July 23, 2010

Major Metropolitan Area Horribly Debased by iPhone Camera

We spent the week in Seattle, and I couldn't be bothered to use a real camera. Oh well...

July 14, 2010

This Book is a Movie (Soundtrack)

As many of you know, I've been wrapping up a novel for...uh...several years now—and it's almost done. Really and truly. Anyway, I was so into it at one point that I even wrote and composed a soundtrack CD for it, mostly because I'm a raging egomaniac, but also because I'm not famous and don't know famous people and have no leverage on famous musicians and their music. I.e. music that I could have used for a super-hits soundtrack if my book ever became a movie.

Instead, I merely have Grooveshark—which means I can re-inflict the mid-1990s on all of you. Oh yes, I can get Jeff Buckley to back up a schizophrenic Spanglish nightmare scene, or the Jesus and Mary Chain to put music to a humid April morning in Chico. I can get PJ Harvey's voice for a love scene gone morbidly sideways, an Elliott Smith surf instrumental for late-afternoon zen hallucinations, or a thick and creamy Tortoise groove for a foggy night on campus at UCSB. I can get the Beastie Boys to bash out the funk for a head-butting soccer game, or Sea and Cake for some mellow drinking sessions in the freshman dorms.

I can even get an old Radiohead B-side to back up a night-driving Capo Beach scene, get Elastica to blare their car song out of a pickup's stereo, or land Morphine's treacherous saxophones for a quick beatdown scene, or snag Bjork for a surprise betrayal dialogue. I can unleash Kyuss for a brutal death scene, I can pour the Mermen's reverb all over a nostalgia scene, and get some classic Liz Phair to rescue one character from the depths of despair. Best of all, I can summon the Verve for a massive, epic revelation scene, and James' eerie Eno-isms for the closing credits.

I know people always make playlists and this isn't really that big of a deal. Except when I say it is. So it is. But my own stuff is an even bigger deal:

<a href="http://lowtide.bandcamp.com/album/the-weapon-of-young-gods">Calaveras Desagradables by Low Tide</a>

July 09, 2010

The Designer/Wordsmith/Rockstar - or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being "Gifted"

Originally published as a "Student Voices" column in the Summer 2010 Gifted Education Communicator.
No one ever asked me if I wanted to be “gifted.” I didn’t know what it meant at first, and it didn’t seem like I had a choice in the matter, so it took a while to get used to the idea. At seven years old, I definitely wasn’t ready—it was sort of a surprise, and I’ve never handled strange new surprises very well. I was an eldest child and a late bloomer, and had always been better with routine and stability. Even now, as a thirty-three-year-old professional designer, I still don’t improvise as well as I’d like, and in a field that depends on spontaneous sparks of inspiration, that can be dangerous. I’ve long since learned that such catalytic tension makes for great creativity, but it wasn’t an easy lesson, especially back when I was a newly-minted “gifted and talented child.” That was more like getting shoved on stage, front and center, beneath a gigantic spotlight.

Dealing with that spotlight gradually got easier, but only after I was able to define my role on stage, instead of having it defined for me. If I had to be up there, in the band, I had to do something fun. Not singing—too exposed. Not lead guitar, either—too flashy and complicated. Not drums—steady, yes, but too essential, with no room for error. But the bass guitar—now that looked like the way to go. Its unobtrusive nature made perfect sense to me, so that’s the role I chose. The bass is always in the background, but it’s constant. It’s an essential piece that’s missed when it’s gone, but it’s dependent on drums to sound its best. The bass is grounded, repetitive, familiar, and relatively simple. It’s a rhythm instrument, stringed but percussive, steady and supportive, neither leader nor follower. Like many musicians, I identify with my instrument a little too closely, but that helps keep the stage fright away—and I definitely had stage fright as a child.

Over twenty-five years later, that uneasiness isn’t difficult to express at all, but for a first-grader suddenly catapulted to the second grade reading class, it was awfully hard to understand why walking down the hall alone and simply knocking on the classroom door felt impossible. That was one of at least a dozen similar experiences that underlined what now seems like a haphazard approach to giftedness at my elementary school. I always got moved to combination classes to do extra work at the next grade level, and being gifted back then was definitely presented like a chore or an obligation. I didn’t understand, in third grade, why the music teacher assigned violin practice records when I could already blast through every piece in the book, playing by ear. I didn’t get the point of writing an essay on the Age of Discovery in fourth grade, when I could just draw a world map, freehand, and explain it that way. It made much more sense, in fifth grade, to ditch the after-school GATE class and gamble quarters on the 1988 presidential primary with my best friend—until a pretty girl shamed us both into going to class with her.

In middle school, though, something happened—“being gifted” was probably the only thing that actually got easier—the assignments were relaxed and fun, and relied on a healthy injection of individualism from each student. Thanks to what must have been a well-designed program, I got away with good grades in English for creating grammar lessons taught by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; I won praise in Art for designing alternate album covers for my favorite music; I actually had fun writing a U.S. History paper on the rise and fall of the Confederacy. Even better, people were impressed with all the weird stuff I could do—and let me tell you, a kid can get used to that kind of applause.

Getting rewarded for being ravenously curious about the world felt great—like being paid to start food fights or play X-rated video games—and looking back, that’s when the egomania began to creep in. It wasn’t exactly naked, slobbering hubris—just smug, inward sneering—but I realized that sometimes I could just “do school” to get by, without really trying. There were still limits—I won the county Geography Bee in seventh grade, but got bounced after the first round at the state level; I crashed and burned on the Algebra placement test, ending up in the “normal” eighth grade math class—but the seed of sloth was planted, despite the genuinely good and earnest efforts of parents and teachers who all seemed to have my best interests in mind.

That kind of blasé self-confidence—on top of the usual chaotic teenage neurochemistry—could have spelled academic doom in high school; thankfully my experience ended up being much more socially and emotionally balanced. I got all the brain food I could ever need from the accelerated and advanced placement humanities classes. I was encouraged to read about whatever I wanted—literature, history, politics, music, art and culture, from Homer to Hunter S. Thompson—and drew on all of it when turning in term papers on Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, on Canto IX of Dante’s Inferno, and on e.e. cummings’ sneaky, profane usage of Greek in “Jehovah Buried.” The only problem was that researching those things didn’t feel like work at all, so I never learned proper study skills. Except for Biology, every math and science class I really had to study for—Algebra, Trigonometry, Chemistry—ended ugly, and I barely scraped by. The bigger lesson, though, was working with kids who weren’t as comfortable in school as I was—which definitely balanced my perspective. The only class that didn’t present either extreme was Visual Arts, and it became an oasis of calm creativity during my otherwise gloriously gonzo senior year. It was subjective, easy, and fun—especially sketching girls’ portraits to get dates—and there was no “right” or “wrong” way to be an artist. Unfortunately I forgot about that nugget of wisdom for almost ten years. For that, I blame the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I’d always vaguely expected to get a higher education, but was never too anxious or excited about it—college was just another first I’d have to endure. Initially, everybody else seemed gifted too, and it wasn’t actually that much different from high school—aside from some unhinged personal behavior and colossal financial repercussions—so I coasted through two years as a Geography major. I was actually on track to be a city planner until I got a D in Urban Planning despite working like crazy.

Switching to English was an easy fallback—I’d always been a good writer, and appreciated the more nutritious diet of literary criticism than I’d had in high school. It didn’t take long for the impulsive sloth to bite back, though. I got away with turning in first-draft, B+ quality papers on everything from the Chaucer-Shakespeare-Milton heavy hitters to Kafka, Kerouac, and Rushdie, and I still hadn’t learned to study. Two further major distractions on top of that were a fitful sortie into journalism (I wrote arts reviews for the school paper) and a sidestep into music (I played in three rock bands over ten years), but fortunately those weren’t detrimental enough to keep the Regents from eventually coughing up my diploma.

Of course, it’s all fun and games until you have to get a job, or book a gig, but sometimes it’s still really hard to knock on scary unknown closed doors. For better or worse, that was part of the rudest post-graduate awakening that I had to deal with: fewer and fewer people cared about how smart or talented I was (or thought I was). It shouldn’t have been so shocking, but being “gifted” didn’t matter anymore, to anyone. It wasn’t some magical inoculation against the world’s superficial snap judgments. Worse, those same little snatches of sloth had fermented into a strange sort of passive entitlement: why wouldn’t that company hire a bright capable kid like me, right out of school? Why wouldn’t that newspaper run my articles? Why wouldn’t that club book my band? Nobody cared—and I hadn’t learned how to make them care. So, like every other self-absorbed post-grad, I flailed around gracelessly for a few years. I eventually landed some bureaucratic office jobs, but belatedly succumbed to all the obvious downsides of giftedness: underachievement, procrastination, boredom, resentment. It was a lesson in humility worth learning, but I wasn’t able to kick the doldrums until I decisively returned to what worked: creativity (freelance journalism, music, and art) and education (night school for graphic design and web development). I did what was challenging and fun—and lo and behold, people noticed.

Even so, I wasn’t expecting to end up where I am, doing what I do. When I was younger I had a different enthusiasm every year, and I bled them all dry. I wanted to be a paleontologist, an oceanographer, astronomer or cartographer. Later I wanted to be a journalist, or maybe a novelist. Now, my business card describes me as a “Designer/Wordsmith/Rockstar,” but it’s only lying a little bit. Professional creativity is a slippery way to make a living, but creative people at my age are only beginning to hit their peak. Advertising and marketing isn’t necessarily the best career choice for someone with spasmodic shyness and a streaky work ethic—and yet here I am, staring at a computer screen all day, making words, paper, and pixels look pretty.

So no, I didn’t ask for the “gifted” label around my neck—and sometimes I resented it—but it did eventually prove to be a push in the right direction, as long as the right people did the pushing. In my experience, when parents and educators treated giftedness like something set in stone—a requirement, a necessity—it was simple to ignore, subvert, and resist. When giftedness was presented as something fragile, to be pampered and fussed over, it was too easy to panic once that attention went away. However, when mistakes were allowed, and perfection wasn’t the goal, then the failures weren’t as personal. When giftedness meant malleability, and its definition was something I was allowed to change, then every challenge was always worth the hard work, and it was easier to improvise. I’m still not always comfortable improvising—or with being gifted—but I’m comfortable enough in my own skin, and at ease with my place in the world. I don’t need to be a rock star—not among my family, friends, or colleagues. I don’t even need to be an expert musician. I’m happy to just be the bass player.

July 02, 2010

Baby, Let Me Show You a World Without Sin

I don't know where you're going / But you don't know where I've been / Baby, let me show you a world without sin
—Malcolm Reynolds*
Polarity has never been an issue for me. No, I'm not the kind of guy who flies off the handle at random—or at least not for about twelve years or so. Oh sure, there's the odd presidential election meltdown or sudden spasm of selfish mania—but in general I've been a pretty even-keeled guy while the rest of the world has gone to shit. I'm not bragging—I'm empathetic to the myriad all-important passions of my friends and family, and even indulge in a few of those when it matters—but it's been a good lesson in zen after going certifiable for most of the late '90s. I have lived in a calm, mellow, bland universe of mature reflection and deliberate balance. So today, when a truly beautiful Friday went suddenly, brutally Sideways, I nearly lost it. Seriously—bizarro brain chemistry was all-powerful, and I questioned my own Purpose In Life.

The cause of today's spontaneous combustion isn't important—explaining certain professional frustrations to the uninitiated is never easy for a worker bee like myself, but whatever—and there's no real point in bringing it up, except for this: I re-learned that glorious truth we all must remind ourselves of periodically. Yes, the Wisdom, the Righteous Natural Law that prescribes the only way to deal with the universe's random perpendicularity: when life throws you sideways, drink your V-8 and bend everything else back the way it should be, with pure will. Control the uncontrollable. Respond with such overwhelming force, such sheer ability, such monstrously awesome power that all who behold it quake in awe and gladly accept that they are beaten. Or not. Hell, it's not for me to tell anyone how to behave or how to live. If you believe that what you do for work or play is Good, Worthy, and Moral then who am I to criticize? Indeed, why shouldn't I just sit back and mind my own business, since it's the only real thing I truly excel at? Why shouldn't I keep on the Grand Tour of a World Without Sin? Huh? Why not?

I'll tell you why—and forgive the inner Miles Copeland transmogrification here—because it's BORING. How many people became Dante Aligheri groupies after reading the boring-as-whale-shit afterbirth known as "Paradiso?" None. Zero. Everyone was already flattened and sacked-out from throwing their collective undergarments at him because of "Inferno," weren't they? Oh, you know they were. "Purgatorio" might be the underrated critics' fave, but the sins were what put the asses in the seats, every time. No one likes to read happy stories, no matter what Hollywood or Madison Avenue or "Got a Happy Story" might claim. No, we live for the ugliness and depravity; we yearn for the revelation that someone out there, some other poor bastard, is much worse off than we are. This is a human thing—Americans are just better at self-delusion when it comes to this, unlike, say, the English—and while some believe that's what makes us Mighty, I am not one of them.

No, I'm firmly in the "people are much weirder than they seem" camp. I mean, just think about what we've seen so far, these past weeks: impotent wrath over some hubristic blogger's liberation from the Washington Post, bickering envy from everyone who believed Diego Maradonna was done for long ago, stupefying sloth from congresscritters only too happy to kick the unemployed when they're down, incalculable avarice from every rich (and wish-they-were-rich) enemy of the goofy hodgepodge Financial Regulation bill, a Supreme Court nominee's unabashed gluttony for Chinese food, rabid lust by a female senator for fictitious pinup-monsters, and—last but not least—the infinite vanity of Mick Jagger, complete with old-lady scarf and ex-President accessory. Easier targets like Michael Steele, Manny Ramirez, or the entire fallacy of Toronto/G20 don't even register in the lower reaches of Sin's rusty edifice in comparison. Not even oceans full of black death (with their attendant redneck politician apologists) and double-dip recessions (with their attendant weak-bowelled financial advisors) could even get in the door at this point. Not when hot Guatemalan girls I used to know in college are more despondent over Brazlian fütbol failure than their own auto-accident fallout. Priorities, mis amigos, priorities—Dutch Courage means something totally different now, doesn't it?

Ah yes, because in my own personal corner of green, leafy, middle-class, artery-clogged torpitude, everything is all right, darlin'. The sun is shining, and everything is fine. Never mind the long hours, crushing demands, and June gloom of yester-month. That is all gone now, like Landon Donovan or Stanley McChrystal or Research 2000, and Life…she is Good. Novels get written, songs get sung, rock bands get re-formed, and art is created, appreciated, and (best of all) Paid For In Full. Marketing Marches On, baby. Gray hair we can deal with. Love handles, we can ignore. Coffee-yellow teeth, we can bleach. Why? Dude, do you even need to ask? It's Independence Day Weekend in America, man—and we native sons and daughters of groovy socio-capitalism's last gleaming are here to PARTY! Oh, bring it. Right on. The '90s revival is right around the corner, y'all, and that wild orgy of triumphalism will never, ever, EVER get old—for it was the time of our Youth and Young Man/Womanhood. Yes yes, I'm dating myself here—with apologies to the elder and younger idealists among us—but in the '90s, my friends, you could date yourself however you wanted. And hey, if I need to explain that, well…I'll tell you when you're older. What happens in 1997 stays in 1997, okay?

Now, where the fuck was I? Jesus, you throw back a few and everything vanishes upstairs—just like Nancy Reagan said. Or was it President Ronnie, before he was kidnapped by ninjas and had to be saved by the Army of Bad Dudes? I can't remember anymore—all these little Reagans running around Ventura County sucking down Tea have me seeing double. Anyway, I think I may have said it better in the more recent past, so if you care to make sense of all this silly shit, maybe you should look elsewhere for those seven deadly sins that Just Won't Die:

We Move Like We're Suspended in Amber 1.27.10
Walk On Your Lips Through Busted Glass 2.5.10
The Horrible Burden of Being Right All the Time, Part II 2.14.10
When "Rock and Roll" Only Meant One Thing 3.16.10
It's Always Amateur Hour Somewhere, Part I 4.26.10
It's Always Amateur Hour Somewhere, Part II 5.15.10
Sometimes You Break a Finger on the Upper Hand 5.25.10

Happy Friday, boys and girls. You're welcome. Oh, and * Mal didn't say that—I did.

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