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fashionably sensitive, but too cool to care

(Back, momentarily, from hiatus. How many half-finished draft posts lurk in my archives? YOU'LL NEVER KNOW.)

I just want to say how much I love this take on Lena Dunham and her book Not That Kind of Girl (which, full disclosure, I have not read, for reasons you will understand in a moment). 

Two aspects in particular that resonated with me:

1) The recognition, or lack thereof, of the need to hustle. Yes, if you know who Lena Dunham is, you also probably know that she comes from both wealth and education. But what Saraiya also points out is that the casual way her accomplishments are treated totally belie the actual truth, which is that no one could get this much done without both an insane work ethic and extra-strength ambition. (As Soraiya says: "Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of a woman who doesn’t seem to try very hard to be successful—when in fact, based on everything we know about the television and film industries, the opposite must be true.")

For me, this is an issue of privilege (I mean, what isn't), but it's also an issue of gender, part of the same dysfunctional mindset that lets assertive women be called abrasive and idealizes the "cool girl." When a woman's primary purpose is to be "nice" and "fun," striving doesn't really play into the equation. Because striving requires seriousness (boring), dedication (selfish), and - in particular - a willingness to acknowledge one's own desires, and therefore also a willingness to be vulnerable. And vulnerability, because it asks for support from others, is the least cool thing of all.

Let me be clear here: I have NO problem with the idea of being nice, or fun. In fact, I try to be both of those things - but on my own terms. The problem is that they are often presented as excluding all the stuff I just talked about, as opposed to being a behavioral option that can and should coexist with ambition.

2) Soraiya's discussion of the relationship the reader has with the text. Or, as she puts it:

"It is impossible to navigate Lena Dunham’s work without being forced to contend with her complicated, contradictory, difficult-to-reconcile self, and doing so forces readers to contend with themselves. Where does her ego stop and her work begin? Where does my ego stop and my critique begin? It’s hard to see Not That Kind Of Girl for just what it is, because it isn’t just anything—it’s a process of moving through my sense of self and her own, to reach an uneasy understanding."

So this is why I have not read her book. I watched some of Girls, and I liked it, but - predictably - I was also annoyed. Partly because I am not Lena Dunham, but would like to be that accomplished; partly because of my own experiences in communities devoid of privilege, which make me highly skeptical of its claims towards reality. (I love Friends, but maybe that's because no one ever described it as cinéma vérité.) 

Would I feel this way if there were more voices out there - more young women, with clear perspectives, being highlighted? I don't know. Maybe not. If we offered more pathways for this sort of thing, I might not feel like Lena has the only seat at the table, while the rest of us watch from the kitchen.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: most of this is not really Lena Dunham's fault. Honestly, if we met, I would probably like her. But so much of how I feel about her is related to the societal constructs we've built for women that I can't acknowledge her on her own terms. I mean, look at the title. Not That Kind of Girl? This is the question I'm left with: what kind of girl? When, I wonder, will we each get to be our own girl, imperfect but perfect exactly as we are?



ETA: I can't believe I had that lyric wrong. So embarrassed. 




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


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many gods

Well. Where was I?

First of all, boringly, I'm still sick - not as overtly anymore, but enough that I take a lot of naps and still wake up feeling bushed. My failure to recover completely probably has something to do with the fact that, in addition to my freelance work, I've also started working part time at a charter school near my house. Miss Eason's immune system used to be made of Teflon, but apparently times have changed, although children have not.

Nonetheless, a few notes and recommendations.

  • My general concern about sites like A Mighty Girl is that they will a) take themselves too seriously, b) ultimately contain nothing but girl power slogans without substance, or c) preach to the choir. I think what alleviated my fears with this particular site was seeing its book collection, which is FILLED with my childhood favorites (Dicey's Song! The BFG! Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, otherwise known as the most underrated Judy Blume book of all time!). These are not stories written expressly to empower girls; they are written as though the starring role of interesting and smart and imperfect young women is totally normal. Because it is, in real life. That seems to be the site's overall perspective. And I like it.
  • "No one believes that O Brother, Where Art Thou taught you five valuable lessons about engineering": the Awl on what you should *not* write about on Medium. (Or a variety of other platforms, for that matter.)
  • And, despite what I just wrote, a rather interesting article on employment, one that happens to be hosted on the Medium platform. I like what he says w/r/t understanding how to make yourself useful for employers, particularly after some of the Billfold interviews I've conducted. The article itself also lacks the sense of self-aggrandizement that I've come to expect from pieces on this topic, which is refreshing. 

And there's one more thing I'd like to recommend, but it requires a bit more explanation. I've learned a lot over the course of a week and a half with sixth graders, including: why eleven-year-olds think Hinduism is a good religion (no need to limit yourself to just one god, if you were wondering); which historical sites and events are featured in Assassin's Creed;* and new insights into male youth hairstyles (cuts like the fade - and, dare I say it, even the flat-top - appear to be making a comeback). I've gotten to see an entire class, in response to one student's answer of "I don't know," yell "YET!" in unison. I'm not going to front, I've even gotten some hugs.

HOWEVER, the greatest thing by far that I've seen is this video that my friend Clark showed to her ELA class. It's an excerpt from a hip hop song cycle by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer of In the Heights. That song cycle is called The Hamilton Mixtape. As in Alexander Hamilton.

I love this because it circles back to the core beliefs I hold for all of my work, namely that you have to go to people (audiences, children) where they are, and that well-crafted communications allow us to find the elements of an idea that resonate with others. I know everyone's laughing here at the idea that A. Ham is hip hop, but you can see how seriously Miranda is taking this, and he should: nothing he's saying is wrong, and he's exploring this personality in a way that helps us gain a new perspective on the man. Whether you're on a stage or in a classroom or designing a user-centered, mass-market health education program for a country with high morbidity indicators, isn't that what we all want to do?


*I have mixed feelings about this.

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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.


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what it means to be 25 today

Since this sort of goes with my recent writing, I'm going to republish an essay I wrote last year about being a Young Person Trying To Make It that serves as a sort of precursor to that work. (Full disclosure: I'm not 26 anymore.) It was on my old site, the one that was hacked, so longtime readers should recognize it.

Don’t Call Me A Millennial. My Name is Hillary.


I think about the South on some days more than others. There are a million ways to forget it in this city, the District of Columbia, which isn’t even really a city at all compared to New York or London or Beijing but is, for our purposes, an urban hub: I can take public transit to a pupuseria or a pub, go to a poetry reading and not see the same people I saw last time, chat with the security guard who mans the entrance to my building. None of these things were even in the vocabulary of my childhood self, for whom a visit to the Chinese grocery store was a semiannual treat that required an hour-long drive to Tampa. But sometimes I’ll take the train out to Virginia, or ride my bike past Meridian Hill Park, a flash of green bounded by cement, and be reminded of how far I am from where I used to be.

I’m a half-white, half-Asian girl who grew up in Florida, went to high school and college in Kentucky, moved out to DC, and worked with what the bourgeoisie of the city politely refer to as “disadvantaged children” before leaving for grad school and then coming back. Growing up, I was told sometimes that this clash of cultures and ethnicities would make me more beautiful and stronger, like two plants bred together: heterosis, or hybrid vigor. This didn't make it any less strange that my grandmother watched war documentaries and wept quietly into the sofa, or that I spent my Saturday mornings learning long division, or that no one in my family had an opinion about Florida versus Florida State football. 

Which is to say that I have a profound appreciation for the consequences of assuming that my experience is universal. This was developed through thousands of hours of having to explain Vietnamese food and why it smells like garlic and fish, reading books no one else in the class had time for, and realizing that none of my employees or coworkers understood or cared that I was too conservative for my ex-boyfriend, I hated my psychiatrist, and that my friends back home all thought I was uppity for living in a place where people infused their cocktails. And which is also to say that every time I read an article that purports to somehow describe or speak for “Millennials,” “Gen Y,” or “my generation,” I want to throw my computer out the window. 

But I don’t. I post angry Facebook comments, or badger my friends via Gchat into talking about it instead of filing expense reports, or go on extended, tipsy rants at bars I can afford, most of which do not infuse their cocktails with anything but grime. Because I am an upper-middle-class professional in a not-very-lucrative field living in a city, and this is our way. I’m not ashamed of it. But I embrace it knowing that this person I am is not the person I always was, and that it’s not who we all are, and that anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is a liar.


Joan Didion, in “Goodbye to All That,” says of New York that

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child…New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

Returning to the idea of our background influencing the signposts we embrace, I am a female English major from a liberal arts college who stays up on Saturday nights writing essays for fun, which makes Didion more or less my patron saint. (See also: Rachel Wetzsteon, Louise Gluck, Madeleine l'Engle.) But every time I ride the metro home from work and hear tourists loudly discussing how not to get robbed, I am reminded that there are many people for whom my everyday is foreign and a little scary. And as I write this, I am watching the mouse that apparently now lives in my apartment and remembering that sometimes I feel the same way.

When I was sixteen I lived in Louisville, and I attended a summer camp called Governor’s Scholars for which I was not really the target audience. The point of the program was to get smart kids from across Kentucky to a) keep on keepin’ on w/r/t education and employment and b) do so in the Bluegrass State. I was always going to leave eventually, and everybody knew it. But I had fun, and it was there that I first met people who thought that Louisville, despite its abundance of freeways and chain restaurants, wasn’t really “part” of the rest of the state, being too urban and separate: it was New York or California, and the remainder of Kentucky was the Real America. The girls on my dorm floor that summer referred to their hometowns by county, because it was assumed that those towns, unless they were one of maybe five or six known quantities (Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro, Bowling Green, Frankfort, Paducah), were too small for anyone to recognize. 

These girls were not stupid or naive. Many of them were, and are, smarter than me, they had more experience with boys and drugs, and we had the same taste and interests. But they also had different choices, and different options, than I did: sometimes their parents were professors and they wanted to go to Duke, and sometimes their boyfriend was 24 and living at home with his parents, working at the Valvoline. Later, when I was in college, I was the orientation assistant for a girl who had had to convince her friends of the relative merit of leaving for college instead of sticking around and getting a job. She told us the story of how she’d had to sell her friends on the idea of her leaving: “People who go to Centre," she said firmly, "don’t draw checks." What she meant, if you’ve never heard that phrase, is that our college was a good way to sidestep the prospect of being on welfare. Which was not a conversation it had ever occurred to me to have.

So I didn’t really fit in there, but when you live somewhere it becomes part of your fabric, whether or not you plan for it. When I moved to the city, at 23, neither I nor my parents knew a damn thing about grocery shopping without a car, or finding roommates who wouldn’t kill me in my sleep. I distinctly remember my family discussing this: “Yeah, she’s going to move in with people she doesn’t know that she found on the Internet. I guess it’s something you do? Yeah, I don’t get it either.” Because why would you move in with people when you could just get an apartment on your own? Because a one-bedroom apartment costs how much? Well, why would you move to a place like that in the first place? Don’t you like having money? (Yes. Yes, I do.)

And so what I’ve found myself doing, in grad school classes and at farmers’ markets and in long dinner-party discussions, is creating a sort of informal, downlow network of others who understand that our world is not the only one: people whose friends and high-school classmates stayed in the suburbs, work in human resources, got married right after college and own a two-bedroom house whose mortgage is roughly half of our monthly grocery bill. And who still like those friends and value them, despite the fact that they don’t know how to use Craigslist or follow the Malian elections. “Oh,” they’ll say, “you’re from Tennessee? I’m from Ohio,” and I can see a flash of recognition in their eyes that says, I went to public high school. And I know that as soon as someone else starts railing about the Rest of the Country and the doomed elections, or debating the relative merits of attending Princeton versus Columbia, there is a person nearby who understands.


The impetus of all this is an article I read in the Huffington Post (of course that’s where I read it), by a writer named Sarah Shanfield, called What It Means to be 25 Today.” You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah Shanfield lives in New York City, where she moved to make it, Mary Tyler Moore-style, after school. She’s trying to find her way as a young, professional woman whose options are very different from those her parents and grandparents faced. And the funny thing is that I completely identify with it; the things that she thinks and/or worries about - relationships, happy hours, whether or not she’ll ever be an adult - are the exact same things I think about all the time. But, for lack of a better description, it still makes me angry.

Poor Sarah Shanfield’s piece is just the latest iteration of a trend I like to call Hearing Youth Voices - the problem, of course, being that the people who have the access and resources to speak (present company included) tend to have more in common with each other than not, which creates this sort of Idea of Youth that’s too small to have any real utility. There’s a shorthand we use in talking about the children: we’re Connected, and use Social Media; we’re Tech Savvy; we Want to Make A Difference, unless we’re having trouble figuring out what our job should be, in which case we’re living in our parents’ basements in unprecedented numbers; we Travel More, Settle Down Later, and our parents probably told us We Were Special, which may or may not have had a detrimental effect. It’s an easy way for the adults of this world to quantify how a generation with access to a whole truckload of future alien technology is going to be different.

And when these words describe us, we play into it, adopting these identifiers as our own. This is a particular problem in DC, a city that is very fond of celebrating young people to watch, which has the effect of making the rest of us feel as though we’re doing something wrong. The day before I read the Shanfield article, I had had a long come-to-Jesus with the 23-year-old intern in my office, who is incredibly smart (and adorable to boot), on whyit’s okay that she doesn’t have everything figured out just yet. Then and later, I was reminded of a political magazine for which I used to edit, one that was ostensibly by and for the youth. Our founder spoke often on television and in the papers for the young people of America, despite the fact that he had gone to Andover and I went to a high school where the biggest scandal involved people attacking each other with pushpins. There wasn't much to his narrative, all things considered: he talked a lot about how we were more engaged than our predecessors, and how we used the Internet, and how youth as a voting bloc could not be ignored. None of it addressed, for example, the issue of youth who didn't care because their neighborhoods never, ever improved, regardless of who was in office. But his message was relatively inoffensive and easy to understand, and he was well-connected, and he gained traction. And it became clear very quickly that if you understood at all the story he was selling, it would be easy enough to find yourself in there, locate people who wanted to listen, and forget about the rest.

To understand the problem with assigning generational voices, let’s employ the strategy of Gamification, which is also something that is apparently popular among people of my age. (I freely admit that I cribbed this from people who are cooler and/or more famous than me.) Gamification in this context means making something a game in order to make it more usable and easier to understand, and since Shanfield's article is all about the goals you did or didn't achieve, this should set up a pretty straightforward analogy for us.

If you are my age, imagine you are in Blockbuster. If you are younger, imagine you are on Netflix, or at Best Buy, or something. If you've never had access to technology like that, forgive my imperialism, and I'll try to make this as clear as possible.

There’s a section in the video game area, next to first-person shooters and underneath MMORPGs, called Being 25 Simulators. These are platform games, where the ultimate objective is to get your protagonist from one end of the game to the other.

If we accept the idea that Sarah Shanfield’s piece is the universal depiction of being 25 today that its title suggests, we can assume that it’s maybe the only title on the shelf. “But wait!” you say. “Part of the point of that essay was that there are lots of different choices you can make, and that’s okay!” Bear with me here. 

When you turn on Shanfield's game, you see a map of different levels and worlds you can choose from, and presumably they'll all let you win somehow, despite what you may think about them needing to all be achieved or to go in a certain order. These levels include Staying With Your College Boyfriend (and also Leaving Your College Boyfriend) and Taking Yet Another Internship.  You pass through them successfully by doing whatever is in the title. Maybe you get bonus points when you open a savings account.


 But let’s say you live in Johnson City, Tennessee, where my parents live - a university town of 63,000 in the heart of Appalachia. In the Johnson City area, there are two rival high schools named Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. My sister's best friend's mother, Juanita, once refused to move to town on the grounds that it's "just too big." Johnson City has a mall, but it's not a very good one.

In that case, your game is probably different, and should also be on the shelf, in a different box. And a map of that game might look like this:

Johnson City.jpg

Or perhaps you live in Trinidad, in northeast DC, the last neighborhood I worked in before leaving to go back to school. Trinidad has made significant strides since 2008, when it was cordoned off by the police because of all the murders, and during my time there I grew very friendly with the uncles and aunts of my students, and with the guy at the liquor store who sold me VitaminWater and candy. But it's still the neighborhood where I brought a Dutch friend a month ago, and he looked around and said, with visible relish, "Ah! Now this looks like medium crime."

If you live in Trinidad, a lot of people outside of the neighborhood prefer to forget that your game exists. But that's a mistake, because not only does it exist, but its stakes are a good deal higher.


The point is that playing any of these games shouldn't be judged, per se, because you probably don't have a lot of say in the matter. But it would be pretty foolish of us to assume that there’s only one game, and if we did, we wouldn’t learn much about how games work. Or how we ultimately make it to that castle and save the princess.

Because that’s what we all want to do, in the end. Sarah Shanfield isn’t wrong in that people who are 25, or 26, or 27, do have something in common, regardless of where they are: we’re roughly a quarter of the way through our lives, and starting to feel like what happens from here on out is maybe a little bit more up to us than we realized. We start to get the idea, if we haven’t already, that we’re not the children we used to be, and suddenly we have to do something with that information. I’m going to pull another demographic-specific trope out here and quote Rilo Kiley, one of my favorite bands when I was in college:

I've felt the wind on my cheek
Coming down from the east
And thought about how we are all
As numerous as leaves on trees
And maybe ours is the cause of all mankind
Get loved, make more
Try to stay alive

“Well, we obviously know that we’re not the only ones living this life,” someone’s probably huffing somewhere. Of course you do. But there’s a difference between knowing it and saying it. And in a world where the show Girls is described as depicting “true-to-life Gen Y losers” and Lena Dunham is “plain” and “unshapely” (she’s not, and if you don’t follow this sort of thing, the show is only true-to-life if you live in a city and have a college degree), is it any wonder that people outside of the rarefied echelons of the east coast latch on to descriptions of the “real America”? It’s a toxic divide, to be sure, but it’s also not a surprising one. When someone tries to sell you a false reality, it’s going to make you angry.

We all have a right to tell our story, and the beauty of our voice - and the only thing that will ever help us learn to live with each other - is that it’s collective. A lot of the pushback on Sarah Shanfield’s article came in the form of comments calling her “overprivileged” and telling her to “get out and volunteer,” which is unnecessarily shaming and also misses the point. There’s nothing wrong with her telling her story (which, again, is also pretty much my story) as long as we acknowledge that it’s only one of many.

So I would like to try to expand upon the idea of what it means to be 25. From the perspective of an overeducated, mixed-race girl who’s now 26, and who has finally realized that she - like everyone else - doesn't need to fit in.


It’s okay to be 25.

If you’ve been described as a “voice of your generation” or a “young person to watch,” you probably know that you’re doing all right, but in case you need reassuring, it’s okay to be hot stuff at 25. But it’s also okay if you’re waiting tables or selling office equipment and trying to figure out what your next step is. Maybe you went to a small college and your career services office never told anyone to leave the state. Maybe you have a baby, and it needs food. You will now have empathy for everyone else whose career pathways were not straight or smooth, and you will know to be nice to the receptionist.

It’s okay to send out Tumblrs on the Internet, gossip about some trend you and your friends have invented, and live with roommates. It’s also okay to have bought a house and sought out married-people friends who don't have time for memes anymore. Some people get married earlier, and some get married later, and it’s only a bad thing if you married the wrong person at the wrong time for you. Otherwise, congratulations, you’re in love, or you’re single and learning from every new heartbreak.

It’s okay to try online dating, and also okay to have mixed feelings about OKCupid because even though you can’t seem to find anyone decent in real life you really prefer meeting people in person. It’s even okay to hand over your iPod on the first date and let that be a factor in how things progress, as long as you recognize that it’s not super important and also a little obnoxious.

And it’s okay to not have strong taste in music. Some people don’t. You probably have opinions about baseball players or luxury goods, which I do not.

It’s okay to want to talk about books with people who think Dan Brown is a moron. It’s also okay if you like Dan Brown, because people can agree to disagree and then decide to talk about other things for a while. 

It’s okay to have faith. Or to leave your religion. 

It’s okay to not want to leave where you’re from, although it might not hurt you to do so. Maybe think about why you don’t want to leave, at least. But you probably have a lot of reasons for feeling like that, and they’re probably complicated, and that’s okay too.

It’s okay to not know what you want or why. But it’s not okay to not want to know what you want, because you deserve to want things, just like everyone else. (And the “why” tends to be helpful in finding things to want that are sustainable and healthy.)

And finally, it’s okay to tell your story, to toss your tile into our collective mosaic. Because we’re never going to have one if people don’t take part. And maybe your tile is foggy with the humidity of a south Florida summer, or shiny and sharp and focused, or maybe it has a lot of other tiles attached to it. Hybrid vigor, my friends. Hybrid vigor.


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some recommendations

Because I have GOT to close these tabs, and I need a break from the other thing that I'm doing. I have to post this now so that I can go hang out with my dog, who is looking at me plaintively because no one else is home and I'm not playing with him.  

  • More on how the Internet is irrevocably and terrifyingly changing human behavior.  Particularly interesting read in conjunction with this Wired article about gangs and social media usage and the coverage of al-Shabab's usage of Twitter. Neither of the latter articles goes into the actual impact of these technologies on behavioral choices to my satisfaction (though the Wired one touches on it), but this is still such a new area that I suppose it's excusable.*
  • This article on the impact of outside factors on crack addiction manages to be counterintuitive and totally logical at the same time. On the one hand: crack is wack, and also there are a million well-publicized examples of seemingly fine lives totally derailed by addiction. On the other, though, of course a person's environment has an influence on whether or not they want and need a distraction, even if that distraction is pipe-based. I think there's a lot to explore w/r/t what factors actually prevent this sort of behavior - I wonder if they're not as obvious as they look.
  • Finally, if you haven't jumped out a window yet, Hook Theory provides a fun way to look at how songs are related from a music theory perspective.

*File under "Sentences That Will Be Quaint." 



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



just so we don't forget

1. I don't care if you read this, but I wanted to document this quote:

On a later Burma trip, a cobra squirted venom into his eyes. After a few hours the excruciating pain passed. Joe never paused much over these incidents. He seemed to embody the understanding that a fully natural world includes the possibility that nature can kill us—and afterward glide freely away into the wet grass it came from. That love in any form involves an element of risk.

 - Mark Moffett, "Bit"

2. I do actually care if you read this, and you should:

I know the hypnosis, as I'm sure you do, too. You start clicking through photos of your friends of friends and next thing you know an hour has gone by. It's oddly soothing, but unsatisfying. Once the spell is broken, I feel like I've just wasted a bunch of time. But while it's happening, I'm caught inside the machine, a human animated GIF: I. Just. Cannot. Stop.

- Alexis Madrigal, "The Machine Zone"

3. I would also like you to read this:

Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.

- Sophia McDougall, "I Hate Strong Female Characters

Okay GO. 





guest post on Sparecake!

My friend Corinne, one of my favorite people, has a fantastic food blog called Sparecake. She's gallivanting around Spain right now and asked me to write a guest post, so I wrote about a classic snack in my family, gougeres. Check it out! And then subscribe to her blog!