Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Of Morrissey, Neko, and the search for ágape

In 1986, The Smiths released the Queen is Dead, an album that has remained my favorite piece of alterna-pop for over 25 years.  It ends with "Some Girls are Bigger Than Others:"
From the ice age to the dole age
There is but one concern
I have just discovered:
Some girls are bigger than others
Following their undisputed masterpiece "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," "Some Girls" is a notoriously anti-climactic conclusion to the album. While "There is a Light" manages to combine  longing morbidity with transcendent hope, "Some Girls"  plays like a throw-away dittie that ruins the climax of the record.

However, "Some Girls" also expands the latent irony of "There is a Light" by reducing its object of worship to a simple comparison: someone so beloved at one moment--"to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die"--becomes merely "some girl" in the next moment. A lost opportunity in "There is a Light"--"I thought, 'oh, God, my chance has come at last!' / But a strange fear gripped me, and I just couldn't ask!"--becomes a "just discovered" banality in "Some Girls." While "There is a Light" evokes the agony and ecstasy of adolescent love, "Some Girls" reduces these feelings to just one of a long line of crushes.

I wish it were that easy in real life. It used to be, didn't it? The pain of unrequited love one suffers at 17 seems excruciating, but it eventually fades in time. And from the comfortable perspective of my 40's, I can look back with simple fondness on the girl with whom I was deeply infatuated at 17. After I mustered up the courage to "ask," she came to see me the same way I had seen her--but I soon realized she was just another girl. Many other girls followed -- some bigger than others. But to a boy of 17, the longing for that first one was all-consuming.

After adolescence passes--when we realize the world doesn't revolve around us--another type of love becomes possible. The Greeks called it agápe, an unconditional love. Such a selfless desire to prioritize another person's well-being and happiness over one's own is impossible for adolescents, who are simply too self-centered to empathize that deeply with another person. In my experience, it is difficult to create, but it endures much longer than the burgeoning éros of youth.

But if agápe develops first and then opens the door to éros, the results can be just as devastating as they were at 17.  The unconditional, selfless component of the love prevents it from dissipating so rapidly. One's desire to protect and nurture the other person never really fades.

All this is prompted by a friend calling me out on Twitter the other day. I tweeted something about marriage being a "sucker bet," and he wanted to know what I meant. Simply this: the odds are pretty bad. I've recently watched the disintegration of what I had thought were two ideal marriages. I've watched other marriages drift into passive resignation. Some recent weddings and engagements have left me wondering what the hell they were thinking.

We're conditioned by the ideology of "romance" to believe in the existence of one perfect person, someone with whom we'll share a lifetime (or eternity) of bliss. Our culture's narratives are full of sappy, boy-meets-girl stories, most of which end with a wedding. Maybe it's Romanticism's fault; Jane Austen IS our high priestess. She pretty much invented the modern "romantic comedy."
But Austen's characters are controlled by ideological and economic forces just as powerful as interpersonal attraction. "Fortune" means money as well as destiny. And marriage is ultimately an economic institution invented to ensure the rights of legitimate male inheritance by regulating female sexuality. That's the reason patriarchal, capitalist societies insist on female monogamy: to make sure dad's stuff gets passed on to HIS son rather than some other guy's.

So I'm cynical about marriage. Getting a girl or boy can be pretty easy, but keeping them happy over the course of 40 years is another matter entirely. Yet I've not lost my "Romantic" sensibility. Here's why: I still think choosing a mate because of compulsive éros--and expecting that sort of love to endure unabated for 50 years--is simple folly. But so too is settling for anything less.

I stumbled onto this photograph yesterday:
Some Girls are Bigger than Others
(I'm sure that my fascination with Neko is pretty much a cliché by now, but I've gotta play the hand I'm dealt.) Since this picture of my two favorite female singer-songwriters appeared on a blog named after a song from my favorite Smiths album, I started thinking about Neko's metaphors in the context of Morrissey's ironic cynicism. Here's what occurred to me: two of my closest friends are still proudly and fiercely single. So is my mom. They've managed to avoid settling for a relationship that isn't right. Maybe they've short-changed themselves out of a chance at happiness, but they've also managed to avoid consigning themselves to a life of mute resignation or profound heartbreak.

Yet they still believe in love. They still try to find it. They know it's really, really hard, that it's full of regrets which are:
 Common as a winter cold
They're telephone poles
They follow each other, one, after another
After another
But my friends are still patiently and fiercely holding out hope for a glimpse of a 17 year-old's agony, that éros which seems to awaken life:

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

The speaker of this lyric refuses the ideological imperative for marriage and insists on waiting for  a "Light that Never Goes Out." 

Maybe some girls ARE bigger than others.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Genius of Breaking Away

This blog is always about displacement, loss, movement, and return. Its poetic and pop culture allusions are subtle attempts to explore these themes.  I'm thinking out loud in this work, trying to use art and activity to formulate some fundamental questions about the ways in which identity is shaped by place and travel.

It's also frequently about the bike, which itself a common metaphor for self-fashioning. Cyclists are always cyclists--we may define ourselves by our passion more than any other hobbyists / participants / players of other sports or hobbies. There's an unmistakable physical aesthetic to cyclists, one we sometimes accentuate with odd grooming and sartorial choices: shaved legs, rolled jeans, obscure t-shirts, bike-chain jewelry, short-brimmed hats.

All that's incidental to the rest of this blogpost, except to say that because our sport / activity / hobby is so esoteric, we simultaneously embrace and disdain moments when the larger culture shines a spotlight on it.

Which brings me to Breaking Away.

The film's approach to class relations are obvious: set in 1979, recession-era Indiana, Breaking Away is about Dave Stoller and his friends, "townie," working-class kids living in Bloomington. They are the sons of "cutters," the men who supplied the Indiana University campus with limestone they cut from surrounding quarries. But those stone-cutting jobs have started to leave town: 
Dad: I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all. You guys still go swimmin' in the quarries?
Dave: Sure.
Dad : So, the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?
Like most 18 year-olds, Dave and his friends laze about the empty quarries, fight with rich college kids, and fret about their futures. The jobs their fathers worked have made them outcasts in their own town, but even those jobs are closed to them, just like the buildings their fathers built.  

Mike is Dave's best friend, the star of his high school football team. But after graduation, he chafes against the creeping mediocrity he sees waiting for him. Since he can't conceive of a place for himself in Bloomington that doesn't reinforce his failures, Mike concocts mythic dreams of elsewhere that Romanticize the frontier:
Mike: That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.
This sentiment is reminiscent of the longing of another failed athlete who dreams of a place that doesn't remind him of his failures:
Biff: In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas. It's why I came home now, I guess, because I realized it. This farm I work on, it's spring there now, see? And they've got about fifteen new colts. There's nothing more inspiring or--beautiful, than a new colt. And it's cool there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it's spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I sullenly get the feeling, My God, I'm not getting anywhere. What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week? [. . .] Every time I come back here I know that all I've done is waste my life.
Of course, none of the characters in Death of a Salesman can escape the lot in life that American capitalism has assigned to them, and tragedy strikes when they have the nerve to try.

But Breaking Away is a production of Hollywood, so it's a comedy at heart. Dave is infatuated with Italian cycling and culture. He rides all over the state, but he always has to return home at the end of the day, so his fascination with Italian racing starts to occlude even his daily identity; his ongoing impersonation of an Italian exchange student reveals a desperation to escape his life in the shadow of a University he's been conditioned to believe he cannot attend. But in the end, Dave takes a college entrance exam and does well enough to earn a scholarship. He and his friends use the bike to beat the college kids at their own game, and even Dave's dad starts riding.

So, in Breaking Away, the bike in Indiana serves the same purpose as de fiets in Flanders or le vélo in France: it helps working-class kids transcend their upbringing and aspire to greatness. In the film's climactic scene, the "Cutters" race the exact same model of one-speed bike that the fraternity guys ride, and when they're given such a level playing field, the Cutters win. It's a classic bit of American ideology: in this land of equal opportunity, talent and desire and hard work always triumph.

Or do they? Mike gets on the bike at a critical moment in the race and helps his Cutters team win the race, but in the film's final denouement, he's nowhere to be seen. Dave is rolling though campus on his way to class, but Mike is entirely missing from the new world that the action of the film has created for Dave and his family. So while Dave has an aspirational future ahead of him, Mike is consigned to the viewer's memory as the high school athlete with no prospects of escape.

As a coda, let me close with the lyrics from the Drive-By Truckers song I quoted in yesterday's post. Their similarity to Mike's ideas are what sparked my thinking about the movie:
Mike: They're gonna keep callin' us "cutters." To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just somethin' else I never got a chance to be.
DBT: Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me
See, in America, the barrier to entry in cycling is pretty high. You have to have a sizable pile of money to get a race-worthy bike, you need safe roads to train on, and you need the support of mentors willing to show you the ropes. It might seem like an impossibility to urban kids, which might explain why I always do a double-take when I see an African-American road or mountain cyclist here in Omaha.  While I see plenty of working-class people riding Wal-mart bikes on the sidewalk on their way to work, I can count on one hand the number of minority folks I've seen in spandex. And sadly, ethnicity is a correlative of class in much of the U.S. If the bike is going to help improve the world--like it does for the kids in Breaking Away--we'd better start thinking about the cutters we might find in our community.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Il no va esta f*ckin' picnico"

My dissertation chair is fond of saying "Ideology is externalized in food." And while I don't practice what cultural critics call food studies, my research of Romantic-era agricultural writing overlaps with some of it.

For example, Andrew Hubbell published an essay in 1996 called "How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture." He argues that the Romantics perceived eating outside as a radical symbol for transgression against food commodification.

I chewed on that idea for awhile. While sitting in a Moroccan restaurant in Oakland one night, I was asked to explain my early writing and was hit with the familiar accusation, "There's no food in Wordsworth!" Before I could think to talk about the difference between food production and food consumption, I drunkenly announced, "Wordsworth invented the picnic!!"

Gin, Maes, and K-Ro have never, ever let me forget it. And since these are clever, pretty women, I endure their teasing rather than smacking them in the nose.

I met a important, self-imposed deadline yesterday: a big chunk of my archive chapter is floating around in space, waiting for my Chair to bite into it. But rather than capitalizing on all that great momentum, I've spent most of today procrastinating and wallowing. I have a massive database of notes on agricultural writing, all of it sorted into searchable terms and sortable fields. In some disciplines, this would serve as a thesis unto its own, but in literary studies, I have to shape all that primary data into a cogent narrative. I've re-outlined the remaining sections five times today, but they just won't congeal into a logical and syllogistic argument. It's pissing me off. There are lots of ideas on the page, but there's no structure, which is not my ideal situation.

Then I remembered a great metaphorical usage of the word "picnic" from my favorite film. I hadn't thought about this scene in a long time, but after watching this clip, I wrote a few paragraphs about the madness of post-modernity's desecration of the individual.

Yes, Jack, I DO think I'm being punished for my sins. Sometimes.

But forgiveness is hard to find.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Let the Drive-By Truckers Proselytizing Commence

A few years ago,  some of my friends went to see Son Volt play the Filmore in San Francisco. They were sharing the bill with an outfit called the Drive-By Truckers, a band none of us had seen or heard of. I stayed home with my girls.

Everybody told me the next day that the Truckers had played the best rock show they'd ever seen, and most of my friends bought a bunch of their records. 

I listened, reluctantly. Southern Rock Opera appealed to my wife more than it did to me; she grew up in a southern household enamored of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Her cousin played with The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Southern rock seemed natural to her, while I favored the Neil Young side of the debate between "Southern Man" & "Sweet Home Alabama." I guess I'd always harbored a Midwesterner's disdain for the stereotypes of the South: racist, provincial, anti-intellectual, backward.

But living as a Nebraska native in California subjected me to a small dose of my own medicine. Left coasters sometimes made assumptions about the Midwest and its people that I tried hard to dispel. And while much of what Californians disparage about conservative red-state mentality is based in fact, most folks in and around Omaha are kind, generous, and straightforward. I wish some Norcal Progressive politics would mix with Omaha no-bullshit pragmatism, but there you go.

I guess what I mean is that many Midwestern ideas about California are crap, and most Californians have no idea about Nebraska. Reaching out to another region's culture can teach us a lot about our own. And listening to the work of Southerners while living in California eased my sense of exile.

However, The Drive-By Truckers don't play "southern rock." They deconstruct it. They temper it with rock influences from The Band, punk aesthetics borrowed from The Clash, and radical politics found in The Jam. Three-axe assaults alternate with ballads of melancholy folk.

By the time I finally saw them play a live date in Sacramento, I had devoured three of their albums. I think The Dirty South is a Romantic and Marxist masterpiece. The things I love about early Wordsworth (and Springsteen)--his close examination of the rural poor and his attempts to imaginatively ease their suffering-- also permeate the Trucker's songs. Lyrics about the personal cost of being an artist surround songs about the dehumanizing implications of economic upheaval. The Truckers' narrators are often bootleggers, gun-runners, meth-heads, and unemployed machinists -- voices of the underclass of American prosperity, emerging from the shadows. And they're pissed about what their lives have cost them. Yet these same characters also raise their voices to the heavens and wail about the beauty of their existence.

While the songwriter whose work I liked the most has struck out on his own, the last two 'Truckers albums still resonate with fist-in-the-air rock sensibility and that-ain't-right political anger. And the anguish of loss or leaving a loved one behind still seeps through.

They play the Slowdown in Omaha on October 26.  You should go.

Nobody told me it'd be easy
Or for that matter, it'd be so hard
But it's the livin' and learnin'
It makes the difference
It makes it all worthwhile
It makes it all worthwhile

Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Funniest Thing I've Ever Seen

SNL usually leaves me bored. One good skit in 90 minutes is a waste of time. But this? This is genius.

In Elizabethan comedy, the fool always asks the wisest questions--and tells the hardest truths.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Coletrane Interlude

Driving home last night, I accidentally tuned into a KIOS rebroadcast of NPR's Jazz Profiles John Coletrane: Saxophone Icon.

For much of 1996, I was obsessed with the tonal changes in Trane's version of "My Favorite Things." The bridge to his second solo, when the soprano notes accelerate and modulate into his highest register, always inspired an exultation akin to religious ecstasy. So much newly emergent life blazes from that tune. Trane had kicked heroin and alcohol, recorded his great Giant Steps, and started the spiritual path that would lead to sainthood. All of his newly emancipated genius seem to cascade forth in nascent sheets of sound.

I was 25 when I first delved in to Trane. He was my first non pop/punk/alternative musical obsession, and he's stayed with me as an inspiration and confidant ever since. Every few years, I have to play all of his records back to back. It's always a revelatory process: intimately familiar tunes reveal an undiscovered secret. They're organic things with agency: they have a will of their own. They talk with me, and they always respond to whatever I need when I approach them. 

'Trane's solo catalog isn't that extensive. There are numerous live recordings, guest sides, and assorted rarities I haven't heard, but I own most of his great studio work. Today, I can't seem to stop listening to "After the Rain," a 1963 cut from his Dear Old Stockholm, a relatively minor release on Impulse! It's bop-influenced solo is infusing me with energy and helping me write. It's also conjuring images of absent friends, flickering around the edges of my awareness.

I'm sure that I'll move onto A Love Supreme this afternoon, because its mantra-like dirge quality helps me focus and stay on task through some very challenging writing I have to do.

I'll most likely end the day with My Favorite Things. How's that for irony? I'm racing to finish my chapter, propelled along by the first tunes on sides 1 and 2 of the record: the title track, and an equally exultant "Summertime." These are twin yawps of glee, but the two other tracks are improvisations on well-known jazz standards of regret: "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "But Not For Me." Coltrane is the most lyrically aware jazz player I've heard, and his chord changes evoke a sense of loss just as effectively as the missing words themselves.

See 8:40 for an escalation into the noumenal.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, is there a cardiologist in the house?

Still waiting on the results of the stress test last week.

That's one helluva way to spend a birthday: the only people I spoke to in person last Wednesday were the cardiac nurse and the ultrasound tech. I talked to my Mom on the phone for a bit and traded messages with the girls, but that was it. Given how the morning started, that isolation was probably for the best.

Quick recap: I get really dizzy after hard workouts. I've blacked out on the bike twice this year, and my ability to hold watts at my lactic  / functional threshold has been on the decline all summer. I experience shortness of breath at five beats a minute below threshold (165 beats per minute makes me feel like I'm breathing through a straw), and I have no power past zone 3 / ME / tempo.  My blood pressure's low (good?) as are my cholesterol and resting heart rate. I feel fine except when I try to push myself on the bike and after I finish a ride.

An initial EKG indicated an early repolarization. Coupled with the syncope symptoms, that result spurred my internal medicine doctor to refer me to Creighton's Cardiac Center for a full-on stress test.

I know now that I look stupid with a bare chest--the cardiac nurse shaved off most of my chest hair to get a better seal under the sensors. She hooked me up to an EKG and a technician took ultrasound video of my heart at rest. Then they asked me to run on a treadmill while still connected to all the electrodes and the blood pressure cuff, a task much harder than it sounds.  Based on my age ("Yes, nurse, it's my birthday. No, I have no other plans"), they were hoping to see 152 beats per minute. I told them that I usually suffered symptoms at around 161 or so, but they reminded me that my running and cycling threshold heart rates might be different.

The treadmill was narrow and short, and my right arm was wrenched backward by the blood pressure cuff and mass of wires running from the electrodes to the EKG. Plus, I just kinda run like a walrus. It was an awkward few minutes.

I jumped off the treadmill at 160 beats a minute and lay back down on the table for another ultrasound. The nurse said she saw nothing worrisome on the EKG, but the ultrasound tech left without comment as soon as he finished. I found that worrisome--he'd been relatively talkative earlier in the session.

I've called the doctor three times, but I can't get past his receptionist, who tells me the doctor will call when he gets the results. Crap.

I skipped riding on Wednesday, rode really easy on Thursday and Saturday, but utterly failed to finish a threshold effort with Bryan yesterday. I felt okay as we rolled out of town, but every time I tried to get my wattage above 300 -- or my heart rate higher than 165 -- I just fell apart. It feels like my lungs have shrunk, somehow.

So I wait. I'm skipping Wednesday Night Worlds again tonight and plan to ride easy tempo tomorrow and Saturday. If I haven't gotten some news from the doctors by Friday, I may pay the office an impromptu visit.

From wikipedia (yes, I know it's often crap):
Factors that influence fainting are fasting long hours, taking in too little food and fluids, low blood pressure, hypoglycemia, growth spurts,[citation needed] physical exercise in excess of the energy reserve of the body, emotional distress, and lack of sleep. Orthostatic hypotension caused by standing up too quickly or being in a very hot room can also cause fainting.

More serious causes of fainting include cardiac (heart-related) conditions such as an abnormal heart rhythm (an arrhythmia), wherein the heart beats too slowly, too rapidly, or too irregularly to pump enough blood to the brain. Some arrhythmias can be life-threatening. Other important cardio-vascular conditions that can be manifested by syncope include subclavian steal syndrome and aortic stenosis.
Orthostatic (postural) hypotensive faints are as common or perhaps even more common than vasovagal syncope. Orthostatic faints are most often associated with movement from lying or sitting to a standing position. Apparently healthy individuals may experience minor symptoms ("lightheadedness", "greying-out") as they stand up if blood pressure is slow to respond to the stress of upright posture. If the blood pressure is not adequately maintained during standing, faints may develop. However, the resulting "transient orthostatic hypotension" does not necessarily signal any serious underlying disease. The most susceptible individuals are elderly frail individuals, or persons who are dehydrated from hot environments or inadequate fluid intake.