Monday, January 22, 2007

Paradise Blues

When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I was struck by how pretty everything looks all the time, which left me feeling like I had moved into a dream. It's a very pretty dream, but maybe, at least at first, at least for my east coast blue collar blood, maybe a little too pretty, too dreamy. The line from "Orange Juice Blues" kept haunting me: "I'm tired of everything being beautiful, beautiful." So I went on a mission to find grit in Santa Barbara.

I couldn't find any, at least not Anglo grit. I found sleaze, both working class and upper crust, but that ain't no authentic, dare to do the right thing, unconcerned by dirty finger nails, do the hard work of the world, grit. The closest thing I could find was stylized designer grit, created from the clean pretty drafting tables of clean pretty minds, whose rebellion from stucco walls and red-tile roofs created coffee shops, bars, or restaurants where graduate students and ex-graduate students like me could drink three-dollar coffees or four-dollar beers and feel the authenticity of bared brick and ductwork, pre-distressed furniture, and the atmosphere of antique Coke bottles and old license plates. Had I moved to a new state or a new state of being?

After a year or two in town, a bit slowly, really, I discovered the venerable concert series, Sings Like Hell. Producer Peggy Jones and her hellions have succeeded in introducing grit into the dreamy prettiness of Santa Barbara far better than most, certainly far better than I. Within the beautiful, beautiful Lobero opera house, they stage some of the best musical acts in town, specializing in the graduates of--and those still enrolled in--the school of non-commercial knocks. Heavily flavored by the Austin scene, Sings Like Hell offers singer-songwiters who are more familiar with loud bars a chance to perform for a sit-down audience in an acoustically designed venue. The tag line of the series is "The best music you've never heard," and indeed the best shows not starring Richard Thompson are the ones by unknown surprises. Anyone familiar with Sings Like Hell knows all this.

Last month, for example, Brett Dennen, unknown to me and everyone I know, debuted at Sings Like Hell as the headline act, even though he had been billed as the warm-up. Tall, baby-faced, vaguely androgynous, with a big mop of red hair, he came on stage, plugged in an acoustic guitar with a big peace sticker on it, and made himself comfortable by kicking off his flip-flops and propelling himself around stage with his toes. A distinct "what in hell" buzz went through the crowd. Then the music started, energetic, subtely sophisticated, smartly arranged. Then he started to sing, distinctive voice, raspy and melodic, pouring out passion and remarkably mature for a 26 year old lyrics about struggling for love and peace and meaning in our consumer culture. Singing like Hell in the Lobero. Grit in paradise. We loved it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Car Talk/Car Walk (with apologies to Click and Clack)

I bought a new car today, well, eight years old but new to me. A practical, four-cylinder, best-selling car in America, and nearly 100,000 miles into its life, but it's the nicest car I've ever owned--by far. Leather seats, keyless entry, power sun roof, smooth, so quiet I can actually hear the CD player, it feels downright luxurious. In fact, the car comes as close as I've ever known to giving me that well-advertised oh-what-a-feeling because I now drive a car that expresses my American roads identity.

Yet I still feel a lack. Is it the same disappointment I learned as a child when the toy's reality did not match its TV euphoria? Or would I feel more sated if it were brand new and featured a hybrid engine? or better yet, bio-diesel?

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Perils of Alternative Piety, or It's Not Easy Being Green

Last week I attended a talk that came down to the same lament such talks by teachers seem always to produce: Students don't reason. They read a book, watch a television show, listen to music, but fail to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. It's an understandable lament for teachers, since our job is to teach students to reason. Still, it's an odd, self-serving, even kind of stupid lament. Students do not live by reason alone. Duh! Who does? Who wants to?

I've been thinking about the limits of reason in connection to issues discussed at Fuller and Fuller and some of the links on that site. These issues involve the struggle against consumer culture, global warming, corporate monoculture in agribusiness, sweatshop exploitation--in short, the good fight to live green and save the planet. The difficulty in being green is not only, as Queen Whackamole says, that "Awareness and education have a tough battle to fight against convenience," not only the tough practical struggle to live green in a world organized by very ungreen principles. But it's also difficult being green because being green means living by rational principles, and it is emotionally difficult to be so rational all the time.

For example, Queen Whackamole (and some good folks at Compact) struggles against shopping, because, even though stuff in stores is useless, excessive, ecologically ruinous, and functionally exploitative, shopping is not a rational experience, but an emotional one. It somehow brings comfort, relieves stress, or otherwise engages a non-rational part of ourselves. The same can be said for many of our most compelling or useless or destructive lifestyle choices--food, alcohol, sex, movies, sports, poker, cigarettes, drugs, screaming at the top of our lungs. What we do is often not rational, but rather connected to desire and the unconscious.

So what is the emotional tenor of acting rationally according to green principles? Unfortunately, too often we experience being green as what we should do, the rules of the super ego. We feel we are being good, a short step from pious, perilously close to self-righteous. And what is the greatest pleasure for many of us--especially, perhaps, for those of us who used to be altar boys--in this complex of rules for desire? Transgression, of course. And when the principles we are supposed to follow but instead transgress are green principles, well, reason and desire do not exactly come together to save the planet.

I can offer no solution to the perils of alternative piety. I want to save the world, too, but I don't believe saintliness is a viable model for psychic health or social change. What I like about Queen Whackamole's effort to look for an alternative to retail therapy is that she opens, and leaves open, the question about the emotional difficulty of being green.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Innocence Lost

I've been memed, which feels like losing my blogging innocence. I was under the blissful fetal impression that blogging was all about me, my thoughts, my observations, my preferences, me me me. The meme, despite its name, commands me with the authority of Mt. Sinai: Thou Shallt Blog About These Seven Issues That Interest Others. It doesn't even help that the issues are all about my thoughts, observations, preferences, me me me. I'm devastated to learn that I have to write about what interests others, that I have to respond to others, even be responsible to others. Blogging isn't the Eden of solipsism I imagined.
  1. Name a book that you want to share so much that you keep giving away copies: I teach, so I inflict my bookish preferences upon others for a living. I've learned through much hardship to avoid inflictions upon friends and family. Occasionally my passion for a book blinds me to previous hardships, and I venture an infliction. I've had a few that were less than disastrous. For a long while, it was Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, because she thinks so profoundly through literature. More recently, I've been pressing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, especially to those turned off by the fanfare he received when the book came out, which bears no relation to the smart, insightful, and fun romp through postmodern America. Lately it's been Robert Reich's books.
  2. Name a piece of music that changed the way you listen to music: Once upon a time in Austria, I went to a beautiful Renaissance palace, to a small ornate, acoustically perfect room, for an intimate performance of Mozart music by a quartet of accomplished international classical musicians. The setting couldn't have been more ideal, and I couldn't keep my eyes open. 'Twas then I decided it was ok to dislike classical music, which has made it possible for me to like it more.
  3. Name a film you can watch again and again without fatigue: I thought it might be the Animaniacs' Who's on Stage routine, but I found the YouTube clip fatiguing. If "without fatigue" means every year or two, at the top of a long list (that prominently features Hitchcock) might be Scorcese's two comedies, After Hours and King of Comedy. They both play out Scorcese's exploration of class conflict in comic terms, and they hold up remarkably well.
  4. Name a performer for whom you suspend all disbelief: I'm a sucker for suspension of disbelief, so it's easier to talk about performers who re-instate my disbelief. Somehow they all seem to make their way into my disbelief while I'm standing in supermarket checkout lines.
  5. Name a work of art you'd like to live with: The Patricia Chidlaw nightscape hanging in my friends' living room.
  6. Name a work of fiction which has penetrated your real life: For years people have been telling me that I look like a well-known actor. They mean it as a compliment and frequently tell me, when I scowl in response, that it's a good thing, that there are worse things in the world. I suppose so, but I've mainly found it embarassing, even kind of insulting. It doesn't help that the actor has made a career as the guy in a chick flick. So not only am I obscured by people's celebrity fantasies, I'm doubly obscured by the Hollywood fantasies of men packaged for female consumption. Yuch! At least my mother tells me, "you're much better looking."
  7. Name a punch line that always makes you laugh: "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

Monday, January 8, 2007

Beards, Barbers, and Santa Barbarians

We share an inherited trait among the males in my family that enables us to extrapolate from the barest of facts to insights into great human truths. We call it McQing, though the women in the family have a less noble name for it. In our defence, my brother has pointed out to his girlfriend that McQing is far more interesting than saying the simple truth, which is, usually, "I dunno." The girlfriend wasn't convinced, which is to say, she is now the ex-girlfriend.

So, as I was shaving this morning, I thought I remembered reading somewhere that clean-shaven men were the mark of western civilization since the time of the Greeks. The others, the ones with beards and no barbers, were the barbarians. Thus, even in its inception, civilization was defined by men becoming more like women, that is, less hairy. This path led eventually to Paris, that most civilized and most feminine of places, where all wine and food are exquisite, love rules all relationships in and out of marriage, and all the gargoyles match.

In North America, where men tamed the west and women civilized western men, the most civilized place is 100 miles west of Los Angeles, in Santa Barbara, which is, in the same pattern as Paris, a most feminine place, where streets and beaches are clean, poverty is well-hidden, and mayors, newspaper mavens, and billionaires are all (or mostly) women. The city patron saint is also, of course, female, which makes us not barbarians but civilized Santa Barbarians.

After finishing my shave, I wondered whether these thoughts on beards and barbarians crossed that murky line from memory to McQing. And since the women in the family have actively encouraged this epistemic skepticism, I've learned to distrust my memory and its logical implications. I did some actual research on the history of shaving. Sure enough, the Greeks, notably Alexander the Great himself, popularized clean shaven faces to distinguish Greeks from barbarians. But he did so only because beards provide too easy a handle during hand-to-hand combat. A clean shaven face, it turns out, did figure in the advance of Western civilization, because it enabled a more effective form of brutality.

What does this say about the smooth-faced mayors and mavens of Santa Barbara? "I dunno."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Lil' Slow Food Cafe

I only recently learned of the "slow food" movement, which advocates sanity in eating locally, organically, communally. Some quick research placed it as the spark of a wider, green, progressive, vaguely luddite "slow movement" aimed at the "time poverty" and attendant high stress of twenty-first century high-tech globalized capitalism. While I've long lamented the 350 more hours a year Americans work than Europeans or Japanese, and long avoided that path, I'm clearly a little slow in catching up to the slow movement, but grateful for a movement dedicated to allowing me to catch up. Or is it dedicated to slowing life down to catch up to me?

I've also been quite slow coming to the blogosphere. I started reading my friend George's blog and, after several slow months of contemplation, decided blogging might be a way to slow life down, wallow in its particularities, ponder their significance. After more slow months of procrastination, I started this effort to engage more fully in my own mortality before it expires. I even contemplated stealing a title I saw in Arizona: Lil' Slow Food Cafe.

I especially like the paradox, at least in my slow mind, of a slow blog. The blogosphere is all about instant opinions, extemporaneous keyboarding, hyperlinks at hyperspeed, minds as nimble and quick as a Gameboy joystick. But at its core, it's a movement of reading and writing, a rhythm also so slow.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Grand Canyon Tease

Clothed in clouds and snow, the Canyon gave only fleeting glimpses on the first day, much more than on a postcard perfect day.

The snow and clouds were themselves so beautiful, and so different from all the postcards and stories, I wasn't even looking at the Canyon. And when I did, its mostly cloudy striptease revealed a distant misty butte, a switchback trail disappearing into the shrouded depths, a mirage triangle of white water far below. I was ready.

The next day, the sun shone brightly on the endless hues of red rock, and the shadows changed the view as I watched. Then the majesty, the outer space beauty, and, especially with all the slippery snow around, the vertiginous danger of the Grand Canyon played their chords in my chest. Awesome indeed.
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