To Portland!

The City of Indie Dreams

The City of Indie Dreams

The one thing in my life that I fear losing more than anything else is my starry-eyed naivete and idealism. These qualities of mine approach but do not quite ascend all the way to empty-headed idiocy I hope. I love so much my hunger for new experiences, and my youthful belief in the idea that anything is possible. There have been times in the last few years that I have succumbed to fatigue, frustration, and a jaded approach to life that threatens to limit and contain my ambitions. Even when I was working long hours and living almost entirely on Mt. Dew and Thai food just to support myself, in my own hometown, and even when I was running cars back and forth from the parking garage and having my ears screamed off by Ethiopian valet parking managers, I tried my best not to retire my ambition to make a difference with my writing. I tend to run with the activists and the protestors, the hackers and the outcasts, and the people who just can’t seem to fit in with mainstream society. I think we all succumb to those feelings of depression and defeatedness some days. It is pretty frustrating that I am about to reach the twenty-seventh year of my life and I still haven’t nailed down a job that sustains me and gives me joy for the long-term. But hell, what more is there to this world than to throw ourselves into as many awkward situations as we can, see what works, then stick with it!

There is a difference between “responsibility,” as we boring bespectacled adults love to say all the time, and letting the tired, overwhelmed, droopy-eyed resignation of “I can’t change anything anyway,” take over your psyche. I understand that my friends and colleagues probably get frustrated that I’m easily distracted and that I like to have about 1100 things happening at once at any given time, and because I participate in protests and marches and activism and because if I’m not careful I communicate my daily plans less than perfectly. An older friend of mine once told me that employers are looking to hire people that make their lives easier and won’t be “brilliant but problematic geniuses.” I understand that… the need for efficiency, for your team to function like a well-oiled machine, and the need for the final product, whether it is an election win, a new product, or a public awareness initiative, to be pretty and clean and appealing to the masses. But damn it all to hell! I’ve tried for years and years for to be so clean and appealing and pretty, and it doesn’t seem to be working.

One thing I DON’T want my life to be is boring. I want to follow my flights of fancy, and explore the deepest corridors of possibility. I want to make things that are new and weird, and I want to be pushed way way beyond the realms of what is comfortable and into the world of the uncomfortable. If Jacques Cousteau could wrap himself in a hunk of iron and plunge to the depths of the deepest ocean, and Phillipe Petit could walk a tightrope extended between the Twin Towers in New York, and Jack Kerouac could write a book on a scroll while hitchhiking across the U.S. with his friends, think what I could do!!! A friend of mine just recently set off on a cross-country bike trip and is planning to go all the way to California and south into Mexico. On a bike. I’m still pretty young, and I’ve done some pretty amazing things. Seeing thee National Championship in Atlanta and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Lollapalooza, and driving a pair of Bentleys and three Jaguars in one day, and competing with high school friends in a martial arts tournament in Cancun, and exploring Paris and Bourdeaux and Tel Aviv for god’s sake. It’s a heck of a life I’ve lived in the last twenty-seven years.

As I’m getting ready for my seventh annual Indian food dinner to celebrate another birthday, I find myself chomping at the bit to get out there and start living again. Don’t get me wrong, I love my little Southern Illinois hometown. We have the best peaches (sorry Georgia), the cleanest lakes, the most beautiful night skies (though Kansas does have us beat when it comes to sunsets), and more than our share of friendly people and challenges as well. I’m not an an organizer with the Democratic Party right now because I went to get coffee and read a book during lunchtime on a Saturday without telling him, instead of canvassing the very same neighborhood I had already canvassed earlier this same summer, to ggain support for a General, who I hadn’t even met! And that was two months before we were even going to need to vote! And after having been trained for 60 hours in the past week! Maybe it’s just me, but something about that seems a teensy bit odd.

What’s so frustrating to me about the real-life world of politics is what it does to you. It was happening to me within one week. My ego was swollen, I was treating my oldest family friends really terribly because of my “high and mighty” position (which I had just started), and I got kind of rude and self-absorbed. I’m usually a pretty nice guy, though I’ve recently been trying to be more self-confident and assertive so people don’t walk all over me all the time. But as soon as I was given a position of high responsibility, and found myself working for a Congressman, suddenly everyone was beneath me. That’s not who I am! I like the side of me that is artistic, and sensitive, and creative, and a little broken. I’m kinda proud to have been obsessed with independent artists like Pavement and the Pixies for much of my youth, and I’m VERY proud of the hard work and time I devoted to learn French in college with absolutely NO IDEA how it would factor into my career.

I don’t know where it is I’m going to settle, and god knows whether I’ll ever be able to stop embarrassing myself in front of people I’m trying to impress and saying weird things all the time that seem hardly explicable. But God, I just have to be able to love myself, and whatever it is I do end up doing, I know it’ll have to fill at least that criteria. So, my plan now is to chase down a job opportunity to help fight to close loopholes allowing companies to pollute a pair of rivers on the West Coast, in Portland. Who knows what will happen or what it’ll be like. I don’t even know yet where I’m going to live. But as a close friend once told me, life is an adventure. We’re only here for a little while, and the way I see it, our most important responsibility is to make our dreams a reality. So here we go! Let’s do this!

Home again!

I moved back to Carbondale, IL, the place I am proud to call my hometown, at the beginning of the summer, and it’s been a pretty great summer… probably the best that I’ve had for a long time! I spent much of my time applying to nearly every business in town that I know of, but nobody wants to hire me (except one Asian bistro in Marion, and the work environment there was no fun). This place has been so kind to me, and I love my friends here so much! They’re there for me, no matter what I’m going through, and I feel closer to them than to anyone. Even when my parents wouldn’t let me live in their home, my friends were there for me, and I always know that their doors are open to me, and that means so much. I’ve been working non-stop since I graduated, trying to support myself, and it’s not easy out there, particularly in this post-recession world.

This is the first summer since 2009, which I spent living with friends in their duplex outside Lawrence, that I’ve had entirely my choice of what to do with my time. It’s liberating! I have been able to practice guitar, polish my websites, play sports with friends here in Carbondale, and process more deeply my experience in Atlanta. It’s been a summer of action, a summer of surprises, and rest, and growth. I watched the World Cup from the food court at SIU, where it was convenient for me to camp out with my computer and bum the free Internet they provide. Those German football players sure were cruel! But that’s not too surprising: after all, they’re only Germans. And I had really been pulling for the home team! They sure would have loved that win. And now, come to find out, their longtime rivals Argentina are bankrupt!

The conflict in Israel-Palestine has ignited again, though, and I was not particularly surprised to find myself pinned between the two sides of the ongoing conflict. Older activists I’d met in Atlanta were vocally supportive of Palestine, and many of my good friends and housemates in the QVS house had studied the conflict there as well, and shared with me what they had learned. My friend Liz had even travelled to Ramallah in the early months of the summer! When the tensions escalated, I was so grateful that she had made it home when she did, and wasn’t there when things got bad. I think pretty often about my trip to Israel, and it informs the way I think about world issues to this day. When I was there, I met soldiers, and I saw Jerusalem, and I visited the cemetery at Mt. Herzl, and I saw the grave of my hero Hannah Szenes, and it really was a significant experience for me. There is one thing I do know. The idea that bombs dropped by drones will solve this issue is just stupid.

An image of Hannah Senesz, a Jewish poet and writer, pulled from RedHairCrow.com.

An image of Hannah Senesz, a Jewish poet and writer, pulled from RedHairCrow.com.

My education really was a good one, though I have struggled for so long to find good paying work. I got to visit France, and I visited Israel, and I Iearned so much about myself and about the U.S. For someone who could never have had higher education if it weren’t for scholarships and loans, due to my parents’ financial situation, it means so much more. I was challenged there, and forced to reconsider my preconceptions of the world, and I met people from around the world. I won’t say that it was a perfect education, but I had a pretty great foundation, both in high school and it KU. And now, my high school friends are finding such great success in their chosen fields, and though I am a bit jealous of them, I’m finding now that I know at least someone in cities throughout the U.S., and even throughout the world, who I still try to maintain contact with.

I am sad to leave behind my friends in Atlanta, but we made some awesome memories, and we lived and loved and struggled and worked, and that’s what life is all about. I’m sure I will get to visit them again sometime soon, and I’m sure that our story is just beginning. I mean, just thinking of the experiences we shared there fills my heart with warmth! I know many of them have moved far away, and I miss them, but that’s part of life. And I know man of them will probably stay in Atlanta for the long term, and settle down, and may change completely before I ever hear from them again. But, honestly, we don’t always get to be near the people we love. In this new, globalized age, it’s really not too hard to contact anyone, though. If anything, I think I am a little bit overeager to stay in touch with people. 🙂 I get the sense it starts to get annoying to the really busy, hardworking ones. 

Well, that’s all! Off to Bum’s Beach for a quick swim! Peace and love, y’all.

My thoughts about what’s happening in Israel

In the past several days, peace activists in Boston, Atlanta, here in downtown Carbondale, and elsewhere have gathered to mourn and pray for peace, and to protest the killing of more than a thousand Palestinians, the bombing of a hospital, not to mention the blockading of supplies and forced settlement of Palestinian lands. These actions for peace by my friends here in the U.S. give me hope in the face of the pain and violence I see in the news.

After working in a tiny town in the outskirts of Atlanta called Clarkston, the location of resettlement of refugees from around the world in the mid-’90s, for the non-profit organization CDF, I learned and still believe that building connections across faith, cultural, and political divides is the only way to heal and repair long-term conflicts.

While there, I attended meetings of the Clarkston Interfaith group– a group comprised of people from many faiths and political backgrounds. We would sit together, talk, and learn about each other’s traditions and beliefs. As a result, I have many friends with varying political and faith perspectives, and friends on both sides of the conflict. The escalating violence in Gaza and the West Bank undertaken by the Israeli army is very painful for me to see. I personally met Israeli soldiers when I traveled there, and they were very kind, decent people.

Escalation of violence in Israel is not a productive course, and my support for a government that continues to betray the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in spite of calls for peace by Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is admittedly difficult to defend. The State of Israel is losing support internationally, as was made obvious by the mass protests last weekend in the streets of Paris, where protesters threw tarmac at French police.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was a great example of people bridging a seemingly impossible historic chasm of oppression, abuse through conversation and shared experience. While I continue to support the State of Israel, I cannot support many of its actions: the blockading of necessary resources from Palestinian families, forced settlement of Palestinian lands, construction of walls and transportation checkpoints, and the killing of civilians and children in response to Hamas’s aggression.

The way I see it, peace can be reached in this conflict if both sides are willing to meet with each other as equals in an environment of mutual respect and discuss conditions of a long-term ceasefire. That is the only way I’ve seen such conflicts resolved. It must be deliberate, it must be reasoned, and it must be non-violent. I pray that this will be possible, because I do not want to see another person die.

“House,” and the value of music mentoring

There is something so utterly innocent, beautiful and inspiring about this video, that it brings tears to my eyes just to think about. We begin with a monologue by UK artist Kindness, seated and addressing the camera initially with a brief discussion of “pop music.” He is dressed in a minimalistic black suit and long hair, and asks us “Why do adults resent [pop music] so?” he asks. “And why do I like it?” Kindness is struggling to understand the joy and frustration that he draws from pop music, in all it’s mysterious, shining inconsistency and occasional brilliance and joy. Pop music has been frustrating intentionally subversive, and derided or misunderstood by older people since its birth. I am speaking especially of the 20th century, and particularly referencing Beatlemania.

In this video, Kindness is seated alongside two keyboards and a drum machine, with a child named Ramon. The first half of the video shows the two of them playing and experimenting with the instruments. They talk, test their instruments, and experiment with the fascinating sounds that they can make. Together they try to recreate the sound of Kindness’s most popular song, “House.”

About halfway through the video, another musician joins them, and soon they are making music, dancing around the room and celebration the feeling of the music, and the spirit of experimentation and freedom licensed to people when they are free to test themselves creatively, and test what can result from uninhibited collaboration and self-expression. Their dancing communicates pure joy and youthful celebration, and it is one of the cutest things you can hope to see.

What I love most is that this video pairs the hopefulness and vibrancy of the song “House”, which is a warm and gentle plea for love in the face of desperation, with the innocence and simplicity of a music lesson on video. “I can’t give you all that you need/ But I’ll give you all I can feel,” goes the chorus of the song, and this line, to me, lies at the core of this video’s genius. Music is such a pure and universal expression of one’s feelings, and it appeals to every person, regardless of background. Given access to an instrument, or a studio, and a good teacher who can provide proper motivation and encouragement, any person can create something unique and beautiful that reflects their indelible individuality and humanity. This video demonstrates just such loving and nurturing support for individual creativity, a thing that is rare in most educational settings, and it is a beautiful thing to witness.

When the two try to describe the sounds of the track, they struggle to find the words for the sound they are creating. Adjectives like “muddy” and “scrambled” emerge in their conversation… but in fact the feelings associated with their music is impossible to describe. The effect of good music is that it eludes description, and can hardly be captured in words. Kindness can only have created the sound we hear by testing and experimenting with the equipment and instruments, and only with the guidance and training of a previous mentor, just as he is mentoring this child.

To me, this is what makes music so precious… it is the collective story of people, passed down from person to person, through the decades, centuries, and millennia. We have been recording music with our guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, and microphones, turntables, and computers in recent years, but people have been strumming and dancing and testing sounds and harmony and lyrics, expressing the human experience in sound, since the beginning of recorded history. It is the lifeblood of personhood, and it is infinitely precious. What I love so much, is that this video manages to encapsulate that experience. Kudos to Kindness, this video is brilliant.

Kindness in Sound

Across the Universe

The Needle on Vinyl

Imperturbable, quiet beauty in the midst of chaos

First things first. This video is downright classic. I’m honestly not sure I’m entirely worthy to write about it. I’m not sure anyone is. Let’s get that out of the way. The song and its video is better than me, it is better than you, and it is better than any of us are likely to be. 🙂 This is a Fiona Apple cover of the Beatles’ timeless hit “Across the Universe,” originally released in 1999, for the film Pleasantville, and the video is an unmistakable and genuine, perfect, and timeless accompaniment to a brilliant recording. Bravo.

The only piece of color in the entire video is a piece of cubist stained glass artwork adorning the outside a 1950s-style soda shop, which we see in the opening shot. The camera moves close lazily, deliberately, following along with the slow, intentional, tidal rhythm…

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People Help the People

I’ve begun a music blog called Needle on Vinyl! Check out the most recent post: a brief look at the video for People Help the People, by Birdy!

Sun-drenched, charcoal shades of black and white adorn the video for the song “People Help the People,” but the true revelation of the video is the way it pairs transcendent music with such stunning images of  urban life and its people. The song is a call for compassion between all communities, and a ballad of universal love and solidarity.

“Same Love” : A Call to Allyship

A couple weeks after Macklemore won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album earlier this year, a number of old friends I grew up with and I launched into a fiery debate on Facebook regarding the song “Same Love”. The song and its video, which emerged as one of the popular Seattle rapper’s most socially-conscious and politically significant offerings, spread virally following its release in 2012. With lyrics openly supportive of same-sex couples’ right to marry, Macklemore simultaneously paints a portrait of a man struggling with his own sexuality and tussling with the stereotypes and stigma associated with homosexuality.

For those who don’t know, Macklemore is a prominent white rapper who, like Eminem, very quickly ascended the ranks of popularity and success in the hip-hop genre. “Same Love” was a song created explicitly to express support for the right for same-sex couples to marry. Today, gay marriage is slowly but surely becoming a reality in more states.

Significantly, the song includes heavy criticism of the reluctance in religious circles to embrace the gay rights movement. I remember first hearing the song and watching the video, and I remember how it made me feel. The song brought me to tears. Anchored by Mary Lambert’s soothing refrain- “My love, my love, my love, it keeps me warm,” the song is organic and warmly textured, with gentle piano reined in by strings, horns, and an upbeat drum track.

I remember sharing it in my feed, and commenting at the time that this, to me, was an example of modern hip-hop at its most resonant and emotionally poignant, not to mention politically significant. It brings modern conservative Christianity directly into its crosshairs, saying firmly and directly it is wrong to preach hatred and stigmatize those who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer. Macklemore raps:

“When I was at church they taught me something else

If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed

That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned

When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless

rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen.

I might not be the same but that’s not important.

No freedom til we’re equal… damn right I support it.”

In the months following this, a variation on the song emerged from the upstart Detroit rapper Angel Haze. Also called “Same Love”, the song has the same chorus and loosely, the same song structure, but with lyrics intentionally altered to reflect the point of view of a person who had experienced the struggle for gay rights from the perspective of the oppressed. Several of my friends claimed vociferously that Angel Haze’s song was the stronger and more significant piece.

Angel Haze identifies herself as pan-sexual, meaning, in her words, that she conceives of love as a concept that transcends physical differences and lines of gender identification. “Love is boundary-less,” she said in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, “If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you.” Her version of the song describes the rejection she faced from her mother upon coming out of the closet, and the ensuing suffering inflicted upon her by a parent who was neither understanding nor accepting. Like Macklemore, her voice is anchored by Lambert’s refrain- “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” Angel Haze rejects “every single hand that chooses” and asserts that love is central, and that love is not something to be treated, transformed, or controlled regardless of what shape or form it may take. Her song is about self-acceptance on your own terms, regardless of the scars you might be tending to or the crosses you might bear.

While I identify as heterosexual (or ‘straight’, as we tend to say), I sympathize strongly with the gay rights movement and try to the best of my ability to do my part, as an ally, as often and as consistently as I can in my daily life. This is not by any means an easy position to take, seeing that our culture has for so long placed such powerful stigma and negative association upon homosexuality, queerness and transexuality, or even upon the intimation that one might associate, sympathize, or experiment with these identities. I strive to believe in the Kinsey-an concept that sexuality falls on a spectrum, and that these labels we place on ourselves, including those I place on myself, have very little real value except to box in and pin down our conception of sexuality, as though it were a butterfly that could be described scientifically, named, and classified. My own sexuality is anything but simple or one-dimensional, and I doubt that it is  for anyone, regardless of their identification.

I found myself thinking about the two versions of “Same Love” last night, as I sat in a coffeeshop in Dupont Circle, here in Washington D.C. It’s a spot well-known for its nightlife, for the presence of an active lobbying voice, and for its openness and acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ through yearly events in the neighborhood. Though I am a relative newcomer to serious analysis of hip-hop, I do try to keep up with the rappers who become celebrated and prominent, and particularly with those who write songs that offer meaningful commentary on issues of social, civil, and political import.

To my mind, Macklemore’s song was a statement of solidarity with and affirmation of the movement to achieve widespread acceptance and approval for the rights of same-sex couples in the United States. To others, and particularly to those who can legitimately claim to represent the voice of the oppressed communities, the song came across as the imposition of an outsider, and that Macklemore was undeserving of one of the most prestigious awards in the music business. That he was just another straight, cis, white, male appropriating the culture of a marginalized community whose struggles and experience he could not have possibly understood. What’s more, they argued that he was profiting from his stance, and that he was unworthy of the prestige associated with the award.

But for me, Macklemore’s song was equal in importance to Angel Haze’s, if not even more inspiring, considering my particular relationship to the issue. To hear a white, straight male show support and “come out,” unequivocally and inspiringly, as an ally and supporter of gay rights, in spite of the struggle it took him to reach that place, gives me the courage to raise my voice in support of my friends and loved ones I care for who identify themselves in that way. It gives me the will to be vocal and persistent in my allyship, and to speak up when I see my gay and lesbian friends marginalized, abused, dismissed, or disregarded. And ultimately, I think Macklemore’s statement is interwoven with that of Angel Haze, who speaks of a reality I prefer to embrace. She is rapping about a world where labeling and arbitrary division is irrelevant in the face of a love that overwhelms fragmentation, whether it be along racial, class, or sexual lines. She put it best in her lyrics:

“No I’m not gay.

No I’m not straight.

And I sure as hell am not bisexual.

Dammit I am whoever I am when I am it

Loving whoever you are when the stars shine and whoever you’ll be when the sun rise.”

What’s more, I think that the faith community needs to recognize that acceptance and inclusiveness to the broader LGBTQ community is integral to success in the 21st century. As long as Christianity is associated with images of hellfire and damnation for those we arbitrarily consider “sinners,” the church is going to lose more and more young people. Forward-thinking denominations today actively minister to LGBTQ issues, and I personally would like to see this trend spread to the evangelical community and to the more orthodox circles of other religious communities, and particularly to more synagogues and mosques.

Today I am lobbying the office of Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero and staunchly progressive legislator from my home, Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to make my voice heard to an American hero, who displays the audacity and integrity to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, even when his actions put himself and his fellows at risk. Just as Congressman Lewis made a stand for the sake of future generations in the 1960s, so will it take the voices of brave souls like Angel Haze and allies, like Macklemore, to achieve equality and justice for the LGBTQ community, and for other oppressed communities.

It is patently wrong to preach hate, and I, for one, will no longer stand for it. To me, that is what it means to be an ally, and to live out this definition today. The music of brave artists like Macklemore and Angel Haze should inspire us, in our efforts at civic engagement and positive contribution to political society, to create the world we want to live in, no matter our background or orientation.

A Letter to Atlanta

Dear Atlanta,

I have walked your streets. I have seen the splashes of colorful graffiti adorning your walls and I have languished in the torturous and disorienting trudge of your traffic. I’ve talked to folks in the red-clay streets of the southern suburb of Clarkston, just outside the perimeter, where the American Dream towers from afar like something shining and new. And I’ve talked to folks arcing their necks to see the skyscrapers up and down Peachtree Street, looming and beckoning like some futuristic metropolis. I have walked down the central drag, admired the towers and sculptures and the worlds of fantastical art and culture within this city, products of the human imagination contained in each of us.

I don’t understand you, Atlanta, but I appreciate you, in all your honesty and brutality, bless your heart.

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A piece of public art seen along the Atlanta Beltline, a recent municipal project here.

This city is more than a little bit sneaky and subversive. The coolest spots are sometimes tucked away, behind (quite literal) trick bookcases and hardly recognizable side alleys. There seem to be decrepit streets emerging in every direction, but they are speckled with commercial projects  “being worked-on” and lovingly imagined but yet to be realized city markets (one on Krog street, one on Ponce de Leon), which color my neighborhood with an expectant aura, a buzzing energy and incipient, burgeoning potential for growth. There is a dedicated ’20s club dressed up like a speakeasy, a cavernous Paris on Ponce antiques store lined with curious oddities and remarkable trinkets, and underground clubs with names like MJQ, and The Graveyard, where the drinks flow like water and the dancing is unbelievable.

It was here that I re-earned for myself the confidence that I have something in me that is valuable and precious. It is here that I reignited the hope and inspiration in me to write for a living. I found warmth and comfort and acceptance here from people who, like me, were searching for a way to live with meaning in the world. In the year-long volunteer program I was a part of, I found camaraderie with other young people engaged in the same struggle I was. Having all recently left college, we, like so many others, were all faced with the imposing question: “What now?” And now, well into my life on the other side of that experience, I continue to face that same burning question.

After the volunteer program, I was suddenly thrust back into the job search, and I picked up the first promising job I could line up for myself, at a community newspaper, and worked my ass off for them, but this project didn’t work out for me  in the end. A couple friends and I had settled into a new intentional community with each other, and set up a foothold for ourselves in a new neighborhood. We helped each other get on our feet, and through the transition into new jobs and new roles. Some stayed with their organizations, others moved home, and a few of us stuck it out in Atlanta. I still see and talk with them all the time, and they remind me of good times.

But  now, I am working in the heart of the city, observing it from the inside out, as a valet in a hotel here. It was so strange to go from the outskirts to the interior, and to see the city through the opposite lens. Where before I would write stories of struggling, hard-bitten entrepreneurs, new Americans and former refugees for my non-profit organization, I was now writing for myself only, and solely when I had the chance between shifts of parking cars.

work long hours, and living off tips is thrilling but unpredictable, and I find it difficult to find time to devote to my life’s passion. This is a shared state of affairs for many if not most mid-twenties millennials. We are an under-employed, over-worked, tweaked-out, tech-addicted, narcissistic generation, but give us some credit. We were mostly raised by our iPods, after all.

Here in Atlanta at least, we young people breathe in and out a spirit of reckless agitation and righteous fury, touched with a glimmer of edgy self-expression and provocative invention. There are arts festivals and parades nearly every weekend throughout the summer, scattered among Atlanta’s many neighborhoods. We are just as likely to be celebrating through the weekend as we are to be working hard at our regularly-scheduled jobs during the week. There are more than enough fantastic concerts in the pages of Creative Loafing than I could ever scratch the surface of, especially on a volunteer’s budget. Every other person is an aspiring musician, poet, or artist on the side. Our generation of movies, like Frances Ha, explore the neuroses and ambitions of our generation, and paint engrossing portraits of lost artistic souls just trying to make it in the city (a timeless tale.)  This story is the prevailing story of the emerging adults of the new millennium.

Atlanta_rose

A rose in front of a house in Old Fourth Ward, my neighborhood in Atlanta.

And after all, why not? This is, after all, the hotbed of the Civil Rights movement, where young people struggled and fought to redefine the old boundaries of a dated society, and actively, mostly non-violently, challenged the prevailing prejudices of America. Atlanta, you have been my friend in the midst of these torturous twenties, where nothing can be taken for granted and the future is a big neon-colored UNKNOWN. Your confusion mirrors mine, and your extremes match my own, the pulse of which I am becoming more familiar with every day. Atlanta, you bleed extreme joy, extreme anguish, personality, and a deep, almost religious fervor and spirit. You are as grounded as the cold pavement of your streets, if sometimes a little bit fumbling and polite.

I am glad to be here, in the urban capital of the South, and I am glad to have learned from and with you, through the Snowpocalypse, and the most recent election, and the emergence of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones as national obsessions. I was here for the National Championship in the Georgia Dome, and I saw Muse and Sting and Dave Matthews perform in Centennial park. I mourned with my colleagues during Sandy Hook, and I watched with horror on the day of the Bostan Marathon bombing. I have searched for jobs here, and I have searched for houses here, and I have explored your coffeeshops and restaurants. I am so lucky to have found myself here. Atlanta, you have been a difficult friend, but the kind that is endlessly rewarding to know. And I’ve enjoyed spending this piece of my twenties with you.

Anyway, that’s all I really felt like saying. I hope you’re ready! Spring is here! It’s pollen season. The leaves are coming back. Let’s enjoy this warm weather, and celebrate the fact that we are alive and young, and that our future awaits us, and that really, truly, anything CAN happen, and here in Atlanta, it probably will.

Affectionately yours, Justin

The Lights are Calling Me

In the two years of restaurant work following senior year, and extending in my life far before that, music has been such an important source of strength for me. It has sustained me and awakened me, and it has piqued my intellectual curiosity and comforted my pain. It has been my guardian angel.

Throughout four years of college, I never my quit my shift as a rotation DJ at the local radio station. This entailed extremely late hours, little recognition, and long walks in the snowy Kansas winter to reach the Shack, a ramshackle building at an obscure corner of campus. I would delve myself deeply into a nearly endless library of music, playing them over the studio speakers at as high volume as I could muster without shattering my eardrums.

 As a rotation DJ, I had access to the entirety of KJHK’s stacks and stacks of music, both CDs and vinyl, not to mention our own music or the nearly-unlimited selection we could stream through the station’s computer. I would watch my view of the sunrise from the tiny window of the DJ booth overlooking downtown Lawrence, down the western side of Mt. Oread. I would toil through late nights between the hours of 2 and 6 am, spending hours weaving songs into and out of each other, one after the other, and keeping my eye out for the flashing white light that meant I was receiving a listener’s call. It was overwhelming at times, and I am sure that my tracks sometimes did not flow as well as I would have liked. But it was a necessary and enriching escape for me from the intensity of college life, and I occasionally would receive a call from listeners who appreciated my music selection. It felt good to accompany the occasional early-morning runner, or late-night lonely soul, with good beats and a voice on the other line.

 I delved into endless catalogues of various and indescribable music, plunging into the depths of the shelf devoted to electronica, and even occasionally flirted with the stacks of metal. Always, I was aided by the words of DJs who had come before me. They used to write reviews of every album the station would receive, and tape them to the front of the CD’s jewel case, accompanied by star ratings and personal opinions. Someone, at some point in the station’s history, had listened to and reviewed every album there, and they could provide hints and clues as to which songs would rock the hardest or jam out the most.

And when things in my life became challenging, as they often did, I found it was the music that inevitably pulled me through.

But after the Shack was replaced by a modern, state-of-the-art studio towards the end of my senior year, and I DJ’ed my final rotation show, I said farewell to my beloved KJHK and returned to the real world. As a dishwasher in a restaurant, music kept me company while working 8-hour shifts, and my fellow restaurant workers had a great collection. You can always expect to hear the best music from the speakers of a bustling restaurant kitchen, where the energy and tempo of the music is the best company you keep while chopping vegetables, picking basil, or manning the industrial dishwasher. It was songs like these, and songs like Lights, by Ellie Goulding, that spoke to me most deeply, and kept me sane during that time.

Lights is shimmering, pulsing, and sensual. It is about the call of city lights, the itch to be alive, and the urge to dance, laugh and cry. Ellie expresses the sensitivity and fear that it takes to move to a new place, and to build for yourself something brand new, with people you have just met, and to seek love and joy, while embracing your flaws. Her lyrics of “turning to stone” speak of a vibrant soul calming her firing nerves, picking up the pieces of her shattered self, and mustering the courage to fight on.

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In my two years at the restaurant, it became clear to me that I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew that this wasn’t the work for me. I knew that this wasn’t my dream. I knew that there was so much more to see and to do in the world. I felt, in the depth of my soul, the passion and call to follow my dream and reach out for what the world has to offer. And it was Ellie Goulding that became the soundtrack of the months leading up to my eventual move to Atlanta. Just as the lights were calling her, in the song, the lights of Atlanta were calling to me.

If it is music is that kept me going through my darkest moments, both before and after college, it is music that will carry me into the future.

Now here I am, working in Midtown, across the street from the historic Fox theater. I am going to see Ellie Goulding perform there in exactly one month. Her light show, her reverberating sound, the texture and depth of her voice, and the cheering crowds await me.

Artists like Ms. Goulding, who inspire and guide us young people, deserve to be celebrated. We owe them our lives. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep tinkering in the lab at night, keep writing your raps and sonnets, and keep weaving melody and harmony and instrumentation and beats and effects. Do it for us. We love you.

Reflections on “Capote”, after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing

The day that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was browsing devices in a Verizon Wireless store. I picked up a random tablet and the first thing that popped into my view was the headline on a news app. Hoffman’s face stared out at me from the glowing screen of the device. “PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN HAS PASSED,” it read. Something snapped inside me. I nearly dropped the tablet.

He was found in his hotel room, surrounded by little bags of heroin with the images of playing cards printed on the outside of them. I never even knew that he had been struggling with drug addiction, and it destroys me inside that someone so accomplished, by all outward appearances, could be tortured in this way. It is horrible to see such a talented performer pass at the hands of the hovering specter that is drug addiction.

It is always a shock when one of your idols dies. But when they die alone in their hotel room, a needle in their arm, surrounded by little envelopes labeled  with images of the Ace of Spades, it becomes so much worse. And I could barely make myself read more deeply into what happened.

I know he relapsed. And I know that he overdosed. And that is all I want to know.

The man was well-respected by nearly everyone I spoke to, and to serious movie fans he was a household name. He took on the difficult roles;  the understated, supporting roles that others wouldn’t.  Seeing him in The Big Lebowski, of course, made me smile, because that has always been among my favorite films. And his appearance in the new Hunger Games movie was a good break for him into the mainstream (I have no idea how they could hope to replace him.) But his real genius lay in lesser-known, more challenging films, such as Doubt and The Master. Here, I am going to focus in one in particular… the classic for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2005, Capote.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie, "Capote", for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman starred in the movie “Capote”, for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Capote was the story of the accomplished novelist Truman Capote, who decides to write a true-to-life biography/true crime novel about a pair of grisly murders in rural Kansas. In the process of writing it, Capote struggled with the line between author and subject, and the difficult ethical questions presented by an artist’s attempt to mix reality with fiction techniques in his writing. Hoffman’s portrayal cast a vivid impression of a man of ambition, a gifted writer, and a flamboyant socialite, who became obsessed and deeply involved in the lives of a pair of troubled murderers, and in particular, with the kindred spirit of Perry Smith.

As much as Hoffman was a hero of mine in the world of film, so was Capote a hero of mine in the world of writing. He could draw you in, shock you, fill you with wonder, and transport you with the depth and poignancy of his writing. But when the techniques of fiction blur with the outcomes experienced by real people as a result of a piece of writing, and suddenly lives are on the line, quality fiction just doesn’t cut it. Trenchant reporting, and world-changing writing, must be grounded in a solid understanding of ethics, intentionality, responsibility, and dare I say, consequences. In deepening his relationship with Perry Smith and providing the doomed man and his partner in crime with hope that he could not ultimately fulfill, Capote overstepped the bounds of a responsible writer.

Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote was flourishing, nuanced, and ultimately brilliant. He showed a man losing himself to the struggle of what good gonzo writing really is and should be: significant and reflective of reality, while at the same time fascinating, mind-bending and addictive. Capote knew all along that In Cold Blood would be a classic in the canon of modern literature. But the book nearly killed him, and while it is acknowledged as a masterpiece of its genre, it would turn out to be his last book published in full.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman embraced the roles that dismiss the simplicity and shallowness of black-and-white ethics. The great performances of his career reflect a reality that is beyond good and evil, right and wrong, happy and sad. He tussled with the fullness of reality, the world where things are not what they seem and stories don’t always end with the heroes living happily ever after. He tussled with complexity. And he lived the life of an artist, giving us the gift of consistently stellar performances throughout his life.

But his true legacy, which will certainly be colored by the ignominious circumstance of his death, will be the face and voice of the strange and challenging minority. He was not like the others. If there was one thing that Phillip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t, it was one-dimensional. And perhaps that is part of what tortured him so, and repeatedly led him to the false comfort of hard drugs. He was an outlier, an idiosyncratic face and voice that would be impossible to pin down, and a consistently brilliant actor.

He will be sorely missed.