where we go to school or don't go to school, organic or non-organic bananas.  And of course I speak from the viewpoint of a middle-class white suburbanite.  These are certainly not the same choices that one would have in, say Dominica, where I have been in a grocery store that sold probably 150 products, total, as opposed to the 38,000 products in an American grocery store (2010,  Do we suffer from having so many choices? I have been thinking a lot about a much-discussed book called the Paradox of Choice.  It's been brought up a few times in discussions I've had recently about online dating.  A dramatic oversimplification of the thesis: the more we have to pick from the less we are able to commit to our choices.  I bring it up simply to say that the song is right I think, there are people out there who may go grocery shopping and in that find a little bit of their identity.  But it gets lost so easily in the thousands of decisions we have to make in the 30 minutes we're in the store and nothing we decide on or carry home in our basket actually gives us a true identity.  Sure, if we look at what we brought home we could find a few labels to ascribe to our personality: ice cream = indulgent, celery = healthy/maybe on a diet?,  salmon steaks = aware of the benefits of Omega 3s!, organic bananas = willing to spend a bit more to make the environmentally conscious choice, white bread = not afraid of carbs.  And any of those products could be read in a different way too, but we know what we want our choices to say about us. We want them to paint a picture of a good life, a full life. We do get lost in the supermarket.  Or we can anyway, in more ways than just in the physical sense.

We are looking for identity and we long for authenticity as this song so clearly and wonderfully cries out.  And they know we won't find it in the supermarket, or in the house, or the car, or in our job.  No, it's bigger and deeper than those, though all of those are its outward manifestations. We can manufacture almost any image we want these days, and get through most of our lives without ever really being known.  To meet someone with no veneer, who is known fully and lives openly to all around him is a true gift. I think The Clash knew that, Marah knows that, and they could both at least write realistically about it, if they weren't living it out every day.

Friday, June 21, 2013

First Day of Summer

clr gif
A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon —
A depth — an Azure — a perfume —
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see —

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle — shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me —

The wizard fingers never rest —
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed —

Still rears the East her amber Flag —
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red —

So looking on — the night — the morn
Conclude the wonder gay —
And I meet, coming thro’ the dews
Another summer’s Day!

---Emily Dickinson

Happy Summer everyone.  May your days be long, languorous and lovely.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


This was parked outside work when I left earlier this week.  I would hate to be caught next to it on a sunny day because it could probably cause temporary blindness if the sun reflected at the right angle.  

My students are so awesome.  As soon as they get to the US they all buy expensive cars (Shelby Cobra Mustangs are most popular) and do all kinds of custom work to them.  I've seen a group of four students congregated outside and literally revving their engines in a sort of contest.  You think Lexus is rolling with something like this on the showroom floor?  Oh no.  This kind of flash isn't automatic, baby.  And it raises an excellent question: Why stop with the bumpers when you can chrome out the ENTIRE CAR.  

You guys just keep livin' the dream.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

The St. Louis Chronicles - Day 6

Friday Friday, gotta get down on Friday!

 It was a lovely last day at the conference. After dancing until the wee hours the night before, we took it easy in the morning and then got to the expo hall to break down the booth.  It didn't take too long, but the weather was starting to swell.  They had been calling for big storms all week and after eating a delicious sushi lunch, we knew it was coming.  I decided that I couldn't let the opportunity to see the world-famous St. Louis zoo slip through my grasp because of a little rain, though.

 So I headed to Forest Park to see what I could see, still not caving in and buying an umbrella.  It rained while I was on the train to the park but as soon as I stepped off it was sunny and warm, albeit very humid and still building.  Forest Park is gorgeous!  Expansive manicured green lawns, boathouses, running and biking trails, some sort of pavilion where they were setting up for what I'm sure was a BALLER wedding, all kinds of beauty.  There are two museums but I didn't go to either.  I was beelining for the zoo.

The St. Louis Zoo boasts a wide array of animals.  But the real star was this little 2 week old elephant calf.

Hey fuzzy!

Toddling around with his mom - precious.  

The animals were tired as it was a hot, sunny afternoon.  A while ago my brother and I noted that morning zoo is the best.  The animals are more active, it's usually less crowded, and it's just a bit more relaxed.  By 3pm, these lions had pretty much had it for the day: 

So had these dwarf mongeese (mongooses? mongi?)...

So I walked around the zoo twice and saw tons of animals.  They really do have a great (though I hesitate to say it) collection.  At one point I saw a Grizzly bear sitting or standing on command from his trainer, accepting treats as he earned them, with a crowd of adoring onlookers.  In that moment, I remembered seeing a Grizzly bear in Yellowstone when I went in 2009.  Being about 200 feet away from the Grizzly in the wild I thought, boy, I would not want to be any closer.  Here, I was less than 50 feet away from captive Grizzly and I wasn't at all threatened.  Indeed, the power and weight of the animal's presence were markedly absent.  He seemed very tame.  This left me a little sad.  

I finished with a walk alongside a flamboyance of flamingos, which I mention purely to be able to use "flamboyance" properly as a collective noun.  My legs and feet were aching from walking so much so I retired to the hotel to rest, pack a bit, and change for my last night out in St. Louis.  I figured I was on borrowed time with the weather anyway so I knew I should seek shelter.  

I had been looking forward to this night the most.  I had learned that a band I've been listening to and enjoying immensely these last two months, The Mowgli's, was playing at a local dive bar.  I thought, this show is MEANT for me to be at.  How else can it be explained that I show up for a conference and they show up for a show when they haven't ever played D.C.? Perfect.  I had been talking to Joanna about going to this one much-discussed restaurant that was only a block from our hotel all week, but we had never made it.   So Friday night I took myself to a nice dinner at Remy's Kitchen and Wine Bar and then to a show at the Firebird.  

Then there was a tornado... or three.  I walked to the restaurant to begin my evening.  Joanna didn't want to come with because she knew what was happening with the weather and didn't want to get stuck out in it.  I sat at the bar and made friends with the bartender and a group of four regulars to my right.  Eating alone at the bar is almost always fun because you get to meet all kinds of new people.  As I tucked into my plate of pan-seared mahi-mahi with shrimp and lentils, the heavens opened.  A torrential downpour commenced and the tornado sirens went off. I got a frantic call from Joanna back at the hotel, very concerned that I was not in a safe place.  The restaurant let us know that they had a basement shelter that would fit everyone and we would be safe if it came to that.  We were tracking the tornadoes and they all seemed a bit to the west and north of us.  One touched down at the airport, one hit a suburb a little north of where I was in Clayton, and another even further west.  

I decided to continue with my night as planned.  The bartender and the locals said I'd probably be fine.  That was enough for me.  I ordered a cab, which came swiftly and without issue, and headed back downtown for the show.  I got there right at the end of the opening band's set.  American Author's ended with energy and seemed like they had had a great time performing.  I enjoyed the last song they played and was sorry I hadn't heard more.  I have been to lots of shows by myself but being on unfamiliar turf I felt really out of place and noticeable.  

The Mowgli's totally rocked it.  Their EP has been a source of great joy for me over the past few weeks.  Seeing it performed and the level to which they live the message they sing about made me even more of a fan.  Because it was such a small venue and there weren't that many attendees, I talked to one of the lead singers and writers after the show.  I had a few questions about his faith and if he subscribes to a particular set of beliefs or not.  He had been a philosophy student and says he doesn't subscribe to a particular faith from East to West.  He also was raised Catholic and his first job was managing sound for a huge parish in Southern California.  He's definitely taken some of Christianity with him on his journey though.  Take a look at their song "The Great Divide" (emphasis mine):

I head east towards the city
and when the sun goes down, I'm heading home again
the city lights have left me empty;
they’ve replaced the stars that used to shine so bright. 

So I will smile, and I’ll keep you close. 

and when the sun brings in the morning 
I know today will be better than the last. 
As I turn into the evening, 
I pray my dreams will come and I’ll cross the great divide
Don’t, don’t go changin’ 
please, please come and save me 
With your smile, you keep me close 

oh how you move me 
with your love, oh how it swept right through me 
and with your smile you bring heaven 

they say the west is home to reason 
so that’s where I’ve gone;  
I’ve gone to meet my maker. 
and when I find what I was made for 
this soul of mine will finally find some peace 
So I will smile and I’ll see you there

This message of finding purpose and doing good towards others colors their entire being as a band.  They preach from their stage, not an overt message of Christianity but a message that at its heart, aligns closely with that of John 13:34-35:  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” 

The band further proved this when, over an hour after their set had ended and I was STILL waiting for a cab to come get me in the crazy weather, they were waiting around and concerned for me getting home safe.  Both bands ended up packing up all their gear and saying their goodbyes.  I got a ride home from three very kind residents of St. Louis, two of whom were very drunk.  It was a hilarious ride home and I so enjoyed meeting the Mowglis and their awesome fans in St. Louis.  What a trip! And to the Mowgli's - see you in D.C. real soon.  

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The St. Louis Chronicles - Day 5

I didn't have any sessions Thursday morning and had left time to catch up on e-mails.  I went to a session in the afternoon about liberal arts colleges and why they are important for international students.  Basically just some marketing points that would be good for representatives to highlight on their recruitment trips. I had some time to kill before an alumni reception downtown after my session so I walked to go get Cardinals tickets for the evening, then walked back downtown and still had a bit of time so I stopped to get some frozen yogurt.

I will note here that I will stop any time, anywhere to get frozen yogurt.  It is the perfect snack.  I have tried over 11 different places in the DC metro area alone.  This frozen yogurt, at Bella's on Washington Ave was the best frozen yogurt I have ever had.  My strategy for the self-serve yogurt shop:  no toppings, just straight yogurt, small dollops of as many flavors that interest me or as will fit in my cup, no flavor swirls.  I'm a purist.  At Bella's I had sea salt caramel pretzel and honey vanilla and it was delicious.  I chatted with the owner for a while, so as to arrive fashionably late to the reception, and I learned some interesting tidbits.  She is from Michigan and was corporate for a long time, then she started this small business after getting burnt out on it.  She sources her yogurt from some place in Arkansas which doesn't build all its flavors from one base like most places do, but builds each one from a separate base and my goodness could you tell the difference.  Have I been ruined to Fro-zen-yo and Sweet Frog forever?  ... Let's be real, probably not.

The GW alumni event was good for touching base with old friends and mentors.  Then I moved on to the Cardinals game! I had been running in and out of the rain all day but even though it has rained all week I have never needed the umbrella.  I have gotten a little wet but it always felt like a nice break from the canned air of the convention center.  Busch Field is beautiful, much like Nats stadium.  Though Nationals stadium has maybe the best concessions offerings ever.  There was a downpour right around 6:30 that delayed the game until 8pm.  I went with my friend down to Flying Saucer again and had a beer and got chatted up by two older St. Louis natives before the game.  After leaving the bar, I asked my friend what she thought our chances were with those guys and she replied "roughly 100%".  Nice.

The game was great. There is nothing like baseball on a summer evening.  The Cards were playing the Kansas City Royals and they seemed to have the game in hand.  Their new young pitcher, Wacha, made his debut that night. A 21 year old fresh from the minors, it was kinda fun seeing his stats come up on the jumbo tron with all zeros, and batting 1.000.

We left the game after the 7th inning stretch which turned out to be a great decision.   It started to rain more steadily and heavily on our walk over to the Turkey party.  They ended up delaying the rest of the game.  Not a party where we eat turkeys mind you, but a party thrown by the country of Turkey, in celebration of student mobility in Turkey and furthering exchanges.

The Brazil party was something, but the Turkey party was ridiculous.  They rented out an entire bar, and had free drinks for 2 hours.  They provided food, and a huge dance floor.  The DJ was cranking out 90s hip hop, top 40 standards, rap - it was amazing.  He played Shoop and now my whole office knows that I can lip synch the entire song like a boss.  Once again the music was enough for me to forget how much my feet hurt already and how awesome it felt to dance and see all these international educators go bananas on the dance floor.  We had an absolutely amazing night, despite the pouring rain.  When we finally left around 1:30am it was still raining heavily but we grabbed a cab and trekked back across town to collapse. Turkey party was definitely the highlight of the extra-curricular conference activities.

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