Monthly Archives: September 2011

Homage to R.E.M.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my sister that just said “damn” and included a link to the R.E.M. website. Oh oh, I thought.

I charged up my ipod and have been wandering around the house ever since wearing my bulky black airport headphones, listening to “Little America,” “Begin the Begin,” “Good Advices,” “Pilgrimage.” All of my favorite songs. I spent hours yesterday writing up a list of my favorites, watching videos, and I finally just had to physically restrain myself from adding anymore because it was getting ridiculous, out of control. In the end what I was left feeling was a terrible kind of genuine grief. It was felt like the kind of grief you get at a loss, that this was it, that this body of work on my ipod was complete. That the story was over, that there would be no new additions to the oeuvre.

And yes, there was also a terrible kind of grief for myself, too, that I’ve lived long enough to now be at the point for my favorite bands from my childhood to grow old and drift apart. Krist Novoselic is shockingly bald and pudgy. It will happen to everyone. Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen–everyone. As in:



As in:

“I will grow old. I will grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

I mean, on one hand there is still a kind of gladness, to hear Tori Amos’ daughter’s Adele-like voice on the new record, see the pictures of how she is growing up, and feel like wow, so this is what the passage of time has given us, but on the other hand there is still this very freaked out I can’t believe this feeling. I remember being in the computer lab at school, the day after my birthday in 2000, checked (Tori Amos news and setlist website of ye days of olde) and reading that she had given birth and just feeling totally shocked, and yeah, happy even.

Mother and daughter. Is what I feel when I see these photos, or the ones of Frances Bean Cobain, similar to what my parents feel when they flip through any old moth-eaten dried-up glue photo album of our own?!

It is a strange kind of intense worship that we give to singers and songwriters in our youth: R.E.M., Tori, Bruce and Bob. My sister and I wrote their lyrics all over our hands and notebooks and agendas and trapper keepers (remember those?!). And they in turn help us mark the passage of time: albums of the 90’s, 2000’s, and onwards. Crazy to think that 1991 is the same distance away from today as 1971 one was from 1991. Does 1991 seem as old and far-away to the kids I work with, as 1971 did to me?

They were interviewing the lead singer from Wilco on NPR the other day, and he said that music helped him cope with his severe anxiety disorder because it helped him focus on the present, not on projections into the past and future, but rather right here right now, this song, music, and lyrics. Anxiety disorder or not, I think that is about a great explanation as any of how music (and reading!) is a bridge, a gateway, a form of transcending your puny, trembling w/fear at your own insecurities self.

What I will most appreciate about R.E.M. (and Tori, for that matter) is that I feel like they took the notion of making art, storytelling, narrative and characterization to an intensely higher level for me. Yeah, I totally went through my shitty cassette tape phase of Backstreet Boys, Hansen and the Titanic soundtrack (all hail the glory of being 12). But then one day we bought the Grammy’s nominee 1998 tape and everything changed. It had all these female singers on it, their names vaguely familiar from the pages of 17 and Rolling Stone that we would read sitting on the cool tile floor at the back of the library, hiding from Sports Day and swimming lesson P.E. class behind the bookshelves. Names like Fiona Apple, Paula Cole, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow. You know, all those so-called “Lilith Fair” types.

So one thing led to another and in a year’s time we got To Venus and Back and NIN’s The Fragile for Christmas. I let my sister choose which one she wanted to listen to first and she chose Tori, much to my envy–I tried to listen to the sounds of the piano tinkling through the thick bedroom walls to no avail; we only had one discman between us and she was using that shitty stereo with the one broken speaker that always made the Beatles songs sound Satanic, missing an essential guitar or vocal.

The first R.E.M. album I ever bought was Out of Time and I honestly don’t remember why. I don’t remember the next one I bought, either. I just remember at some point during summer Nerd camp on the east coast, I realized that I owned pretty much half their albums, and there was hardly a weak song on any of them.

Anyway. The bigger point I am trying to make is that Tori and R.E.M. took the notion of ART to a whole ‘nother level for me. Art didn’t have to be well-liked, hip, cool, popular or big-selling. Art could be mysterious and enigmatic. Art could give you FEELINGS even if you weren’t sure what they were and what was going on, what was happening to you–what was being DONE to you. Art could have a kind of integrity, in the sense that you honored yourself and what you were making: the work came first, not anyone or anything else. My thesis advisor in college once told me not to listen to anyone else’s opinions or judgements on what was a success or what was a failure, what was good or what was bad. “Lo que vale es el trabajo,” he told me. The work is what counts. That’s how I feel about R.E.M. and Tori: for them, the work was (is) what counted.

And I guess that is my little homage mini-essay of Why I Like R.E.M. Here are some of the songs I came up with from my list and for my ipod playlist (it’s a numbered list for convenience, but the numbers really don’t mean anything):

  1. Hope” (from 1998’s Up)
  2. Try Not to Breath” (from 1992’s Automatic For the People)
  3. Maps and Legends” (from 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction)
  4. Supernatural Superserious” (from 2008’s Accelerate)
  5. World Leader Pretend” (from 1988’s Green)
  6. “I Believe” (from 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, my personal favorite R.E.M. album)
  7. Sitting Still” (from 1983’s Murmurs)
  8. Strange Currencies” (from 1994’s Monster)
  9. Country Feedback” (from 1991’s Out of Time)
  10. Green Grow the Rushes” (from 1985’s Fables)
  11. Monty Got A Raw Deal” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  12. Drive” (from 1992’s Automatic)
  13. The Lifting” (from 2001’s Reveal)
  14. ALL of 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, their best album, especially “New Test Leper,” “E-Bow the Letter,” “Bittersweet Me,” “Be Mine,” “So Fast So Numb” and “Low Desert.”
  15. The Great Beyond” (from 2003’s In Time: Greatest Hits)
  16. “The Wrong Child” (from 1988’s Green)
  17. King of Birds” (from 1987’s Document)
  18. Life and How To Live It” (from 1985’s Fables)
  19. Around the Sun” (from 2004’s Around the Sun)
  20. I’ll put “Nightswimming” here so that I can show me some CTY love…

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Filed under art, lists, music, time

Cloud Atlas

In 2001 I didn’t remember what it was like to be six years old in 1991, but in 2011 I do remember what it was like being sixteen. When I was six, I was in my second year in kindergarten (we had two years, K4 and K5, before first grade) and I didn’t care about much, other than lying stomach-down on the bed reading book after book and playing let’s-pretend games in the garden. When I was sixteen I was trying to write short stories; after September 11th, I wrote one called “Judy Powell is an Immaculate Heroine.” It was a story about a girl called Mary Fran who makes up a story about a survivor of the Pennsylvania plane crash, the titular Judy Powell, writes fake news stories about her survival and brings them to her English class so her teacher can post them on the bulletin board, fooling everybody into thinking that the story is real. I never finished it but what a vaguely Borgesian plot, no? I even submitted it to a journal; it wasn’t published due to its “violent and intense content” but I think the editors complimented it for its “intense imagery” and “strong writing style.” Go 16-year-old me!

After listening to NPR September 11th-themed broadcasts all…week…long (my weekday commute now has me going out to Vancouver, which means I’m going to be VERY in touch with the news on!) out of curiosity I dug the dusty story out of the archives (i.e. the bowels of my yahoo email inbox—I emailed all my high-school era stories there shortly before going to college in 2004, and I’m really glad I did, because otherwise they would basically be lost as an undiscovered copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls). I’m not going to, like, testify to the quality of a story written by a 16-year-old, but it was a nostalgic walk down memory lane nonetheless. Here’s the first paragraph:

 Mary Fran had a masterplan that rivaled that of the terrorists who’d flown a hijacked plane into the World Trade Center (the Twin Towers in New York City) the other day and knocked them to the ground. Except that her plan was going to make people feel good instead of bad. She was going to create an imaginary character in her head, bring it to life, and use it to reassure people that Nostradamus had left one of the glass frames of his spectacles behind in his bedroom that morning, so his view of the fortune telling stars through his telescope that day were a little blurred and thus his predictions for World Doom and Apocalypse were a little off track.

LOL, gotta love my long sentences. I also like the part where I refer to “, an Internet search engine,” as if that wasn’t clear, as well as all my references to CDs and Discmen, and the part where they talk about how in 2012, they’ll be 27 (“the same age as Kurt Cobain”), “the beginning of the end.” Ha Ha Ha! Gotta love it.

So yeah, 9/11 everywhere. Even the daily poem on 3quarksdaily was the lyrics to a Bruce Springsteen song.  I don’t really have much to say the day itself, quite frankly. This recent letter by an Iraq War vet in my favorite advice column pretty much sums up my feelings about it—that it really, really sucks to live in a world where a violent society and culture can cause that level of suffering, not just to Iraq war veterans or World Trade Center office workers and janitors but to Afghani and Iraqi suicide bombers. That letter has really affected me, to be honest. I can’t stop thinking about it. In yoga class this morning the teacher said “if you have any feelings about September 11th, or whatever, maybe think about dedicated your practice this morning to someone from that day,” and the only person I could think about was that Iraq veteran, wanting to die, and the others like him all over the world. I dunno, I am NOT a fan of soapbox preaching, but I just think it really sucks to live in a society where violence can make people so numb and damaged. It’s HORRIBLE. In this veteran’s letter, he reminds me of these Mexican/Colombian narcos, their brains blasted by bazuco, killing people mercilessly because they’re so numb and dead inside themselves that they’re barely human anymore. I think maybe one of the things that freaked so many Americans out about September 11th is that people just weren’t used to violence happening here. In Colombia, there’s a much bigger culture of people being more unshocked and unsurprised by these horrible atrocities, simply because it happens so much more that people are used to it, numb to it.

One of my favorite books, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (from which the name of this blog comes from), asks the question of whether or not humans can live together in peace, without resorting to conflict or violence. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Or to be more precise, “maybe for a brief period of time, but it can’t last.” On my flight back to the U.S. from Colombia (a Medellin-Miami-Dallas-Portland whammy) I finished David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in one sitting, a book with an interestingly similar message.

 Cloud Atlas is a pretty great book and the theme throughout is that humans just plain can’t get along, due to their inherently violent and power-craving nature. I really admired the ambition of this book, but there were definitely some sections that I liked more than others. Basically, the book consists of six different stories, all interconnected (it reminded me a bit of A Visit From the Goon Squad). When one story ends (usually on a killer cliffhanger), another begins. You move through time and space, starting with 1) a 19th-century journal of an American notary in the Pacific Islands, to letters written by a British composer to his lover, 3) a 1970’s thriller of a journalist trying to uncover an environmental disaster secret, 4) a picaresque adventure in which an elderly publisher becomes trapped in a retirement home, 5) a futuristic society in which human clones work in fast food restaurants before organizing a revolution, and 6) a post-apocalyptic “Avatar”-like world in which people have resorted to a more simple, primitive way of life but humanity’s basic tendency to destroy and kill anything that’s good and worthwhile remains.


So yeah, for a huge literature lover-nerd such as myself, this book was a complete and utter joy to read. Each section is narrated in a different style: we have a journal, letters, airport thriller, picaresque, interview and Cormac McCarthy/Faulkner-like monologue. Basically, Mitchell is a wicked talented author, and considering how radically different and ambitious each section is, he really comes off as a writer who could write pretty much ANYTHING if he wanted to. (Right now I’m reading his Black Swan Green, which is equally astonishing in how simple and straightforward the narrative is!)

One problem I had with the book is that I wish that the characters didn’t have that comet-shaped scar (thus implying that they’re connected through reincarnation, that they’re all the same soul). I feel like I would have still gotten the whole “connected” theme through the literary works that the main characters read in each section. I guess I like the idea of people being connected through ART, rather than a mystical construct. That being said, that’s really more like my own personal beef as opposed to a hardcore critique.

I’m really glad that books like this are still being written in this day and age. It’s a small drop of water in an otherwise very big ocean of war, deformed orphaned children, bombs, widowed wives, traumatized soldiers and mutilated bodies. I guess that ocean also contains things that I find heartening and hopeful, for whatever bizarre and senseless reasons. Like the fact that there’s a documentary coming out about Pearl Jam’s now 20-year career, PJ Harvey winning the Mercury prize for her anti-war album 20 years into her own career, the recent photos of Frances Bean Cobain, now tattooed and modeling, and that I’m still writing short stories with too-long opening sentences ten years later. “Yet what,” Mitchell writes in the book’s last sentence, “is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

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Filed under books, fiction, really deep thoughts, violence, writing


Happy birthday to me!

Today was pretty much the best day I could have asked for.

I woke up late and ate breakfast at the Waffle Window with my family.

Then we went blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island. I was dumb and wore a skirt and sandals, and have the bloody scratches up and down my feet and legs to show for it, but it was still totally worth it. We filled containers and containers of tupperware with them, and left more than enough behind for the birds and the mice (on the highest and lowest branches, as per Ma’s advice in Little House on the Prairie). I ate so many I got a horrible stomach ache and had to ask the beloved fam to reschedule the originally planned dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant for another day.

Later, at the Dollar Tree (where I was buying my oh so necessary supply of Tums and hand sanitizer, absolute essentials when a) prone to severe carsickness and/or blackberry greed, and b) working with large groups of grubby small children), the cashier lady asked me how I was doing. I said it was my birthday; she asked if I’d done anything special. “Blackberry picking at Sauvie’s Island!”

“Really?” she said, her forehead crinkling slightly. “That’s not special!”

“It is to me!” I replied cheerfully. I’ve never done it before, unlike ye native Oregonians…

Then I came home, ate a salad made out of greens and tomatoes from the flourishing and happy garden (thanks to my dad’s care, not mine!) and watched the recent BBC/PBS production of Hamlet. I really enjoyed the interpretation of Hamlet by David Tennant, an actor I’d never heard of but has apparently played both Dr. Who and Bartley Crouchy Junior in Harry Potter 4. I love Hamlet. I love how the most defining work of art made by a human being is about one man’s inability to act, about how we “lose the name of action,” and how his main attempt to do so (i.e. take action) is through the staging of a play.

Other things that have made my day, and my week in general:

– Joe Calderone’s recent performance, so liberating in its Amy Winehouse-Bruce Springsteen-ness. I love his Patti Smith-Rimbaud-Bob Dylan-Elvis vibe too.

– This poem, “Resurrection,” by Bolaño from The Romantic Dogs:

Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver in a lake.
Poetry, braver than anyone,
slips in and sinks
like lead
through a lake infinite as Loch Ness
or tragic and turbid as Lake Balaton.
Consider it from below:
a diver
covered in feathers
of will.
Poetry slips into dreams
like a diver who’s dead
in the eyes of God.

“Borges and I” by guess who, on page 324 of his Collected Stories:

It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to… I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition… I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’, or in the tedious strumming of a guitar.

– A 1999 interview with David Foster Wallace:

I was cripplingly shy at Amherst. I wasn’t in a fraternity and didn’t go to parties and didn’t have much to do with the life of the College. I had a few very close friends and that was it. I studied all the time. I mean literally all the time. I was one of those people they had to flicker the lights of Frost Library to get out of there on Friday nights who’d be out there right after brunch on Sunday waiting on the steps for them to open the doors.

            There were happy reasons for all this studying, and sad reasons. It was at Amherst, with its high expectations and brilliant profs and banzai workload, that I loved to read and write and think. In many ways I came alive there. But I was always terrified. Amherst terrified me—the beauty of it, the tradition, the elitism, the expense. But it was less Amherst than me: I was a late bloomer and still deeply in adolescence when I entered college. I had an adolescent’s radical self-absorption, and my particular self-absorption manifested as terror and inadequacy. This is the sad part. The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive also kept me dead: it was a way to hide from people, to try to earn—through ‘achievement’ or whatever—permission to be at Amherst that I was too self-centered to realize I’d already received when they accepted me.

            So ‘the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint [me]’ are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there… It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.

(I also really love the part in this interview where he talks about Lord of the Rings and the Velveteen Rabbit.)

I’m citing all these disparate links not to make this entry seem like something that should be on godforsaken tumblr, but rather more to reflect how sponge-like I’ve been feeling lately (my horoscope for this week seems to say the same, right on the mark as usual Rob Brezny!!). I’ve been reading a lot of quotes and advice by authors on the whole writing thing, blog entries and reviews of contemporary and Latin American literature, and have maxed out the number of books I’m allowed to place on Hold at the library. I feel like I’ve been one great big wet squishy yellow sponge for the past month or so, absorbing words, ideas, experiences, emotions. I feel like it’s going to be time soon when I’m gonna be wrung out, and let wet dribbly water ooze out everywhere and blur this computer screen, kill the keyboard, stain the notebook and smear the words.

Tomorrow is 26 + 1. Here we go.

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Filed under Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, Dear Diary, quotes