Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Top Albums of 2011 - MUSIC MEGAPOST

Confession:  I’ve been looking forward to this post all year.  Pretty much since I wrote the Top Albums of 2010, I’ve been itching to do it again.  I might have gone overboard, as this post is well over 4,000 words.

With only a couple weeks left in the year, every publication in the US will soon be flooded with ridiculous Top 10 lists.  The unquantifiable shall be judged and sequenced.  We love reading these lists, even if it’s just so we can quarrel over them and express our outrage at the brainlessness of reviewers.  I couldn’t have much less respect for the business of reviewing music—it’s an irritating, pompous industry.  I have pretty strong feelings and opinions when it comes to music, and I can be vocal about expressing them, so the problem is not that people say what they think about music.  My issue is the pretension involved in the reviewing business—as if a review is anything more than some individual’s subjective reaction.  Far too often, that individual believes that his own artistic assumptions and expectations are actual, universal standards.  Prejudice is treated as precept.

That said, there’s no denying the appeal of Top 10 lists.  The difference between Thought Porridge and Rolling Stone Magazine is that here at TP, we try not to bullshit our readers.  The ensuing list is entirely subjective and shall adhere to explicitly stated rules of our own making. 

The Framework

Despite having numbers, this list is not necessarily in order of ranking.  My criteria for choosing these albums are the following:

a.  The albums could have been produced in any year, not just 2011.  I must have first heard the album in 2011 or listened to it primarily in 2011.

b.  No albums that have appeared on any previous lists (real, imagined, or retroactively created) of mine may appear on this list.  This music must be “new” to me.

c.  This isn’t a ranking of the artistic merit.  Inclusion in the list means the album was among the most important and/or meaningful new music that I listened to in the last year.  I’m playing favorites.  It’s personal and subjective.

d.  In the last year I’ve listened to around sixty new albums, in addition to countless albums that I already knew, yet that is an insignificant fraction of the new music that comes out every year.  I’m not qualified to say this music is any better or worse than all the other new music.  It just happens to be what I heard.


These albums aren't ranked in order, but the first two are definitely my top two.  Hence, they get mini-essays unto themselves.

1. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz (2010)

Sufan Stevens is a genius.  I didn’t know this before listening to The Age of Adz, which I first heard in 2010.  I listened to the dazzling first track, “Futile Devices”, and I was aflutter with anticipation for the rest of the album.  An hour later, when the damned thing was finished, I had to admit it…this went over my head.  I put the album on the proverbial shelf for almost a year before picking it up again in late August or early September of this year.   Around that time I felt like I was ready for a real challenge.  The problem was the complexity.  There are an incredible number of sounds in most of the songs—symphonic, orchestral, choral, synthetic, echoing, reverberating, and bizarre.  At any one moment in most of the songs, there are too many sounds to hear everything that’s going on.  There are themes introduced at the beginning of songs that you don’t even hear until they become dominant towards the end, because they’re just one part of a massively complicated harmony of harmonies.  At 25 minutes, the last track, “Impossible Soul”, is an opus unto itself.  Writing this, it occurs to me that it can sound rather like several albums sitting on top of each other.  And I get the distinct feeling that Sufjan put “Futile Devices” first as a reminder to the listeners:

No matter what comes next, I want you to know that I know how to make a simple, beautiful song.  Keep that in mind, lest you think the ensuing madness has no method.

There’s more to this.  It’s hard to explain why I like love it so much.  It’s not about the pleasure of hearing.  When I listen to it, my heart tells me that it is important music.  Whether you enjoy it or not, it represents an artistic effort that demands respect.  The album is fearless, dances unselfconsciously on the line between magnificence and grandiosity.  And of this I’m sure: no one sounds like Sufjan except Sufjan.  Listening to his music, especially The Age of Adz, it is not possible to confuse him with any other artist.  What he’s doing is bold and original.  It’s clear that The Age of Adz was made without regard for general appeal.  The music requires deep attention, and for large portions of the album it is very challenging.  You have to focus through layers and layers of harmonies, some brash and some beautiful, and you have to choose some sequence of sounds to focus on.  You have listen to it several times to get your ears used to the noises.  But those challenging spells are worthwhile—you can come to enjoy them, and they greatly enhance the pleasure you take in the simple, melodic stretches that are so easy to digest.  And when you’re no longer blinded by the glare of intricacy and eccentricity, you can see that you’ve entered the resplendent musical palace that is the brain of Sufjan Stevens.

2. Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (2011)

This and The Age of Adz were clearly, definitely the two most important albums of 2011 for me, and for completely different reasons.  Conor Oberst is a musician that I’ve come to trust.  Every album by Bright Eyes sounds really different, reflecting Oberst's development as a musician and human being.  The earliest album was a lo-fi hodgepodge of musical styles.  Then there was the dark, cheerless, cohesive Fevers and Mirrors, a favorite of angsty teens nationwide.  Follow that with Lifted, which is the most ambitious album both musically and lyrically, wherein the songs have shifted from self-absorbed fantasies to serious, mature reflections about an inexperienced young man’s place in the world.  In 2005, Oberst is 24, and out come Digital Ash and I’m Wide Awake, released simultaneously, displaying very different sides of the musician and the human being, but both more focused and internally cohesive than Lifted.  The lyrics are serious, sometimes dark, but not angsty, and they show a much greater range of thought and experience—very clearly the meditations of someone with real experience in the world, not just someone who knows it through books and music and movies and conjecture.  A couple years later, Cassadaga is released, more ambitious, lush arrangements, sort of Americana, with surprisingly impersonal lyrics.  And finally, The People’s Key, another departure in style and content.  (There were also a handful of other albums released by Conor Oberst in different bands or under different monikers).

I know, I know, why is it necessary to give a whole discography of Bright Eyes?  Because I want to emphasize that all of these albums sound very different.  They use different sets of instruments and draw on different influences.  The lyrical content is different in every single one.  Unlike 99% of songwriters today, Conor Oberst doesn’t just write love songs.  On The People’s Key, none of the 11 songs have romantic relationships as a primary theme.  On Cassadaga (2007), there are one or two romantic songs, depending how you define it, out of 12 tracks.  What Conor writes about is much more complex, much more interesting.  And the real point is this:  After all this time and all those albums, I trust Conor to make good music.  If I don’t enjoy it the first time listening, the problem is likely not the music.  The problem is my own thick head, which needs to be softened up.  I want to learn from the musicians that I trust.  If they do things I’m not used to, then I’m probably the one that needs to change.  It’s the height of arrogance to dismiss something out of hand when it’s coming from an admittedly superior artist.

So, the album itself.  The People’s Key.  The music is harder than previous albums—it seems Bright Eyes was scratching an itch to rock out after years exploring the folk-country-Americana galaxy.  After a couple listens for acclimation and adjustment, I got really into the rocking-ness of the album.  Same with the melodies.  Listen to the pounding of “Jejune Stars” a few times at high volume and you’ll get into it too.  The lyrics are both abstract and substantive.  It’s a mixture of storytelling and elaborate imagery.  It’s a more spiritually-themed album than previous stuff—there are allusions to Eastern wisdom, shamanism, Rastafarianism, Christianity, and Celtic paganism (as far as I can make out).  Science fiction is important in the album.  The whole thing is preoccupied with the meaning of life and death and the nature of the divine.  Really, it’s hard to sum it up.  The songs are so carefully crafted that it becomes hard to boil them down to simple themes.  And there’s the simple fact that even I can listen to a song dozens of times before the light bulb flicks on and I fully comprehend the lyrics.  Years later, I can still be surprised by the lyrics.

Last thing: I will always associate this album with Andrea La Fevers, my friend and fellow Bright Eyes enthusiast in Boca Raton for several months before leaving for Peace Corps.  Especially “Jejune Stars” and its curlicue. 

3. The Strokes – Angles (2011)

I got this album from Carlos at the tail end of the East Coast Road Trip.  He warned me, “The first few tracks are good, but then it gets weird and kinda eh.”  I was excited.  The first time listening wasn’t through a good system, so I wasn’t sure what to think of it.  When I had the chance to sit down and listen to it later, it really grew on me.  It retains some classic Strokes characteristics: extremely precise, almost symmetrical sounding songs with sharp breaks between the sections, and crisp solos.  Unlike classic Strokes, the vocals don’t just sound bored/world-weary.  They also experiment with a far greater range of moods and emotions—not to mention effects—than they did in the early stuff.  The album as a whole isn’t as weird as First Impressions of Earth, which was good but marred by the presence of bullshit filler songs like “Killing Lies”, “Fear of Sleep”, and “Evening Sun”.  But what I really like about the Strokes, other than the way their music interests and delights me, is that their sound evolves over time.  It keeps it interesting.  Like Bright Eyes, they’ve lost plenty of fans who “like the old stuff better”, but who cares?  You’re a musician, artist, and living creature—you’ve got to mature.  They’re keeping it honest.  This album has been especially useful in situations where I need music with both energy and substance, e.g. blocking out the morning call to prayer or riding a death bus through the mountains at high speed.

4. Clint Mansell – The Fountain OST (2006)

Oh man, intensity.  At some point very early in the year—around January—I acquired this album.  I had seen the movie a couple of times.  The first time I saw this movie was with Craig and Jessica, and none of us spoke for at least a quarter hour after the credits rolled.  As in every movie Clint Mansell gets involved with, the music in The Fountain is crucial to its power.  And what power it has!  The music is so achingly beautiful.  Woven into the classical arrangements are screechy post-rock guitars.  No other album this year had the same raw emotional punch as this one.  It moves from golden wintry beauty to ominous tension to epic buildup to heartbreaking denial to rumination to mourning to a staggering climax.  And it ends with my favorite track, “Together We Will Live Forever”, which is a gorgeous and gentle—yet emphatic—post-climax comedown.  I love this album.  I love that there are no words and that the music generates such deep and clear emotions.  I listened to it a lot in the first couple months of the year, especially in the process of accepting a lot of the things I was about to leave behind.

5. Minus the Bear – Omni (2010)

This one is something of a guilty pleasure.  Minus the Bear is a band I had to get used to over a long time.  If my roommates Karl and Adam hadn’t been forced me to listen to the album Menos el Oso for hours on end every single time we drove between Boca Raton and Gainesville, the band may never have grown on me.  Anyway, this album has some pretty glaring weaknesses.  For one, the lyrics are mostly embarrassing.  I’m pretty sure that every single song is about sex.  They mostly depict steamy or seedy sexual encounters in a variety of settings, and you can tell the singer wants it to be sort of poetic, but it’s kind of creepy and lame. 

But what I really like about this album is just how smooth it is.  Most of the songs have a really pleasing layering of instruments.  Time signatures vary within songs, and there is a gratifying juxtaposition of hard and soft sounds.  Some of the melodies are really catchy.  It’s an album I can put on and sort of melt into the harmonies.  I listened to it quite a lot just after arriving in Indonesia.  With its hard yet smooth sounds, it was excellent for drowning out the morning call to prayer.  It was also good for just spacing out, helping set me into a calm mood that was necessary for digesting and processing the ridiculous load of new experiences.

6. Radiohead – The King of Limbs (2011)

A lot of people didn’t like this album.  It seemed like the universal reaction was…this is all?  Eight songs, not any huge stylistic departure from previous work, at least half of the stuff not really listenable.   There’s not much to disagree with there.  But I liked it nonetheless.  I like that it’s unapologetic.  I like the tension of euphony and cacophony.  I like the obsessiveness of the album.  I tend to think that when albums make you struggle through discord and complexity for several songs, you appreciate the simple and the beautiful far more when it comes along (see: Adz, the Age of).  I love the way the horns come in three minutes into “Bloom”.  Once you’re half way through the album and thinking to yourself, Okay, what the hell is wrong with Radiohead?, the song “Lotus Flower” comes in with its beautiful melody and little claps and stripped-down simplicity, and you just want to sing along in that Thom Yorke falsetto.  And then that electronic piano-organ thing makes the chorus ever so pretty.  The second half of the album is much more listenable, and in my opinion it’s even more enjoyable because you had to persist through interesting but difficult discord to get there.  I like that it’s short.  Radiohead has put out so many albums now—who cares if they don’t want to do the mega-works anymore?  I just want to see what they come up with.  And I love those gorgeous trumpets flanking the vocals in “Codex”.

I listened to this album a lot in the month or so before leaving for Indonesia, and then often enough after arrival.  I associate it with aloneness—not loneliness.  I suppose that was a pretty dominant emotion during the time I was listening to it.

7. Explosions in the Sky – The Earth Is Not a Cold, Dead Place (2003)

Woah, how did I get so into post-rock and never listen to Explosions in the Sky before?  The first time I ever heard them was watching the first episode of Friday Night Lights, and that convinced me I should get my hands on some of their music.  I started listening to this album sometime in July, and it was a staple for several months thereafter.  At first I found it somewhat dry and a little bit too pretty compared to bands like Sigur Rós and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who have many more challenging moments to their music.  But that crankiness wore off.  Listening to this album is like hearing a story with no words.  The first track is called “First Breath after Coma”, and the first sound you hear is a high-pitched guitar note, soon joined by a heart-beat thumping from a bass drum.  Then that single guitar note repeats and speeds up, and more layers come in.  And in your mind’s eye it’s clear that the thumping is a heartbeat and the guitar notes are the beeping of that hospital machine with the jagged green line.  It’s like somebody waking up out of a coma into a beautiful new world and resolving to live the honest, passionate life they’ve always wanted.  Every song tells a tale.

8. Hans Zimmer – Inception OST (2010)

Much like the movie, powerful and badass.  Some tracks are all thunderous booms and tempestuous trumpet bursts, and others are anxious synthetic landscapes with disquieting string melodies.  There’s taking-care-of-business music, feeling music, brooding music, buildup music, and ass-kicking music (e.g. “Mombassa”, word to Craig Hill), and it all fits together in one cohesive album.  This being the second of two movie soundtracks on this list, I should give credit to the abovementioned Mr. Hill for turning me on to movie soundtracks as independent listening experiences.  They are definitely worthwhile.  My favorite memory connected to Inception:  The first time I saw it was On Demand at my house with my brother, Jesse.  The second time I saw was the next day, still On Demand, with Jesse again.  For the second viewing, we paused the movie at every single point where one of us was unclear about what was going on or how it fit into the logic of the movie’s world.  This was very satisfying, even if it took us an extra 45 minutes to watch the whole thing.

9. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)

My heart sank a little bit when I saw that this album is up for a handful of Grammy awards.  Ruins my indie cred.   Why can’t they just stop giving that crap out?  It’s a foul thing altogether. 

I got this album in July.  I remember listening to it several times in the dark under my mosquito net and being really impressed with a handful of tracks, especially “Perth” and “Holocene” at the beginning.  This album is in no way lo-fi like its predecessor, but it does retain the ultra-personal ambience, like you’ve just opened up a sonic diary.  The sounds are so expertly, beautifully layered.  The real power is in the melodies.  It has to be, because the lyrics are as close to gibberish as one can get.  I think I’m going to associate this album forever with the “settling in” phase of Peace Corps—that time just after training where you’re adjusting to life at your permanent site.  One kind of funny thing.   The last track, “Beth/Rest”, actually made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.  It sounds so eighties.  Then I felt bad for laughing, because it really sounds like a labor of love, and I never want to giggle at a man’s soulpouring.  Still, anytime I hear it, my brain smirks.

10. Exitmusic – From Silence (2011) [aka The Coming Insurrection]

This is a four-song EP thing by a band that pretty much no one has ever heard of.  They might have re-released it under a different name, but when I got it for free off their website, it was called The Coming Insurrection, so I’m sticking with that.  Story of discovery:  Last year I was watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire, and I got a big fat crush on Aleksa Palladino, who plays the character of Jimmy’s underappreciated baby-mama.  So I looked her up on the internet, and Wiki told me that she was in a band called Exitmusic—with her husband.  One of everyone’s favorite Radiohead songs is called “Exit Music (For a Film)”, so I thought if they were influenced by that song, it’d be worth a listen.  I downloaded the EP and listened to really late one night in January.  And then I listened to it again about five times.  I was blown away.  It’s moody, alternately dark and uplifting, dreamy, it builds up and slows down, and the melodies go straight into your heart.  It’s a bit like Beach House, but way better.  Through the first song (“The Night”), you can’t really tell if it’s a boy or girl singing, which I love.  I found them on Facebook, where they had about a hundred fans.  Pretty much everyone I introduced them to in the few months before leaving for Indo agreed they were excellent, and I developed a semi-irrational fear that the song “The Hours” would be discovered by some hip, bloodless junior executive at Lexus and stuffed into an awful car commercial.  I just missed seeing them live in New York during the East Coast Road Trip and expressed my regret on the Facebook page.  To my delight, Aleksa wrote back and wished me luck in Indonesia.  Be still, my racing heart! 

Honorable Mentions:

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (2011)
·      Awesome title.
·      Mostly for the first track, “White Noise”.

Villagers – Becoming a Jackal (2010)
·      Amazing first two tracks, “I Saw the Dead” and “Becoming a Jackal”.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (2010)
·      I’ve still never listened to this whole album, but the first and last tracks (“Dance Yrself Clean” and “Home”) are golden.

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)
·      First heard this and thought it would end up making the top 10.  It didn’t, but that was more about my mood.  Really good album.  Love the track “Godless Brother in Love”.

OutKast – Aquemini (1998)
·      Some amazing tracks on this album.  The more of OutKast I hear, the more I love Andre 3000.
·      Particular favorites would be “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”.

Random songs/music I loved this from this year:
·      “Jamelia” by Caribou
·      “Enchanting Ghost” by Sufjan Stevens
·      “Lost in the World” by Kanye West ft. Bon Iver
·      “The Wilhelm Scream” by James Blake
·      “Mi Maamakim” by Idan Raichel
·      The first five songs of the album Discovery by Daft Punk, which were crucial for getting down with the PCVs.
·      “Doing the Wrong Thing” by Kaki King
·      A Perfect Circle’s cover of “When the Levee Breaks”
·      “Chain of Missing Links” and “All You Need Is a Wall” by the Books
·      “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” by Andrew Bird
·      The album Ravedeath, 1972 by Tim Hecker, which is pretty much an hour-long sound experiment
·      Chopin’s Nocturnes
·      Some of that stuff by Fleet Foxes, who are good but can be sort of corny.


A piece of music that I recorded in my room in Indonesia.  Did it in Garageband on my Macbook Pro with the built-in microphone behind the keyboard and my acoustic guitar.  All the sounds/effects are mine, minus two percussion tracks that come in about half way through.

Just want to draw your attention to the fact that there is not a single cockadoodle or adzan or roaring of a motorcycle in that entire thing.  That might seem like nothing to you, but it took a buttload of patience to make a recording without tons of background noise.

“Good Music”

Some years ago, I put on some music for a person whose taste and sensibilities I highly respect, and he hated it.  He said the music made him angry—there was something either dishonest or sinister or rotten at the heart of it.  I was shocked and kind of mad at the dismissal, which I thought to be arrogant and myopic.  But it did cause me to question my own musical taste and why people could have such radically different ideas about what constitutes “good” music.  I’ve thought about it ever since, really.  There’s good music and there’s good music.  There’s music that you like and there’s music that’s artistically significant or genuine, and they’re not always the same.  We’ve all got guilty pleasures. 

It seems to me that music can be good for many different reasons.  What makes Keith Jarrett great is completely different from what makes Sufjan Stevens or Conor Oberst great.  Purists would shudder that those latter names even share a sentence with Keith Jarrett.  They’re all musicians, but they have so little in common.  Some musicians are great because of their virtuosity, some because of spontaneity, some because of originality, some because of their genuineness.  It’s all got something to do with what is revealed and transmitted.  Some musicians reveal their heart, some their soul, some their mind, some their wit, some their obsessions.  We all have some idea of “good music”, but it’s so incredibly difficult to define. 

What I find is that a lot of the new music I like has less to do with virtuosity and musicianship, and much more to do with mood.  It often feels like the artist  has created a landscape that I can walk through and explore and fill with my own forms, rather than letting me look into a fully finished world.  I’m not sure how to put it, and of course this is in no way a rejection of those masterpieces of musicianship or creativity.  I guess I struggle with some guilt over this.  Mood music simpler and doesn’t really require great skill in instruments.  It makes up a significant portion of what I listen to.  I just don’t know whether to call it “good” or not.  Is it artistically inferior?  Or is it a different kind of art?  And if it’s a different kind of art, is it a low art, rather than a high art? 

As an example:  Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky are both “post-rock” bands.  I like them both, and I might prefer for long stretches to listen to Explosions in the Sky, but I would never classify them as the artistic equals of Sigur Rós.  They create beautiful soundscapes that I enjoy wandering, but what they do isn’t nearly as original or bold or challenging as what Sigur Rós has done.  So how to judge it?

I guess the core of the trouble is what a person means when they say something is “good music” or so-and-so is a “good band”.  Maybe good, but good isn’t the same as good.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Ultimate Sandwich Contest

The MANDA English Club Ultimate Sandwich Contest, an infamously brutal culinary competition, is always held on Friday 12/2/2011.  The infrequency of that date makes it an exceedingly rare (and therefore highly prestigious) event.  As luck would have it, the only Friday 12/2/2011 since humans invented calendars happened to fall during my stay in Indonesia.

Teams of gladiators battling it out in the colloseum (read: masjid)
My Bahasa II kids and the eventual co-champs
The premise was simple.  Ten teams of two to four students competed to make a sandwich that was equal parts tasty, well-structured, creative, and attractive.   Each team had to make one sandwich for judging and at least three sandwiches for the entire English club to peck at.   There were four judges: Ms. Ani (English teacher), Ms. Eti (English teacher + head of English club), Mr. Bogi (school tech guy with decent skills in English), and yours truly (obviously).    Each group’s official sandwich was evaluated by three of the four judges.  Each judge filled out a rubric for every sandwich they tried.  More or less, teams were scored by three different judges from 1 to 5 in the categories of Taste, Structure, Creativity, and Presentation.  The team with the most total points would be declared the victor.  

 I started them off with a quick demonstration of how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I don’t think it helped them much to understand about sandwiches, but they were amused when I ate it with relish—the feeling, not the condiment.   I’m fairly sure they were grossed out by the combination.  Most of these kids have never had a sandwich in their lives.  I was impressed, amused, and occasionally horrified by their creations.  The sandwich (not pictured for the sake of decency) that I found strangest was also the first one I tasted.  I think the inventors just slapped together everything they have ever associated with bread:  lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, chocolate spread, sprinkles, cheese, hot sauce, chili peppers, and some kind of beef.  At least the structure was solid. 

Filling out a scorecard
 You can always count on Indonesians to give you good presentation, which is one reason I made it a judging criterion.  I anticipated that their lack of experience in blending tastes would need a fairly heavy counterweight.  They certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard.  One of the sandwiches even had a flag in it!  One small hiccup came when they actually put sauces or cheese on the outside of the bread as garnish.  This made handling the sandwiches a bit icky.  Total rookie mistake, no big deal.

I love how in this country it’s no issue if kids bring ingredients from home to give to everyone else.  I remember at my high school you couldn’t give food to classmates that wasn’t store-bought.  I also love that it’s not an issue when kids all bring big freakin’ knives to school to carve pumpkins or cut vegetables for a sandwich contest.  After at least a half hour of preparation, the judges began the tasting.  It was great!  The kids were so excited and nervous.  Some brought drinks to offer the judges too.  Oh, here, have a sip of Fanta, sir!  Please, eat the whole sandwich!  And even though not every sandwich tasted great, they were all made with great care and attention.  Also, there were some that tasted really good under the masking hot sauce taste. We had each team make a list of the ingredients in English.

Patriotic Sandwich
I was the only judge to try all ten sandwiches (how could I not?).  After tallying up the scores, there was a tie.  Two groups got a total of 54 out of 60 possible points!  We had to go back to the ultra-slow printer in the teacher’s room to print out four more high-quality certificates for the winners.  Each member of the winning teams was given a sweet certificate that granted them the title of SANDWICH SUPERSTAR.  We printed them on cardstock, and they had a date and signatures of the Head Sandwich Judge (me) and the boss of English Club (Ms. Eti).  The champs were thrilled. 

And so was I, because this was a really awesome activity.  There had been some buzz in the school about it beforehand, and at least as many people stopped by to watch as took part in the event.  Lots of teachers came around and many, many curious students.  In the 30 or 40 minutes that the judges were milling around trying, and especially toward the end, the kids were enjoying themselves making and eating a bunch of sandwiches and trying the creations of other groups.  English Club has been rockin’ since we elected officers and took a lot of the pressure off of me.  Now I have a team of people to consult with and they can tell me what THEY want to do and be largely responsible for arranging it.  It’s way better and way more sustainable now that I’m not the person holding it all together.  Next semester is gonna get even better!

Ladies and Gentleman: Your Sandwich Superstars
Maybe next year we'll play Sandwich Survivor so as to avoid any ties.  But these girls earned it.

Things I would do differently next time:  In the run-up, announce the judging criteria.  Perhaps offer a session the week before to instruct the kids on the basics of making sandwiches, like what ingredients go well together.  We could even spend a full meeting of the English Club on this.  We could discuss classic sandwiches and how to make them.  I'm not much of a cook and I'm not the most creative person with food, so this isn't actually the thing I'm best suited for, but I'm sure other volunteers could do an amazing job with this.  This could be made into a much bigger event.  We could even do a competition between schools, or make it one event in a larger competition that includes the normal run of speeches and performances.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Trouble with Keeping in Touch

One thing I was somewhat concerned about when leaving for Peace Corps was whether I would have enough time and energy to maintain contact with all the people I would want to talk to whom I wouldn’t see for a couple years.  Those last couple weeks of good-byes were crushing at times.  You say good-bye just when things with Friend X seem to have gotten so much stronger.  Now you’re going to leave for two years and who knows when you will see each other again.  This happened a lot.  When you part, having realized or remembered what a great connection you actually share, you both promise and internally resolve to make that extra effort to keep in touch.

What’s been strange is how that desire to keep up has evolved over time.  There are some people I told myself I’d be in frequent contact with that I’ve barely talked to over the last eight months.  There are other people I never really imagined having an exchange with, yet they’ve become regular contacts.


Some people remain close no matter what happens.  Anytime you talk, no matter how much has transpired in each of your lives, there is no barrier to overcome.  All is open, the dynamic does not change.  I find that basically everyone who falls under this description is someone I think of as family (through blood or not).  And, interestingly, the people I consider to be my family are not necessarily always the “closest” to me.  That is, they may not be the most important or immediate sources of comfort and support, they may not have the most up-to-date knowledge of my situation, and they may not be privy to the deepest parts of my being.  But for whatever reason, they’re family, and nothing changes that.  With these folks, I never worry about how long it’s been since we’ve talked—which doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to them.  I just don’t get stressed about it.

Most people, however, are not family.  My relationship with a non-family friend might be subject to change over time, and is somehow connected with our respective life circumstances.  You know, that friend you were really close to in high school, but contact sort of faded when you went to different colleges.  Or that friend who was critical for a year or two, but your paths diverged.  Or the colleague who was your best bud as long as you worked together, but once someone moved on you just didn’t need each other anymore.  I was close with one friend in middle school, we didn’t talk in high school, then we got close again in college, and at the moment we rarely speak.  There’s this dance of moving in and out of each other’s lives. 

I guess most people do that dance with most other people.  Sometimes you snap to attention and realize that the moment has passed, your paths have diverged again, even if there was nothing to signal it.  Then you might wonder what the hell just happened and why you and your one-time-best-friend aren’t talking, and (worse!) you don’t even mind that much.

I also think most people realize, if only subconsciously, that this is the case.  And so, at the moment of parting, they promise to keep up through writing or calling or social media or whatever—somehow to reject the possibility, often an inevitability, that their paths are going to diverge, and soon.  And they even manage to convince themselves that it’s true—they will write those letters and send those emails and make those phone calls.  In most instances, reality takes over after that.  One cannot carry on pouring effort and attention into the maintenance of relationships that are dependent on proximity for their value.  Of course, one can try, but it usually ends with a thud and a shrug.

That isn’t to say that all non-family relationships are rooted in physical proximity.   Some friendships grow stronger with distance.  But most do not, I think.  And I think as a society, we kind of have a hang-up when it comes to admitting that many friendships are coincidental—they grow more out of shared circumstances than some connection of the soul.  When the circumstances of the people involved change, so does the friendship.  It sounds rather cold and horrible, but is it really?   Everyone’s lives are always in motion.  Is it at all realistic to expect to keep close with everyone, or to expect everyone to want to keep close with you?  Sometimes people need and seek each other, sometimes they don’t.  Why get cross about it? 

Like most people, I’ve got no lack of Facebook friends that I haven’t spoken to in a year or more.  Our paths have diverged, we’re each experiencing different things.  But acknowledging that sometimes paths diverge is only the first half—sometimes they converge again later.  This is one reason that I like and continue to use social media.  Just because we’re not close now, doesn’t mean we won’t get close again later.  The point is that you don’t have to shut the book on people just because you’ve strayed apart, nor do you have to fight to stay on the same page if it needs turning [end of metaphor].  You shouldn’t feel offended if it seems that someone has moved on. 

And then there’s always the option of refusing to accept a natural divergence, as many couples do.  That could be very perilous or very worthwhile, but how can one tell beforehand?  It demands a lot of sacrifice, without question.

I think in the past, before the world was so damned small, people would lose touch, and that was it.  If you knew someone when you were a teenager or in your twenties and then lost touch, that person remained a static image in your mind.  You carried that image for decades, every so often remembering dear so-and-so.  He was so _______!  I wonder what he’s doing now?  These days, you don’t have to wonder.  People are easy to find and reconnect with, and when you do find them, you realize that you are not the center of the universe, that that person went on to live his own life, just as full and elaborate as yours.


Anyway, relating this back to Peace Corps and keeping in touch and all that.  There’s this thing going on that really bothers me.  At this moment, my life is in Indonesia.  Most things that I think about in a given day arise from some stimulus I encountered in this country.  Most things have some connection to life as a PCV.  New experiences lead to new thoughts, insights, realizations, etc.  Those experiences and new ideas in turn form to the core of what I have to communicate.  The trouble is that all those experiences happened in this new world, which is alien to every person who was close and important to me eight months ago.  Unfortunately, nobody in that old world shares my circumstances, so there is a real limit to the amount and kind of support I can expect from them.  Most of what I have to share these days requires long explanation and some understanding of my circumstances and the culture I’m living in and my day-to-day life and all that.  With only limited time to talk with friends, this is hard to establish (but not impossible).

Moreover, there’s really no guarantee that all the stuff that seems so important to me actually matters to others.  I might scream in your face:






But how deeply can that affect a person whose environment has not made them highly sensitized to such things?  And it’s not that person’s fault, of course.  It’s just natural.  Why would, or how could, someone care so deeply about things that are so remote?  I take myself as an example.  Things that would have commanded my undivided attention a year ago—e.g. the upcoming election, the success of my favorite sports teams, what happened on this season of some fantastic TV show—now elicit little more than a shrug.  (Seriously, I don’t want to watch the video clip of Rick Perry’s latest gaffe).  I mean, I do maintain an interest in a lot of things and I try to stay informed, but the intensity of my interest is an order of magnitude lower. 

So most of the stuff I want to talk about is rooted here in this world and most of the stuff others want to talk about is rooted in their own world.  Again, disclaimer: great communication is surely still possible, and it’s not like people can’t be interested in what the other has to say.  It’s just that the capacity to relate and thereby offer support is limited.  What really irritates me in conversation—and the thing that I wanted to eventually express when I began this posting—is when I feel that one person is trying to force the other to come into their world. 

In fact, I mean this less as a critique of other people than I do of myself.  For the most part, other people are really gracious and listen and put up with all the Indonesian-themed stuff that I try to shove down their throats.  But I do get defensive when people don’t acknowledge what I want to communicate or somehow convey that it’s not as important as what’s going on in their own life.  Really, though, this is rare.  If I feel unacknowledged, it usually has to do with the limitations of a person’s ability to relate rather than that person’s smugness or sense of superiority.

Far more commonly, I nettle myself by unintentionally making every conversation about Indonesia, somehow.  Talking with other PCVs, this is no problem, because everything we experience is in the context of Indonesia, so with each other it’s not like we’re just babbling about this exotic foreign land all the time—we’re just discussing daily experiences.  But what would be a story about “something that happened in school” among PCVs becomes a story about “something that happened in Indonesia” between a PCV and someone in the USA.  I don’t mean to do it, but simply by sharing experiences, it feels like I end up shoving “Indonesia” under the nose of everyone I talk to and forcing them to take a whiff.  I don’t want to do that!  By the end of some turn in the conversation, I get this bad feeling like I’ve been an insufferable jerk who just tried to rip the person out of America and make them live for a moment in my world. 

And even worse, I can feel snooty about it. 

Whatever, all the crap that you’re worrying about in the States are whiny first world problems.  I don’t care about the stupid nomination rat-race, I’ve got students who’ve been studying English for five years and don’t know how to say, “My name is Ahmad and I am from Indonesia.”

(or perhaps)

Don’t tell me your dinner was bad.  All the food I eat is fried in two inches of palm oil.
Don’t tell me it’s hot.  I live on the equator with no air conditioning.

I really don’t like thinking that way.  It makes me distant from other people, and I fear it makes them want more distance from me.  Really, I don’t mean to make it all about Indonesia, just as you don’t mean to make it all about America (or wherever).  It’s just that our paths have diverged a bit, so the balance of conversation is harder to find. 

At present I’m not sure how to clear this communication hurdle.  As I said, it’s not an issue with people I consider family.  But with other people, it can leave me with a queer feeling.  I suppose this can be combated with awareness and patience and attentiveness.  Paths diverge for a while—the distance is natural and normal.  It will probably be worst right after coming back to the US, and then it’ll get better.