Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Top 10 Albums of 2010

I don't know if it's just Americans, but people are obsessed with Top 10 lists. As there are ten days left in this year, it's pretty much impossible not to see them everywhere. And I'll admit, I look at them, and I've always been tempted to make my own. So here it is: Tim's 10 favorite albums of 2010.

This being my list, I get to make the rules. First of all, this is not a ranking of albums that were released in 2010. God knows I'm not that hip; I definitely do not listen to enough new music to even have an opinion on this (though I will go so far as to say that Kanye's new album is NOT the best, nor will any album Kanye ever puts out [looking at you, Matt]). Rather, this list covers the albums that were most important/meaningful/significant to me during the year of 2010, but they could have been produced in any year. These have to be albums that I listened to primarily in 2010, and that I would not place on any previous year's lists, even though there are no such lists.

Also, even though this is a Top 10, I reserve the right to list more or fewer than ten, because I'm the boss of this blog. Important to note is that, even though these are numbered, the ranking is not in order. And lastly, this isn't really a judgment of which albums are best, just a judgment of which have meant the most to me this year.

So, without further ado, my favorite albums of the last year:

1. Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2007)
I know I pretty much just said that this isn't a ranking in order, but this album is near the top. I listened to it a LOT between late February and probably May. The first thing I associate with it is a walk I took through the woods on the Hönggerberg in spring. It was clear and cold, and there was still a bit of snow on the ground, but there was a lot of mud on the trails. I walked for some two hours, and listened to the whole album (and some other album, which I can't recall). The second thing I associate is finishing the book Gilead, which feeling paralleled the feeling of the album: Emotional and peaceful in the same moment. It is beautiful music, and at times it can get frenetic, but it exudes and instills a sense of peace. And if you look at that cover art and listen to the first track, you pretty much envision a bunch of people running around naked through the countryside, which is fantastic.


2. Björk - Vespertine (2001)


As soon as I began listening to the first track, "Hidden Place", I felt that this one was going to be good. I was actually thinking, Please don't let her mess this album up, it starts out so freaking badass. I wasn't disappointed. I believe I first listened to this album in late July, and I listened a lot at least until October, and still do relatively often. It's got beautiful, richly layered songs. It mixes interesting electronic beats, lush synthetic harmonies, and, of course, Björk's completely unique voice. Her voice is powerful, her intonation is exotic, and many of her lyrics don't make much sense. Everything is about the mood (like listening to Sigur Rós, it really doesn't matter what she's saying) and the delivery. My first association with this album is lying on my back on a bench outside my empty hostel in Tobel, Switzerland, staring up at the midnight sky and watching for meteors. In the countryside the sky is less cluttered with light pollution and more cluttered with stars. I listened to the album from start to finish, and I saw a handful of lightstreaks and two slashes of fire. I also have a lot of different associations listening to this album while traveling through Germany and Ireland, especially in Berlin and Dublin.


3. Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More (2009)


I first heard of this band and album while I was in Dublin. The girls who had invited me to couchsurf with them, Carina and Maite, were on a Mumford kick, and hanging around their house, I probably heard the whole album four or five times. I thought it was pretty all right the first time, and I liked it more and more as I li
stened. Above-average lyrics, ballad-type songs that are great to sing along with, emotional moments, some kickass banjo, and pleasing melodies -- it just grew on me. It's folk with an infectious energy. When I think of this album, I have the most wonderful memory of sitting on the sofa in that flat near Croak Park on the north side of the Liffey, watching Carina and Maite dancing around the kitchen and singing along. The song "Little Lion Man" made it onto the playlist I listen to while running. And I'll be damned if it doesn't feel like dancing while that song plays and I dash through the neighborhood at night.


4. Julian Casablancas - Phrazes
for the Young (2009)


What were the chances I wouldn't get this album? Zero. I started listening to it around springtime, and it was a staple for me through the entire summer. Any time you need some energy, all you have to do is start at the first track. I've got a lot of images in my mind of moving through Zurich on trams and buses, sun shining, with an extra bounce in my step. I remember many nights running up the hill and looking down at the lights of Zurich while the energy of Phrazes coursed through my body. I suppose it's impossible to talk about JC without also talking about the Strokes -- this album is much more like the third album, and it takes the sound into even more of a pop direction. But in a good way. There is less distortion and more keyboards, but the sound is far from bland. The lyrics are interesting, as you would expect. I don't know any other person out there who could howl about "the afterlife of supercities" and make it sound so damn good. Actually, it's a lot more complex than the Strokes, and JC pushes his voice into all kinds of directions. Probably the one thing he doesn't do is sound bored/disillusioned, the way he did in the early Strokes albums. There's a lot of the joie de vivre in this album, and I know it got inside of me this spring and summer.


5. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog (2007)

I first heard parts of this album back when it came out in 2007, but I never actually sat down for a listen. I got around to it in late winter and early spring, and I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the songs are faster paced (one is even a straight-up jam) than the older Iron and Wine, though there are still plenty of the slower folky ones. I gained a new appreciation for how good of a songwriter Sam Beam is. And if I can be honest, this album really fed my nostalgia for the US while I was in Europe. So many of the images in the lyrics come from the landscapes of the South, where I had lived for the last few years. I particularly remember walking Sheleg, my friend's beautiful husky, through snowy woods in the evening with this song playing through my earphones. Also, walking through the countryside and watching a sunset light up the clouds.


6. Kaki King - Dreaming of Revenge (2008)


I heard of Kaki King through a live music blog in Zurich, and she sounded interesting, so I downloaded a few albums. This would have been around April or May. I've always had a weakness for layered music with soft vocals, or no vocals at all. It's the perfect music to drift away to. This album is exactly that -- perfect for daydreaming or nightdreaming. She plays below her actual ability (she's an incredible guitarist), but she creates very pleasant melodies and harmonies. Even though her voice isn't very strong, you can tell she's singing with passion and that it means a lot to her. And then, purely instrumental songs like "Montreal" are just beautiful. Some songs remind me of El Ten Eleven, and others remind me of the Books. I often listened to this album while lying in bed or reading. I probably listen to it just as often now as I did back then. Also, I have a crush on Kaki, which sadly will never come to anything because she doesn't like boys.


7. Johnny Cash - American III: Solitary M
an and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2000 and 2002)


Woah, boy. I was missing out on Johnny Cash for a long time, but I finally came across American IV in January or February. Not much later, I also got American III. It's not that I love every track on both albums. I love some of them, but more than that, I just can't help but love Johnny Cash. To be doing this kind of thing in his late 60's and early 70's -- it's just mind-boggling. You don't often think of septuagenarians bringing a breath of fresh air to classics from all decades, but that's exactly what Cash does. Some of the songs are beautiful, powerful ("Hurt", "The Mercy Seat", "The Man Comes Around"), and others make you laugh ("Sam Hall"), but more than anything, this pair of albums is inspiring. There's no vanity in this music.

8. Tool - 10,000 Days (2006)


I had had this album for a good long time before actually giving it a real chance. I never listened much to Tool until this year, though I had always respected them and liked what I heard. I started listening in the winter, and I continued throughout the year. I love how Tool mixes the heavy and the melodic. It's not annoying, like a lot of metal. Some songs are terribly powerful (e.g. 10,000 Days [Wings Part 2]). The lyrics are poignant, never really frivolous or filler. Some address social issues, others personal issues, others philosophical. It's deep, and it's complex. The length of the songs allows for incredible buildups, and if you listen you can feel the sounds spatially. I don't know if there's anyone as good as Maynard at carrying melodies past the climax of a song. My associations with this album are all over the place -- some with reading books and contemplating space travel, some with riding on the bus to work at the bike shop, some with grocery shopping. [As a note, it wasn't just this album -- I was listening to a good deal more from Tool, but I just decided to pick the one I listened to the most. I know Tool fans regard this one as inferior to Lateralus and Aenima, so forgive my noobness]


9. Pink Floyd - The Wall and Meddle (1979 and 1971)


This might be the strangest pairing, considering these albums came out eight years apart, but I was listening to them at the same time, so I don't care. At the end of last December and the beginning of January, I started on a Pink Floyd kick that would last at least until the end of February. I finally started really appreciating the story of The Wall, and the awesomeness of the songs "Echoes" and "One of these Days" hardly needs elucidation. The most powerful memory I have is of stepping off a train in Switzerland on a snowy afternoon just at the moment in the song "Hey You" just at the moment that those heavy, moaning guitars kick in. I tell you, that was perfect. Also, driving up the California coast with my brother, Jon, listening to Meddle and realizing how much our tastes actually coincide. And staring up at the field of stars in Big Sur, listening to "Is There Anybody Out There?". And driving around in Boca with Craig randomly bursting out with lines from "The Trial".

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cleared!

Just like those most helpful commenters told me...medical clearance is in!

YES!

Now for placement...

As a side note, I think maybe I'll create one of those timelines.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Oh Snap! (PC#7)

I'm a bit surprised at how calm I've been through the waiting periods of this whole application process. While I was still in Switzerland, I felt some anxiety about getting it done on time, and I was intimidated by the stories of medical clearance black holes. But things have pretty much progressed smoothly. I've kept all my appointments, results have come in quickly and completely, and I have not had to do too much extra for the application.

I've been a bit lax in updating this blog, but maybe I'm just the kind of person who likes to report big events (or lots of small events in one shot), rather than bulletins for each new bit of news. Whatever I am, there is some news to report, and good news it is!

On December 2nd, I got an update telling me that my medical materials had been received and were under review. Two days later, I got another update telling me I had gained dental clearance. And this morning, I got another update, and my medical evaluation is complete:

"Complete. A decision has been reached regarding your medical review. Please look for a letter in the mail."

Incredible! They've had the thing for less than two weeks, and the review is complete? It seems too good to be true. I'm nervous that the "decision" that was reached is -- Sorry, buddy, we've decided that you have to jump through hoops X, Y, and Z. I don't know. Does anyone who reads this blog know if that is the standard language for medical clearance, or a precursor of more hurdles, or even, God forbid, rejection? I mean, the little medical box in the Peace Corps toolkit has a check in it, and the only unchecked item is the Place evaluation.

I'm a little uneasy, but optimistic.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Waiting Game (PC#6)

wooooohooooOOOOOOOOoooOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111111111111111oneoneoneoneone

It's out of my hands, baby. The evil medical clearance packet of death from Hell is on its way to Washington, where it will surely gather dust for the next month or two while I wait nervously for an answer and watch the calendar move ever closer to mid-February. For, my friends, if I am indeed to go to Asia in early April, the last day I could possibly receive the invitation would be approximately February 14th. If things aren't squared away by then, chances are I'll be going someplace I haven't been mentally preparing myself for.

On Tuesday evening I got a Polio booster shot, and on Wednesday I mailed away the medical packet, including the dental stuff. The person at the UPS store said it should arrive the middle of next week. I eagerly await the thrill of seeing a change in my application status on the Peace Corps web site. But I pretty much dread the waiting game. So many people just get stuck here. Not hearing anything. For months. And the fact that I've got 2.5 months to go before my "cutoff" date makes me wonder if I won't be left hanging for most of that time.

But whatever. I've done what I can do. I'm healthy and there's no reason in the world for them to deny me, so I'm going to trust that this is going to work out.

And now....what exactly? I've got more than four months before my earliest possible departure. What exactly do I do with myself? Maybe save what money I can and go on a trip. I've already saved some, and I've already proved to myself that I can travel cheap and lightly, so a bit of cash could go far. These tutoring gigs that I've got going have been a veritable cow, and I've been milking those metaphorical cash-teats for the last month.

As I pointed out in some earlier post, Indonesia seems the most likely destination at the moment. Accordingly, I've been reading the blogs of current PCVs in Indonesia. The program is really new, so the current batch are the first batch. It's made me excited for spicy food, crazy landscapes, nice natives, and the necessity of warp-speed friendmaking. I am also jealous that the Indonesia PCVs got to meet Obama on his recent visit. That must have been damn cool.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

One thing left (PC#5)

Mmmm, today I went back up to the VA hospital for my appointment there. I got the doctor's final sign-off on my medical packet and picked up all the lab reports from the blood work and the x-ray. The only thing left to do is take care of either getting a polio booster shot or a polio titer, neither of which they do at the VA. But I looked on passporthealthusa.com, and they have a center like five minutes away from my house where I can get a booster. So that's the last thing. I'll just have to get that as soon as possible next week, and then...fertig. By the end of next week, this packet will be in the mail and out of my hands.

Hopefully, I'll never have to see it again. But I'm afraid of the waiting game...other people go nine, ten weeks without hearing anything.

It'll all work out.

Friday, October 29, 2010

(PC#4) Man walks out of a building...

arm in pain after getting shot in it, missing a lot of blood. Someone says, "Son, you need to see a doctor!" Man replies, "That's a hospital back there, buddy."

I don't really know how those jokes are supposed to go.

Anyway, the last two days were pretty active for Peace Corps business. Tuesday morning I went to the dentist, which went splendidly. The office was about five minutes away from my house, the dentist was a very affable fellow with friendly (and cute, I might add) assistants, and it went off without a hitch. I got my Panorex x-rays -- with bitewings, of course -- and Dr. A checked out my mouth. He complimented my hygiene and said everything looked perfect. And there's no sign that I'll ever have to get my wisdom teeth out, praise Allah. No cavities or gum problems, no further work needed. He just told me to make sure I take extra care of my teeth in Asia because the water will probably not be fluoridated. So dental is done!

Tuesday afternoon I drove up to the VA hospital in West Palm to have my physical. I thought I was going to need additional trips to draw blood, get blood results, do any immunizations, perhaps even an X-ray for my shoulder; I thought I might need an additional appointment with a specialist about my shoulder. But here's how it actually went down:

I got in there, gave the doctor the form with all the things that need to be filled out, and we got to work. He did the physical, ordered all the blood tests, ordered a tetanus booster shot, a PPD to test for tuberculosis, and ordered an X-ray for my shoulder. After the physical, I got the booster in my arm, the PPD in my forearm, then went and got five or six vials of blood drawn, peed in a cup, and got my shoulder X-rayed. All in one trip! I was a bit nervous with the blood tests because I hadn't fasted, and I've read a few horror stories about blood tests coming back screwy because people had eaten too recently. But the doctor assured me that none of the tests I needed would be affected by eating. I had an appointment made for Thursday (two days later) so that they could check the PPD to see if I'd reacted to it and so the doc could examine the results of the X-ray.

Well, I went back today, and my expectations were exceeded AGAIN! Except I did have to wait an extra 40 minutes or so past the appointed time, but that's small potatoes. I didn't react at all to the PPD (there's supposed to be some kind of induration in your skin as a response to the protein they inject, and the larger the induration, the more there is to be concerned about), which was perfect. The doctor saw nothing abnormal in the X-rays, so he cleared my shoulder. And as icing on the cake, almost all my blood work was already done! HIV, CBC, the three Hep B's, Hep C, and my urinalysis were all taken care of (disease free!). The only lab test still missing was the G6PD titer, which has significance for the kind of medications one can take against malaria or other blood ailments, the doctor told me. Tests also showed that I'm immune to Varicella and MMR. The only thing I'm not sure about is if I'll still need a Polio booster.

Sooooo, in about a week I'll call the hospital to see if the final blood test has come in, and if so, then I'll make an appointment and have the doc finish up my medical packet, pick up documentation of all the blood work and the X-rays (plus make sure the Polio is taken care of), photocopy EVERYTHING, and mail all this crap back to the Office of Medical Clearance. Just to think, this could all be over with in the next couple weeks! And even with delays, more than a month would be very unlikely. Then it's just a matter of OMC getting around to actually going through my file. Reading other applicant blogs, some people are waiting six weeks and more after submitting their paperwork before hearing a single thing. And then they might also send it back because something is wrong. But I think not -- things will be in good order.

Things are actually going according to plan! I don't feel rushed or panicked or nervous. But with each little hurdle that gets cleared, I feel closer to service and things feel a little bit more real. It's exciting.

As a side note: getting a tetanus booster is no walk in the park. Whatever chemical that is makes your arm bruise and hurt for a few days afterwards. I woke up yesterday morning feeling like I'd been shanked.

Monday, October 25, 2010

PC Update #3: A couple notes

Well, it's been a few weeks since I posted any updates on what's actually been going on with me.

I came back to Florida on the 13th, about a week and a half ago. I've been trying to keep busy -- setting up my room, doing some cleaning/rearranging in the house, taking care of whatever Peace Corps business I can take care of at the current time, helping with chores, setting up some tutoring gigs for $$.

As far as Peace Corps stuff goes, Tuesday is a big day. In the morning I'm going to the dentist for the examination and the x-rays. In the afternoon, I'm heading to the VA hospital in West Palm for my physical exam. I think I'll be able to schedule the appointment for the lab work at that appointment, hopefully as soon as possible. Last week I got a signature from a specialist that I needed, and I picked up my immunization history from my high school. Looks like I'm going to need quite a few new shots. Pooey.

Also, I checked the Peace Corps Wiki site, where there's a great chart of staging dates for known invitations/locations. My nomination is for Asia in early April, and I've spotted an April 4th date for Indonesia. I had already thought that the two most likely countries of my service were Cambodia and Indonesia, with Cambodia being the most likely. Well, time to adjust that. Indonesia is in the lead! I would be thrilled to go to either one. My job is to make sure the rest of clearance goes smoothly so I can actually GO there. ...Tuesday is a big day!

The "It Gets Better" Snowball

Back in February or March I started listening to the Savage Love podcast by Dan Savage. For those who don't know, Dan Savage is an advice columnist who has gained considerable fame and a quite devout base of readers and listeners. Anyway, I find him entertaining and insightful, so I've listened to the weekly podcast since a friend introduced me to it.

Recently there has been a wave of reporting on teen suicides, especially gay teens, that seem to have been caused by bullying. There were a large number of stories about teens who were teased and harassed because they were gay, or simply perceived as gay. Listening to the podcast about a month ago, Dan Savage opened the show by talking about gay teen suicides and announcing the start of the It Gets Better Project. He said that his heart just broke thinking about these kids feeling so hopeless and alone, and simply wished that he could spend five minutes talking to them. The Project encouraged Dan Savage's readers and listeners to make YouTube videos sharing their own experiences -- their difficulties with bullying or persecution or family hardship when they were young, and how their lives have turned out since then.

Since then, thousands upon thousands of videos have been uploaded by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and even straight individuals to share their stories and encourage youths to stick it out, because life gets better. People grow up and they leave their hometowns and they find others who accept them and love them, and they have the freedom to be who they are and find work that the love to do and so on and so on. Many of the videos are truly inspiring.

It has been fascinating to watch the Project snowball over the last four or five weeks. Pretty soon some celebrities took notice and contributed their own videos. News networks interviewed Dan Savage. Social networks posted links to videos. Gay politicians have come out with their own stories, including this one, which is incredibly moving. Recently, very prominent national figures have made their own "It Gets Better" videos, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the man himself.

The attention the Project is receiving is really wonderful. Awareness must be raised, for this is an issue that has been chronically ignored. The one disappointing trend in the snowballing of It Gets Better is how impersonal the videos are becoming, especially the ones made by bigwigs. If you watch the videos by Obama and Hillary Clinton, you see they are terribly dry. They share no personal experiences. I mean, I would love to hear about Barack's days being bullied because he was mixed-race or the time Hillary was shoved in a locker because she was a total nerd. Something more than a perfunctory, "Like all of you, I was shocked and saddened to learn about the recent deaths of..." followed by an uninspired speech calling for change. I would expect more out of a master of hope delivery. The soul of It Gets Better is the personal touch, and if all these insincere videos come out, it's going to become like the American flag pin on the lapel -- something you have to put on, even if you don't really care or mean it.

That's a pretty minor gripe. Overall, it's a fantastic thing that the Project has gained such attention. Hopefully it will actually inspire some change in schools to protect kids from bullies and give enough encouragement to kids who are going through hard times to stick it out and give existence a real shot.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Losing Sucks.

Okay, it was inevitable that a football post would make its way onto this blog.

Last week, my beloved Gators got beat down by Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Painful as it was to watch us get smacked around by a superior team, the result was never really in doubt after the first quarter. In the second half, we even showed improvement, moving the ball up the field and keeping them from scoring any offensive touchdowns. We failed miserably when we came close to their endzone, but with a few instances of better execution, the game could have been closer. And it's Alabama, on the road, so who was actually expecting to win? Losing to a clearly superior team on the road sucks, but it doesn't hurt.

Tonight we lost at home to LSU in exactly the opposite kind of game. A nail-biting, down-to-the-wire, make-you-want-to-choke-someone-for-every-little-mistake-we-make classic heartbreaker. Showing so much heart to come back and take the lead, then relying on the strongest part of your team, the defense, to simply prevent a touchdown...and they couldn't do it. Couldn't snuff out the fake field goal, even though that should have been the top priority when they were attempting a 54-yarder to tie the game. Janoris Jenkins went for the kicker instead of containment, and the step-and-a-half he lost allowed Josh Jasper to squeak over the line for a first down. LSU got lucky the ball bounced straight up, that the toss over the placeholder's head was perfectly lateral, that Jenkins went the wrong way...but what the hell, man?

And then they were still way far off from the endzone, and even a field goal from that spot would have been closer to a 50-yarder than a 40-yarder. But then another breakdown in coverage and inability to tackle, and they get a reception inside the 10-yard-line. No clock management issues, just calm execution of the same play twice. Safety didn't come out to help Jeremy Brown, even though he was in position to help, and should have because there was no way LSU was going to run the ball.

I know I get way too into the game. And after a loss like that, all I want to do is not think about football, and it's impossible. But it's especially hard when I've stayed up until 1:30am local time to watch the start of the game, sat faithfully at my computer staring at the live stream until five in the morning, and watched us give away a game that we might have won. And that with the knowledge that I've got to be up early tomorrow to go to my great aunt's birthday celebration. So I stayed up all night to watch us lose at the last second, ensuring myself both a miserable night and a miserable morning.

And losing to Les Miles sucks. There is not a luckier piece of crap coach in the country. Then again, we got pretty lucky that Patrick Peterson fumbled that punt. LSU got lucky that Chas Henry missed both tries at a field goal from easy range, and that after having had the ball on their 1-yard-line. Somehow, it's too much like the game three years ago in Baton Rouge, where they tore our hearts out in the last quarter.

When you win, your mind doesn't go back to all the missed opportunities. When you lose, it's impossible to stop the mental procession.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Returning to Florida

So, it's official: I'm coming back to Florida next Wednesday, October 13th.

It will have been 264 days away from the USA, or a shade under nine months. That's the longest I've ever been out of the country to this point. I'm hoping to triple it pretty soon :)

It's kind of a quick exit from Switzerland, considering I just got back from my trip five days ago, but it made the most sense. I've got to get back to the US to do my Peace Corps medical stuff (dental and physical exams will be free there), and there's nothing really tying me to Switzerland, aside from sentiment. Which is strong, to be sure. It's only starting to dawn on me that I will, in all likelihood, not see any of the people I care about who live in Europe for three years or more. It's more to digest than my metaphorical stomach can handle -- I think it will hit me harder later.

But, yeah, I'm going back to Boca. That's kind of a strange thing, as it's been more than four years since I moved away permanently. Now I'm going to have to reside there for six months. Most people I knew there are gone, either at university or wherever they moved on to after university (though there are some old friends still there, and a couple who are also temporarily staying with parents until whatever transition period they're in expires and they, too, shove off). I'll be living with my dad and brother, which ought to be a pretty good environment.

For my last nine days in Switzerland, I've just got a couple things to take care of -- deregistering as a resident, which should take no more than a couple of hours...and 30 Swiss francs; going to Orientation Day for the military on Wednesday, where they will hopefully dismiss me because of my circumstances (to which end I visited a doctor about my right shoulder's tendency to partially dislocate sometimes, and I got a nice note to show the Army); making a final visit to Tobel; and attending my great aunt's birthday celebration. Oh, and I need to see an optometrist. Aside from that, I just want to see some people, pack in an orderly and leisurely fashion, and not be stressed. It's been an invigorating nine months in Europe, and I'm taking time to reflect on everything that's happened, all the people I've met, the steps forward, what I'm leaving behind, what I'm heading toward, etc., etc.

Deep breath...

!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

PC, Update #2: Medical Kit

Soooo, today I finally got back to Zurich after more than four weeks of traveling. It was a fantastic trip, educational on many different levels. You learn just as much about yourself as you do other people/places/cultures when you travel.

Waiting for me on my bed when I walked in the door was my Peace Corps medical kit, which contains all the forms I'm going to have to get filled out and some guides about how to do everything most efficiently. Basically it breaks down into three parts:

  • Medical: This includes getting a physical (clinical exam); getting a laboratory evaluation (blood and w/ reports checking for TB, HIV, CBC, Hep B (surface antibody, surface antigen, core antibody), Hep C antibody, G6PD titer, and urinalysis); getting any missing immunizations (Td or Tdap Booster, Polio Booster, MMR #1, MMR #2 booster, Varicella #1, Varicella #2); and providing documentation for all immunizations I've ever had. In addition, and very annoyingly, I have to write a personal statement about any psychological/psychiatric treatment I've received. This is additional stuff, and the only reason it's included is because on the initial Health Status Review, I said I had been to see a psychologist before, like when I was 11. That was just a couple times after my parents divorced, because my dad wanted to make sure everything was all right. And I also have to get my shoulder checked out and diagnosed, since I reported that it has sometimes been dislocated. That might mean X-rays. which would be lame. All t's must be crossed, all i's must be dotted, all documentation must be copied and saved, all lab reports included, and absolutely nothing may be left blank.

  • Dental: I need to get a general dental evaluation, a periodontal evaluation, and have the dentist check for a specific list of abnormalities. I must also include either a full mouth series of x-rays or a Panorex with bitewing X-rays.

  • Optometric: I have to have my eyes examined to confirm a prescription, and I have to fill out a form for specific measurements of replacement frames in the event that the glasses I bring with me break or are lost.

That's the long and short of it. The medical part will obviously be the most complicated. My situation is also complicated with insurance. My insurance in Switzerland should cover the physical exam. But I'm not sure if it would cover blood analysis and urinalysis. On top of that, the Peace Corps put an addendum in my packet warning me of the perils of getting lab work done in foreign countries, which often do not have the same standards that the US has, and so are often not acceptable. I called my Peace Corps medical review assistant, and he said my best bet, if I'm set on doing it in Switzerland, would be to call the US embassy and see if their medical office has a list of approved laboratories whose results are acceptable by American standards. It's a very pompous position. I mean, this is Switzerland, not Swaziland. But this is their game, so I have to play by their rules.

For the dental, I know that I'm for sure not covered with my insurance here. Luckily, I have learned that there are dentists across the US (members of the International College of Dentists, USA Section Fellows) who volunteer to do the exams and X-rays for Peace Corps Volunteers free of charge. Not only that, but there are half a dozen of them who work within an hour of my home in South Florida. So I think I could get that taken care of without much issue, especially considering I have a healthy mouth and no history of cavities, no fillings, no problems with wisdom teeth, no gum disease. Hopefully that'll be one of those in-and-out procedures.

As for the eye exam, that should also be covered by my insurance in Switzerland, and shouldn't be more than a single-appointment deal.

I have also learned that at VA facilities in the US, some doctors will perform the medical stuff, including the blood analysis and urinalysis, free of charge, as a courtesy from one government organization to another. It's done on a space-available basis, so it's not the same guarantee as going to a private provider. But it's free, and you get the feeling that a publicly funded hospital is going to be less willing to point out (or invent) insignificant abnormalities than a private facility, which profits from your return business. That could also be an option. I'll be looking into that presently.

Writing this out is helpful for me to keep it all straight in my head. When I look at all the information like this, I see that it may be more sensible to go back to the US and take advantage of the free options. I also wouldn't have to deal with the hassle of these different standards in blood tests. Blood tests are the most expensive thing here, and if I have to get multiple tests, it's going to cost big.

So that's what I've got for now. More as the situation develops.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Peace Corps, First Update

So, as I wrote in the last post, I've applied to join the Peace Corps. Here are some of the raw facts about Peace Corps, for those who are unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with it:

Peace Corps entails 27 months of service overseas, where a volunteer works in and with a community in one of six program areas: education, youth and community development, health, business and information and communications technology, agriculture, and environment. The work is not paid -- it is voluntary. The Peace Corps does, however, provide volunteers with a living allowance that is adjusted to the standard of living wherever they serve; they pay for the flight to and from the work destination; they provide and pay for any medical care necessary during the service. Peace Corps is strictly non-military, and has nothing whatsoever to do with United Nations Peacekeepers. You have to be an American citizen to serve. You do not get to choose where you serve, but you can indicate geographic preferences. Ultimately, the determining factor is what skills you have and where those skills can best be utilized.

So those are some facts. Back in June I began my application. I filled out the pages about my whole background, I got recommendations from Mrs. Legrand (my 12th grade lit teacher and NHS supervisor), from Mimi Miller (good friend who has known me forever), and from Craig Lancto (my supervisor at NESA in Washington, DC). I had to write a couple essays, and then fill out a long questionnaire about my health status and history. Soon afterwards, I got a packet of various forms to fill out -- I got myself fingerprinted for the security check, filled out a National Agency Check form, sent my college transcripts, and also completed a couple other forms asking about my skills and experience. I had the interview with my Peace Corps recruiter on August 16th.

The process with Peace Corps goes something like this: You submit all those application materials, then you have an interview with a recruiter. If, after reviewing your application and conducting the interview, the recruiter thinks you are qualified to move forward, he/she Nominates you for service. Nomination means that you are continuing on the track to eventual Peace Corps service, but it's not the same thing as an actual invitation to serve. With your nomination, you learn the general type of work that you will do, you get a (tentative) timeframe for departure, and they tell you what geographic region you will (tentatively) serve in.

My nomination right now is to work in Secondary Education/Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and the program would be in Asia, tentatively beginning in early April 2011. Peace Corps currently has programs operating in six countries in the region they define as "Asia" -- those countries are China, Mongolia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. So that's what I'm looking forward to at the moment: 27 months serving in one of those six countries, beginning in April 2011, which is about six-and-a-half months away.

Now, after you've been nominated, you have to be cleared medically and legally to serve. Medical clearance is the longest part of the process. You need to get clearance from a physician, dentist, and optometrist, as well as any specialists. You have to get blood and urine analysis. You need immunizations. You need dental x-rays. You need to get your sight and hearing checked. Anything that comes up as "abnormal" must be taken care of before medical clearance is granted. If there's anything wrong with your mouth -- cavities, wisdom teeth, etc., it has to be taken care of before you go. So, if it's not done smoothly, or there are irregularities, clerical errors, and/or miscommunications, the process can get very messy. Hopefully for me it will be a smooth ride, because I'm 22 and healthy, with no special medical conditions that would need accommodation.

My situation right now is somewhat complicated because I live in Switzerland and my insurance is here, so I may have to do parts or all of the medical clearance stuff here. I will not be insured in the US until January, when my dad will be able to put me back on his policy as a child under 26, thanks to the health care reform. I had originally thought to go back to the US in early October to do the whole medical clearance business, but without insurance it would be too expensive. Apparently you can get the medical examinations done at a VA hospital for no charge -- so that would be an option in the States. Still, I think I'm going to have to stay in Switzerland an extra month to take care of this stuff. At the moment I just don't have enough information about what specifically is being asked for and what my insurance will cover.

So, after you are granted medical clearance, then the Peace Corps can decide whether to actually give you an invitation to serve. You are considered for available positions and compared with other candidates -- but I've been told by my recruiter not to worry about this part of the process. The great majority of those who are nominated and cleared to serve are invited to serve. When you are invited, then you finally know specifically what country you will serve in and what date you leave. Then it's up to you to accept or not.

I'm now at the outset of the medical clearance process. I want to sort of keep a record of what happens throughout the rest of the application process in this blog, so that's what I'll try to do.

News Update

Well, it's been a really, really, really, ...really, really..., really long time since I updated here. It's not that I haven't been writing -- actually I'm probably writing more now than I ever have, but it's just been by hand in notebooks, rather than online. Still, I haven't forgotten about this blog, and now perhaps I'll recalibrate the purpose. When you split up everything I have to say, it can all be divided into categories of things I want to share and things that I want to keep private. This has got to be the public record.

So, to catch up anyone who hasn't known what's been happening with me the last few months...
Towards the end of July I went to Tobel, in northeastern Switzerland, to help with the art festival called Tatort Komturei, which was in its second year of existence. I was there for the two weeks before the Vernissage (opening day) to help with the myriad tasks that needed doing, and I remained through the end of the festival, which lasted three weeks. I was also taking care of the Pilgrim Hostel, responsible for keeping the place spick-and-span. We had some pilgrims, but most of the guests were either artists or friends/family of artists who were connected with the Tatort. So, in all, I was there for five weeks.

Afterwards, I returned to Zurich for about ten days or so before setting off on a month-long journey in Germany and Ireland. I'm writing this from Dublin, where I've had to stay an extra day because of airplane trouble. Tomorrow I'm flying to Berlin. At the outset, I used ridesharing to get to Munich, where I stayed for about five days with Michael, my friend and Couchsurfing Host Extraordinaire. I flew to Dublin with Ryanair, where I stayed for a week. I stayed with three different Couchsurfing hosts (or sets of hosts) -- the first two days with Piotr, a Polish fellow who's been in Ireland for a good long while; the second pair of days with Therese and Jonathan, a couple who were really great hosts with a kindred streak of nerdiness; then I stayed three nights with Carina, Maite, and Pedro, which is where I got the first real taste of "partying" in Dublin.

After that week, I went to Cork to spend time with my grandmother and my aunt Ita. It was wonderful to catch up with them, to learn about my Irish family, to talk and talk and talk. I spent a day with my uncle Maurice, and I briefly met my dad's cousin Ted to pick up a family tree tracing the Curtin quarter of my lineage. Made trips to Cobh and Kinsale (Cobh was the most important point of departure for Irish emigrants in the 19th century, and the last place Titanic ever picked up passengers -- it was very absorbing to be there). After five or six days of home-cooked meals, doting relatives, and fascinating exchanges, I took the bus to Galway. I stayed there two nights with Astra and his flatmates, who were a lot of fun. On Sunday, I took the bus back to Dublin, where I've been since.

Meanwhile, I've applied to join the Peace Corps. I will write about this in a separate post.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Telling Lies All Day Long

"A writer falsifies himself both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, because the accidental qualities of words constantly tempt and frighten him away from his true meaning. He gets an idea, begins trying to express it, and then, in the frightful mess of words that generally results, a pattern begins to form itself more or less accidentally. It is not by any means the pattern he wants, but it is at any rate not vulgar or disagreeable; it is "good art". He takes it, because "good art" is a more or less mysterious gift from heaven, and it seems a pity to waste it when it presents itself. Is not anyone with any degree of mental honesty conscious of telling lies all day long, both in talking and in writing, simply because lies will fall into artistic shape when truth will not?"

- George Orwell (1940, "New Words")



Something resonates in this idea. Over the years I've become better at picking out the embellishments in stories. Little things, not exactly lies, but not exactly the truth either. When a guy says he waited half an hour instead of the actual fifteen minutes. When people recount stories to demonstrate how witty they were in some situation. When a woman tells you that was the best orgasm she ever had.

(Actually, they always mean that last one when they tell me)


(...I wish)

Little lies make for a better story.

But beyond that, the quote resonates because I know I am guilty of this kind of lying. Writing something out, finding my words take a certain shape that isn't quite what I wanted to say. But what the heck, it sounds pretty good to me -- I'll just go with this idea. It may be more interesting or incisive this way.

Which isn't at all to say that I never feel I've successfully expressed myself, or that I agree 100% with Orwell's opinion (which doesn't seem fully serious). It's just that there are certain topics and certain moments that language isn't equipped to handle -- or else my mastery of it isn't complete enough to achieve what I originally intend. I find the quote very stimulating. It calls for self-examination.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A thought on time

Usually, I think about time the way everyone else thinks about it. Right now I'm eating. 30 minutes ago I was urinating. Yesterday I went to class. Three weeks ago I was in Germany. Six months ago I was graduating. A year ago I was doing an internship in Washington. Linear. The present moment is a dot on a timeline, moving from left to right, from the direction of the past to the direction of the future. Things that happened yesterday are closer to the present than things that happened a week ago.

Then other times I have a different idea of time. All points in the past and the future are equally distant from the present. The picture of this would be a circle with its centerpoint. The centerpoint is the present, the ring is my past and future. They never touch, yet clearly the present resides within that ring, never to escape, never to get any closer or farther away. Why does this thought come to me? Because I often reflect on things in the past, and they all seem to just clump together at times. Really, what is the difference between something that happened a year ago and something that happened two years ago? It's gone now, it already happened. Things can be occurring, or they can not be occurring. Everything not occurring is past or future (or fantasy). And contemplating the future is much more what triggers this thought in me than contemplating the past.

For example, I think about how things were my last semester of college. I was well aware that I would leave Florida on a certain date, go visit my brother on a certain date, go back to Florida, go to Switzerland, take visits in Europe, make visits in Europe. Yet they all seemed equally far away -- that is to say they weren't happening at present. Likewise, while I was experiencing them, I felt a keen awareness that soon they would cease to occur and be part of the past, and then it would be like no time had passed at all between when I was in my apartment anticipating my journey and when I was in my bed reflecting on it. Twinkle, snap, flash, and six months are gone. Friends would say to me, "I'll miss you! I hope you arrive well! I'll see you in __ weeks/months!" I started replying, "I'm already there, and we're already seeing each other again," because I knew that when I arrived and when I saw them again, it would be like no time had passed. Because there is only the present.

Other times, I think this is a silly concept. Of course time is linear. Yesterday is closer than three weeks ago. To prove it, I can much more easily detail what exactly I did and thought yesterday than what I did and thought three Sundays ago. I'm sure I've forgotten entire days and weeks, maybe even months of my life. I can't imagine how much data I've lost; giant holes in my mnemonic timeline, knowing generally the course of things and forgetting every detail, every conversation, every emotion and insight that felt so meaningful at the time.

But then there are days that I do remember, conversations and feelings I recall with great clarity. Even certain moments of absolutely no significance other than the fact that I told myself, "I'll probably forget about this in a few weeks." I never forgot them, because I always thought about forgetting them. Simple images -- sitting in front of the television screen in my aunt Breda's house in Ireland, seeing some shirtless farmers working with hay from the train in Bavaria, jumping into my bunkbed with my pajamas on as a four-year-old. And of course, all those memories of actually significant events. Some things that happened many years ago feel much closer and fresher than things that happened yesterday. So the line is bent, broken, diced into little points and scattered like water vapor in a cloud. And then my concept of time looks like the picture below on the right.

There in the middle is the present, and around it is the cloud of memories, the cloud of anticipation, the cloud comprising all the points of time and experience, real and imagined. Some are so very close to touching the present, you can't even see the cracks between them. And some are so far on the periphery, so far from the present, that they fade into obscurity and cannot be distinguished from the blankness; they might as well never have happened, for all their bearing on the present. And yet the most beautiful thing of all is that if you stare quite hard and close at the point in the middle, you will see that the shades of grey around it fade away. If you concentrate hard enough on the present, that cloud of time around it will disappear. And perhaps that's something to consider.

This last model/graphic is intriguing for me. It tells me time, as humans experience it, is not linear, but it does exist. It exists because our pasts and futures influence us. And yet the present is all that matters. Or at least it can be, if you focus on it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cheesy Ending Syndrome

I was just browsing along some stories of amateur writers online, and something occurred to me that had been swimming just below my conscious grasp for many years. Much of the writing of our generation is infected with Cheesy Ending Syndrome (CES). I'm speaking particularly of personal stories, accounts of important life experiences. The most common reason anybody writes such stories is that they are requested as part of application processes for college, jobs, internships, etc. You know, some position for which there is a lot of competition asks you to describe an important moment in your life. It's a test of how well you can write and a crude, counterproductive way of gaining a window to your character. I say crude and counterproductive because, as everyone who has ever written one of these essays knows, at the end of the writing process, there is little left that resembles actual life experience.

During my personal college application hell, I wrote an essay I was convinced would blow people away. The prompt was something vague and uninspiring -- something like, "share an important experience" or "describe an event in your life that has made you who you are". There is a formula to answer such queries, distilled long ago when students and job applicants were first asked such rubbish. You are supposed to tell some story about your past in which you faced a new and/or challenging circumstance, personally or professionally. You are supposed to describe the flash of insight during which one aspect of Reality was laid bare to your virgin mind or heart, and you go on to detail how that experience and insight have made you into such a better or more complete human being, and how much you care about this or that issue, and how dedicated you are to something now.

These were more or less the lines along which my essay proceeded. I went to Hungary, witnessed rampant homelessness, had an encounter with a homeless girl, was shaken up, lost a piece of my youthful naiveté, realized I wanted to do something to fight homelessness. Except it was five hundred and fifty words, narrative, and well-written. But cheesy as a fondue dinner.

The point of these essays is to build yourself up, show that you're a person of intelligence, depth, and character. That was the point of my story. But after slaving away at it for many, many hours over the course of a week, I was left with a document so polished and shiny that, looking back on it, all I can see is my own, fraudulent reflection.

Because let's get real: I had an experience that affected me and that caused me to contemplate for a long time afterwards. But it didn't happen in this dream setting, and it didn't happen all at once. It didn't happen in a perfect narrative form, and it didn't fundamentally change me and inspire me to be an upstanding moral crusader forever-and-ever-amen.

I know it may be a stretch to apply my own experience to everyone else's writings, but I just can't bring myself to take seriously these exaggerated stories following the same, trite blueprint: You had a tough experience, and then in a blinding moment of Dostoevskian clarity, your whole world was changed and you were left a more complete person. ...yes, yes, I'm sure you were. NEXT! It's really just an extension of every cheesy ending we see in Hollywood films. Character is one way, character faces major challenge, character acquires depth and wisdom.

But here's the fact: Life continues, and we are never perfected. We are shaped by hundreds of small experiences every day of every week. There is no silver bullet that cures immaturity. When you read past the end of every essay with Cheesy Ending Syndrome, looking more closely at the reality, you see that we still face challenges and lapses of character, moral conflicts, moments of selfishness or naiveté.

Yet as a society we are obsessed with the happy, cheesy ending. How utterly boring it must be to read over dozens or hundreds of application essays, the vast majority of which arise the same hackneyed template. Real life is far more interesting -- it's choppy and grey and endlessly inventive. I'm beginning to think that universities and employers request cheesy essays so they can more easily separate them from the people who have the initiative and originality to write something that is actually interesting.

Digression/Aside: If there were a law against composing cheesy endings, probably every sports columnist would be in jail alongside most romantic writers. Sportswriters love to tell stories of growth and maturity. It's usually just when you read that a certain athlete has finally set his priorities straight or shed his troubled past that you hear they've gotten arrested or tested positive for this or that substance. And shame on those romantic writers for print and screen that truncate the story just as the couple gets together. All obstacles overcome, they are free to live their life happily ever after. Is it any wonder the divorce rate is so high when people are fed such an infantile caricature of human love and companionship? End of Digression/Aside

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slippery Kittens

Ever since I was in middle school, I always set my internet homepage to Yahoo!. I picked this up from Jesse, my brother, because he would always read the Yahoo! news and play the free games. All through high school I would read news reports through Yahoo! and keep up with sports through the site. I used to read all their news stories that made it on the front page and then dig around on the actual news page.

So it's weird these days to open my internet browser and the first, biggest headline (including picture and video link) that I see is:

SLIPPERY KITTENS PLAY ON A SLIDE.

And next to it are three video links entitled:

  • Dog can't go up slide
  • Bunny's hiding place
  • Dog learns new word

I mean, this is a website that gets hundreds of millions of hits per day and hosts billions of visitors per year. This is the one thing above all else that they choose to grab people's attention? It's not that I'm disappointed in Yahoo! Clearly, they've calculated what is the best way to get people looking at their site. It's just...I'm not sure what this says about humanity. One of the biggest information/interaction hubs in the entire world bets that a video of slippery kittens is the surest way to attract mass attention. God save us all.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Dilettantism

A couple days ago I finally finished reading The Night's Dawn trilogy, by Peter F. Hamilton. All told, those three books add up to around 4,000 pages. Of course, those are science fiction pages, which go significantly quicker than, say, philosophy or classic literature. I picked up the series a couple months ago at the behest of my brothers and read it with pauses between the volumes. What a ride it was, though. I've got some friends who look down on sci-fi as an inferior genre, but reading this series reminded me why it's not only a worthy literary form, but a genuinely important one.

First of all, science fiction has an inherent ability to pose unique moral dilemmas, especially those of a social nature. Questions about genetic engineering, the integration of biotechnology into everyday life, and (obviously) the role of religion in our lives. If, like in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, you had a drug that was non-addictive, non-harmful, free, widespread, and legal, would there really be a reason to object? If society were divided into classes of people who had drastically different capabilities and no opportunity for social mobility, but all were happy and satisfied with their role in society, where would that leave us? It's not that other genres cannot raise similar questions, but with sci-fi you have a unique ability to explore issues caused by technological development, because you can work from the assumption that we've reached that technological level. And, with enough time, it's almost guaranteed that we are going to face those difficult moral questions (think about the queasiness you feel when you see the human 'enhancement' in the film Gattaca).

But rather than leaving us to regard the future with fear and apprehension, as many individuals are prone to do, sci-fi can help excite us about the future and the changes we're going to see. In the last fifteen years, the Internet has changed society. What do the next fifteen years hold? And if the rate of technological progress is increasing, how much headway can we expect to make three or four decades down the line? Sci-fi can be instrumental in preparing us and exciting us to see this future.

Which leads me to my next point: sci-fi is important because it inspires people to embrace that future, and even to work towards it. When you think about all that is possible, all that we can achieve as a species, it can be dizzying. It just takes some imagination. Think how far we came between 1500 and 1900. Now between 1900 and 1970. Now between 1970 and 2010. Now think of where we'll be in a thousand years. Two thousand years? Five thousand? If you don't assume that we're going to kill ourselves off, which I do not, the possibilities are truly mind-boggling. What about intelligent species out in the universe that have been developing for hundreds of thousands of years? What might they be capable of? I don't know about you, but it just makes me giddy to think of. And the excitement that comes from this thought makes me very, very interested in science. For young people who can choose to go that route, it can inspire them to be part of that effort to realize our scientific potential as a species.

One objection I hear sometimes to argument for increased funding on space exploration and/or basic research: How can we justify spending all that money on _____ when there are tens of millions of people going hungry in the world? How can we be dreaming about the stars when things are so wretched on the ground? This irks me. By the same token, you could ask: Why should anyone become a veterinarian when plenty of humans lack for medical care? Why should any problem be addressed when there is a more dire problem as yet unfixed? Come ON, we should not hold ourselves back because of a selective employment of moral hierarchies. It's important to feed our imaginations, to invest in our future as well as our present.

[As an aside, I think much of the literary merit of sci-fi comes from the imagination involved. Where there may be a lack of character development and the use of clichéd plot/dialogue elements, there can be a bounty of mind-tickling visions of the future and creative projections of current scientific/political/social trends. Where authors of great "literature" may pour their energy into examining the human condition, authors of great sci-fi pour their energy into fantastic imaginings and creating their own worlds.]

So, in a clumsy segue from the general topic of science fiction and how it stimulates me, I ran into this page on Wikipedia, which I think might be the coolest thing ever:

A list of unsolved problems in physics!


I know I'm not the only one who finds physics almost as fascinating as it is mystifying. We've all eagerly picked up one of Stephen Hawking's books, only to stare at the page and re-read the text a bajillion times in an attempt to comprehend just what the hell he's saying. Just trying to wrap your head around these problems is a fun exercise; I can get lost for hours trying to educate myself about particle physics and all that jazz. A naked singularity? I HOPE WE FIND ONE.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Today a Somalian man shattered an illusion of mine. He used to work at a big club in Zurich and was responsible for inventory and distribution of the drinks at the venue. He said that when famous rappers came to put on a show, they would order bottles of Hennessy, dump the liquor, fill them with ice tea, and then go out on stage and pretend like they were guzzling heroic amounts of alcohol. And the crowd would go wild.

Those sneaky bastards...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Swimming and Sinking, part two

I don't want to write extensively about it, because I can't make a great story, but just for the purpose of carrying out the previous entry's promise of a continuation...

By the end of the week, I had driven many hundreds of kilometers in a manual car, including a couple stretches in a very big van with a large attachment, which was debilitatingly frightful. Drove Elisha to some places he needed to go, including the airport (with snow and ice on the road). The driving was scary, but made me feel good about having developed a new skill. Also, I think I earned myself some work for April/May/June, as Elisha now has some confidence in me and I've learned the ropes a bit. I finally have a bit of cash in my pocket, and I'm taking care of Elisha's dog for the next month while he's in Thailand. And that's all I care to write about life facts for now.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Swimming and Sinking, part one

This has been an interesting week.

And when I say interesting, I mean it fucking scared the shit out of me.

Okay, it wasn't the whole week that was scary, just two parts in the middle of it. But let's begin at the start. On Tuesday morning, I woke up thinking it was going to be just another day in paradise. I arose at around 8:00, ate some food, listened to some music, was reading various things online. My little brother went out early (for him) to take care of some errands. While he was out, he was informed that one of his best friends back in Florida, Max, had died of a drug overdose. Understandably, he was destroyed. He decided to fly back to Florida the next day for the funeral. Right, nothing funny or scary here, just plain sad.

The sudden resolution to leave the country left our friend and his sometimes employer Elisha in a bit of a spot. Stephen was going to drive to Thun, which is 90 minutes away, on both Wednesday and Saturday, set up Elisha's market stand -- he sells various accessories (hats, sunglasses, scarves, gloves, etc.) -- and run it for those days. In addition, he was going to take care of Elisha's beautiful dog, Sheleg, for the month. During all this time, Elisha was going to be on vacation in Thailand.

So, when your worker disappears into the night, who better to replace him than his unemployed loaf of an older brother? I certainly need the money, and I wanted to help Elisha with his trouble. Plus, it had been our plan for me to accompany Steve at some point and learn the ropes a bit so I could do more work in April, when business gets rolling a bit more. In short, I agreed to step in. But since I have not worked with him before, Elisha had to run the show, and my place was to be the driver and the helper. You see, Elisha's driver's license had been suspended for a month because he was caught twice driving without his glasses. This left me with the primary responsibility of playing chauffeur.

My noble and virgin readers, if you have never been to Europe, there is something you must know. In the United States, almost everyone drives cars with automatic transmission. I learned to drive automatic, and I never drove anything else. In Switzerland, almost everyone drives cars with manual transmission. In fact, if you take your driving test in Switzerland with an automatic car, you get a driver's license that is only valid for automatic vehicles, thereby denying you eligibility to drive 99% of cars in this country. However, if you have an American driver's license, you are permitted to drive any car in Switzerland, because the Yanks don't make a point of distinguishing between those competent to drive stick and those relying on the miracle of technology to handle their transmission. So, legally, I was in the clear.

The only problem is that I'd never done it before. Well, "only" isn't exactly right. I had also never driven a car in Switzerland, where drivers are a bit more aggressive than in the U.S., where the road signs are different, where intersections are way more complicated, and where the rules of the road are not quite the same. But, as they say, sometimes you just need to throw the chick out of the nest and hope it flies. Knowing that if I had to drive 150 kilometers on my first attempt with a manual I would fail utterly, I insisted that I get some practice on Tuesday.

So I went over to Elisha's to get some instruction, practice, and help him with some errands. My first attempt behind the wheel, I stalled twice or three times. He and I promptly traded places, and he drove us to a parking lot. In the parking lot I learned the most basic of basics, and we tried to drive off to where we needed to go. Naturally, I stalled a couple times in traffic, and we switched again.

I don't want to bore you with the details (though I've indulged shamelessly in that very practice up to this point), so I'll try to summarize. I did manage to get us where we needed to go that evening, but not without extreme mental anguish. My entire body was rigid as I drove, my pride and ego were humbled in the chorus of angry honks as I stalled multiple times at traffic lights, and I was clenched in a fist of fear that I was going to drive us to our death at any moment. But we lived! It was one of the most terrifying evenings of my life, one that seemed would never end. But, God be praised, it did end, and I'll be damned if I didn't feel like a fucking man afterward.

I've been told by several people and several books that a person should do things that scare them. People should place themselves out of their comfort zone, push their own limits, discover and develop skills and abilities they didn't know they had. At the end of Tuesday, I felt I had pretty much earned a check mark on that count for that day.

...to be continued.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

So...

...yeah...

...infrequent posts.

I know. I feel like making a big deal out of it would be something of an ego trip, seeing as there are probably four people who actually read this blog (five tops). It's not like I'm turning my back on a starved and hopeful audience. And yet, I do feel somewhat guilty, if for no other reason than I'm not keeping up with this blogging project. I don't know if I have a good reason, but reasons there are.

The post on M. Ward was not written for this blog. I just wrote it one night for myself as an exercise (is it even possible to describe a song in words?). Then about a week later I remembered my emaciated body of blog writings and decided to throw the "Chinese Translation" piece up here to beef the damn thing up. On the other hand, it's not like I haven't been writing. Au contraire, dear reader, I have been writing more than ever. Most of it has been personal stuff. In fact, all of it has been personal, excluding a preview of an upcoming show here in Zürich that I wrote for a Swiss music blog. Personal in the sense that either it has to do with my development as a human being, or it was not written with an audience in mind.

What have I been doing? Well, lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of discovering/listening to music. I think I'm probably listening to more music per day than I ever have before, and not just music that is already dear to me. At least a few new albums every day. The amount of music I listen to is a direct consequence of how much free time I have. When I was a freshman in college, I listened to a lot, explored a lot. The next two years...not as much. Having a girlfried -- shit, being in love -- takes up a lot of time. Those hours you used to spend spaced out listening to that band end up being spent in bed with the S.O. You can't walk around with headphones on all the time when you're in a relationship (ignoring your S.O. for extended periods of time is generally frowned upon), but you also can't be pumping experimental music through the speakers 24/7. God help you if the S.O. doesn't like the music you listen to.

But once you're free of the old Ball & Chain, once you've graduated college, once you're unemployed, and once you've got the option to sit around and do nothing, you find that me-time is no longer in short supply. In that time, you consider: just what the fuck am I doing with myself? Now, this could be a really scary question. This could push you into a panic. But I like waking up in the morning. I like thinking about those hours I'm going to have to myself, doing what I want to do, exploring music and writing, considering my next moves. I know this state cannot persist indefinitely, but I am not unhappy in it. Calling a timeout from the outside world, retreating into my bubble -- it helps. It has helped me to re-orient myself, to sew up my wounds and let my cares ebb away, to untangle the knot of pressures that has been oppressing me for the last I-don't-know-how-long.

And now that I'm breathing fresh air, my attention really is turned to the next step. At this point, I find two different paths beckoning. The first is some kind of journalism. I've done a good bit of writing about music, and I think this is something I could be very good at. The second voice is luring me to do some kind of international humanitarian aid. Peace Corps, in other words. I am young, I have some education, and I want to help. I also lack a lot of experience and the practical skills necessary to do just about anything (so it seems to me). Peace Corps, or something akin to it, would give me the opportunity to kill a lot of birds with one stone: go somewhere I've never been (and am never likely to go), help people, learn some skills, gain some experience that can help me in the future, and hopefully open these eyes up to how people live in other parts of the world. Writing might go hand-in-hand with such an experience.

It's funny. I simultaneously have an itch to get up and get doing something, but I also feel a certain amount of contentment doing what I am doing now (read: nothing productive to society). Since the beer is always stronger at the other party, the itch is what I'm really noticing most of the time. When I talk to friends and they ask me what I'm doing with myself, I tell them. Usually, they express some variation of the phrase, "I wish I could do that." And examining my situation from an outside perspective, I suppose I am in an enviable position. Not having to do anything, not being forced to do anything, able to take time out of the world to reflect on things. Not everyone gets to do this. But I'm always surprised when they tell me they feel jealous. I guess I expect them to scold me and tell me to get off my ass. I think most people in this situation would just feel bored. Case in point: my little brother, who wants nothing more than to haul ass back to Florida.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say here for now. I'll try to post more from now on!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chinese Translation by M. Ward

Reading a book at the table in my mother's living room, I had put on the three albums of M. Ward that are on my iPod. Finally it reached the song "Chinese Translation" from the album Hold Time, which must be my favorite song by him, and certainly the one I have listened to the most. My attention was diverted by the song, both because of my fondness for it and because of personal/recollective associations I have with it, which are quite strong. I actually felt my tear glands come alive, ready for whatever emotional expression might be called for.

I listened to the song intently, wondering what exactly attracts me to it. What are the auditory qualities that make it so pleasing to hear and so evocative of particular mental images and emotional textures? Is it futile to attempt to use words to convey the exact way a sound, a song, makes us feel? I feel a bit daring at the moment, so I think I will try.

The song opens with two guitars going in opposite directions, one up and one down a ladder of notes. Pause for a second. Then comes in the voice and the verse music. There are no sounds too sharp or penetrating. The instrumental and vocal textures are smooth and polished and pillowy, without any distortion but also without much treble, except that which comes from the light drumming. The drumming keeps up a beat which instantly calls up a feeling of movement. A steady chugga CHUgga chugga CHUgga, repeating regularly. The guitars which keep the rhythm are in a middle-deep pitch range, and in the sonic distance you hear a slide guitar. This slide guitar gives the impression of depth. A landscape. You can feel the distance between the guitars, which are in the foreground, and the slide, which gives a third dimension to the song. Little licks from the slide guitar flare up. You can hear quick picking on the guitars, but because the sound is so smooth (a mix of nylon and steel strings) and without rough edges, the song seems to progress both quickly and slowly. At moments, the slide, which has a thicker, more rounded sound, combines with the drumming to evoke the image of a train. The beat of the drums is complemented by the rhythmic tap-tapping of picks and fingernails on the strings of the guitars, offering more sonic intimations of movement and travel, like the patter of a hundred footsteps. The layering of the instruments, especially all the guitars and bass, enhances the perceived depth of the sound. In the last ninety seconds of the song there is a soft, pleasant howling on the air, like a swift but gentle wind blowing through this melodic landscape. The song ends the same way it began -- it is bookended by guitars climbing and descending musical ladders.

The impressive part is how well this conjured musical expanse is harmonized with the vocal work, both in terms of pure sound and lyrical content. M. Ward's voice is light, never overpowering, never harsh. Just like the guitars, it is soft at the edges. Nothing about it is going to cut into you. That Midwestern accent adds to the suggestion of open spaces -- longer, looser vowels. And of course, the lyrics themselves pertain to travels over vast distances, a cyclical, generational search for answers to some of life's big questions.

I'm not saying it's the best song ever recorded, or anything like that. But it is a masterful piece inasmuch as all the parts of the song work in harmony and create a unified impression on the hearer. It makes it so easy to drift away, to be taken in by the lyrics and transported in thought to the scenes that are described.