Monday, January 31, 2011

...and that's playin' rock & roll

I pop up via soundbite at the 2:20 mark in Glambilly's "What Would Jenni Do (WWJD)," from their 2009 Cavalier Behavior album. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"So that means in a sense there's no center"

From remarks Jon Kabat-Zinn made at MIT in 2006 (via Speaking of Faith):

If we're not careful, we wind up with the kind of conceit that we are the center of the universe. It's an occupational hazard of being packaged in a body, that the whole universe is outside and you are obviously the center of it, and you relate to it through all your senses, including potentially this capacity for knowing….  
But can we learn how to pour some energy into what's already OK with us? Which you could call health in the most profound of ways, our own interface with not only the outer world but also the interior world of our own thoughts, our own emotions, our own sensory experience, in ways that would actually have some degree of balance, some degree of interrelationality, because all the senses are actually interrelational. Also, while you're the center of the universe, OK, so is everybody else. So is everybody else. So that means in a sense there's no center. Cosmologists know this. Topologists know this. There's no center and there's no periphery….  

But the question is what if we were to take the name we gave our species seriously and actually train to familiarize ourselves with the full perspective, the full dimensionality of what it means to be really human? 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Backward Abstract

In the first century, Seneca learned of his daughter's death weeks after the fact; his letter of consolation to his wife likely arrived days or weeks later.  We see and read tweets of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions moments after events occur, as they occur.  The gap between event and telling is narrowing rapidly.  None of this is news.  As the surfaces of atoms repel other surfaces of atoms, will this gap finally stop narrowing, the cleavage between action and documenting reach a firm endpoint?  Or will the gap continue to diminish, will knowledge of an event—updates, tweets, texts, pics—one day precede the events themselves, giving us the kind of Pre-Reality we've always wanted?  (It's got to stop, right?)  Oh there are satellites, and millions of miles, and seconds and the atmosphere and immutable laws of physics.  We'll conquer those, too.  Don't bother sending me an email, I already know what happens.

"Vista Forward Backward Button PSD" via Glossy Icons

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Essay By Numbers



1. Note that areas for essaying are marked with numbers.  These numbers correspond to subjects shown below.  Refer to this subject guide as you work.

2. Begin essaying at the beginning, middle, or end, filling in all subject areas marked by the same number.

3. Note that some subjects must be mixed to give greater variety in subject.  When mixing these subjects, begin with the "most pleasing" and add small amounts of the "less pleasing" until desired subject is obtained (or avoided or misremembered entirely).  Mix enough language to cover all corresponding numbered areas.

4. For a pleasant past, add more sentimentality to subjects.  Otherwise, subjects should be used full strength.  You may wish to separate and define certain subject areas by using thin black lines of wishful thinking.

5. Remain within the outline.  Don't blur.  You won't be able to do this.

6. Don't look too hard at your essay.  You might miss something.


1. What you don't know
2. Joy
3. Shame
4. Love/lust
5. Fear
6. What you wish happened
7. What you recall to the best of your ability
8. What you don't remember
9. What you're ignoring
10. Commentary

Subjects should be tightly closed after essaying, or they may dry out.  If you think you're finished, you're not.

Thinking Boy image via Fun Draw.  Instructions more-or-less lifted from the great Paint By Number Museum.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Red Balloon (Black Balloon)

I just watched Albert Lamorisse's 1956 short The Red Balloon for the first time in over 30 years.  Like so many others, I first saw the film in grade school, in my case St. Andrew The Apostle, in Wheaton, Maryland, sitting in the all-purpose room (or was it the library?).  Maybe we we kids were annoyed at having to be inside, or maybe it was a cold day and we were happy to be indoors.  I remember stiff metal chairs, the whirring of the 16mm film strip, the dark room.  Most of all, I remember the red balloon.

I was entranced for a lot of reasons—the solitude of the boy, the vividness of his imagination, the tormenting bullies.  Much of the movie had blurred to an indistinct gray over the decades, but certain images remained indelible; I was curious what I might experience watching the film again as an adult.  Remarkably, The Red Balloon hasn't aged at all, despite its post-Second War setting, much of which doesn't exist anymore or has been radically restructured in the last half century.  The half-hour short remains as haunting and heartbreaking as it was when I watched as a kid.  What I noticed this time around was Lamorisse's ingenious filmmaking, the wide-shots and cramped alleys, the skittery, hand-held joy and the boy's smacking footsteps echoing down the streets.  I should qualify: I did respond to the film's form and style as a kid, I just, of course, couldn't articulate it.  Great art communicates before it is understood, said T. S. Eliot, and I wonder if he had children in mind as well as adults.

Two and a half minutes in, Lamorisse creates a visual tension among the steep Parisian steps, the boy's descent, and his curious upward gaze.  In a dizzying, elated way I felt that tension watching as a child. The boy's staring up at the balloon, of course.  I loved that he climbed up the pole on his own to fetch it: no adults needed.  (He looks around before he scampers up; is he searching for helpful adults, or is he making sure no one's around.) After watching the film for the first time, back in the banal school hallways and the complicated, unhappy politics of the classrooms and playground, what I walked away with was the boy's spirited sense of independence.  The grown-ups in The Red Balloon are stern, aged, mean taskmasters: the boy's grandmother who thrusts the balloon out of the apartment window; the school teacher who locks the boy in his office after the balloon's appearance causes a good-natured ruckus among the students.  (There is one nice adult in the film, the street sweeper on the corner who agrees to hold the balloon for the boy while he's in school, and whose eyes shimmer in childlike recognition of the balloon's enchantment.)  The boy really needs nothing else but his balloon, which may be wholly imagined by him, or which may actually exist. He was friendless, maybe, but content.


There are so many great moments: the breathtaking tracking shot early in the film as the boy, clutching the balloon, runs across the bridge, the steam train roaring beneath him:

The balloon following the boy through the streets, playfully but obediently, the unspoken friendship growing between them:

The boy vaguely recognizing a kind of kindred spirit in a painting at an open-air street market.  (At the same time nearby the balloon, off on its own, gazing curiously, maybe longingly, at its own reflection in a dusty mirror.)  The boy's staring at a feminine doppelganger, another kid transported by, and requiring, little more than her imagination:

A girl's blue balloon crushing on the boy's balloon, a hint of complexity that even I got as a kid:

A fantastic shot of a narrow alley among many through which the boy is chased by the town bullies, the claustrophobic mise-en-scéne perfectly translating his fear and anxiety, the proximity of the boys and their terrorizing, the helplessness, the close calls:

Of course, the balloon's destruction at the hands (and feet) of the adolescent mob.   I remember the throat-tightening sadness I felt as a kid watching the balloon's withering descent:

And the fantastic, surreal act of the city's hundreds of colorful balloons, hearing the boy's distress and converging from all corners, rescuing him en masse, lifting him away from his heartaches and over and beyond a city made up of bullies and uncomprehending grown-ups.


It's wonderful stuff.  Watching as a kid, I rooted for the boy, identifying strongly with his quiet nature and his overactive imagination, his small body and his pleasures and minimal speech.  Thirty years later I still can't articulate what I felt watching the boy being lifted over Paris at the movie's close: envy; fear; sympathy; empathy; satisfaction; wonder.  All trite words, especially when stacked up against my then-dimly growing comprehension of a world where meanness, pettiness, and intolerance can easily overpower the substantial, fragile world fostered by the imagination.  What I loved—what I love—was the natural ease with which the boy and his balloon take to each other, an inevitable relationship even as the boy's surprised to find the balloon in the first place.  I've recently read commentary theorizing a Christian theme in the balloon's torment-by-mob up and down cobbled streets, and to its eventual resurrection elevating the boy into the sky.  Even though I sat, rapt, inside of Catholic school while watching the first time, what I experienced was purely, and excitingly, secular: the value of the imaginative life, its seductions and dangers and necessary solitude and its eventual vindication.  Again: language I didn't have, but sentiment I possessed.  Immodestly, I thought that the boy looked a little like me, though I wouldn't have admitted this to anyone, and I needed little internal coaxing to fly away with him at the end.

Four years ago, the boy—Pascal Lamorisee, the director's son—spoke with NPR on the occasion of the film's re-release.  He said:

Well, I would imagine, you know, it's a story that has to do with the heart. You know, it's a love story, it's between the things you cherish the most. It's this poor little boy, we'll call him Pascal; he seems to have a grandmother, no sisters, no parents, and his only hope in life is his—his only real, real friend, you know, close friend is the red balloon. I would say all kids have, you know, either a pet or a dream that is close to their life, that makes sense. 

Makes sense.  I was happy to hear him speak of the film's power so many years later.  In the world cast by The Red Balloon, a pet, a dream, a balloon, they're all the same.


While I was thinking about The Red Balloon, the Kills' "Black Balloon" from their Midnight Boom album popped up providentially on iTunes shuffle. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince's lyrics bear no relation to the film, but the melody evokes the boy's melancholy, the "farewells" in both movie and song rising and falling evocatively.  I include it as a kind of echo.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Music Book Of The Year

I was happy to see that Alex V. Cook at Outsideleft Magazine chose AC/DC's Highway to Hell as 2010's Music Book of the Year

You can read an excerpt of the book here and buy a copy here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Me Suspended

Long-distance driving, the great pause button.  Between departure and arrival, home and wherever, this morning and tonight, I'm suspended, both active and inactive, hurtling forward and passive.  10,000 songs on the iPod, Radiolab and This American Life podcasts: all great diversions from highway hypnosis, but I find I get a lot of thinking accomplished when the car's quiet.  Time unfolds before me to be filled in languorously, unhurriedly (and add contemplative side-trips).  I find I'm between persona's, between "I"'s, also: the me who left and the me who arrives are different folk, the me who left and the me who arrives less two ends of a spectrum spining the highway than two points among many.  The me who drives and thinks is another "I" altogether, usually the thoughtful one—ie, the one thinking—the one filling in the spaces between the two dots, chasing truths, shading in, remembering, misremembering, telling stories.  The me suspended is the one with time, eyes on the road and the great vanishing point, moving horizontally and thinking vertically.

Vanishing Point via Innovations Learning.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An Origin Story

I began in the basement, playing with the chemistry set, today's adventures in science creating tomorrow's America, beacons and purple fizzy liquids and the smell of rotten eggs, squeezing my eyes shut and wishing hard that I could create a new element, number 104! 105! something new on the bottom rows that would come into being by the compression and heat of forces that I couldn't comprehend, something unnatural, boy-made, plus puberty was coming and I wanted some orderly rows, a periodic table of lusts and mysteries, so I poured this powder into that liquid, surveyed sorrowfully the next day the half-inch of white crust at the bottom of the test tubes, the metal case basement-cold to my touch, the crew-cut boy on the front of the set already light-years ahead of me, nothing happening, little materializing but anti-epiphany: these ingredients don't mix, melancholy, 1+1=0.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Some Q's and A's

Recent interviews with me in The Nervous Breakdown here and The Fine Delight here.  I handle the Q's as well as the A's at Nervous Breakdown; there's also an excerpt from AC/DC's Highway to HellThe Fine Delight is a new site devoted to all things Catholic in contemporary and classic literature.

Speech balloon via The Pink Sylphide

Friday, January 7, 2011

American Idiot on Broadway

I arrived at St. James Theater to see American Idiot feeling excitement, skepticism, and a little bit of dread. My expectations were low. Green Day is a great American rock & roll band, and American Idiot one of the great rock & roll albums of the century's first decade. (While I'm at it, "The Grouch" really was one of the great R&R songs of the 1990s, wasn't it?) When I was making occasional treks from Illinois to Ohio in the early months of 2005, American Idiot in its entirety became the drive's soundtrack, the story of Johnny and his alter ego St. Jimmy, Johnny's dissolute friends Tunny and Will and whatshername, and the aimless urban sprawl played out for me against gray farms and lousy rest stops and hundreds of miles of highway—hooks, melodies, and mammoth, rocking songs that were at once smart, tender, defiant, funny, and moving. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool, and Mike Dirnt created an album that was, yes, "a concept" but the narrative arc mattered less to me on those long drives than the songs.

I'm not a big lyric guy. I respond to a song's groove, beat, melody, and overall feel before I digest the words (though lyrics, pre-comprehension, contribute to a tune's feel, of course). What's meaning in a three-minute rock & roll song? The body listens, the mind unburdened. I love how in American Idiot the great songs—the galvanic title track, "Holiday," "Jesus Of Suburbia," "The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams," "St. Jimmy," "Homecoming," among them—work as songs, on their own, eighth-note rocking or evocatively melodic or sometimes both; and when I take a step back I can see how the songs blend into the large canvas. There was talk at the time of the album's release that Green Day was doing a reckless thing in releasing an album to be heard front-to-back; nobody was listening to albums anymore. (This reaction as even more pronounced when Green Day released the sprawling 21st Century Breakdown in 2009.) The trick is: the songs work individually, can be plucked (hey, like singles!) from the album, with lives of their own.   

The story in American Idiot, the album? I liked it, was moved by much of it, the scrim it hung against the Bush administration's growing follies and arrogance—when Armstrong sang "Welcome to a new kind of tension / all across the alien nation / where everything isn't meant to be OK," he clarified some things for me, anxious and troubled as I was in response to looming warning threats, fear, and the manufacturing of required enemies. And the tune's incredibly exciting, especially the chorus, Cool and Dirnt rocking ferociously behind Armstrong: political bromides go down a lot easier for me if they're launched by a band that sounds like Hüsker Dü covering Cheap Trick. But I didn't need the story, really. Just the songs.

Which was one of the reasons why I was skeptical about seeing American Idiot. But I not-so-secretly wanted to go, and when Amy and I learned that Billie Joe Armstrong was playing the part of St. Jimmy for a month on Broadway, we decided to get tickets and drive up to New York from suburban Washington D.C., where we'd be visiting my extended family for the holidays. Our seats were three rows from the stage. I stupidly didn't see Green Day in the 1990s before they exploded, and am hesitant to see them now in the big arenas. Armstrong's appearance in the musical (allegedly secured to spur lagging ticket sales; he'd appeared in the production earlier) galvanized me, gave me a defensible reason to go see a performance that I might find embarrassing, or corny, or deeply flawed.  Yeah but there's gonna be great songs, and Armstrong's in it, and we'll be a couple feet away.


Confession: a couple of Thanksgivings ago, Amy and I spent the afternoon watching Legally Blonde: The Musical on MTV. We were hungover, crashed on the coach, flipping through channels. The cute spunkiness of the leads caught us, and before we knew it we watched the whole thing, loving the showbiz fun and shallow diversion of it all. The money notes in the ballads, the soaring major-chord moments really slayed me (my defenses, admittedly, were lowered). Surprisingly, I found myself loving the conservative, formal neatness of the show's arrangements and storyline and dances and conventional, but affecting, songs in the book, and for the most part I suspended my impatience with corn and schmaltz. There's a time and a place, all that.

But I was really afraid what such theatrics might do to the tough and alive rock & roll I loved in American Idiot. I've never seen Tommy or Quadrophenia, or any large-scale dramatic staging of a rock & roll album, but I'd seen clips on YouTube and in my nightmares. (To be fair, American Idiot owes less to the hippy-drippiness of Tommy or the Romanticism of Quadrophenia than to the Who's tightly-arranged domestic tableaux, "A Quick One While He's Away," a fact observed by many.) I wanted to see whether the incarnation of Green Day as a new-century amalgam of the Who and the Ramones was urgent and valuable. Can a Broadway telling of punk alienation feel necessary and vital?


American Idiot was remarkable. An anonymous Fox News announcer intoned over the speakers, the curtain lifted, and the set was revealed, a stage cluttered with urban debris, a filthy slacker couch, and a bed, and, stunningly, a back wall, its immense height supporting dozens of television sets, each flickering, each blandly yet distractingly colorful, each blaring a sound bite from the 2000s, Bush to Trump to Survivor, a hundred inane statements colliding and growing in a din. Scaffolding the TV sets was a network of steel bars; behind the TVs a graffiti- and punk/hardcore-show-flier-covered wall.  Moments passed before I noticed a beat-up car hanging from the ceiling.One guy hung upside-down on a chain, headbanging his way through the first several minutes of the song. It was visually very loud and, as contemporary Broadway can be, completely overwhelming. And it was very cool.

When one of the the onstage guitarists hit the opening chords of "American Idiot" I was dropped in a weird place. Whatever reservations I had (have) about sentimental theatrics were pummeled into submission by the muscular kineticism on the stage. The band was loud and tight and good, professional but lacking Green Day's roar, and the three lead actors each took turns singing.  Uh oh, corny, I feared, Pepsi commercial Punk—but the cast's energy and sweat and commitment to the pure physical demands of leaping and flopping around and singing were utterly disarming, and fun. Yes, they telegraphed their "punk 'tude" a bit too broadly at times, with exaggerated sneers and slacker anti-postures, Pansy Division tattoos and Vans and show fliers and ironic jokes abut forgetting to shower. The show's themes (borrowed both from American Idiot and select songs from 21st Century Breakdown) are flatly stated as "rage and love"; there's a lot of room inside there. Those concepts needed unsubtle gestures by overactive bodies and overwrought faces to convey them on a loud, crowded stage. The characters are fairly flat, and are types: the stoner deadbeat dad; the aimless wanderer; the lost kid who joins the military. As Amy pointed out to me, American Idiot shares something with opera here, the archetypes interacting within recognizable tropes. There isn't much dialogue in the musical; the show's "sung-through," meaning that the songs do all of the work of moving along the story, much as in conventional opera. If you're unfamiliar with the album, you have to let the songs' words (hard to make out at times), the set changes, and the characters' broad gestures tell the story. Some of Armstrong's lyrics are corny and cliched—he writes about hearts and souls a lot—but they work within the spectacle.

And that's the key to my enjoyment of American Idiot: the spectacle. There's a long tradition in rock & roll of spectacle adding to the fun. AC/DC was a nearly perfect rock & roll band in the late 1970s: smoke pouring out of Angus Young's book bag while he shredded onstage in his school boy uniform? Perfection. (Add to a long list Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 70s glam, Flaming Lips, Man Or Astroman, among many others.) But the cast in American Idiot aren't swallowed by the the strobe lighting, the noisy, cluttered stage, the volume of it all, they're moved by it; maybe they even create it. Clips of the show can look silly on YouTube; being in the theater, live, witnessing feet away the bodies colliding and the lights exploding and the sheer size of the stage, transforms the songs into dimensional things.

There's an affecting scene in the show's final third that took me by surprise: Tunny's in a veterans hospital after losing his leg below his knee while fighting in the Middle East.  The bank of TV screens on the back wall show LED-green EKG lines changing into Arabic script as a burqa-draped woman descends slowly from the ceiling, twirling delicately in a harness. My Cheese Alarm sounded and I thought, Oh no....  Yet in the middle of the number, Tunny too is suddenly vaulted from his hospital bed into the air via harness, and he and the woman, who removes her burqa midair and is revealed to be his nurse, and with whom he falls in love by the end of the musical, move balletically.  It sounds corny, and it is. In the theater it was beautiful, and poignant. Tunny and his nurse move together and apart over our heads, an unexpected pas de deux that softened the tone of the show without losing any of its urgency. It was the kind of moment I was hoping for, and the kind that I thought my native cynicism wouldn't have accepted. I was, happily, proved wrong.


Armstrong as St. Jimmy was a riot, what I'd expected: funny; devilish; sneering.  Prowling the stage, leering through black eyeliner, he was clearly enjoying himself, and his appearance a third of the way through gave the show a real jolt. (The crowd—well, mostly the teens and 20-somethings in the crowd—started cheering at the opening notes of "St. Jimmy"). At the end, following a curtain call, the cast appears on stage holding guitars. Armstrong strums the opening notes of "Good Riddance," and the place erupts. Though it's hardly my favorite Green Day song, it fit in well as a closing number, and seeing and hearing Armstrong sing it reminded me that I came for his songs and for the possibility of those songs becoming new to me again.

 Photo of Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot via The New York Times

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How I Learned Absurdity As A Preposition

In Back Of

Driving to church, something amiss. I’d been an altar boy for several years and now it was my younger brother’s turn to say yes to mystery discomfiting like a strange shirt. I’d warned him: don’t get the priests angry, they have incredible tempers behind that patience, that imperturbability, they’ll turn on you and yell like a lion. St. Andrew the Apostle had incurred a new pastor, a steely man. Black jacket, black sunglasses, black mood. My brother had forgotten something. He was scheduled to serve the eleven thirty Sunday morning mass, not the ten o’clock. Father Steel was giving the ten o’clock. My brother was trapped in the sacristy, sweating out his realization. Father Steel’ll blow his top. My parents and I drive past the church at ten minutes to ten on Sunday. We see a pair of hopeless, squiggling legs squirming out from a window at the back of church. Little brown shoes first, then white socks, and black dress pants, then his brother, curly hair joyless in a fearful wind.


As a small boy I prized the organizing principle. Crayons everywhere, burnt orange, cadet blue, forest green, the basement a blueprint of chaos! My mom and I’d read in Sunday’s “helpful hints” column detailing a Styrofoam block inserted into a common shoe box with numerous pencil-sized columns drilled in—presto, a crayon holder. I loved and admired the plan, fearing its architectural ambitions were beyond me. One afternoon she presented me with the crayon holder. It gleamed in artificial know-how, my own snug structure. I loved it, and her for it, and marshaled my crayons into rows, tiny subdivisions of order. Days later and a friend is over. In front of my grieving eyes we’re smashing to bits my crayon holder, reckless and awful in our pettiness. With ersatz glee I crush yet another shiny chunk; soon there is a dirty snowfall covering the basement floor. I glance up at the top of the stairs. Me and my gaudy, shameful clique.

Apart From

Walking with my older brothers and their friends up Amherst Ave., feeling lucky. Not too often I stroll with this older crowd, heading up to the 7/11. Tiny and inconsequential in squeaking sneakers. There is a photograph of my family walking to the bus stop on our way downtown to the Washington D.C. mall for the 1976 Bicentennial. I’m walking out front with my buck teeth and shaggy bangs, skinny little job, pretending to enjoy the attention. Now we walk up Amherst and I’m out front. Squinting in the high sun: an older girl on a ten-speed; her shorts are short, and they’re riding up. I’m a block or so from puberty, and the roundness of a kitchen apple can send me into spasms for an afternoon. I stare at this wondrous ass, this rococo visitation, all the while strolling, cool, right smack into a parking meter, cold steel cracking into the bridge of my nose. Whirling stars and hoots, and anguish, and clichés of disrepute to last a small boy’s day.


In the cooler, lower depths of the house we play Hide & Seek. My brothers and I spend hours away from the blind of August skulking around the laundry room and the basement: the astonishment of the other body; pale limbs and paler giggles materializing from the a dark corner or out from behind a washing machine. Loss, hard bone beneath taut skin, intimate smells. We search and search for our younger brother, who’s nowhere to be found. This hunt is taking longer than we thought. We look everywhere: behind curtains; beneath the pool table; in the closet. We find him beneath the sheets on my brother’s bed, wrapped in swelter. A corpse perspiring, a corpse dreaming! He gasps for air and rips the sheets away, looking for them in desperation. Don’t move, you’ll ruin the game.