Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You don't feel your speed until it changes.

The glasses that I wear have been with me for a long time.  I can’t really remember how long, to tell the truth.  I think I got them in high school.  When I came to Indonesia, I brought two pairs (in accordance with the recommendation of Peace Corps, which also advised us not to bring contact lenses).  My dad had bought me a lovely new set: titanium, rimless on the bottom, and with larger lenses than I’d had previously.  I kept my worn old Nike brand glasses as backups.

Five or six weeks into training those new glasses fell out of my backpack on an angkot after I failed to close the pocket properly.  I’d been switching between normal glasses and prescription sunglasses—another shiny pre-Indonesia acquisition—and just didn’t pay enough attention.  Despite my and others’ best efforts to get them back, the new glasses were never recovered, and I’ve spent the last two years wearing what were already a shabby set of specs.

The color of the rims used to be a solid metallic brown color, but it looks as if paint has chipped away in places, and now there’s an odd mixture of silver and brown.  At the ends of the parts that go behind your ears (what are those even called?), the silicone material that covers/rounds/softens the metal has curled up and twisted at the ends like the corners of an old book, and the metal is poking through one of them.  The glasses haven’t sat straight on my face for at least four years.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pop the lenses back into the frame. 

Somehow it feels like nearly everything else I own—and everything about my appearance, when I think about it—could be described in similar terms.  Shabby, functional, oblivious to the impression it makes.  My backpack has been with me through high school, college, Europe, and all of my Peace Corps service.  I have not traveled anywhere without it since my junior year, and it’s starting to look its age.  The bag’s black color is badly faded.  In Flores it got soaked with ocean water, which has drastically accelerated its aging.  Thus drowned my iPod, which had outlived its time in any case.  The zipper-handle of the little pocket cracked, and the zipper itself is too corroded to be opened (in fact it’s stuck in a semi-open position).  The same goes for the zipper of the minor pocket containing my sunglasses, which I haven’t opened in months.  At some point I’ll have to cut it open to get the sunglasses out.  Other pockets only open when forced by a ripping action.  There is now a four-inch slash in the small pocket, where somebody cut open my backpack and stole my digital camera on a bus.  I only discovered the theft the next day, so it was deftly done.

And then there’s my appearance.  I’m skinnier and lighter than I was in the US.  My hair is usually a big mess and I don’t really ever know what I want to do with it.  I shave once every two weeks or so, and the beard grows in patchy.  My clothes are awfully worn out.  Pants and casual shirts are faded and stretched, and almost nothing fits quite right.  I’m afraid my shoes won’t ever shine again.  Dress shirts have been stained by sweat around the collar, and a scent of mold clings to most of my clothing, as it does to my pillow, no matter how many times I wash the case.  If I use a blanket at all, it’s a thin, raggy sheet with grey and white stripes.  Thinking back over the last three or four years, I don’t remember more than one or two instances of buying myself new clothing.  I’ve always just worn what was given or gifted to me, or took something I found lying around for my own.  I don’t have any bags suitable for short-term travel, so I use a large green tote-bag originally intended for multiple-use at grocery stores.  When not employed as a travel bag, it doubles as a hamper.  I can and have lived for weeks out of those tattered black and green bags.  My wristwatch stopped working again, and this time I’ve procrastinated getting it fixed and serviced.  Sitting on my bed for several weeks, the leather strap was totally molded over until I wiped it down just before starting to write this.

Everything is shabby.

Most hours of the day I’m not conscious of my appearance or the appearance my belongings.  It doesn’t occur to me, so it doesn’t occur to me that it could be occurring to others, so I don’t feel much in the way of insecurity.  I simply forget to think about it.  But now, for whatever reason, I’m thinking about it.


There are six weeks left in my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  A couple weeks ago marked my two-year anniversary in Indonesia.  Last year I had a special post for the occasion, but this year it felt rather muted and even overshadowed by the sigh-heaving relief of the ID-6 Volunteers, who made it through their first year, and the arrival of the ID-7 trainees. 

I suppose I haven’t mentioned it on this blog yet, though everyone who knows me probably knows this anyway, but I’m entering the Master of Public Policy program at Duke University in the fall.  Getting the graduate school application process behind me was a big weight off my shoulders and allowed me to focus fully once again on the things happening in Indonesia.  People keep asking me whether I’m excited for grad school.  The answer is yes, but it’s not dominating my thoughts just now.  There’s a lot to think about before burying myself in books (but not snow, Jay). 

I just got done with iGLOW, a girls’ empowerment camp.  Before iGLOW, I was in Yogyakarta with Melanie, and before that in Surabaya.  Things have been really busy, and the coming months will remain so.  After my service finishes, I’ll tarry a while in the Gili Islands of Lombok, then fly to Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few weeks before going back to the US on July 2nd.  A month later I’ll be moving to Durham, North Carolina.  At that point I’ll be ready to get really excited about grad school.


Maybe it’s an inescapable consequence of being so close to the end, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these last two years.  The first eight months were a time of tremendous change and growth.  The second eight months were steadier, and gradually the perception of grand changes ground down, especially moving into the third eight months, when I had to begin balancing my service with preparations for the future.  I stopped counting the days a long time ago, and I’m not staring at the countdown as the end approaches.  Still, the closer it gets, the more I feel it’s the right choice for me to leave Indonesia and start something new. 

A few weeks ago, I had a VAC meeting in Surabaya.  At VAC meetings, PCV representatives meet with the top staff in country to discuss various programmatic concerns and generally facilitate communication between staff and PCVs.  One issue that was brought up was the amount of time PCVs spend out of their community.  Generally speaking, staff wants Volunteers to stay at their sites if they’re not on official holiday, and they suggest that Volunteers not be away for more than two days per month on personal business.  In reality, most PCVs are away from their sites more often—in some cases much more often.  This point led to a discussion about what a PCV whose entire work centers on their school (such as myself) is supposed to do with themself when school is canceled for weeks at a time. 

Should they just sit around doing nothing?

That question is an important one, and the staff’s answer is yes.  I already knew the answer and the reasoning, but hearing the explanation again revealed a lot to me about my current mindset.  Why should PCVs remain at their site, even when there is no school and nothing particularly interesting going on?  Because the very fact of our presence in our communities is valuable to the people in those communities.  Sitting around and doing “nothing” is never really nothing, no matter how boring it can be at times.  Being visible in our communities, being a part of our communities even when there’s nothing exciting happening, is one of the things that distinguishes Peace Corps Volunteers from the many other do-gooders to be found in the developing world.  Our presence and integration is a source of pride for our neighbors and builds fellowship among us.  That’s why it’s valuable, and that’s why we should stay put. 

And that’s how I know that Peace Corps isn’t for me anymore. 

Because staff is right: it is valuable, it is special, and it is what makes Peace Corps different.  But it’s not a job I want to do.  I’ve done it for a while now, however imperfectly, and I don’t want to keep doing it past my term of service. 

I like doing service work.  Working person-to-person has been satisfying and challenging, and I feel that I’ve given much of myself and received much in return.  The knowledge and experience gained over the last couple years mean that I have more potential to be effective now than I’ve ever had before. 

But I’m also weary, and I’m troubled by signs of remoteness that have become manifest recently. Other Volunteers (Erin and Martine, both with excellent insight) have written recently about the small talk/minor interactions that define a PCV’s experience in Indonesia and the attitude with which we approach those moments.  Though PCVs often feel that all the attention they receive is unfair, burdensome, and invasive, in reality it’s no individual’s fault.  To my mind, a perfect PCV would cheerfully engage with every inquiring stranger, despite the predictability and repetitiveness of such conversations, treating each situation as an opportunity to make a new friendship and increase mutual understanding.  No one is perfect, of course, and people often would rather be left alone with their thoughts or their music.

What disturbs me is the way I’ve evolved an ability to avoid such interactions altogether.  Something in the expression of my face, in the accent of my speech, in the posture of my body keeps most strangers from even initiating conversations with me anymore.  It’s not that I scowl, but I’ve learned how to project an aura of unapproachability and disinterest.  I’ve learned how to answer opening inquiries (“where are you from”, “how long have you been here”, etc.) with such brevity and indifference that they almost never lead to any longer conversations.  There was a time when I got into those conversations with great gusto.  I recognized their value and consistency with my role here as a PCV, and I wasn’t put off by their repetitiveness.  I was eager to see where they would wind up. 

But no longer.  I don’t enjoy the small talk with strangers, which does not lead to meaningful cultural exchange.  Perhaps I’ve been spoiled to work for a long time with counterparts at my school who are Indonesian and with whom I have had deep exchanges, both personally and culturally.  Whatever the cause, my heart longer buys the notion that such superficial interactions are truly valuable.  These days, only the truly determined cross that gulf of detachment (and those are the people who are more interesting to talk to).  I’ve become indifferent to compliments, which are given freely here as a matter of politeness.  I dislike being addressed in English, though it is done as a courtesy.  I loathe the fits of laughter that come over people who, after arguing among themselves about it, ask me if I can speak Indonesian and learn that I can.  I hate the cheap points I can get with people here by saying two words of Javanese, and I’ve come to avoid saying things I know will trigger overdone reactions, even though they would endear me to the person I’m speaking with.

Maybe that’s jadedness, but it’s not cynicism by any stretch.  I believe that what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved with my counterparts and colleagues has been meaningful for everyone involved.  Earlier today I watched as three of my counterparts discussed how they could integrate a lesson on expressing opinions with a message for students to weigh the pros and cons of getting married young or waiting to get married.  It was immensely satisfying to watch these three teachers working with high expectations of themselves, viewing the planning meeting not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to make a difference in kids’ lives.  We’ve made it to this point together, through so many ups and downs.  These two years have been well-spent for me, and I would make the same choice again in a heartbeat. I believe that the PCVs here are doing something good and worthwhile and that this program deserves to grow. 

I’m just not the one to continue the work.  At least not in this capacity as a PCV.  I could continue working with Indonesians and with other PCVs, but I don’t want the restrictions and I don’t want to be bound by Peace Corps’ mode of community integration.  I’ve taken a lot from my experience here and learned more from it than I can articulate, but it’s time to move on.   

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tigergate Revisited

More than three years ago, back when I started this blog, I posted this about the Tiger Woods scandal then brewing.  I was interested in the public and media reaction to the whole thing, and I thought we were entering the second act of a very old story structure:

Act I: The Rise
Act II: The Fall
Act III: The Redemption

My prediction was: Tiger will be back, both in golf and in the public's good graces.  

This week, we officially enter Act III, as Nike's new ad confirms.

(Still, I guess this is no real revelation considering what happened with Michael Vick.)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I mean, brothers and sisters...

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…For the present form of this world is passing away.

The passage above comes from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, which advises the members of that church on how to conduct themselves in order to avoid sin and in the face of Jesus’s impending return. 

He hasn’t come back yet, but the line often comes to mind when I feel that an end is drawing near.  Naturally, then, it’s been popping up in my thoughts this whole last month.  Here we are, a month of 2013 already behind, and a hair over four months of service remaining.  I’ve been in Indonesia for close to two years now, and the finish line is in sight.  It does feel as if the present form of my world shall soon begin to pass away.

Right now, the ship is skimming lightly over glassy waters.  Having begun my transition to sustainability last semester, it honestly feels as if there is little left to do at my school other than keep things running smoothly.  Of course, there are some things to finish up and I am not ready to leave today.  Yet I do not feel pressure to initiate any new, ambitious projects in order to establish a “legacy”.  With regard to school, the first month of this final semester was probably more free of stress than any month since I arrived.  I suppose that is as it should be. 

Something I’ve learned: life as a PCV changes almost completely over the course of service.  Gone are the days of feeling bewildered by local customs, angry at perceived injustice, or high on empowerment.  I’m like a broken wing: unflappable.* Earlier in service, I could not envision developing a routine like the one I’ve got now.  Everything is so normal.  It’s odd to think about.  Even the prospect of occasional trips to Surabaya, where I can enjoy food and drink and liberty, no longer sets me afire as it once did.  It’s pleasant, no doubt, but I don’t yearn for it. 

Two years ago,  I could not imagine being this familiar with my environment.  Sometime last semester, I started seeing this place as my home, not just my site.  The significance is not just semantic.  Seeing my school and house as my home have changed the way I think about everything.  Service seems less like service, and I feel less like a Volunteer.  The pervasive fervor of early days has cooled off, and I no longer even notice many of the things that would have shocked or outraged me when I arrived.  The clearest sign of the change, to me, is the feeling that I have a life at work and a private life, and the two do not need to overlap.  When I was new here, the two lives were completely tangled.   Work was life, life was work, and, in a way, the unity was beautiful.  Everything happening to me on the inside was a result of everything happening to me in my work. 

As time has moved on, however, that unity has dissolved and I have come to see my inner and outer lives as quite separate.  There is one storyline at work and another storyline in private, just as it was before PC.  This is what makes it feel like home.  It’s not the intense learning experience that it used to be…just the new normal.

I am not sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand it’s very comfortable, often rather pleasant, and it’s a relief not to be burdened by stress in the evenings.  On the other, I am a challenge-seeker, and I don’t know how long I can keep up feeling satisfied doing something this easy.  If I didn’t know that the end was near, I would be feeling mighty restless.  I’m not exactly itching to get out, but there is a certain level of excitement building.  I want to know what comes next.

At least I’m not dying of anticipation.  I feel pretty calm.  In about six weeks I should hear back from the five graduate programs I applied to.  I have submitted an application for extension of Peace Corps service as well.  Extending service is one option I would like to have in the event that things don’t work out with grad schools.  So, for all you kind people inclined to ask me what I’m going to be doing after this stint of service is over: I will be able to answer you in mid- to late-March.  I’m looking forward to having some answers.

* The exception to this equanimity is my unquenchable hatred of most public buses and bus terminals, which are the domain of villains. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Top Albums of 2012

I kind of want to call this The 3rd Annual Thought Porridge Awards, but nothing is actually awarded.

Is it December already?  It must be, because the internet is filling up once more with all sorts of Best of 2012 lists.  Loyal readers of this blog will already be familiar with TP’s stance when it comes to ranking art.  For newcomers: In short, I think that presenting one’s opinion as fact is the height of presumption and precisely the sort of behavior that causes true artists to hold the media and the masses in contempt. 

With that in mind, it bears repeating that this list does not claim any of these albums to be the best of anything.  This list is subjective.  It contains my favorite albums that I discovered, or first paid real attention to, in 2012.  The albums themselves could have been produced in any year, but they must be more or less “new” to me.

Lastly, if you find you really enjoy this, let me make a plug for my 2011 and 2010 lists.


The list is in alphabetical order by band, not in order of my favorites.  Neurotic readers will note that this was bad year for the second half of the alphabet.


1.  Beach House – Bloom (2012)

Last year I wrote that the band Exitmusic was a bit like Beach House, but way better.  Evidently, Beach House read my blog and decided to serve me up a plate of crow.  All their previous stuff has been melodic and sometimes very pretty, but glum and soporific.  Not so with this album.  The first track, “Myth”, is among my top five favorite tracks of the year.  It seems like found themselves a good producer or got into a good studio, because they’ve finally turned up the volume on the drums and the bass.  They injected enough pop into the music to make it listenable, and the product is a really satisfying album.

I mean, I assume the album is satisfying…I’ll tell you when I stop listening to the first track on repeat.  Just kidding.  Maybe.  But, no, really, the album’s good.  Except for in the last track, which is 16 minutes and really just two songs separated by 7 minutes of silence.  Musicians across the world, could you please, please stop having long-ass gaps of total silence in your songs?  There’s nothing artsy about it, it’s just irritating. 

2.  Bear in Heaven – Beast Rest Forth Mouth (2009)

Between Grizzly Bear and Minus the Bear and Bear in Heaven, my musical life is starting to get furry.  This is a band I’d never heard of until I visited the US.  I was driving around in South Florida with Craig in his car.  Most of you don’t know Craig, but you should know that over the last six years his car has been a place of many wonderful musical discoveries for me.  Craig used to be a CD purist, paying top dollar for high quality sound, but these days he’s abandoned his principles and often enjoys the tunes on his iPod through a shabby little cable that hooks into the tape deck in his car.  Combined with age and electronic infirmity, that has set back the formerly rich sound quality.  Sadly, that’s the first way I heard this album, so naturally I didn’t appreciate it the first time around.  Nonetheless, I downloaded it later and listened to it through high quality headphones, and I found it fascinating.  Like so many albums that I love, the songs really flow well into one another, which provides cohesiveness.  They’ve definitely got a kickass drummer (not something I often notice).

It’s one of those albums where you don’t know what you think of it as a whole the first few times, but you get attached to a couple songs.  Then, as you keep listening, different songs start appealing to you, and sounds and riffs that you didn’t care for at first begin to please the ear.  And some things get to you right away: the buildup and chorus in “Ultimate Satisfaction” and that bass/guitar/keyboard sound that could only be described as towering (though “epic” might work) halfway into “Deafening Love”. 

3.  Bear in Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool (2012)

What?  Two albums by the same artist on the same list?  It’s not unprecedented!  In 2010, Pink Floyd and Johnny Cash both got two albums on the list.  I heard Beast Rest Forth Mouth first, but the newer I Love You, It’s Cool might be the one I prefer.   Like BRFM, it’s got these very non-traditional melodies and song structures, odd assortments of sounds that need some getting used to.  One big difference is that, while BRFM featured songs that felt like they fit within more traditional indie rock instrumentation, the songs in ILYIC are thick with spacey, keyboard-driven sounds.  Heavy reverb on the vocals and distant-sounding drums give the album a much more atmospheric feel.  It sounds both newer and older; ’80s-ish,  but in a good way. 

Both of these Bear in Heaven albums are ones that I could find annoying in the wrong mood, but incredibly satisfying when I’ve got a craving.  They’re highly cohesive and weird enough that you wouldn’t really just listen to them in the background or put them on casually for your friends.  They need some attention and flexibility.  Without meaning to put them on par with Radiohead, but it’s a little similar to the way I feel about Kid A/Amnesiac: In the right mood, it’s amazing.  In the wrong mood, I just don’t have the patience.

4.  Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be? (2009)

This album kind of sneaks onto the list, not because I fell in love with it, but because it’s served pretty well over the last year.  It’s almost breaking my own rule to put it here, because I first heard it two years ago and it’s not like I hadn’t already heard it.  But for some reason, starting back when I was in a major funk in January, I began listening to What Will We Be more often.  When you’re feeling a bit melancholy, what song might start you feeling better than one called “Can’t Help But Smiling”?  That’s the opening track.  Throughout the year I’d put this one on and let my mind wander.  One strange thing is that there aren’t any truly great, life-changing tracks, but there are a bunch that you’ll find yourself humming for days after listening to the album (“Angelika”, “Baby”).  Devendra, being the playful weirdo that he is, can deliver his funny little lyrics in a way that just makes me chuckle. 

Reflecting his nature as a musician, the album has all sorts of tracks.  You get emotional stuff  (“First Song for B”), garage-rock jams (“Rats”), psychedelic folk (“Meet Me at Lookout Point”), rock that sounds like a road movie ones (“Goin’ Back), and a smattering of all the other critters running around in his brain.  I hope for the world’s sake that someday he puts together a concentrated, cohesive album.  What he could do if he focused all that talent…it’d be something to behold.

5.  Empire of the Sun – Walking on a Dream (2008)

I confess: This is my guilty pleasure of 2012.  I’m a couple years late to this party, I know.  The Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia like to swap playlists as a way to get to know each other, and I found songs by Empire of the Sun on several different playlists.  “Walking on a Dream”, “We Are the People”, and “Country” are just so flippin’ catchy.  When I listened to the whole album, I had a whole-soul eye-roll at myself.  I couldn’t deny that I found it super catchy and listenable, but it also felt decadent and overwrought.  I mean, look at that album cover.  Siegfried & Roy go to some alien planet, where there are tigers, elephants, futuristic cities, Chinese junk ships, deserts, active volcanoes, space stations, and what appears to be a palantír from Middle Earth.  And white Mickey Mouse gloves (!).

Uncomfortably similar, no?
But I’m not hating.  That way over-the-top sulky singing voice, the Aussie falsetto, the simple strumming timed exactly with the backbeat…many songs on the album just make me want to keep hearing them, which I think is the definition of catchy.  I have no idea if the lyrics mean anything.  I’ve never been able to figure if the songs are actually about something.  I’m too distracted by all the shiny sounds.  For me, listening to the elicits the same reaction as looking at the cover art: Are these guys serious?  Well, actually, I kind of like it…


6.  Exitmusic – Passage (2012)

The first sounds you hear on this album are two piano chords and a crunching sound (presumably a guitar being plugged into its amplifier).  That crunching sound echoes several times, and that tells you a lot about what this album sounds like.  Most of the album swims through echo and reverb.  It’s as thick as honey, if not so sweet.  I guess the opposite of this thick sound would be a “crisp” sound.  Anyway, I’m not complaining.  Though I don’t love this album to the degree that I loved the EP that preceded it (which was on last year’s list), it does have a greater range of sounds and emotions.  The way that Aleksa Palladino sings is pretty interesting.  She howls and yowls and growls, sometimes she’s breathy and sometimes full-throated.

The album creates moods like giant banks of stormclouds, rolling and thundering off in the distance, evoking deep greys and blacks and bolts of white and purple lightning.  Listening to the album is like watching that massive storm arrive.  There is a dark vastness to the sound, but whether you feel that the vastness is pregnant or empty depends on your mood.

7.  How to Destroy Angels – How to Destroy Angels EP (2010)

An odd chain of connections led me to listen to this band.  I was a fan of the soundtrack of The Social Network by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.  Then I saw the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was awesome.  The soundtrack to that film was really reminiscent of The Social Network, and I saw that it was indeed done by the same dudes.  So I got the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is almost 3 hours long, and only two songs have vocals.  The final song (“Is Your Love Strong Enough?”) was performed by Trent Reznor’s other project, called How to Destroy Angels.  And it so happened that I got addicted to that song and had to get my hands on other work by How to Destroy Angels.  I’ve never really listened to Nine Inch Nails, but I’ve always sort of liked that industrial sound.  HtDA is what people call “post-industrial”.  It seems I get easily into anything that’s “post”.  So, long story long, I got this EP.

What can I say?  It’s not the greatest music of all time, but I really like it.  HtDA is good brooding and background music for writing, rather like the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The EP is heavy and melodic, even poppy in some places. The songs are extremely clean and precise, in the same way that albums by the Strokes are super precise. .  For me, albums like this are a counterweight to albums like those by Bear in Heaven, which are more challenging and can bring out a wide range of reactions.  How to Destroy Angels doesn’t challenge as much, which makes it pleasant, if that’s a word one can use to describe any music by Trent Reznor.

8.  Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters (2012)

Hundred Waters is a band from Gainesville, Florida, which, in addition to their music, practically makes us automatic best friends.  I’d never heard of them until a bunch of people I went to college with started linking to their website, where you could stream the entire album for free and even read all the lyrics.  The first song that drew me in was “Caverns”, with its tinkling and sparkling and splashing and echoes, and how Nicole Miglis, the singer, somehow whispersings the first few lines to make it sound like she’s right there, and you are too, in an immense, glittering cavern.  After hearing it for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Sometime before visiting the United States in August,  I got hold of this album, which I found engrossing.  These are some serious musicians.  I saw a video of Nicole Miglis playing a recital of a rousing ballade by Chopin at the University of Florida and spent the next hour telling anyone who’d listen that I was just going to have to quit Peace Corps and marry the girl before someone else did.

The album, especially in the first half, is like a wonderful canvas painted in a million colors.  The songs all have different structures and often end up in completely different places than they started.  Really, I don’t have the words to capture everything I like about it.  It reminds me of Björk, in the way that she’s so nonstandard.  Nothing about this album feels regular or normal; it just feels fresh and honest and bold—and often rather wacky.  Not every moment is good, and there are a couple moments where the songs get a little carried away.  Still, the songs flow well into one another, and I’m excited because it feels like their best work is ahead of them.  Some of my strongest associations with this album are with first getting back to the US, reading the book Kafka on the Shore, and having people look at me like a crazy person for suggesting that I would leave Indonesia to marry a girl I’d never met.

9.  Idan Raichel – The Idan Raichel Project (2006)

Like What Will We Be, this album also kind of sneaks onto the list through the back door.  I might be violating my own rules by putting it on the list, seeing as I’ve had this album for close to four years already, but I’ve only recently started appreciating it as a whole.  I suppose it was for the same reasons.  Some songs on this album just have the power to bring me gently out of a down mood.  Listening to those songs got me listening to album in its entirety more often, and my appreciation grew.

Some people call this world music, but that’s a lame and rather flimsy term.  Idan Raichel is an Israeli musician.  I first heard of him through my friend Leo.  The songs on this album are in Hebrew and Amharic, and there’s just a huge range of moods and styles.  It’s clear that a lot of different musicians worked on this.  I love how different it is to much of the music I listen to.  I love the melodies that you wouldn’t hear in purely Western music.  And I like that I can’t understand the lyrics.  When you don’t know the meaning of the words, you’re free to focus more on the music and on the way a language actually sounds.  Half of poetry is about the way words sound rather than what they mean, and it’s much easier to concentrate on that forgotten side of lyricism when interpreting meanings is impossible.  Particular favorites from this album include “Bo’ee”, “Mi Maamakim”, and “Ulai Ha Pa am”.


More Thoughts

So that’s my list.  Truth be told, this was not a strong year for new music in my life.  There are only nine albums on the list because I just wouldn’t have felt right squeezing any others there.  There were plenty of albums and bands that I heard for the first time and quite liked, but overall I find this list weaker than the last two years.  I heard a lot of pretty good albums this year, but I don’t think I would call any of them truly great.  Nothing blew me away like The Age of Adz or The People’s Key or Homogenic or The Flying Club Cup or ( ). 

Is this a function of getting older?  I wonder if, as you age, it becomes harder and harder for new music to get deep down into your soul.  Maybe that’s not the case, and I surely hope it isn’t.  This could just have been a fluke of a year.  It also doesn't help that I listened to practically no new music all the way through July.  I had a long drought, whereas in 2010 and 2011 I was consistently listening to new stuff.  Maybe this is all to be expected.


Honorable Mentions & Random Stuff

·       The XX – xx (2009)
o   Interesting stuff, very catchy.  The only thing is it's a bit hard for me to connect deeply to the lyrics, at least at this point in my life. 

·      Grizzly Bear – Shields (2012)
o   Some really good stuff on this album.  It was next in line to make the real list, but I didn’t give it enough listens.  The songs are a bit more energetic than previous Grizzly Bear stuff, which I like.  And “Gun Shy” is insanely addictive.

·      Incubus made a comeback on my radar, thanks to Melanie (who, incidentally, has made her own Top Albums list for 2012, so check it out).  Takes me way back to high school.  Also got a lot of individual tracks from her that gave me something to think about.  Does admitting that I really enjoy Ryan Adams’s version of “Wonderwall” and John Mayer’s “Free Fallin’” mess with my indie cred?
·      The song “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes almost deserves its own place on the list.  That song was crucial for me in the early parts of this year.

·      James Blake went up a couple notches in my estimation, as I found myself some evenings actually craving songs other than “The Wilhelm Scream”.

·      The song “To Build a Home” by the Cinematic Orchestra was a three-day obsession.  I love that kind of piano.

·      The compilation album “Dark Was the Night” has some really, really great stuff on it.  Any person looking for a good variety of indie music should check it out.

·      The songs “Spread” and “Roses” by OutKast from the album The Love Below.  I’m many years behind everyone else on this, but I swear, those songs were new to me and I could not stop laughing anytime I heard them.

·      “When I’m Small” by Phantogram.

·      Probably no song puts me in a better mood than “We’re From Barcelona” by the band…wait for it…I’m From Barcelona.  Note: They are Swedish.

·      Gave a lot of attention to Eminem’s Recovery, renewed my appreciation for the amount of technical skill that guy has.  It’s seriously absurd.

·      It wasn’t eligible to make it onto the list because I’ve already listened to plenty, but Jose Gonzalez’s In Our Nature has been getting a lot of love from me recently.  That’s a really damn good album.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How are you?

When people ask me how I'm doing—I mean actually ask, not out of politeness—I think they must see the perplexity on my face and fill the initial lack of a response with their own conjecture.  I usually have no answer ready. After that it’s an uphill battle to convince them that I’m not actually doing badly, and I’m probably doing well, even.  But the reality is I’m not sure exactly how I’m doing right now.  Somehow ever since getting back from the USA in late August, it hasn’t been quite clear to me. 

There was a long stretch where I think I was, for the first time, battling boredom and isolation.  Boredom because this is my second year, and everything is more familiar.  School is easier, and though there are some unique second-year challenges, it does not take up the same share of my attention as it did this time last year.  Isolation because there was a six-week stretch during which I only spent two nights outside of my village.  I was left with a lot of time to myself, and most of my spare mental energy was devoted to considerations and preparations for life after Peace Corps (which, in turn, only increased the detachment I felt from my physical environment). 

I’m applying to six graduate schools for programs in International Affairs/Public Affairs/Public Policy.  My applications are mostly finished, and I will submit them in the next six weeks or so.  I should hear back from the schools in mid-March, and I think that should be about the time I decide what to do with myself after these 27 months have passed.  A third year in Indonesia remains an option.  A lot depends on finances and where I see the best opportunity for myself.  I’m not worried about it now, and I find that since I’ve paused working on graduate applications, I’ve felt better about life.  I have been in more contact with other Volunteers, which always lifts my spirits, and I mustered the discipline to take care of a few things at school that had been nagging at me. 


One strange thing I’ve noticed since returning from the US: I don't miss it at all anymore.  I wasn’t homesick before going, but from time to time I would find myself longing for something specific to the US—or more precisely, something specifically not available to me in Indonesia.  Physical comforts, foods, entertainments, activities.  That longing has disappeared to a degree I would scarcely have believed possible.  Lately, nothing in me has been reaching back across the ocean, and it feels like my sense of home has been uprooted. 

The other day I was trying to think of where I would feel most at home, and the image that came to my mind was looking out over the smooth sea in Sulawesi with DP and John and Elle and Nicole.  The friends I have here…well, any accurate characterization of my fondness for them would sound preposterously exaggerated.  For me, it seems the idea of home in any given place only achieves resonance when people are added to the picture.  Very few people still live in the places in Florida that I used to call home.


Growing up, I’m realizing more and more that being an adult often means living far away from the people you really care about.  At least in my generation and demographic.  It’s easy enough to see why: everyone is pursuing their own best interest, and now that the world is massive web of niches and opportunities, it’s both natural and highly probable to end up separated from your close friends. But it makes me stop to think about my priorities.  The two things that make me happiest are being utterly engrossed in a project and being in a cocoon of love and friendship.  I need to be wary not to lose sight of that and strive to keep them in balance.

I have read that people’s happiness as they age is a U-curve.  They are happy as children and young adults and become steadily unhappier until their forties, after which they seem to figure things out and they get happier as they grow old.  Well, I don’t want to be 40 before I figure out that I’ve arranged my life in a way that makes me unhappy.


Less than seven months remain in this commitment.  Close to three-quarters through.  It is interesting to see how the pace of blogging has slowed to a crawl among my cohort.  No one, including me, feels like sharing all that much.  I write infrequently because I don’t really know what to say anymore.  I no longer need to write to process my environment.  And I have little motivation to try to make people understand what I’m living.  No one in the USA or Europe who reads this is going to absorb the details or get a true notion of my life and work here, unless they talk to me regularly and at length.  And, of course, why should they be all that interested?  I’m not asking everyone the gritty details about their lives and jobs.  Ha, speaking truly, the person outside of Indonesia who I feel has the clearest and deepest understanding of my life here is my mother.  She asks good questions.

But that does explain why these Peace Corps friendships are so precious.  I feel it more and more—as long as I live, these friends I’ve made over the sea will never be replaceable.  No one will ever get it like they do.  It’s a remarkable phenomenon, the way friendships form here.  It was something I looked forward to before joining Peace Corps and something I could not truly anticipate before getting here.  I am so grateful.

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