Sunday, January 27, 2008

I want to turn you on...

I walked into my Journalism lab today, and Broholm nipped us right in the bud. We had our assignment within two minutes. "You will be split into groups and you will find story ideas. Here is the assignment sheet, here are the group assignments, here are the buildings on campus you'll be covering, come back with between three and five possible stories." We're students, of course, so we've been trained to take things as they come and sort out the details later... as long as we were still physically in the journalism classroom, this was nothing to us, an assignment, an abstraction we would sort out once we actually got to Malott. But as soon as we hit the bitter cold of the Kansas winter and found ourselves staring down towards the hunching brick giant that is KU's central science building, imagining ourselves inside, worries started to creep up upon me.

As we got closer, they got more intense... and as soon as I entered the building... they broke. To me it was a feeling of controlled panic, adrenaline rushing through my veins every instant, awkwardness overwhelmed by sheer force of will. We accosted strangers passing by with "what is this building" and "are there, like, departments or something on this floor?", entered offices with questions like "what are people talking about around the water cooler?" "what's exciting and new and fun and sensational and makes you mad or sad or pissed... or... etc." We asked terrible questions, misinformed questions, and were plainly looking for cheap sensational stories (animal lab in the basement!!! sounds like a story to me!), but we didn't really know what else to do... the place was a complex, lined with doors carrying labels like "nanomolecular fabrication colony" and "center of isopromalophrynicine electro-osmosis avuncular quorum research," emitting strange buzzing and grinding noises. The walls were lined with research dissertations written in some bizarre, loufoque foreign language and posters detailing the worrisome movements of celestial bodies.

As we soon found, though, scientists are a pretty affable bunch, and were more than willing to treat us to a friendly smile and a bare basics explanation of their research, even though we were foolishly flopping fish in the wrong pond so to speak. It was a rush... an absolute rush all the way through... and made me wish that this wasn't just a minor assignment in a low-level journalism class... I wanted to KNOW how molecular transportation of electrons will someday be capable of replacing circuits in our technology, how sunflares are related to the extinction of dinosaurs, even why the storage guys are sick and tired of the university's ridiculously non-exhaustive security system (in a post- 9-11 context.) And all we had to do, really, was show interest... as long as we didn't get into anything TOO classified. (the recorded tapes of GW Bush of course, were off limits)

And then I went to the next class. My macroeconomics discussion hit me in the face like a bag of bricks... the first words were along the lines of "There will be fifteen discussions this semester, and you can still pass if you only skip eight of em'..." Perhaps the poor grad student actually does know, and love, his economics studies... but his expectation for this section to be chock full of slacker-ass hooligans biting at the bit to get the hell out of there, was weighty enough to turn him into a robot. He scratched the notes out on the whiteboard slowly, deliberately, and directly from a Powerpoint printoff he held in his hand; his responses to questions were abrupt and factual; his voice was monotone, his eyes were downcast. I asked one question: "I'm sorry, I just don't understand what you just said," and it was like seeing a glimmer of sunshine through the clouds... his eyes lit up, his arms started moving, the explanation had emotion, was involved, and although I still didn't quite understand, I at least recognized that there was hope. Many in the class, however, will certainly be happy to carry the torch of his initial cues throughout the year, and la dee da if he is boring and shallow and robotic, we'll do the same, at least we're getting an easy A, and of course it's alright to be absent often, after all, he may as well have said it was. So class ended, and I sighed, and shrugged, and moved on.

Too often, I think, this is the way that ALL schooling is. Expectations define reality, and kids are raised and shaped by the poor expectations that their teachers/parents/authority figures have for them. My Journalism 101 class is full of these people... The wierdos, the dicks, the laughing jocks, the pensive loners, those who can't tie together a coherent sentence, those who can't do anything but bitch, those who are damaged and lonely, and of course also those who are just fine. Each one has the same right to, what is it, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", to study and converse, to be given a chance and trusted and maybe even get to know the shape of our own fucked up minds. And yet, despite all this, I walked away from the class feeling pissed off and a little depressed. Why? If I'm fully independent and self-realized, than I ought to be able to distance myself... analyze and synthesize all the valuable knowledge in Econ, for example, without letting others' inability to do so bother me... but I still can't. My reactions to these classes are, yes, reflections of continued weakness... but they are also a sign of an empathy and social-mindedness that I do not wish to be erased.

Even if I was saying idiotic things and being awkward and making mistakes in Malott Hall, I was learning and observing, and moreso, I was devoting myself to OTHERS. It was easy, listening to the explanation of electron movement in bacteria, to drift into myself (our ego becomes our autopilot) and think, hmm, where's that big scoop we journalists all seek, or who's that pretty girl who smiled at me in the hall, or what about Heath Ledger's sexy dead ass. I'm just beginning, but for now I see our job to be like a game... by eliminating our ego and becoming great great listeners, we can bring out the best in people. Asking great questions, trying our best to understand the responses and follow up with an even better one, paying attention to emotions and insinuations and offhand comments, showing respect; I am finding that everyone, when treated this way, has a lot to say. The game is not easy... to ALWAYS keep our eyes and ears opens, and to notice EVERYTHING, and to never fall into the trap of generalizing (which leads to resentment) or leading the subject, is just not possible.

My Econ discussion on the other hand, engaged no one. It was a piece of absurd theater, full of empty motions and words in a meaningless existential wasteland, with a really big dollar sign as the only set piece. [please don't take this as a burn on Econ. I'm only describing today's experience.] It meant little to any of us, and even less in the grand scheme of things, yada yada ya.

Journalism 101 yesterday kicked off and the first thing I heard were steel guitar chords playing over the auditorium speakers. "Country Music in class?" I thought to myself. Budig was packed... probably four hundred of us, chatting and bantering, wondering what it would be like. We were packed shoulder to shoulder... I could hear the tip tapping of my neighbor on a lap top, the conversation and nervous tension, the zipping and unzipping of backpacks and purses... I could practically hear the text messages zipping through the airwaves. In a class like that, you aren't really a class, you are a mass consciousness. All our scarves and newspapers and psychological issues and eyeglasses and sneakers and jewelry and conversation topics and piercings-- in other words, all the media through which we communicate our individual personal identities-- mingled and meshed and joined each other in Budig hall that day, until they became one identity, the class identity. Anything the teacher would do would be a cue to the class. He could get us to laugh, murmer to each other, smile, shut down and stop paying attention, throw ourselves into debate, take notes, relax or tense up, anything, depending on his actions in those first few moments. When the country music faded and the first sounds of the Beatle's "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band", part two, right near the end of the album, came through, I had a good feeling.

I've listened to the song A Day in The Life (no joke) a million billion times. It is a marvel: John leads off by pulling the listener through warming comfort and building slowly towards a jarring world of striked strings and "whoo, trippy"ness. Allmusic says, "The dramatic tension is aided by Ringo Starr's crafty, thundering drum accents, but had it remained unembellished, Lennon's piece of the song would have been little more than a pensive, almost folky rumination. After the initial verses and Lennon's celebrated invitation to turn the listener on, however, the song mutates into something quite different, a dissonant orchestral crescendo that is simultaneously nightmarish and exhilarating." Listen to the song, if you haven't; it is the masterpiece of what is probably the greatest album by probably THE greatest rock band. Ever.

I never expected what followed. The screen at the head of the classroom, usually used for displaying information-packed PowerPoint presentations, blanked out. As the first chords of "A Day in the Life" were struck, the lyrics of the song started to scroll. Each was timed perfectly to appear even as they were sung. Here they are.

I read the news today oh, boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, i just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They'd seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords

(wow. I really hoping you're listening to this song right now. All I'm doing is sitting in a computer lab, typing, and even from here it's blowing my mind.)

I saw a film today oh, boy
The english army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But i just had to look
Having read the book
I love to turn you on.

(enter Paul)

Woke up, got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, i noticed i was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and i went into a dream

(ah ah ahhhhh, ah ah ahhhhh, ah ah ahhhh....)

I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the albert hall
I'd love to turn you on

(Piano Choooooooordddddddd!!!!)

The class was silent from the instant the song started. We didn't move. No zippers were zipped, no phones rang, no one sat down or stood up, no one was chattering or bantering or texting, no one was even trying to imagine what to expect from this class. We were just listening to the song. That was all. Everyone of us was swept up in the same orchestral beauty, the same sweep and movement of dramatic tension (all the while reined in by goofy ol' Ringo) the same deliciously ambiguous lyrics, the same "simultaneously nightmarish and exhilarating" crescendo, and capped off by the same monumental piano sound, as if the longest and densest book in the universe had just been finished, closed, signed, sealed, and delivered.

And I, personally, had a revelation (I've just been in a revelatory kinda mood lately I guess.) The song's message directly addresses the neglected students and the lonely outcasts and the numbed robots in our world. The media-- the words we read and ads we digest, the movies we watch and the issues we debate-- is easy to ignore. Music in our earbuds helps us not have to think, celebrity gossip helps keep us preoccupied, presidential candidates quibble and weep and act silly, and the cogs of our daily lives just keep moving. It's good like that- it really is. But when that slack, limpid, white-bready satisfaction we take most often from media infects the way we are educated... and in so many places, it has... what we have is brain death, on the national scale. It takes monumental bravery on the part of any student (particularly in the ghettos) to throw off the chains of imposed expectations and slack teaching, and to begin to pursue intellectual potential. A good education requires years and years of devotion and harrowing difficulty, even when given all the opportunities in the world, and is just as easily denied. When John Lennon says, "oh boy", he is sighing, and shrugging, and moving on.

However: When he says "I want to turn you on...", he is speaking from the PERSPECTIVE of the media (of which he was a major part). The news may be sad, movies may be violent and shallow, music may be mostly hogswallop, (and who really cares, after all, how many holes it'd take to fill the Albert Hall?) but all of it... ALL OF IT... comes from the human desire to reach out to each other, to connect... and finally, to turn each other on.

What does that mean? Ask the kids from the ghetto who somehow end up getting to go to a good school.

(suggested listening: "A Moment of Silence" and "A Moment of Violence" by Streetlight Manifesto, "A Day in The Life," by the Beatles, obviously.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

We don't never pay much attention to him, but neither does he to us, mostly. His table in the corner rests wreathed in a curtain of dense, torpid fog, a constant languorous blanket obscuring the glowing ember at the tip of his cigar like the eye of some crouched ghoul in a dank cave. I haven't much spoken to him; he has a name, Morgan or Morris or some-such, a heavyset and imposing sounding name, a name that weighs down the tongue as it is spoken. It fits him, though, whatever it is... though he doesn't much bother to leave his cracked leather booth in the corner, his presence holds percievable force, an anchoring gravity exerting itself silently, imposingly, from above and behind whatever events occur in the bar. The time Jacky had too much and found himself staggering drunk, barechested, atop a table, screaming obscenities and raining shattered glass, coming dangerously close to the edge with every step, the bear in the corner was there, yawningly large, to wrestle him down and escort him to the door. About the only time I think I've seen him leave his table. It's not as though things get to that point often though, I swear it, our crowd is very quiet and peaceful down-to-earth people, mostly hard workers at the plant, sick and tired after long days at the saws and grinders and ready for a beer and a breather. As I said, though, he don't usually worry himself about us, us fellows, even as the night stretches on and the conversations blur together and the bar begins to waver, the frost begining to crackling and spread across our windshields in the parking lot outside.
I figure he had a girl here at some point, but as far as we can tell, he spends his nights in the bar, alone but never lonely, smoke curling around his face, until closing time or whenever, I've never stuck around long enough for to find out. It's the only explanation I can find; none of the plant workers know him or his proper name, old Terence always changes the subject when we mention him, even Scabs can't say much specific about him. I've never seen another man in his seat, I'd swear to it, but I can't imagine he's here every night. Even the girls can't say anything about him, though a few have in fact paid visit to his cabin the valley, they themselves seem to be even more confused.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"I've been waiting for you..."

Certain songs have an indescribable something, an implacable dynamic that surpasses the sum of it's parts. The Pixies, for example, and Pavement, rarely rise above the barest musical simplicity... the bass hits keeps a single note, 8 beats in each measure, the drums vary only in the bass drum beats and fills, the guitars are usually lost somewhere in wailing avant-garde nowhere-land. what is it, then, that I like so much about these songs? Is it that the third, fourth, fifth time that I listen to them, every single note and chord change and every minuscule subtlety seems to be placed in exactly the perfect spot, that the idiosyncratic and usually off-key lead singers seem so finely tuned to the emotional potency of the music (whether or not their lyrics make sense), that the melody is of the sort that comes to inhabit a corner of your mind, set up a tent, and put it's two cents in at none but the most appropriate moments of your life (walking along an empty city street at sunrise, lying under the stars with old friends)? What is it in funk music that makes us want to dance, what is it in Marvin Gaye that makes us want Sexual Healing, what does Yngwie Malmsteem put into his guitar that makes him capable of slaying a dragon with the power of ROCK, what is the poignant sadness generously whisked into all the best love songs? Here's a bit of Rumi:

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

As Coleman Barks, the translator, pointed out, the music of a reed flute is not in the breath of the musician. It is somewhere behind, it is borne of the consciousness of the musician, and it bubbles to the surface from a place beyond notes and chords and theory. Music is a carrefour to emotion- it directly and viscerally affects our hearts, tiptoeing around our rationality. Of course we all hear music differently- we all interpret books differently, witness events differently, experience love differently- but every person, I think, has a deep shared emotional consciousness that certain patterns in our senses (sight, hearing, etc.) trigger.