Wednesday, November 05, 2008

For the most part, I feel like I'm pretty empathetic. I can understand, even if I don't agree, something about the motivations of people who vote solely in favor of preserving gun rights, or low taxes, borders or even (maybe especially) the right to life. Even if I disagree, I can see something that I understand and can connect with.

But, when it comes to Gay Marriage, I'm just dumbfounded. It seems, to me, like people standing up for bigotry -- and bigotry of the worst kind. I've never understood how denying homosexuals the right to marriage "preserves" anything, much less how allowing this civil right to spread to others would destroy anything. I can't connect with the intentions of any human who would make another's love life such a part of their business that they would bother to rally, or hold signs, in favor of denying legal rights to a segment of the population. It is meanness to the highest degree, and I can't really see past it.

So, in a time when America has demonstrated a tolerance that I hardly dared hope would happen, what is up with California?

Monday, November 03, 2008

I Do Recall Our Caravel

My run-ins with The Believer

And I do recall our caravel
A little wickered beetle shell
With four fine masts and lateen sails
Its bearings on Cair Paravel
—Joanna Newsom, “Bridges & Balloons”

For a guy who grew up pretty far away from where cool things happened — high school in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio; college at a tiny, snow logged, mostly military school twelve back-road miles from the smallest state capital in the country, (Montpelier, VT) — it was often hard for me to believe that there were contemporary people doing interesting things, or thinking like-minded thoughts (or at least to believe they were talking about and publishing those thoughts). I read a lot of stuff by people who died long before I was born. I listened to a lot of folk and blues from the '60s, or even the '30s. To be fair, there was some good contemporary music that I liked. But it was mainstream: Nirvana, REM, U2, et al. It was so slickly packaged, so professional and so clearly far from me or my world that it might as well have been from a different time. Basically, I assumed that I was too late for everything. Even when I didn't really believe that anymore, I still sort of believed it.

In early 2003, a few years after college, I was working for a small nonprofit, writing a lot of poetry that ended up drying out in my desk drawer (or worse, being foisted upon unwilling family and friends in a desperate bid for some kind of response). I expect I was not much fun to be around. I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of books, listened to a lot of music, the best of which caused amazing things to happen in my brain. Those responses also seemed like they had nowhere to go; I had trouble finding more than one or two other people who were interested in talking about or thinking about poetry and music and books—in the ways I wanted to think about them, anyway. Maybe I'm wrong, and was just going through a late-stage self-centered form of adolescence. Either way, the arrive of The Believer magazine in February of 2003, at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, VT was a revelation. The writers seemed young and idealistic, rough around the edges, but genuinely concerned with the things that concerned me. Most of my favorite articles were about finding and sharing gems in the cultural morass — novels, movies, music I’d never heard of, but needed to know about. I bought a subscription.

In 2005, The Believer launched the first of their annual music issues with a mix CD of cover songs. I still think the CD that came with this one is the best. What amazed me most, aside from the fact that I’d never heard of any of these people, were the lyrics. They weren’t just lyrics… they were poetry! Joanna Newsom, The Silver Jews, Postal Service. The songs on this CD have some amazing phrases. They are lyric, and sad, and true. This is a CD that you listen to with headphones on, cross-legged on the floor, just concentrating on the interaction of the music and the lyrics, and trying to understand why and how it affects you the way it does.

The magazine followed the CD with an essay by Matthew Derby, introducing the mix, and describing each of the songs. It felt like a personal, perfect mix tape made by a stranger. It wouldn't have surprised me if Matthew Derby had started the essay with “Dear Christopher.” Instead he started it like this:
The oldest recorded song we know of was etched on clay tablets in western Syria 3,400 years ago. But the first actual song was created much further back, before the creation of language, perhaps even before the invention of bread, or maybe in celebration of the invention of bread.

From music to bread! This was the way I wanted to think about music. This was how I wanted to hear about, and talk about it. As if it were important. As if it could change the world. Because, for me, it sometimes could. Then he ends it like this:
Some of the covers are faithful, others are barely recognizable, and some come from original compositions heard only by four people in Canada. All of them will change you slightly, make you more aware of things—even the one thing you've just noticed, which is the sudden and distinct smell of bread baking somewhere nearby.

And he was right. Even before I’d read that, the CD had changed me. It had amazed me. I wanted The Believer to be my best friend. I wanted to make mix tapes and send them back to Matthew Derby and all the people that worked there. Only I knew they wouldn't be as good. Instead, I became determined to make something else—a poem—as beautiful, as worthy of being spread around as the music The Believer had given me. I won’t say it was a direct cause, but that was the year I quit my job to apply to grad schools and write full time. So, in a sense, I'm still working on it.