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it's your party


(Cross-posted from H+M.)

I love being in DC for the World Cup. It's probably because of all the international organizations that are based here, but my fellow citizens are approximately 1000x more excited about this event than people anywhere else I've ever lived.* And even though I'm not much of an athlete, or even much of a sports fan, I dig it; I think it's the global nature of the event, the fact that fans are sort of required to know about things that are happening in Croatia or Ghana, even if they're only related to soccer. And in a way, it feels more globalized even than the Olympics - maybe because there's only one sport, so the country-level fandoms are way more focused and intense (as opposed to the Olympics, where there are so many sports and affiliated politics that it's easy to lose track).

I'm also really interested in sports and global integration from another angle - the idea of one sports team as a unifier of diverse fans. Which brings me to the point of this post: a fascinating article by Sam Knight in Grantland that explores whether or not the diversity of the Belgian national team is leading to greater "Belgitude" - an attitude roughly analogous to national pride, with a dose of "I guess this country shouldn't split up after all" in the mix.  The idea is that, while many Belgians are permanently annoyed that they live in the kind of country that can go for multiple years without a government, the diversity of younger generations has led them to appreciate Belgium for what it is: a weird place, but not necessarily a bad one. For example:

...(T)he article also put forward the idea that the country’s newest citizens might be the first to truly accept Belgium on its own eccentric terms. Leman believes that theory has come true. “How to explain?” he said. “Our national discussions are internal discussions, and very domestic, and these guys coming from outside look at Belgium and they say, ‘Why destroy this country? With its nice system?’”**

As a person who has seen the Mighty Ducks movies,*** I know the trope of sports as common ground is a bit simplistic, but I also think there's something to it - maybe because it's simplistic, actually. Sports fandom is a little bit primal; as much as we might like to imagine that it comes from our head, I think it's probably based in the heart and the gut. Which means that even though there are a million political and economic differences that a sports team will never bridge, that instinctive aspect of being a fan lets us circumvent all of that and, for a moment, find common ground with someone else. It's not everything, but it's also not nothing.

And what's even more interesting about cases like the Belgian team is that, if this analysis holds up, they're actually taking the idea of sports-based unity to the next level by not only bringing people together, but by creating a new reality in order to do so. (Granted, that reality can best be summed up as "This isn't so bad," but again, you've got to start somewhere.) I'll be interested to see if it holds up, and to consider the implications of this narrative creation for the future - after all, as divided states go, Belgium is probably among the tamer examples.

Also, I am kind of obsessed with Stromae and his video about the Red Devils' official song, "Ta Fête" ("Your Party").

*With the possible exception of South Korea, but everyone there would have been cheering for one team.

**A sentiment that reminds me of Tina Fey's turn as Blerta, the Albanian addition to Girls. ("I have roof over head. For this, I thank God.")




hands up to the light

Two things, for the eve of Memorial Day:

1) One of my favorite essays about memory and loss - I think I've posted it pretty much every year.

I go because I believe that no matter where you came from or what you believed in, when you die, you want flowers on your grave and people who visit you and remember you that way.

I’m not any kind of traitor or any kind of hero. I am the sister of Rogelio Bautista, and I say his name so you will hear it and be one more person that remembers him.

2) Another favorite: a song about fighting the good fight. 

We have the right to insist to be free and brave/

If that should cease to exist, I'll throw my heart away



I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.



(don't you know that it's) Christmas time again

There were three things I wanted to do in Los Cabos last week, when I was on vacation with my family. One was lay out next to the water, drinking a margarita and watching the ocean crash against the cliffs. The second was assist in a sea turtle rescue. (We were too late in the season.) The third was to visit Cacti Mundo.

Cacti Mundo is a botanical garden that, as one might guess, is devoted to members of the family Cactaceae. According to its website, it is a "magical oasis for cacti aficionados," one that "shimmers with a tropical aura of ecological majesty." Indeed, it is "as if all the greatest cacti species on the surface of the earth were gloriously imprisoned and given new life and freedom." (The cacti presumably do not mind their imprisonment.) 

We didn't make it to this magical oasis, unfortunately, but I still want to see it. Am I interested in the cacti? Empirically, yes. They have a magnificent self-defense system and can be eaten in a hundred different ways. (Although I still don't want one on my desk.) What I also want, though, is to meet the people so committed to these succulents that they refer to their garden as a "shining beacon of beauty."

I am telling you this to explain some things about the birth of Jesus, and why one of my favorite holiday songs of all time is Extreme's "Christmas Time Again."

When I think about Extreme, I think about my uncle, my father's youngest brother, who lived with us for a while when I was four or five. He was packed off to live with us by a family friend, Aunt (dì/chị) Phu, who wanted my father to make sure that his sibling stayed out of trouble and went to class. 

My uncle was probably in his late teens or early twenties when he lived with us, and in my memory, his aesthetic then was straight out of Wayne's World. I think he had a spiky mullet thing, and I'm pretty sure he wore shirts with the sleeves torn off. He smoked. I have a fairly vivid memory of some argument about beer cans, mostly because "my five year old daughter" (me!) was mentioned. In short, he was living with us for a reason.

I have no idea if my uncle was a fan of Extreme or not, but regardless, I think he fit the profile of their main fanbase. This is a band that titled its second album Extreme II: Pornograffiti. (It's even better when you say it out loud.) This is a band whose average hair length was six inches past the shoulder. It's a band that CALLED ITSELF EXTREME.*

It's also a band that, if their one holiday song is to be believed, feels really strongly about the meaning of Christmas.

Note the open shirts.

Note the open shirts.

"Christmas Time Again" is a song that can only be found on one of my very favorite Christmas albums, 1992's A Very Special Christmas 2I like it, first of all, because I think it's gorgeous - it starts off with this epic synthesizer/pipe organ thing, cuts away to a melancholy piano backing that somehow manages to be in a major key, and goes back to a chorus with a cappella-style harmonies. It also features the vocal stylings of (I think) Nuno Bettencourt, who a) has an amazing name and b) was kind of a fox back in the band's heyday.

But I also like it because of its unabashed, balls-to-the-wall commitment to the Christmas spirit. Nuno (or maybe it's Gary Cherone, I can't be sure) starts off by bemoaning the transience of those holiday warm fuzzies:

Christmas always goes too fast
It's up to us to make it last
And all I want for Christmas is love

Come that morning and I see you smile
It only lasts a little while
How come we seem to push it all aside?

As if to reinforce his point, the entire band joins in for the refrain: "Don't you know that it's Christmas time again?" Come on. How can you be the kind of person who abandons your festive cheer on the 26th? Don't you know that we're talking about CHRISTMAS? (To further support the idea and also engage the audience, the chorus contains handclaps.)

It only gets more intense from there. Because our narrator feels that this needs to happen sooner rather than later, and that someone has to step up, he offers to make a few modifications for us.

It's times like these we need a change 
A calendar to rearrange 
I'll make sure it'll last all year 

That's right. This man is so committed to retaining the Yuletide feeling that he offers to rearrange the way we perceive time.

This is a song that is both completely a product of its era (an era that included hair metal) and completely, utterly sincere. These are tough men, men whose band logo appeared to be hewn by a seventh grader with a pocketknife. They are men whose jeans are torn. And when it comes to the question of brotherly love, they will smash a guitar over your head if that's what it takes to convince you.

Hannibal Buress (again!) has a joke about how people will say that something is upsetting on "so many levels." He claims that this is overused, and to prove his point cites a bunch of different potential levels ("metaphysical level, eye level, Level Three, sea level"). 

I hate to say this, Hannibal, but there are different levels at which I like things, and they're all valid. (And none of them are sea level.) For example: I can like something for what it is. I like learning about cacti, and I like the idea of helping out with some sea turtles. I like this song because it's pretty and fun to sing. Those of us who celebrate Christmas from a religious perspective like it because it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, who, as the Son of God and an all-around good guy, is fairly important to the faith.

Another way to like things is related to the common ground that comes with unexpected sincerity. I like this song, for example, because although I am a girl who wears tortoiseshell glasses and is an unabashed fan of The Mindy Project, I too feel strongly about the Christmas spirit, which gives me something to share with these men with denim vests. There's a specific type of delight that comes with finding an unexpected side to someone or something - the poetry- or pastry-loving bully, the tough grandmother. The holy boy, born in a barn. It's a reminder that we're not as different from each other as we might believe.** 

And, finally, there's something to be said for open effort. Most people probably do not like cacti. They're not exactly lovable, and they're associated with the kind of environment that kills a man in three days or less. But the people at Cacti Mundo not only love these plants, they proclaim their greatness to a degree that borders on absurd. Extreme doesn't just believe in loving one's fellow man at Christmastime; they created an arena rock chorus about it. In the Bible, God didn't just talk about his love for humanity; he came up with a plan that, on its face, sounds a little bizarre - impregnate a sinless virgin with a Messiah, have him start out as a borderline refugee, and give him roughly thirty years to get people on board with the idea of loving each other before setting him up for an inevitable death. Oh, and have him convince everyone of his divinity by having him come back from the dead, which was probably not at all creepy to the average Elihu or Hepzibah at the time. When we see others who are unafraid to commit to something we find strange, it's admirable, and a useful reminder that we may not know as much as we think. It keeps us humble.


*Apparently the name actually comes from the fact that two of the members were in a band called Dream, and "Extreme" comes from "Ex-Dream." This is ridiculous enough that I'll still give them credit.

**Another excellent example of this is Bob Seger's cover of "The Little Drummer Boy," which adds new meaning to the verses "I played my drums for him/I played my best for him." It accomplishes the feat of adding both softness to the idea of the Silver Bullet Band and a certain layer of grit to the Nativity. Joseph was blue-collar. Why wouldn't he have liked classic rock?



this song of freedom

We have a rule at the Museum that if a kid digs up a treasure from the Treasure Chest, he or she has to a) sing a song, b) tell a joke, or c) draw a picture. Earlier today, two fifth-grade regulars performed an off-key rendition of "Danny Boy" for me and my friend Maria, and I certainly thought that was going to be the musical highlight of the afternoon. A few minutes ago, however, two small hapa children, one of whom was wearing a shirt that said "I Like Trucks," sang Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Including the verses. I am pretty sure that their performance represents at least one version of the American Dream.

I've been sick for most of the past week, a state that is doubly unfortunate given the near-constant renovations occurring in my apartment building. Because I couldn't leave, and because I also couldn't deal with the nonstop jackhammering, the only thing I've been able to do is lay on the couch and try to drown out the noise with Netflix. I've gotten through two and a half seasons of Parks and Recreation in the past four days, and I'm very proud of Leslie Knope for having been elected to Pawnee City Council. (Incidentally, the show's treatment of small-town life and/or strong women probably merits a separate post. When I am feeling better.) 

Hence, more or less, the absence of posts. But I think I've also been holding back a bit because of perfectionism, which is an issue that takes on unique dimensions in This Internet Age. On the one hand, the fact that a lot of the gatekeepers of content have fallen is incredibly liberating and democratizing - here I am, writing something you can read, and I didn't have to pitch it to anyone. Voices: diversified! But on the other, there are some things that require time to write about, that require reflection, that require patience. Which means that if you have something to say, but you take too long to say it, it's entirely possible that you'll miss the chance to join the conversation.

So I'm going to try to perfect less here and write more, with the knowledge that this is essentially my (open) sketchbook, on development and communications and health and culture and race. After all, the toddlers I heard this afternoon weren't exactly on key. But their performance had other merits. And I still wanted to hear them.



what we talk about when we talk about music

My brother is seven years younger than me, and he and I both have a soft spot for the millennial bard of angst known as Dashboard Confessional. I think it's because, as with a lot of music, we both associate it with a certain period of time in our lives. What's interesting, however, is that despite the fact that the band looks like it was specifically created for juniors in high school,* we associate it with roughly the same calendar period.** When I hear Chris Carrabba sing "As for now I'm gonna hear the saddest songs/And sit alone and wonder/How you're making out," it reminds me of being seventeen in a way that's hard to match. This is the same music that reminds Tyler of being ten.

I was thinking about The Dash, and this idea of contextual nostalgia, as I was reading Steven Hyden's wonderful Grantland article on why we don't remember the Counting Crows in the same way we remember Nirvana. He makes a strong case that our memories of things like music often have less to do with merit and more to do with the stories we tell about ourselves, and it's worth a read for that aspect alone. The article also discusses the Counting Crows in a favorable light, which is cool, because it's basically a justification of my taste in high school, so there's a second reason to read it.

But there's another idea in the article that I think deserves more exploration. Towards the end, he talks about the songs "All Apologies" (Nirvana) and "Anna Begins" (Counting Crows), and how each is an example of a different type of sad song. Before we go any further, let me take a minute to say that "Anna Begins" is both great and incredibly underrated; it captures a very weird and specific life event that is nonetheless relatable, it has interesting chord jumps and an unconventional structure and a syncopated shuffly thing going on, it starts with a BANJO. It's been one of my favorite songs since the days of Napster, and it does not deserve to be written off simply because it's sung by Adam Duritz and contains the line "Her kindness bangs a gong." 

Anyway. So Hyden makes the case that "All Apologies" is a tangentially sad song, because it's not actually sad but is associated with tragedy, and "Anna Begins" is a realistically sad song, because it is actually sad and deals with real stuff.


The Hyden theory of Sad Songs.

The Hyden theory of Sad Songs.

This is useful, but I don't think it goes far enough. Within the world of songs that are Actually Sad, there's another distinction that needs to be made: romantically sad songs versus those realistically sad songs. And, depending on who you are and where you are when you hear them, some songs have the potential to be both.

The Eason theory of sad songs.

The Eason theory of sad songs.

A romantically sad song implies that something good was associated with the sadness; it's almost aspirational. "Last Kiss" and "My Heart Will Go On" are romantically sad songs. A realistically sad song, on the other hand, will (as Hyden puts it) "make (you) cringe a bit." It's a song you can probably relate to, and not in a fun way. The Mountain Goats' "The Mess Inside" is a realistically sad song. "Mr. Bojangles" is also a realistically sad song. The average listener might hear "Last Kiss" and imagine that they'd like to have a love that extends past death. No one ever listens to "Mr. Bojangles" and thinks, "I wish I could be THAT guy." 

And, of course, there are the songs that fall in the middle. Bush's "Glycerine" is dreamy for a sixteen-year-old; there's intensity! conflict! Because the love is so strong, but so is the pain! It represents the kind of life experience that a high school student might crave: mistakes, but mistakes as a result of love and freedom and self-actualization. The same listener, at the age of thirty-two and with more life experience, might focus more on the lines "Could've been easier on you/I couldn't change though I wanted to." Not being able to change, when you're old enough to want a more straightforward happiness: that's not fun anymore. 

"Anna Begins," which is a song about a complicated friends-with-benefits situation, falls squarely into this category. There's ambiguity and the possibility of love and a few really lovely descriptions of two people being together: 

She's talking in her sleep/It's keeping me awake/And Anna begins to toss and turn/And every word is nonsense but I understand...

Once you've learned how this kind of fatigue feels, though, it's different. I think Hyden says it best here: "The song is so direct and plainspoken that it hardly seems like art; it just sounds like dialogue that's been transcribed from a million arguments between emotionally exhausted parties."*** It's beautiful, maybe, but it's not romantic, not exactly.

Which brings us back to Dashboard Confessional. I hear those songs differently now, and I would imagine that Tyler does too (at least, I hope so). I still remember what it was like to listen to The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most in my car, at night, on the way back from my job at the Mall St. Matthews, and when I hear it now those memories form a translucent layer over the experience. But I also hear it as it is, which is painful and uncomfortable and a little bit shouty. And I suppose that hearing both, and creating that narrative about myself, is what it means to grow up.


*My high school was not legitimately cool in any way (save for the NBA star who graced our halls), but it had a LOT of marching band kids who started bands with names like The Van Buren Boys.

**Tyler swears that I did not get him into Dashboard Confessional, but rather that he started listening to it after watching the show Scrubs. However, I remember playing it for him, and even if I didn't, there is literally no way he could have lived in the same house as me and avoided hearing it. Also, I am the one who introduced him to Scrubs, so it all comes back to me anyway. (Tyler, if you're reading this, I love you.)

***The lyrics to which he's referring are as follows:

It does not bother me to say this isn't love
Because if you don't want to talk about it then it isn't love
And I guess I'm going to have to live with that
But I'm sure there's something in a shade of gray
Or something in between
And I can always change my name if that's what you mean