Thursday, March 16, 2017

On Swan Songs


[One last attempt to properly capstone and wrap-up this silly ol' blog]

Amidst our current vinyl Renaissance, I've noticed that the one Beatles LP you are guaranteed to find in every surviving record shop, in every book-store music section, and on the shelf of every hipster, collector, nostalgist and enthusiast, is Abbey Road.  Where once upon a time Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Rubber Soul, and/or the White Album garnered the lion's share of the attention, now as the years turn to decades and the fame of the Beatles turns from legend to mythology and finally to historical obscurity, it is Abbey Road alone that has become the sine qua non of every record collection.  It appears that in our age of streaming and free downloads, if you are actually going to pay money for a Beatles album, Abbey Road is the one.  Everybody's one Jazz LP is John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and everybody's one Beatles LP is Abbey Road.

There are a number of reasons for that staying power: for starters, the songs have aged exceptionally well; it also feels custom-made for a record-player, what with how the driving groove of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" ends only when Side A runs out of space, and with how the "You Only Give Me Your Money" suite closes out Side B; the album is also undeniable cool--it's the supremely self-confident statement of a band at the height of its powers with nothing left to prove; perhaps most importantly, it's the all-too-rare sound of a great band choosing to end on its own terms, to definitively say "The End."

As any Beatles nerd can tell you, while Let It Be was their last album released, Abbey Road was their last album recorded.  The Beatles had shelved the Let It Be sessions as the band tore apart at the seams; John and Pauls' massive egos were pushing each other apart, George was sick and tired of only getting 2 songs per album, and Ringo even briefly quit during the White Album sessions amidst the endless verbal abuse from John (who nowadays is less the martyr and more the wife-beating villain in Beatles lore, though Paul weren't no saint, either).  Yet though the writing was on the wall, the Beatles also knew that the sloppy and unpolished Let It Be was not how they wanted to go out, nor how they wanted to be everlastingly remembered!  Knowing this to be the last breath of the Beatles, these four egomaniacs, against all odds, put aside their differences, rallied together one last time and went out on top!

While nothing lyrically gives away Abbey Road as a swan song, it nevertheless just feels like a grand finale.  I still have clear memories of the afternoon of my High School graduation, decked out in my robes and an ever-uncertain future, putting on my Mom's ancient copy of Abbey Road on a record-player older than me, and listening along with all the swelling passion of my soul like only an 18-year-old can--it was the end of my public education, of my childhood, of my youth, everything was ending, and only Abbey Road seemed to understand.

Now, part of every young man's personal growth is to realize that there are other bands than the Beatles; and throughout college, grad school, and adulthood generally, I've had the privilege of hearing a grand diversity of artists who have moved my soul.  But here's what I've only lately come to understand--so few of them ever got to end on their own terms, to self-consciously produce their swan song!  If acrimony tears apart the band (e.g. The Smiths, The Talking Heads, Dead Kennedys, Oasis, Guns 'n Roses, Rage Against the Machine, etc), they tend to never rally one last time a la the Beatles, to produce a final, definitive statement.  Or if they get along great, they tend to keep producing albums weeellll past their relevancy (e.g. The Rolling Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, REM, etc), severely blunting the impact of whatever their final album turns out to be.  If sudden death disrupts the band (e.g. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Prince, Nirvana, etc), they rarely if ever realize that their last album was in fact their last album.  So few acts ever actually produce a genuine Swan Song!

This point was really driven home for me in 2016, when, 47 years after the release of Abbey Road, we finally got not one, but two bona fide Swan Songs worthy of the name.  They even bookended the year: David Bowie's Blackstar came out in early January, just a scarce a few days before his death of cancer, while Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker came out in October, just a month before his own passing.

What sets apart these two albums is that 1) both artists knew the end was nigh and that this would likely be their last dance, and 2) both artists had actually pulled off the rare feet of returning to relevancy in their twilight years.  David Bowie had tapered off recording new material with the new millennium, dropping off the musical radar after 2002...until 2013's The Next Day welcomed him back to the scene with surprising enthusiasm.  He discovered that the queer kids considered him a godfather of sorts, the art kids a progenitor, the hip kids a living legend.  When Blackstar debuted less than 3 years later, fans were excitedly talking about what a bold new direction this was for him, what a delightful new reinvention in a career replete with them--that is, the discussion was not on his past glories, but of what he was still going to do next!  Despite the endless references to death, heaven, resurrection, and saying goodbye that permeate the album, his impending mortality was the last thing on anyone's mind.  To the very end, Bowie got to control the narrative, to define himself, to go out on his own terms.

Cohen, likewise, had basically taken the '90s off after a couple decades of critical and commercial success.  He returned to touring, in fact, only because his manager (who was apparently a jilted lover, in classic Cohen fashion) embezzled millions of his dollars, and so he needed to recoup his retirement fund.  But he didn't just do a simple cash-in tour, but by all accounts created a religious experience for all present.  He, too, had achieved living legend status.  As You Want It Darker prepped for release, Cohen said in a NYT interview that he was "ready to die."  The title track's mix of Jewish funeral calls and chorus of "I'm ready, my Lord," affirmed the inevitable.  If he was going out, he was going to go out deliberately, in his own way.

So few other acts get to do that.  One of the only other example I've been able to find so far is Fugazi, who, as they pulled apart in different creative directions, made sure that 2001's The Argument finished off the band as principled and uncompromising as they started.  The band had accomplished all it had set out to accomplish, and no mere commercial considerations was going to artificially (and monstrously) lengthen its life.  Frontman Ian MacKaye, speaking of his own Dischord Records--the indie label that had kept the faith even when they had multi-million dollar offers from the majors-- has described Dischord as a "living thing," and therefore will die one day, like it should.  Fugazi, likewise, completed its natural lifespan, and there is something paradoxically life-affirming about that attitude.  "Have you made your peace with God?" someone asked Thoreau on his deathbed; "I hadn't realized we had quarreled," he replied, and Fugazi could have responded the same.

I guess I've just become slightly obsessed, lately, with how an artist chooses to end.  It just feels more organic, more honest, more alive, to always keep foregrounded in one's own mind how it all ends.  There's something liberating about knowing that you're going to end, when you're going to end, in choosing to end, deliberately, on your own terms, to say "I'm ready, my Lord"--to affirm that "Here comes the argument"--to declare "I'm a Blackstar"--to say "In the end, the love you take/is equal to the love you make"--not as a platitude, but a warning.

Ending is how you lay aside the things of this life to pursue those of a better.  It's how you move on, progress, grow.  It's how I end this silly little blog, once and for all.

Monday, February 20, 2017

On Cuban Currency

We briefly interrupt the silence of this retired blog to bring a public service announcement to any and all stray googlers prepping a trip to Cuba.

There are two national currencies in Cuba (I learned this the hard way): The CUC (Cuban Convertible) and the CUP (Cuban Peso), also known as MN (Moneda Nacional).  Now pay attention.

The CUC is pegged to the dollar; that is, 1 CUC is equal to 1 USD.  The CUP, however, divides into the CUC by 24.  That is, 24 CUP make up 1 CUC.  Are you with me so far?

Say something costs $15 CUP; you can hand the vendor 1 CUC, and get 9 CUP back as change.  The CUC can be converted into Pesos; hence the name "Convertible."  Still with me?

It gets tricky, because both use the dollar sign - $ - so you have to look to make sure the price lists either CUC or CUP (and/or MN) next to it.  Otherwise you can be taken advantage of, as I was, when I went to a little hole-in-the-wall place in the touristy areas of Old Havana.  I ordered a plate of rice and beans and beef, but was scratching my head when the price was listed as $30.  It was my first day, and not sure what else to do, I handed $30 CUC to the cashier.  Without a second look or a second thought, she took it and sent my order to the kitchen.

Needless to say, accustomed as I was to favorable exchange rates in Latin America, I was suddenly very worried about how the heck I was going to afford to eat in this country (for that matter, I worried how the heck anybody affords to eat in this country)!  Moreover, U.S. credit cards and debit cards do not work in Cuba, so all I had was the cash I had on me--and the Havana currency exchange had already taken their standard 13% off the top, so I didn't have as much as I thought I would have to begin with.  I was suddenly looking forward to a very belt-tightening few days.

I considered just eating once a day, but late that evening, my hunger-pains got the best of me, so I ventured out to a pizza take-out place I spied near my Airbnb (cause those exist now in Cuba, apparently).  I was staying in a much poorer part of the city, so they were arguably all the more incentivized to just take my clearly-tourist money and I would've been none the wiser.  But they didn't.  They were good, honest people.  I meekly offered my $15CUC to the cashier and he immediately rolled his eyed and, with a guffaw, asked if I spoke English.  That's when he explained to me the difference between CUC and CUP/MN.  I am deeply grateful to that man.

CUC is typically used for taxis, hotels, and fine sit-down restaurants; CUP is for local goods and services.  The museums will charge, say, $8 of everyone, but it will be 8 CUC of foreigners, and 8 CUP of locals, in order to keep the museums affordable to Cuban nationals.  The CUC was first introduced in 2003 in order to try and prevent the US dollar from infiltrating the local economy too deeply as it had after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I just want to save you from making a $30 mistake like I made.  Whatever you buy in Cuba, make sure you first ask if it's in CUC (typically pronounced "coo") or in CUP (typically referred to as either "peso cubano" or "MN").  Good luck, and have fun!

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Adjunct in the Latter Days

This is not a revival of normal communications; on the contrary, this might just be the capstone.

Three-odd years ago, as I left SLCC to return to grad school at Iowa, I wrote a brief blog-post intended to encapsulate the experience of being a community college adjunct (a job I began the same year I began this blog).  This last Fall, SLCC put out a call for submissions for their inaugural community anthology, so I submitted it, feeling that if it belonged anywhere, it was with the place that produced it.  Matter-of-factly, they accepted it.

The anthology in question was formally released last night, and I've scanned a pdf of it here.  The reason it feels like a capstone is because I taught my final class at SLCC just last month; after 3 years in Iowa, I briefly resumed adjuncting at SLCC in July after I moved back out west to get married.  I'm now at UVU while I finish my dissertation.  As such, there's been this feeling of closing a circuit, a full revolution, a completion and valediction, in having this brief summation of my time at SLCC published by SLCC after I finally finish with SLCC.

Yet at the same time, the circumstances and conditions that produced that entire SLCC student body have neither diminished nor disappeared; if anything, recent events have only amplified them.  Cliché though it may be to say, I leave SLCC but SLCC does not leave me: and if ever you wonder why I feel so passionately about immigration, refugees, sexual assault, health-care reform, poverty-alleviation, criminal-reform, or even just the dire importance for basic human decency and empathy (especially in light of the first acts of the new administration), know then, just how deeply my community college students have marked me, and who I feel I am fighting for.

Once more for the road: "The Adjunct in the Latter Days"

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On the Evolution of Teaching Letter From a Birmingham Jail

When I first started teaching college composition 6 Autumns ago, I threw Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" onto the syllabus mainly because it was a famous essay and I was a last-minute hire still trying desperately to flesh out a course plan.  In my painful naivety, I taught "Letter" like a historical artifact, a relic from some bygone and incomprehensible era--fantastically well-written of course and well worth modeling, but fundamentally dated.  The students responded well to it so it stayed on my syllabus; nevertheless I still felt slightly guilty, that I hadn't assigned a selection that was more contemporary, more "relevant."

But then Trayvon Martin happened, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and the Ferguson riots and the Baltimore riots and etc and etc and etc, and it became sadly clear to me that there was nothing dated about MLK's message at all, that for all our lip-service to his memory, his fundamental message is still as urgent as ever.

Then Election 2016 happened.  Now "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" is my manifesto.

Early in this essay, he writes, "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action."  I am now entering my self-purification step, as I prepare myself for what will come next, examining my motivations, removing my fear and anger, considering what my responses should be, strengthening my commitment, contemplating how I can do the most effective good. Self-purification is no longer something that once happened, but must still happen.

Teaching this essay, I had often praised to my students how MLK, despite having every reason and justification to lash out viciously at his critics while he sat in jail on trumped-up charges, nevertheless still engaged with them respectfully, kindly, friendly, in love and charity and brotherhood, all the while still remaining uncompromising, unyielding, and outspoken in his convictions--he sincerely sought to persuade, not just shout.  I will now be meditating on how to consistently perform such a feat myself.  Following the admonition of Christ, I must always love my enemies, no matter how vociferously I disagree with them, no matter how many people they hurt, including me.

I will not condemn protests but consider their causes; forswear the path of the "white-moderate" more committed to peace than justice; become an extremist for love and not hate in the face of a resurgent White Supremacy (yes, they had always been there, I know; in a perverse sense, it's almost a relief to have them back out in the open, where we can see them). 

It used to be a sterile intellectual exercise for me to wonder whether I would have supported the Civil Rights movement had I been alive in the '50s and '60s--of course I hoped I would have been, but one can never be certain, what one would have been like, how one would have been raised.  But we no longer need to wonder now, do we; in fact, as protests and KKK parades sweep the nation, we can prove with whom we stand right now.  I will forthwith be teaching "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" accordingly.

I started teaching college composition the same year I started this silly little blog; I may take a break from writing here awhile--or, I may need to express myself here more than ever, who knows, I haven't decided yet, I've never decided yet.  But either way, whether this is a final sign-off or but a brief pause, in the words of Dr. King:

"Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

"Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Modernism and Fascism

A hundred years ago, amidst global depressions and failing democracies and rising xenophobia and racism, populaces across the Western world turned towards strong-man demagogues, to stick it to all those dithering, do-nothing congresses and parliaments and cut through all the red-tape and stand up for the working man and the church and to drive out all the immigrants and shout out grandiose promises to make their respective countries great again.  This especially occurred in Germany, Italy, and Spain.  The Anglo world was not immune either; Charles Lindbergh became an infamous Nazi booster, and many of the most respected poets of the era--including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot, and WB Yeats--openly sympathized with fascism as well.  This is the era I study, this is the period I am most familiar with, this is the epoch we are repeating.  A century later and we're right back where we started.  Joyce and Yeats considered history to be cyclical, not linear--they were correct.

Marx was right, history repeats itself, first time in earnest, second time as farce.  What a disgrace.

The irony is, I was actually trying to empathize with Trump supporters for a while there, see where they're coming from, understand the working class angst that fuels their unfocused rage. That has officially evaporated. If you voted for Trump, then as far as I'm concerned, you voted for the KKK, for Russian collusion, for an open admirer of Kim Jong On, Vladimir Putin, Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, for mass deportations, for rape, and against Latinos, refugees, immigrants, black people, gay people, muslims, women, all minorities. If you don't like "Political Correctness," if you prefer to "call a spade a spade," very well, let's start with you: you voted for bigotry and fascism. Guess what that makes you.

Malcolm X once said he preferred dealing with blood-thirsty wolves to smooth-talking foxes, because you always know where you stand with the wolf. There are no more foxes, are there. Just wolves. It's perversely clarifying.  You know, I had actually been actively resisting radicalizing myself.   That may no longer be possible. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Last Time the Cubs Won the World Series...

I of course can only put it in temporal terms that would most resonate with me personally:

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, TS Eliot was still at Harvard, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock not even a twinkle in his eye--and it would be far longer before the Cubs would again dare disturb the Universe.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ernest Hemingway was 9--the Sun would not Also Rise over the Cubs for another century.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ezra Pound still hadn't arrived in London, let alone turn to fascism (a word that didn't exist yet)--there were still no apparitions of these faces in a crowd, Petals on a wet, black bough.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Gertrude Stein had yet to self-publish Three Lives--A Rose was not yet a Rose was not yet a Rose was not yet a (Pete) Rose.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Virginia Woolf hadn't even started work on her first novel yet--for that matter, she still couldn't vote or legally inherit property, rights she would obtain before the Cubs saw another pennant. 

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and writing new Sherlock Holmes stories--he would solve more mysteries in the 20th century than the Cubs would win series.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Marcel Proust had not started In Search of Lost Time--For a long time he still went to bed early, as did the Cubs' repeated playoff's hopes.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Picasso was only barely past his Blue period--though the Cubs, unbeknownst to them, had only begun theirs.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Bloomsday was just another forgotten Thursday--History was not yet a nightmare from which the Cubs were trying to awake.

The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Ireland was still entirely part of the UK, William Butler Yeats had no notion of one day memorializing the Easter Rising, James Joyce had only just barely ditched work on Stephen Hero for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and George Bernard Shaw had yet to write Pygmalion, the precursor to My Fair Lady--Ireland made more progress in 107 years than did the Cubs.

That is, the last time the Cubs won the World Series, the term "Modernist" did not yet exist, nor did any of the texts it would eventually get applied to.

In short, the last time the Cubs won the World Series, my entire dissertation topic didn't even exist yet!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On "Checking In" at Standing Rock

So early yesterday morning, I opened up Facebook to see that one of my friends had checked in at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota!  Not only one, but several!  In fact, the list kept on growing!  At first it appeared that a bunch of my old classmates at University of Iowa had taken a road trip together, but then I saw folks checking in from Chicago, Seattle, and even L.A.!  Overwhelmed, I considered how the most I had done so far is donate a few bucks to their legal defense fund, while these courageous souls had actually put their own physical bodies in harm's way

Except no, none of them were physically at Standing Rock at all, they had only "checked in".  Some sort of social media awareness campaign/solidarity strategy against the local Sheriff's office (though why the Sheriff would need to comb through FB check-ins to find all the protestors they had just arrested—or why protestors risking their lives would check into FB in the first place—I confess is beyond me).  And who knows, maybe it actually worked, or was at least useful in raising awareness and putting pressure upon the powerful or what have you.

But you'll understand if I still felt a little deflated. Facebook activism is to real activism what Facebook life is to real life.