Monday, April 28, 2008

An Open Letter to Ireland

Dear Ireland,

Please stop.

In 1988 and 1989, I experienced your country as a college student at St. Patrick's College Maynooth. I lived in a small, unheated house in a regular family neighborhood. I walked two miles past cow and horse pastures to go to school, take showers, buy groceries, do my laundry, buy Cadbury Dairy Milk bars at the newsagent, withdraw 20 quid from the "DrinkLink" ATM for many a pint of Swithwick's at The Roost. I hitchhiked to Galway, Donegal, Dingle and all points in between. I breathed the intoxicating smell of peat moss burning in every fireplace. I watched a hurling match on St. Patrick's Day. I busked on Grafton Street. I made incredible friends that I still have to this day. It was the greatest year of my life.

In 1990, I returned to work for a summer. I struggled to make ends meet, breathed unhealthy amounts of second-hand smoke at the nightclub that employed me (for my exotic accent), and subsisted on greasy dinners at Barrell's Fish 'n' Chips. But the summer was unseasonably warm. Pub patrons sat outside, pale and shirtless. Children waved Irish flags to celebrate the country's first-ever World Cup birth. And I loved every minute of it.

In 1997, I scaled the cliffs of Slieve League (pictured in this blog's header) in Donegal to propose to my wife. We ate salmon in Killybegs and sugared rhubarb on a Limerick dairy farm. We shared the best stories of our lives in a pub in Yeats' home of Sligo. Yet, when I revisited my college pub, I noticed a disturbing change. Gone were the warm sounds of conversation, replaced with the cold clatter of a British boxing match on a mounted TV set.

Now comes word from a Washington Post article that more than 1,000 rural pubs have closed across the country. The culprit: wealth. Rather than sidling up to the bar for a pint of stout, Ireland's new yuppie class is heading home after a long day of work to swill a glass of Chardonnay in front of the television. More cars. More traffic. More work. Bigger homes. No smoking. Fewer pubs. Fewer conversations.

Please go back to the way it was, whatever it takes. Lower your educational standards. Raise your business taxes. Give those billions in investments back to the EU. I long for your days of 20 percent unemployment, famine-based black humor, Incense Catholicism and airborne carcinogens. Tear down the Leixlip Intel plant. Replant the cow pasture. Bludgeon the dual carriageway that transformed Maynooth from a sleepy village outpost to a Dublin bedroom community. Reinvigorate your expatriate tradition. Return your finest youth to London, Boston and Sydney. And return your culture to the way it was meant to be: The way I remember it. The way I need it to be.

Please stop being so selfish.

Sincerely Yours,
Missing in Maynooth

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Damn You, HBO!

Deep down, everyone believes--without a reasonable doubt--exactly two things things about themselves: 1) "I'm a good driver"; and 2) "I don't watch a lot of TV." I'll maintain the veracity of #1 in my own case, but I've never been able to claim #2. (As an East Side Little League baseball player in South Bend, my teammates nicknamed me "Bugs" because watching Bugs Bunny made me late to practices.)

I try, but every time I attempt to kick the TV habit, something new comes along--usually from HBO. First, it was "Entourage," then "Curb Your Enthusiasm," then "Extras," then another series of "Entourage." Most recently, Anne and I succumbed to an addiction of "In Treatment" that should have put us on the couch, if not into Hazelden.

I thought we were free and clear once Gabriel Byrne shut the door on his psychiatric practice (at least for one season), because nothing else looked interesting... especially the site of a wigged and bug-eyed Paul Giamatti playing John Adams. The previews were comical. Still, "John Adams" had a good buzz, and listening to an audiobook on Lincoln and reading Twain's The Gilded Age had sparked a new interest in American history. We decided to DVR Mr. Adams and see what happened.

We're hooked.

Did you know that John Adams defended the British soldiers of The Boston Massacre... and won? I didn't, and neither did Tom Hanks. That and many other facts about John Adams are the reasons he optioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by David McCollough. You can't help but see the man's life and conclude that he was the Avis Rent-a-Car of history: He was our second president, not the first. And even though he "tried harder," he's gone largely ignored in popular culture.

What makes the series so good? For one, it's superbly acted (Giamatti makes it work, and Laura Linney is arguably even better as Abigail). And it also accomplishes something very difficult from an aesthetic standpoint, which is to "look good" (the cinematography is outstanding) while also showing you the hardships of life in 18th century America. The opening shot lingers on Adams riding a horse through a blinding New England snow storm. And scenes of a chaotic leg amputation and administering a small pox vaccination (I can still hear the saw and feel the needle) definitely do not sugar coat.

Most surprisingly, though, the series actually makes a corsets-and-wigs era of American history truly interesting without being hackneyed and cloying (I've always wanted to use those two words). In fact, believe it or not, to see Adams, Washington, Franklin and Jefferson interacting in one small Philadelphia room as the Continental Congress--and having real personalities (Tom Wilkinson's Benjamin Franklin steals every scene)--feels like a rock concert.

Yes, I'm a geek.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

There's Something Wrong With This Picture

So I'm at the doctor's office yesterday, thinking about the contradictions of our health care system. It's early spring. I'm in a nice Twin Cities suburb, in a beautiful building nestled in oaks and elms. The whole place has a McMansion feel to it. The provider even carries its brand theme through to the embossed images on the glass of every door. (I imagine the meetings with the architect and interior designer: "Would you prefer Cambria or granite countertops?")

As I check in, I spot the stickers for Visa, Mastercard, Discover. As much as I've seen it before, something still hits me wrong about the idea that health clinics accept credit cards for payment... so wrong that I promptly complete my co-pay with my Wells Fargo debit card.

For the luxury of restricting this visit to $15, I realize that I'm indirectly subsidizing the embossed reed on the glass door with my $850/mo. (that's $10,000 a year) COBRA payment. Sure, I appreciate my padded chair and the Kenny G on the sound system (wait, no I don't), but I've been waiting 45 minutes for a 15-minute consultation after they told me to come early. To quote the misplaced victimhood of right-wing talk radio callers bitching about taxes and government waste: "Is this where my money goes?"

I finally get to the patient room. After absorbing the always interesting (yet reliably disturbing) human-body cutaways, I notice this poster:

That's right: pharmaceuticals by vending machine. Okay, come on. I realize we're all about convenience in this country, but seriously, vending machines for prescription drugs? What's next, IVMs (Integrated Vending Machines) where you can get a Coke, a Snickers bar and month's supply of Prilosec with one easy wave of your bank-enabled cell phone?

And what's the machine called? InstyMeds. InstyMeds! I feel insulted for the drugs themselves for being so "commoditized," so "cheapened" in this way.

There's something wrong with this picture, indeed. Very, very wrong.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How do you really feel?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Welcome back my friends to the debate that never ends...

Growing up as a saxophonist and guitar player (raised by a classical piano teacher), I took an "inside baseball" view on music. On the side of inferiority and evil, there was U93, the South Bend pop station, which had to be despised. On the side of righteousness and good, there was WAOR, "album-oriented rock," which played Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, Yes... all the bands my musician friends revered.

We loved these bands because they were challenging to mimic. They played fast. They changed keys and time signatures. They weren't afraid to create rock operas or release entire albums consisting of four 20-minute tracks.

I was comfortable in this space until I heard a song on WAOR that began, "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends." The song was epic, fast, difficult. It seemed to modulate on every measure. It probably had a passage in 13/5 time. I thought Rush's "La Villa Strangiato" was hard. This song, which I now know as Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2" from Brain Salad Surgery, should have inspired me. Instead, and to my great surprise, it struck me as absolutely ridiculous.

An insight followed: For great musicians, which ELP are, to crank out a song like this is easy. If you have the skills, it's not hard to create a piece that breaks into a chromatic scale in 32nd notes.

Isn't it actually more difficult to come up with a simple, catchy melody?

Thus began a debate that has plagued me ever since. Which has greater value: something like "First Impression, Part 2," which shows master musicianship, or a work like Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," whose melody is so simple and complete that it's hard to imagine the world without it?

This came back to me on a filmic level as Anne and I watched "Half Nelson" last weekend. Here's a fantastic movie, wonderfully un-Hollywood, centering on two troubled characters who need each other. As with most movies I like and respect, it ended unresolved. The drug-addicted teacher is still drug-addicted. The teenage girl with the drug-dealing relative remains "unsaved."

But then it hit me. Is this ending brave or cowardly? Because we're inundated with formulaic tripe most of the time, I interpreted it as brave. But try an experiment. Flip reality. Take away the mainstream machine (the villain), and imagine every movie ending as "Half Nelson" does. Now it seems cowardly. Why not write a script brave enough to complete the story... not stop before the pain and drama that leads to resolution (keeping in mind that resolution doesn't mean "happy ending"; it could mean that everybody dies and the world ends)?

Fittingly or ironically, I have no resolution for this debate--which covers music, film, writing, painting, and which I could write about for days. The truth is, I now love "First Impression" and appreciate that it has a great melody amid all the musical grandstanding. I watch mostly indie movie fare and listen to obscure singer-songwriter music, but I also insist that "Titanic" is superior to "Magnolia." I've heard people use the melody/structure angle to argue that Def Leppard's "Photograph" is a better song than "Hey Jude." Um, no. But I will argue that no matter how jaded Bruce fans are to the "Born to Run" album, from start to finish, it's his best and most completely realized work.

And the truth is, it was just as easy for Paul McCartney to write "Yesterday" (or for Mozart to compose Eine kleine Nachtmusik, for that matter) as it was for ELP to write "First Impression."

It's not about hard or easy. It's about something else.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Stuck Between Stations

She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian
She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend
She likes the warm feeling but she’s tired of all the dehydration
Most nights are crystal clear
But tonight it’s like it’s stuck between stations
On the radio

- "Stuck Between Stations," The Hold Steady (Craig Finn)

Twelve years ago, while serving my time in a cube-farm corporation, I was passing along one of the gray aisles on the fifth floor when something caught me eye: A colleague, maybe 20 years my senior, held her mouse up like a remote control and clicked it at her monitor in utter frustration. (I quickly intervened to douse the embarrassment.)

Three years ago, I sat at O'Donovan's pub in downtown Minneapolis and told an alumna of my university (10 years my junior) that when I went to school, the Internet didn't exist. As the blood drained from her face, it left a look beyond mere shock or curiosity; it was pure terror.

Three weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me at a coffee shop, and I learned that he made his entire living setting regulations for--and helping people sell goods on--Second Life and IMVU.

The marketing demographers would put me in the Generation X clan. I'm not even sure what that means anymore, except that being the first generation to grow up with MTV was supposed to be a big deal. As a rule, I don't put a lot of stock into these increasingly impatient lines of alleged demarcation. But I've become a believer in one distinct border that is real and will continue to cause enormous disruption. In light of this conversion, I am now suggesting that whoever comes up with these alphabetical tags start moving backwards and change my group's moniker from Generation X to Generation T.

The T stands for Translation.

You see, my people are the only hope that Baby Boomer Nation will have diplomatic relations with Internetistan. My people live in the middle country. We still read newspapers, but we also look at RSS feeds in our Firefox live bookmarks toolbar. We like Guitar Hero, but we also enjoy hiking and camping. I can sound young by saying that I have two blogs, a Facebook page a LinkedIn profile and a (dormant) MySpace page... that I'm a "mobile marketing coffee shop creative" whose office consists of a MacBook and an iPhone. But at the same time, I'm reading Mark Twain and listening to an audiobook on Abraham Lincoln's depression. I had the nerve to look up a word in a hard copy dictionary just the other day. I think Twittering is a frightening example of digital masturbation. And I'm still stewing over the fact that Bill Maher misused the word "disinterested" twice during his last show.

The point is this. If I may say something profoundly unoriginal: The Internet matters. In particular, the speed with which the social media phenomenon has overtaken everyone under 30 is astounding. Yesterday, a friend is in his upper 20s finally broke down and started a Facebook page "because it's the only way my friends communicate anymore." I'm not one for predictions (most are overblown to sell books or increase speaking fees), but I do think that I will see the complete death of the newspaper, the local newscast, the album and possibly the movie theater in my lifetime.

It's hard to avoid thinking that these changes will continue to accelerate... and that people who still put two spaces after a period, print web pages, poo-poo Wikipedia and read newspaper editorials will cease being able to connect with those who only know text-messaging spellings, only trust their friends' product endorsements and think that they should document every time they go to the bathroom.

Then again, maybe not. The pencil still exists. In fact, I have one in my computer bag.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

"They All Played Lead"

I've just finished two of the three discs of a collection called "Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who." It brought me back to my otherwise uneventful teenage years and made me fall in love once again with the band that was always competing for the position of "my favorite" between the ages of 12 and 18 (usually against... shock of shocks... Led Zeppelin).

Insights from this documentary:

- The Who were originally called The Detours, and in the original lineup, Pete played rhythm and Roger played lead. (That is the single most shocking fact of the series.)

- More sad drummer stories... the original drummer was nixed for Keith Moon, and Moon's posthumous replacement, Kenny Jones, still seems utterly depressed over his experience. "There will only ever be one drummer for The Who," he says. "Well there you go."

- The Who were filmed very early (and with shockingly good quality) in their career, because their management team wanted to document how well they could take a band from obscurity to stardom. In this early era, Roger Daltrey idolized Elvis and sang like a tired old black man (his words, not mine).

- Another case of the primary songwriter becoming engrossed in a form of eastern transcendentalism. In Townshend's case, he never even met his mentor, Meher Baba... a man who didn't speak for the last 44 years of his life.

Disc Two features the likes of The Edge, Eddie Vedder and others diagnosing the musical prowess of each band member. Excellent insights include:

- Moon did many things no other drummer had done before (besides filling his bass drum with explosives and taking elephant tranquilizers). Most drummers hit the kick drum with their right foot (if they're right-footed), and then if they want to add accents with a second kick drum, do so with their left foot. Moon used the right kick on 1 and 3, but then switched that function to his left foot to hit accents using his right. A knowledgeable drummer likened this to a guitarist flipping his guitar in mid-solo and playing left-handed.

- Entwhistle was just plain sick. This has been well-documented and requires no further comment.

- Daltrey didn't come into his own until "Tommy," when he decided to take on the role of Tommy himself... which changed his singing style.

- Townshend was (and is) a far more versatile guitarist than I had realized. As Edge points out, his acoustic playing was heavily influenced by flamenco, which makes sense now that I think of it. He is said to have invented the "crash chord," which is a term I had never heard before. When his brother Simon explains how Pete took out the third in many chords, I thought, "That's called a power chord, and it was invented by Dave Davies."

- Speaking of Dave Davies, there's a moment where Roger speaks a little arrogantly about how The Who took songs in different directions than bands like The Kinks. Minutes later, as the film lauds the originality of "My Generation," I realized that Townshend's riff is the same two major chords as "You Really Got Me," just played in a different rhythm... one year later.

But the best insight of all comes from Noel Gallagher, who points out that, "They all played lead, didn't they? Pete played lead guitar, but there you had John playing lead bass, Keith playing lead drums, and Roger singing lead vocals."

That style shouldn't work on any level, especially with four musicians competing against each other to fill every space. But with The Who, it did work. Somehow, it most definitely did.