A Notification

I am currently abroad in Ireland, and have not posted for the last two days. This is due to my much larger posts coming up, one in reference to my travels here in Ireland, and one regarding the Alex Rodriguez hysteria. Enjoy the day, and keep thinking valuable thoughts.

Book Review-“Stories Done”

Stories Done

I just finished Stories Done by Mikal Gilmore and would like to take some time to appreciate the book and presume to offer constructive criticism. Writing about 1960’s music figures, Gilmore takes interviews and history and molds a comprehensive and multifaceted background to the ruin and beauty of the Sixties movement. The collection was tastefully built and the writing is largely excellent, good enough to make me want to sit down and write essays of my own. The difficulty with assembling separately published articles, as any author is doubtless aware of, is ensuring that these different focuses arc in a common theme. Stories Done achieves this topical relevance seamlessly, and manages to maintain individuality between pieces.

I had an issue with some of the repetition that popped up in the articles, such as the summaries regarding the negative aspects of 1967’s “Summer of Love” (which appears in the Grateful Dead, Harrison, Haight-Ashbury, and Kesey pieces) and the continuous mentioning of Tupac, Biggie, Bruce etc as modern examples of visionary and politically conscious work. While Gilmore obviously didn’t mean it this way, the constant shout outs to a handful of luminaries made them seem like stock references. What about A Tribe Called Quest or Sublime? I understand that the essays may require a bit of synopsizing in order to explain the actions of the character, but further editing the articles in recognition of potential reiteration would have been beneficial. Granted, perhaps he was against changing any of the past work to accommodate the collection, but as the reader I cannot assume this is the case.

The Cash and Allman Brothers Band articles were the two strongest because they were the most successful at molding quotes, summary of past events, and Gilmore’s clear love of music into passionate writing. An excerpt from the Allman Brothers Band—“it was merely another ghost in the memory-skein of ghosts, knitted together by the bonds of dark remembrances and lost dreams” is lyrical in its own right while avoiding melodrama.

I had mixed reactions to two stylistic traits that kept appearing in Stories Done, the profanity and the occasional first-person account. I understand that cursing can be an excellent lyrical, rhetorical, and fashionable device, but there were parts where it didn’t seem to add anything to the narrative and was gratuitous. Gilmore’s recollections of personal drug use during the Leary chapter was a little out of place, on the other hand, the personal reminiscence of his struggles with his brother’s execution (as recounted in his memoir Shot in the Heart)  during the Cash section were some of the most profound paragraphs in the book.

I enjoyed Stories Done very much, and I admire Gilmore’s writing and confidence with description. We have been facebook friends for some time now and while I don’t know him personally, I have lurked, following his myriad posts about cats and race and jazz that are almost always interesting, leading to my motivation to read this book.


Off and Running

In elementary school, I was more known for a proclivity to read than any kind of athletic prowess. Despite my enthusiasm for sports, gym classes saw me rely on savvy and observation instead of talent. Running was a particular irritation, when my gangly legs could not churn fast enough to produce even an imitation of effective sprinting. My only hope was in endurance, and while I had the body of a long-distance runner, I didn’t like to run. There was little reward in pounding my spindly shins against an unforgiving blacktop, lunging my body towards a little painted line in the grass that represented respiratory reprieve and an otherwise pointless goal.

As I grew taller I found myself able to glide along on longer legs, and though running was still not enjoyable, it was no longer accompanied by the Sisyphean feeling of ineffectiveness that had marked earlier running experiences. High school was when I began taking jogs for fun, usually nocturnal expeditions around my neighborhood, and this is the time where running became something to look forward to. There was a mindlessness to it, and the plodding that had once infuriated my practical brain now provided a zen tranquility. One moment in particular stands out: a day in junior year, otherwise totally pedestrian, but hallmarked by a night run where I could not stop smiling. I had made my peace with running.

College meant more free time, and more free time meant more time at the gym. My running was a time to zone out, forget homework, and do laps around a dark blue track. Shin splints have cropped up and died down, different running shoes have been experimented with, and mile times have fluctuated. I realize why running is embraced by so many people. It’s something you do in order to do it, not just to be fit, and not just to have “x” time. Life isn’t short, contrary to the expression and people spend many hours on this planet doing ultimately trivial activities. I have decided that one of mine is to run, simply because it leaves me content.

Late Monday Music: The Specials-“The Specials”

This first edition of Late Monday Music will focus on the first and self-titled album of The Specials, a British ska band that emerged in 1979 and served as direct youth opposition to the election of Margaret Thatcher. Their music is jumpy and agitated, reflecting the turmoil of racism and recession that was crashing through Britain in the late ’70s and early 80’s, and there is a distinct blend of reggae, ska, and punk that howls against dowdy domesticity. The Specials were well known for being a racially integrated group during a notably prejudiced period in Britain, and their jarring music and presentation was a brass blast against bigotry.

The first Specials album, The Specials, is a kaleidoscopic whirl through pseudo-Dickensian streets of grime, violence, and hedonism. Many of the songs are covers or are derivative of earlier Jamaican ska, transformed to fit an urban British narrative. Visually the group embraces a stark black and white approach in fashion and in music videos that leaves an inescapable frenetic feel, as well as embracing racial unity. The first track “A Message to You, Rudy” has a more traditional sound and opens the album with a cheery, arching upper harmony so common in Jamaican-influenced music. The effect of the brass instruments is instant, they lurch in and out of the song with a delightful tipsiness. If this song is a little inebriated, the rest of the album is belligerently drunk, and in the best possible way. There is an omnipresent image, due to the lyrics and instrumentation, of a permanent nightfall.

Vocally the lyrics are often shouted in the punk style, with rambling rhythms that frantically speed up, juxtaposed with relatively controlled bass and keyboard solos. The cover of “Monkey Man,” initially performed by Toots and the Maytals, lives up to the already outstanding original, and the back half of the album is supported by the bitter anti-authority “Stupid Marriage” and “Too Much Too Young” where it is exhorted that we, the listener “should be having fun with me.” Not every song is perfect. “Do the Dog” retains a punk feel but loses some of the harmonic musicality that makes the group intriguing, and “Blank Expression” is one of the weaker lyrical offerings. In fact, the group is at its strongest when they successfully take a confluence of traditional ska and reggae backdrop and mix it with punk lyrics of street violence, exemplified in their interpretation of “Concrete Jungle.”

Ideally, music is not just a sound for somebody’s ears. It has a message, and The Specials, with tremendous success, blend their music with their message. The panting guitar parts leer at you from nightclub doorways, and the rapid vocals produce a determined anger that doesn’t veer into extremism. These guys know exactly what they are about, and their music that sneers against convention and doldrumic existence proves it.

How is College Still King?

Each fall American teenagers will hug their parents, pack their favorite clothes, and trudge onto university campuses, anxious to make friends, drink beer, and live the “college experience.” These recent high school graduates have more to worry about than shouldering textbook-filled backpacks, they also must ferry a gargantuan haul of debt as battle scars from attending an institution of higher education. Many colleges in the United States cost well over $50,000 to attend after room and board. The phenomenal aspect surrounding inflationary college prices is that education has never been more accessible. Ted Talks, MOOCs, and youtube videos have created potential teaching outlets on every subject imaginable, from marine biology to playing guitar. With these resources, the tech-immersed generation that is incidentally now entering college has gained a tremendous learning advantage over every other person in the past history of the human race. The library of Alexandria has been rebuilt, and it can be found for free.

The best part about the Internet is that new methods of absorbing information do not have to replace books, but merely offer a different medium of visual and auditory presentation. Between Kindles, eBooks, Google Reader, and the good ol’ library, books have remained the backbone of learning, now supplemented by the aforementioned videos, slideshows, and illustrations easily accessed online. With all of these tools to learn unassisted, the obvious question to pose is: if there are college professors presenting material online for free, why pay backbreaking fees to attend college in the first place?

My answer is illogical and multifaceted. The most prominent reason is that students no longer attend college for learning, they go to be handed a degree and a funny hat about 1,100 days after they enter. A degree is a requisite for any white collar job in the country, and regardless whether or not a student actually has the skills to succeed in the marketplace is secondary to the piece of paper claiming he or she can. This need for upper-level education is the reason why universities are still upping prices–demand hasn’t changed, as seen in this excerpt from an nymag.com article:

“One effect the recession has conspicuously not had, however—despite what economists say may be the worst job market for graduates since the Great Depression—is on the number of American families who send children off to college each September. Fifty years ago, 48 percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in a college or university. In 2009, that number was more than 70 percent—a historic high.”

There is a national sentiment that college is a necessary springboard into the working world and the conflict is that the springboard is too crowded and has collapsed under the weight of its overpopulated and underqualified pool of applicants. There is nothing wrong with not going to college, it could mean that you are great with your hands and have a promising and consistent job as a manually skilled worker. But very few prospective students are seeing the world this way, and even if they do not have a selected career path and have been perennially  uncomfortable in the world of academics, they are still pushed towards throwing their money into the college whirlpool.

The other advocation for further study is slightly more reasonable: to have the “college experience,” an almost mythical concept that is right up there with the American Dream as a pure example of validating a decision influenced by peer pressure. The benefits to being in college are making connections and friends, and interacting with professors. Naturally a college class is more helpful than an online seminar because a student can ask questions, send emails, and conference with peers. But realistically, is it $200,000 dollars more helpful?

Eventually (one hopes) college prices will level out as high schoolers realize that there may be better options on the table. But until then, the hood has been pulled over the eyes of the American teenager and we are hostage to an inexorable current of social pressure, from classmates, teachers, parents, and future employers who believe that college is a requirement. It is for some, but hardly for everyone, and the sooner our young adults begin working to their strengths and not shuffling reluctantly towards their weaknesses, this country will be a more reasonable place.

The Abrupt Rise and Fall of Yasiel Puig

The residents of Los Angeles could be forgiven if they mistook Yasiel Puig’s arrival for a small earthquake. The young Cuban baseball player stepped into Chavez Ravine, adorned in Dodger blue, and set off on the most torrid offensive start since a stolid son of a fisherman named Joe DiMaggio began manning center field for the New York Yankees. Puig’s first game featured an outstanding outfield assist, and a 2-4 appearance at the plate, but still didn’t herald the prodigious early successes to come. His first 30 games produced 50 hits, a 1.155 OPS, and a slew of  highlight reel throws gunning down foolhardy baserunners.

The baseball community, so ravenous for prodigy, clamored over the 22-year-old kid with a bold and unconsciously nostalgic “66” on his back. ESPN was inundated in Puig chatter, Internet forums went into frenzy, and fans, regardless of team affiliation, were giddy at the chance of seeing a star born. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the star faded…not due to any kind of performance letdown, but because of perceived character flaws in the outfielder. A series of supposedly unsportsmanlike actions has made Puig a pariah in no time at all. The first strike against Puig, an ejection during a bench-clearing brawl, occurred after he had been beaned in the head. The second was his swaggering bat flips after singles or deep fly-ball outs. The final and most damning was his unresponsiveness to Luis Gonzalez, a former Diamondback who tried to chat with him before a game.

The condemnations rained upon the once future king of L.A. Online comments tore him to shreds, reporters gave their holy two cents, and the sentiment that had welled up in Puig’s direction surged the other way. He was considered the front-runner of MLB’s popular “Final Vote” contest and didn’t win, losing to Braves first basemen Freddie Freeman. Whether or not Puig deserved to be an all-star is secondary–what matters is that Puig would have won the same contest two weeks earlier in a landslide. His case is a beautiful microcosm of human irrationality and capriciousness. The true reason why baseball fans revolted against Puig is because we overindulged ourselves, in the same way that “Rolling in the Deep” went from beloved to overplayed to “oh God not again.”  We were unrestrained in praise and equally profligate in our ill-founded hatred.

The case for saving Puig’s character is easy: he is a very young man from a foreign, isolated country who does not speak the native language or understand the culture. His ejection, while hotheaded, was due to a very hard, dangerous object being directed at his cranium, and then witnessing a fellow teammate suffer the same experience. His bat flips are overdone and unsportsmanlike, but perhaps he is not aware of their implications, as the nuances of baseball’s ethics are random and ridiculous. Charging the mound and punching somebody? It isn’t smiled upon but fighting is mostly acceptable in the eyes of the fans. Bat flips? What insolence! The Gonzalez interaction was very likely taken out of context, as Gonzalez tried striking up a conversation about Cuba and Puig (as a Cuban defector) may have been unnerved by this strange man speaking Spanish and asking questions about his native country. It is also possible that Puig wanted to focus on batting practice and mentally prepare for the game. The fact is that nobody knows, but judgments are made all the same.

This is the problem with people when faced with talking about celebrity. Because they do not know the actor, ballplayer, or singer personally, they must make assumptions based on very little evidence. Unfortunately, most people are not great detectives even when assisted by heaps of evidence, so many remarks and insults directed towards famous folks and Puig in particular are largely baseless. Actions are said to speak louder than words, but in reality both can be twisted out of context. Puig, because he can’t speak English, is left with nothing to judge but his actions and his actions, isolated to a baseball diamond, are micoglimpses into his actual life. Perhaps he is a terrible person who wants to fight everyone, mug for the television cameras, and shun former stars, but we as an audience cannot take it upon ourselves to make these conclusions without reason. Perception is hardly truth, and the public must be aware of the pitfalls and consequence of their limited interpretations.