Friday, March 30, 2012

Kitchen Concerts and Creativity

You better come on, in my kitchen,
It's goin' to be rainin' outdoors.
—"Come On In My Kitchen," Robert Johnson

Monday evening, I went to some friends' apartment, where there was a small concert going on in the kitchen. A few friends and acquaintances gathered to hear two guys, one from Missouri (he plays some very challenging, meaningful material, for Christians at least) and the other from Oregon (he's in a band full of people on things like accordion, violin, cello, and so forth, but he plays and sings beautifully on his own, I assure you), play music in my friends' kitchen. We also listened to one of our own, a friend of mine with some wonderful things to say and wonderful ways to say them.

Let me take a moment to talk about the magic of music performed in someone's home. If the chief joy of concertgoing is connecting to the music and the musician by being in the same space with them, then a concert in your friend's house is certainly the best kind of concert. On Monday, we were not only treated to music, but also to conversation with those performing it, making suggestions back and forth and enjoying our own friendly company. Often, we would learn part of a song together and sing it as a body, in harmony or in round or in unison. "This," said one of the artists, "is folk music." He was referring not to a genre of music, but to a way of doing music—maybe the best way.

I actually opened this show with some of my own music, played on guitar and sung. That was something I'd never done before. While it was a lot of fun to share music that I had written, or music that I hadn't written but which I think is pretty (I did a little of both), I think the experience was most valuable as a reason to create.

For a while now, I've been pondering something Einstein said: "Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking." Isn't that a strange thought? It's not one you'll see in elementary schools, where (in my experience) getting kids to read as much as humanly possibly is an emergency, as in, if you don't get kids reading early, then the high school dropout crisis and the attendant problems of crime and poverty will continue unabated. But, for those of us who made it out of school with the ability to read, and to enjoy reading thoroughly, I expect Einstein was quite right.

I've long had a habit of never leaving home without something to read. Not because I want to cultivate my image as a scholar in the world or because I have things I really need to learn to improve myself, but simply because I fear being bored. I loathe boredom. And I do everything I can to keep it at bay. But I suspect that my addiction to books, not to mention to TV shows, podcasts, and other boredom alleviators, is preventing me from thinking deeply and richly, from forming connections and, ultimately, from creating. I spend most of my free time absorbing information, allowing the stories that others have worked over to wash over me. I think little. And I produce very little. I suspect that overcoming my fear of boredom and learning to create, to work (—for my failure to create is certainly tied to laziness), may be another step in growing up. One I intend to start taking.


Below are a few pieces of music that I have written over the years and am proud of.

This is a song where I made as many different sounds on different parts of my guitar as possible, and then made them all into music. I used to open my radio show by playing this song over the air.

This song is a tone poem, meant to represent a day in the life of someone serving others.

And this song is a straightforward piece, introducing one element after another and building until the end. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ex Machina: Superhero Comics and Government

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

The Great Machine/Mitchell Hundred,
Mayor of New York City
And the voice said: 
Neither snow nor rain 
nor gloom of night 
shall stay these couriers 
from the swift completion 
of their appointed rounds.

'Cause when love is gone, 
there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, 

there's always force.
—"O Superman," Laurie Anderson

This week, I want to talk about some reading I've been doing, about government, and about comics.*

I just read finished reading through a favorite series of comic books called Ex Machina, about a man named Mitchell Hundred who, as people in comics often do, has an accident, gains special powers, and becomes a superhero. Hundred's powers are the ability to talk to and command machines to do what he tells them to.

Unfortunately for Hundred, his alter ego, the Great Machine, is not very popular...with anyone. Hundred grew up reading comic books with superheroes and supervillains, but as the Great Machine, he finds out that fighting crime as a costumed vigilante in New York in reality is (1) really hard for a variety of reasons—mostly, no one wants him around and he's not very good at it (e.g., he tries to stop people from joyriding on top of the subway and ends up shutting down the whole train system for six hours; he tells two delinquents to go to school and they beat him up) and (2) illegal—the police are after him for causing disturbance and being a public nuisance. He realizes that what he is doing is at best morally questionable, and he decides to try to help others in a different way. He unmasks himself and uses his notoriety as the Great Machine to run for Mayor of New York. 

But since no one wanted him around in the first place, he doesn't get very far. Not far, that is, until September 11th, when the Great Machine uses his powers to order the second plane to land instead of hitting the World Trade Center. As a result of this, Mitchell Hundred is elected mayor. This comic book series, then, is all about his term in office as Mayor of New York: a superhero mayor trying to save the city with politics.


In rereading the series and in thinking about it, I noticed an important idea at work throughout—it's present already in the introduction above. It's this idea of the danger of relying on a greater force outside of ourselves to solve all of our problems, in particular, the danger of relying on the government to save us. It is my opinion that a government can and should provide help to its citizens and support them as they pursue life, liberty, and happiness. I know that I have benefited enormously from the workings of the great machine of society (Thomas Jefferson's term), and in particular, from the support of the government (public schools, libraries, roads--even food stamps for a while!), yet I have very little idea of how the system that supports me so really works, or how to involve myself in making sure it works fairly and properly for the benefit of all. Sometimes, like the Great Machine, I just want to get out and go somewhere and do something for somebody—or at least show that I'm trying to be a good person—and sometimes I just end up feeling kind of stupid and maybe slightly racist after the fact. And sometimes, as Mayor Hundred experiences in his time in office, we expect more of our government than is reasonable without more extensive participation and action on our part.

For this week's Illinois primary election, I did a bunch of internet research at the last minute, trying to decide who to vote for in my local elections (i.e., figuring out which Chicago and Illinois State politicians are the least corrupt and morally bankrupt, typically a losing proposition). It was frustrating to realize that, even after serving two years in AmeriCorps, dedicating myself to the improvement of my country through national service and the education of others, I knew so little about how to effect meaningful political or social change through voting. I also know little about public protest, though it's all around me at my work downtown (Occupy Chicago, whether you agree with them or not, are at least surely laudable for keeping the spirit of protest and free speech alive in an increasingly tough city for that sort of thing). Unfortunately, I ended up making a stupid decision that made all my research moot (...ask me about it sometime; no, it wasn't forgetting to vote). It made me consider how far our society would have to go for everyone to know enough to vote responsibly and participate effectively in the system that rules them.


Let me come back to my original topic, the comic book Ex Machina. It may surprise you that a heavy theme like "the dangers of the public relying on government to save society" could come out of a comic book. I would have been surprised just a few years ago, when a good friend in college started sharing his comics collection with me. It turned out that comics are more than just superhero stories: in the last several decades, comics have exploded into many genres and worlds of ideas.

The fact is, comics are a medium, a way of telling stories. They can be beautiful or ugly or wondrous or disturbing; the best ones use the blend of visual art and written word to tell a story in a way that no other method of storytelling can. To me, saying that you won't read comics is like saying that you really just don't like, say, books or movies or music: you could say that, and it might be true, but it seems strange to simply discard an entire category of story so candidly. Comics are a method, and they're a unique method that ought not to be dismissed as childish or silly simply because they are often associated in the public mind with children and silliness. I hope you find one sometime soon that will convince you of their power and beauty. Some suggestions are listed below by genre.

T-Minus, a history of the Space Race.
Louis Riel, a biography of a historical figure involved in an important conflict in Canadian history.
Maus, the story of a man's imprisonment and escape from a concentration camp and his relationship with his son.
Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine, two comics about a man's experiences during conflicts in the Balkans and in Palestine.

Realistic Fiction:
Paul Goes Fishing and Paul Moves Out, part of a series of slice-of-life comics about a Quebecois family.
The Big Kahn, the story of a Jewish family that finds out their Rabbi father was not Jewish after his death.
Incognegro, story of a black reporter passing as white in the South in the early 20th century.

Hellboy, the story of a demon monster-hunter.
American Born Chinese, a series of interlinked stories about Chinese heritage/culture and growing up Chinese in the US.
Surrogates, a sci-fi future where everyone has robot bodies that perform all their actions in the real world, operated safely from home.
Concrete, in which a man gets put into a giant alien stone body and uses it to travel the world, accomplish great feats or endurance, advocate for good causes, and generally do things not typical of superheroes.

*Note: I'm not a scholar, at least not in the field of comics, so let me point you to two books with a world more to say and better ways to say it than I have: Understanding Comics, the Invisible Art (or, if you're interested in a more recent and more creation-oriented book, Making Comics) is a wonderful book that describes what comics are, why they're good, and what they can do (and it does it all through comics, i.e., it is a comic book in itself) and Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work is a book which not only discusses what comics are and what they can do, but which also goes on to investigate and analyze numerous comic artists and their work in detail. Both are great, I assure you.
†These books are probably best suited to adults, as they have adult language and themes.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Camp Counselorhood, and What it Taught Me

Me at camp with a friend.
Wake up
It's a beautiful morning
Honey, while the sun is still shining
Wake up
Would you like to go with me?
Honey, take a run down to the beach

—"Let's Go Surfing," The Drums

When I was 17, I had my first job. It was not a job I took by choice; my mother made the unilateral decision that I should be employed, and even went so far as to do all of the work required to secure said employment for me, getting me the paperwork, arranging an interview, and so on. After a fair amount of cajoling, I went along with it all and did what little I needed to do to actually qualify for the job, and I got it. It was summer 2004, and I was a camp counselor.

An ideal first job should have a modest measure of responsibility and short-ish hours. It should involve interacting with other people in a friendly but relatively low-key way. Something like stocking shelves or food service: these come to mind as good first jobs. Being a camp counselor is on another level entirely. You have all the responsibility you can handle—the health, safety, and emotional well-being of over a dozen young people is in your hands—you have one hour in every 24 to yourself, and you have to navigate a complex and shifting social network of older teens and young adults, often quite volatile and gossip driven. If learning to be employed were learning to swim, being a camp counselor would be falling out of your canoe in the middle of the lake.


Camp counselorhood taught me a few big lessons. The first was that I couldn’t rely on my “book intelligence” to get me through a lot of real-life situations: I needed to understand how people worked, and I didn’t. I had trouble getting kids to do what I wanted them to do, and I couldn’t figure out why. I had trouble understanding the motivations and actions of the adults and young adults around me. My social skills were wanting.

My favorite example: I had a kid who was totally good all day, enjoyed himself thoroughly and loved being at camp. But every night at bedtime, he would cry because his mom wasn’t there. And I had nothing meaningful to say to this kid. I would basically say, “Look, your mom’s not here, obviously. Please stop crying. Like, soon. Now would be good,” and then he just wouldn’t, of course. My solution: I gave him a bunch of tissues and left him alone. Others were critical of this strategy, but at the time, it just seemed like the most practical thing to do.


I also learned how easy it is to get pressured into doing something when you don’t have a firm sense of what is and isn’t a good idea in a given situation. Large groups, even composed of children, have a strong voice, and sometimes I gave in to that voice against my better judgment, simply because I hadn’t worked out all of the boundaries and rules I wanted to stick to beforehand.

Example: I taught an Astronomy badge at a scout camp for some boys, and I ran out of things to do with them. The camp owned these inflatable plastic planets, and the kids wanted to use them to play dodgeball. I hadn’t given much thought to what we should and shouldn’t be doing in class, so the kids’ logic (“It’ll be fun!” “It’s technically related to astronomy!”) got the better of me, and I set up a dodgeball game in our classroom, flipping tables on their sides and laying out the rules. We played a game. And the Camp Director walked in on us. I knew from the look on his face that I had made a bad call on what our astronomy class should have been doing that day.


The best thing I learned was the joy of leading others, of being in charge and making things work. I had to think quickly and act fast a lot, and I learned that I was okay at it most of the time. It was a good feeling. The last day of my astronomy class, I took the boys out to the big hill at camp for a stargaze. I convinced everyone to turn off their flashlights, let their eyes adjust to the dark, and walk by the light of the stars on the through the woods. We got to the top of the hill, the highest place in the county, and we looked up and saw the stars as few of us had seen them before: a clear country sky, no city lights, and, what’s more, no moon to outshine any star. I pointed out the constellations we’d discussed in class. I pointed out Mars, red and low in the sky. And we stood on the hill, looking up so long and so hard our necks hurt, and I knew I had led my boys to something wondrous and good.

Friday, March 9, 2012

You Can Never Go Home, or, How I Beat Jetlag

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

This week was the monthly open mic that my friends host at their apartment. The theme was "You Can Never Go Home," so I told this story about a time that a friend and I had trouble going home when we really, really wanted to. Folks seemed to like it, and I hope you will, too.