Friday, August 28, 2009
This is a book that puts late 70s/early 80s punk/hardcore into a particular historical context that’s often missing from rock criticism, and any other writing connected to rock and roll. Actually, one of the benefits of the book is that it fills in details about a key period in the evolution of early punk/hardcore, and how it reached its watershed moment in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Sprit,” when the entire indie/underground scene blew up and changed, almost overnight.
In light of Azerrad’s book, this Friday’s Shuffle Play Friday features tracks from some the 13 bands featured, as well as representing some of my favorite rock songs of all time.
Hüsker Dü-Ice Cold Ice/Warehouse Songs and Stories
Back in 1984, stranded in the center (or close to it) of the country, shipwrecked and looking for a new source of meaning, music became my new drug, replacing fundamentalist religion. At the time, Chicago’s WXRT hosted "The Big Beat," a hour-long indie rock show, every Friday night at 11:00. This became my gateway into a whole new world of underground music I knew little about.
Fast-forward to early 1987 (the year I’d move back to Maine, in August after four years in the post-industrial armpit of NW Indiana) and pre-internet, so there weren’t a wealth of places for someone living in Chesterton, Indiana to connect with indie music.
It was on ‘XRT where I first caught wind of Hüsker Dü and their loud, fast rock and roll. “Ice Cold Ice” was being played regularly. I drove up to Michigan City to pick up Warehouse Songs and Stories on cassette, after reading about it in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.
Black Flag-TV Party/Damaged
It’s hard to imagine the unbridled passion that Black Flag brought to their music in today’s corporate rock environment. The anger was real, with Henry Rollins working out his issues onstage each and every show, often on the heads of members of the audience that pissed him off.
Rollins wasn’t Black Flag’s first vocalist, but he was the one that moved the band forward and gave them their more serious focus that they become known by.
The band’s sound, characterized by Greg Ginn’s fractured, atonal playing style came to epitomize the hardcore punk sounds, since Black Flag were one of the first playing this kind of music in the U.S.
I picked up Damaged in a used vinyl shop. TV Party is a throwback to some of the goofier tunes that characterized the earlier years when Keith Morris (later of the Circle Jerks) was on vocals.
DOA-51st State/True (North) Strong and Free
I first saw DOA in Chicago, in 1986 on a bill with the Descendants, DC3 (former Black Flag member Dez Cadena’s band), and a fourth band that escapes me now, some 23 years later.
DOA, led by the irrepressible Joey “Shithead” Keithly are still going strong. Like Black Flag, DOA originated as a punk hardcore band, but later introduced a more melodic approach to their songs.
The band, which hails from Vancouver, BC, wear their Canadian hearts on their sleeves. This song captures the Canadian inferiority complex that comes from being America’s neighbor to the north, as well as the love/hate thing that is the reality when you live next door to someone that can potentially make your life hell if you piss them off.
At this stage of their career, think a Canadian Ramones, and you’ll be close.
The Minutemen-History Lesson-Part II/Double Nickels on the Dime
The title of Azerrad’s book comes from this song. DNOTD was released in 1984. I owned it on cassette, acquiring my copy back in the 90s. I still regularly listened in that format, but the cassette player in my old 1984 Pontiac chewed the tape up last w/e, so I’ve got to get it on CD, or vinyl, as this album is one I must own.
I never saw the Minutemen live, but I did see Mike Watt’s post MM band, Firehose back in the late-90s when they played the old Zootz nightclub, in Portland. I met Watt after the show, as he stood and shook hands with everyone that came, a holdover from the days of punk, when by-and-large, bands appreciated their fans, and there wasn’t the star/fan divide common with most entertainment/sports, today.
X-Johnny Hit and Run Pauline/Los Angeles
I don’t know why Azerrad leaves X out of his book, as they warrant a chapter, in my opinion, as they are one of the seminal bands in the early days of American punk. They also have had a tremendous influence on so many other bands that followed.
In 1986, X released The Unheard Music, a documentary chronicling the members of the band, and the Los Angeles punk scene. I heard it advertised on the aforementioned WXRT, Chicago's alternative rock station. It was playing at a theater on Fullerton, in the city, and I drove my 1968 Chevy Impala, with a dead cylinder, the requisite 45 miles from Chesterton, to catch the showing.
There were about 5 people in the theater, in a seedy end of the city, but it was worth the trip and gas to get there. Great rock movie and I was totally hooked on X and have been ever since.
The movie captures the seamy underside of Los Angeles, the one that Jim Morrison sang about in “LA Woman,” and the one I went searching for on my recent trip to the City of Angels.
Yet another album I once owned on cassette.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Actually my 259 pounds on my 6'4" frame was obese on all manner of weight charts. While I'm still considered overweight according to a variety of weight charts, and my BMI of 27.87 on FitDay still classifies me as such, my weight this morning is 229 pounds, which is 30 pounds lighter than I was at the end of June. I've hit my weight goal three days ahead of schedule. Even better, I am in the best shape I've been in since 1993, when I was pitching for Coastal Athletics in the Twilight League, competing against college "kids" ten years younger. I'm starting to feel that athlete's "buzz" that comes from being in shape and having clothes fit properly.
Here are a few key things I've learned over the past nine weeks on my fitness/weight loss journey:
* Awareness of what I'm eating
* Losing weight requires limiting portion sizes
* The importance of regular, vigorous exercise
* A realization that this is a lifestyle shift, not a mere diet
It's interesting that whenever you make significant change (s) in your own life, these changes produce fallout, and will prompt naysaying from those around you that may not be in the same place that you are at the moment.
Yesterday, I was waiting for a meeting to begin and someone I've worked with over the past three years asked me if I've lost weight. When I told her that I had, she then began lamenting her own weight and went off on a rant about how "it's so easy for men to lose weight," and that it's so hard to eat right, etc. I mentioned that my wife had lost 20 pounds, and that seemed to quiet her a bit about weight loss and men (it was informative for me when this person mentioned that she had just been at a local eatery that has an all-you-can-eat buffet).
The reality of losing weight is that it is difficult. I love to eat and it would be easy for me to eat half a box of triscuits, or have a big plate of taco chips, piled high with cheese, sour cream, and salsa. There was a time when I might have two plates of nachos while watching a ball game. I regularly had second helpings at mealtime. Instead, I now am aware of how many calories those nachos contain, and I don't eat them anymore. I also limit myself to one serving of dishes at dinner. At the same time, I love cheese and I make sure I have a bit of cheese most days, as well as other treats. I've also discovered how wonderful apples, red peppers, and other fruits and vegetables are as lunch items, instead of a high-calorie sub from a local sandwich shop. In fact, I rarely eat out, choosing instead to pack my lunch each work day. I am also saving quite a bit of money foregoing these lunch purchases.
What I like about the routine I've adopted, as has Miss Mary, is that we are both eating healthy foods (and some not so healthy--I still have a penchant for pepperoni and other foods high in sodium), but practice moderation, not a trait that's in vogue any longer. This is a great time of year to be doing so because despite our rainy summer, many local farmers are selling their produce along Maine's roadways. During the past week, we've had fresh cucumers, zucchini, and corn (with butter, btw).
Another positive development from the past nine weeks is recognizing that targeting a healthier weight doesn't have to involve freaky diets, colon purges, or eating highly-processed, packaged food pitched by all manner of celebrities. It's empowering to recognize that it is possible to decide to do something, develop a plan, and through attention to that plan, achieve desired results.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Portland is small compared to other cities within a two hour drive, south from Maine’s southern boundary. At the same time, there are few cities of Portland’s size that offer the variety of activities available to participate in on a given Friday or Saturday night. And it has an amazing number of topnotch restaurants, although just how Portland matches up with other larger cities has come under some scrutiny of late. Others chime in on this matter..
What I especially appreciate about the city, and have for the past twenty years, since moving back from the Midwest, are the opportunities to see artists and bands in smaller club settings, particularly those of the independent variety. Portland has its arena shows at the Cumberland County Civic Center, and pricier events at Merrill Auditorium and a few other venues, but if you want to go out and catch a band that represents what I referenced yesterday when I asked rhetorically (regarding Joe Pernice) the question “why hasn’t this guy/band hit it big, yet?” from Friday’s post, then you usually can find several choices in Portland, especially at places like Space Gallery.
I’ve blogged about Jose Ayerve and Spouse several times at Words Matter. My friendship with Jose dates back to my days spinning records and playing DJ on the Bowdoin College station, and then reconnecting with him several years later.
Given that Spouse doesn’t play out as much as they once did, as band mates are growing older, acquiring additional responsibilities beyond music, and that all of them live south of here (mainly in Mass.), when I get wind of an upcoming gig, it gets filed away in the memory bank.
I’d been aware of last night’s gig at Space for a couple of months. Being that is was a Friday night, and Miss Mary and I had been through a particularly tough work week, I suggested that we hit a Happy Hour locally, connect with some old friends at Slainte (Chris Keenan plays every Friday night, from 5:00 to 7:00), and I even Tweeted our niece hoping that she might be free to meet us for a drink.
As luck would have it, we experienced the perfect convergence. I caught up with Alexa, Chris’ wife, who I used to work with, we got to hear Chris run through his set, have a couple of pints of Guiness, Joanne did meet us, and we let the stress of work slide away.
Afterwards, with the night still young and Jose and Co. not expected to go on ‘til much later, I was interested in a bite to eat. At first thinking Norm’s, Joanne suggested 555 (or Five Fifty-Five), on Congress. I’m so glad she did. I had wanted to check out the place and we weren’t disappointed. The restaurant has been receiving quite a bit of buzz, including Chef Steve Corry being voted one of the 10 best chefs in the country.
Eating at the bar, we had drinks, I had the sam’s blt burger, with organic arugala mayo, bacon pickled sweet tomatoes and melted Vermont cheddar. MMM!! If one must imbibe calories, then this is the way to go. Actually, even with my beer intake exceeding my usually austere one light beer per summer night regimen, I didn’t get too far “off the reservation” with my night on the town. Mary had the steak n’ fries, which features a three-day marinated hanger steak. After a drink with her aunt and uncle, we bid Joanne “adieu” as she was headed home to see hubby and prep for Yacht Rock @ The White Heart. Mary never has shared my affinity for amplified music, so after sitting in my car and chatting for a bit, she headed for home. I was off to rock out at Space, any a rare late night out.
We bid Joanne “adieu” as she was headed off to Yacht Rock @ The White Heart and Mary was headed back home. I was off to rock out at Space, any a rare late night out.
There were two opening acts on the bill ahead of Spouse. I showed up during the middle of the opening set by local guitar player Adam Kurtz. Kurtz was working his way through several computer enhanced solo guitar excursions. Definitely an interesting player. I wasn't expecting much, but I'd definitely check out a set of his again, particularly on a night when I wasn't hoping he'd finish so I could see the act I was waiting for, always the curse of the opening act.
Between sets, I had a chance to briefly chat with Jose and we spoke about Pernice’s book tour that he’s managing. We chatted briefly about publishing, my own upcoming book projects, and he introduced me to the guys in Sandra Black, who drove up from Morgantown, West Virginia to play with Spouse (and follow them to Northhampton, MA on Saturday). The band brings a very distinctive delivery to their indie-infused rock. I heard elements of the Pixies, VU, noise-rock, but what really propelled the band’s sound and made me want to hear more from them was vocalist Billy Zweiner’s delivery, which I wish I had words to describe, but it was unique in a very positive way. The band was very tight, which was even more amazing in that Jose was standing in on bass because the band’s regular bassist, Jason Henry’s wife just had their first child, so he was AWOL for the first time ever. Jose mentioned they hadn’t had a chance to practice, foregoing a run through for a day for the boys at Scarborough Beach, instead. Sound check was it for them, but I thought they were pretty amazing.
What else can I say about Spouse. I’ve seen them as a three-piece, which they were for this show (JJ O’Connell on drums and Ken Maiuri on bass), a four, or five-piece, and I”ve seen Jose solo several times. Each time, I think, “these guys are so much better than 95 percent of everything else on the alt-rock landscape,” but Jose and the band continue to languish in indie rock obscurity.
Spouse broke out five new tracks from what will be their latest offering due in the fall. I thought the new material had a much harder edge than the standard Spouse fare making up their current catalog. That isn’t to intimate at all that the band has sacrificed songwriting, or their melodic sensibilities. Jose’s guitar playing has evolved over the years where he truly carries the band in a very understated way not common with most guitarists and band leaders. He truly understands the concept of band, versus wanking away like so many axemen.
As the band segued into their older material, I couldn’t help but sway, bang my foot, and groove to the all-too-familiar strains. Spouse’s “Are You Gonna Kiss or Wave Goodbye?” from 2004, was one of the CD’s that pushed me forward during the writing of my first book. I can write to certain types of music, much of it mellower than Spouse, but that CD will always hold a select place in music that I own.
I also felt pangs of bittersweetness as I thought back over the years. My life has shifted dramatically for the better over the past seven, or eight years. As I grow older, I no longer feel as “at home” at shows, and tend not to go out and see bands. Spouse and in particular, Ayerve, remain one of the few artists that will make me stay out into the early hours of the AM to catch them live.
Today, I woke up nursing a hangover and struggled through my 20 mile bike ride. I’m actually feeling a bit dehydrated, but I’m glad I got out once again to a rock show. It’s a connection to the past that I cherish, albeit an experience of youth that is slowly slipping from my grasp.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Swervedriver-Last Train to Satansville/LTTS
I miss shoegazer bands like Swervedriver. Great tune, great title (from an album of the same name) and definitely worth searching out for the requisite “put me in the mood for partying” song prep for aprez work activities.
The first time I heard the term "shoegazer" used was 1993, in a conversation with Bowdoin student and fellow WBOR DJ, Tim Rotramulus, who was a fan of several British bands that fit the shoegazer M.O.
My Bloody Valentine-Sometimes/Loveless
Since I launched my track list with a shoegazer entry, I think I’ll stay with it. My Bloody Valentine ruled college radio in 1993, a time when music had an entirely different feel than it does now.
Back before iPods, and shuffling off to Buffalo-ing, songs mattered and MBV knew how to extend out and push the rock guitar envelope, unafraid of songs that clocked in beyond three minutes. Hit single? What’s a hit single, man?
Cryptacize-Cosmic Sing-a-long/Dig That Treasure
An Asthmatic Kitty band (Sufjan Stevens’ label). Typical of the label, quirky, but captivating. The refrain of “Every note is an unfinished song” keeps running through my head, after this listen.
Patterson Hood-Belinda Carlisle Diet/Killers and Stars
Patterson Hood leads the Drive-By Truckers by day, but after he comes home, puts the wife and kids to bed, he retires to his basement where he becomes just another singer-songwriter with earnest lyrics and songs about former pop culture icons.
Since I'm in the midst of my own weight loss adventure, the word “diet” in the title caught my attention--but I'm not dieting, I'm making a "lifestyle change."
Actually, Hood is a damn good songwriter and his two solo records are worth checking out.
Son Volt-Adrenaline and Heresy/The Search
As I’ve written before, music has always been a soundtrack supporting the good and bad of whatever’s happening at a particular time in my life. Son Volt’s Jay Farrar became a key companion for me in the mid-90s during an especially difficult time in my life. Stuck in a rut, working a job that paid the bills, but offered little else and knowing I had to find a way to change my life's orbit, Farrar’s band at the time, Uncle Tupelo, spoke to me via their Still Feel Gone LP. Farrar’s voice and accompanying songwriting captured much of the frustration, disillusionment, and daily angst I was carrying on my much younger shoulders.
Farrar’s gone on and put out some fine music with Son Volt, and also as a solo artist. I especially like this track from the band’s 2007 release—more mellow than much of my favorite Farrar material, but still packing power and a message with some wallop.
The Pernice Brothers-Somerville/Live a Little
Friday mornings are often when I grab some CD I haven’t listened to for awhile, and pop it into my carousel as I prep for my final workday of the week.
This morning, I happened to come across If You Want My Listmaker, Volume 3. I own hand-numbered copy 35 (of 40) of these semi-regular CD burns that the erstwhile blogger and suffering Mets fan sent out.
The Pernice track caught my eye for several reasons. One, Pernice is one of these under-appreciated musical talents that always leave me scratching my head saying, “why not Joe Pernice,” instead of Pearl Jam, Creed, Nickelback (feel free to add your own choice) or any other choreographed corporate rock band that absolutely sucks, but surely keeps chuckling on their regular trips to the ATM.
Somerville, isn’t the kind of town that a songwriter would pen an ode to, but then again, Joe Pernice isn’t your ordinary songwriter.
Particularly interesting that I’d pick Listo’s CD this morning with the Pernice track, because I’m heading into the closest thing to a city within a reasonable driving distance, Portland, to catch Jose Ayerve and Spouse tonight.
Spouse has connections to Pernice and Co., and in fact, Jose is driving Mr. Pernice around and manning his merch table and managing his book tour for It Feels So Good When I Stop (Riverhead Books), his first book.
For baseball fans out there, Pernice and Ayerve also wrote a song about Manny Ramarez that ran during the credits for Fever Pitch.
Happy Friday, all. Rock out and rock on!
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I thought about titling my post, "Tower of Babble," which is a reference to the biblical Tower of Babel, about how God confounded the languages of the earth's people and scattered them throughout the earth, in response to an attempt to build a vast tower for "the glory of man." I reconsidered, primarily because I'm listening to Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't on CD. Prothero's book bemoans America's lack of religious knowledge, even among those who consider themselves Xians. I figured that dropping the TOB reference would land with a "thud."
BTW, Prothero is on Twitter, babbling along with all the other twit(terers)s, myself included, helping to hold up the 59.45% end of the platform that's not pointless.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Palin had indicated that under the Obama plan, rationing would take place and that "my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of [President] Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."
Palin's beyond the pale (beyond the Palin?) comments, and the subsequent run this has had all over right-wing is extraordinary, and shows the length to which idealogues will now go to distort and bend truth if it serves their political endgame.
Fortunately, Media Matters for America has provided an antidote in the form of a report that clearly debunks this craziness, once and for all (let's hope).
The report offers 40 different media sources discrediting Palin's claims that President Obama and fellow Democrats ever intended to institute death panels. It also shows clearly that there isn't some phrase, or subclause hidden in the bill that could remotely be construed as supportive of anything resembling Ms. Palin's science fiction scenario.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Radiohead's Thomas Yorke recently issued a pronouncement that the band may never make a full-length record/album again, citing that "...it's become a real drag," from a creative standpoint. Sasha Frere-Jones, on her blog at The New Yorker offers this and then, this.
Her take as a musician is that albums are a mere "widget" that is produced to keep record companies happy. She adds,
Only a crazybones would deny the magic of “London Calling” hitting the Earth. But that kind of perfect chain comes along only once in a while, and even when it does, how often do you listen to it in the original order, without interruption? Unless you’ve got lots of free afternoons or long rides, you probably don’t. And most people with more than a few albums like to mix those public documents into private orders that reflect preferences and personal associations.
I would respectfully disagree with her opinion that great albums are an aberation. Well, let me back up a minute. There was a time when bands/artists regularly made great records, and in fact, there is a genius to the sequencing of songs that contributed to the magic of a great album, like London Calling.
Most of the music I listen to regularly, I know the track order and often listen in that order (although, not always). Is that the experience of others? Is this limited to age, as in older music fans prefer order and sequencing and younger listeners are happy with their iPod shuffle play music experience?
It's apparent that the day is coming, I think, when albums and blocks of songs won't matter, and Yorke and Frere-Jones comments indicate that it's not that far away.
I'm curious if readers have a particular record/album that they couldn't imagine life without?
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I continue to find the various angles by which mainstream outlets spin out the news quite interesting, and obviously biased, but not necessarily towards a liberal bent as malicious, misinformed parrots often claim. Here is the lede Parsons used for her 700 word article on Mr. Obama’s town hall visit to Portsmouth.
“Addressing one of the more volatile complaints about healthcare reform that he is proposing, President Obama said today Tuesday that he doesn't want to set up government "death panels" that decide which Americans get health services and which don't.”
Until yesterday, I was ignorant to the furor being stirred up once more by right-wing talk radio concerning President Obama’s attempt to spearhead healthcare reform in the U.S. I had stopped by my parents on my way back to the office from Brunswick. I spent about 20 minutes with them, and as I was getting in the car, my mother mentioned something related to her own healthcare situation, then made an offhand remark about government “death panels.”
I thought, “where the hell did this come from?" I had innocently stopped to pay a courtesy visit and once again, I was about to be sucked into the whirling rotors of the right-wing noise machine and its never-ending Jabberwocky. Luckily, I astutely extricated myself by making a bad attempt at a joke and hopping into my car and I was off. My curiosity had been whetted, however.
Last night, I did some research on the “death panel” topic, and while I shouldn’t have been surprised at how gullible people can be that get most of their news from right-wing talk radio, I was again perplexed and at a loss to ever counter this ongoing misinformation campaign foisted upon many good seasoned members of the U.S. population. Actually, the topic was so taxing, I had to lie down at 8:45 and the next thing I knew, I was snapping awake and it was 11:15 pm, just in time to catch Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree swapping Moxie stories with Stephen Colbert.
I’m not sure what makes some people so fearful of their government that they think their president is considering euthanizing them. I actually recognize how incapable government is of getting anything done, let alone killing off a considerable segment of the population. If you want to target your fear at a large institution visiting death on the U.S. population, and anywhere else they set up shop in the world, think McDonald’s, not Barack Obama and his supposed "socialistic" tendencies.
Actually, people like my parents are the last people Palin’s death panels are going to target, because they’re pillars of health, and drain little from the public health system. Thankfully, I’ve made some changes in my own way of living, and losing weight will ensure that if by chance I wake up in the midst of some dystopian nightmare ala Rush Limbaugh’s active imagination, I too will be able to skirt the long reach of a bureaucratic death czar or czarina, or internment at some remote work camp (they're coming to take me away, ha-ha!) being set up as I type away at my keyboard.
Monday, August 10, 2009
On Friday, I spoke to a group of graduates from a training I helped recruit for, held at CMCC. This group of precision manufacturing trainees completed a rigorous 12-week program, and my topic was reinvention, a topic that is familiar to me.
Making changes in our lives continues to be a necessary requirement as the world continues to change. Yet, so many people resist change with every fiber of their being.
Change is difficult, and I'm not always open to all possibilities. I am trying to be as adaptable as I can be, however, and roll with things more often.
Friday, August 07, 2009
I don't have the time to develop a longer post, so for the sake of throwing up some paint on the wall, here are some tunes that I'll be listening to, as I wind down the long work week.
Kings of Leon-California Waiting
Southern rockin' good 'ole boys who've hit it big after paying the requisite rock and roll dues. I actually don't know much about them other than each time I pick a KOL track at Last.fm, I'm never disappointed.
Nada Surf-Blizzard of '77
Nada Surf, who could have been just another one hit wonder when "Popular" broke them to MTV Nation back in the summer of '96, instead, have perservered and carved out a nice rock career of literate songs, and catchy melodies. "Blizzard of '77" is one of those tracks that will have you longing for winter snows, and school cancellations.
Hot Tuna-Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning
One of my all-time fave bands, I've seen Hot Tuna live several times and met Jorma Kaukonen. In fact, Jorma shared some guitar tips with me (not that they've done me much good, given my woeful chops) at Raoul's Roadside Attraction, a former Portland musical hotspot that is sorely missed~RIP
My Dad is Dead-The Only One
Mark Edwards is MDID, a veritable one man band. MDID was one of my Guided by Voices era discoveries, when GbV opened me up to the rich rock and roll vein of Dayton/Cleveland area bands, through Robert Griffin's Scat label.
Edwards has since relocated to North Carolina where he continues to toil in obscurity, churning out solid output, which now spans more than two decades. Highly recommended.
BTW, Edwards has a blog that he updates periodically.
Loud Family-Idiot Son
Former Game Theory frontman Scott Miller's band. Another amazingly talented, but sadly neglected rock genius, ala Mark Edwards. Miller writes smart, melodic power pop (I know, too cliched) that the world should know about. Instead, poser bands make the millions and Miller toils away in California obscurity.
Happy Friday, all. Rock out and rock on!
Saturday, August 01, 2009
The advent of email was trumpeted with much fanfare, and the usual ballyhoo that attends each subsequent technological advance. Email was supposed to usher in a new dawn of communication, making it easier and simpler to communicate regularly—yet, another “democratization” in interpersonal relations and correspondence, as if letter writing was the communications equivalent of living behind the Iron Curtain. With this attendant ease of communication has also come an ease by which members of society now feel compelled to unload what’s on their chests, often without much thought and reflection. You can witness this regularly when you read online news articles that allow comments, or blog posts at blogs that have a good deal more traffic than mine. At least letters allowed some measure of time to cool off, reflect, rethink, and possibly tear up that angry note or letter before mailing it. Email allows us to hit “send” as soon as it is composed.
What has happened over the past five years is that people rarely even send an email anymore. First there was MySpace, where you could add friends by the mouse click. Then, it was Facebook, and recently, Twitter. Now, communication is more truncated than ever, although few people seem concerned about this.
One of my favorite books on our cultural downward descent was Morris Berman’s, The Twilight of American Culture. Berman clearly depicts the intellectual decline of the west with a prophetic urgency. While there are those cultural critics that think this downward spiral can be halted, and even reversed, Berman’s pronouncement is dire. There is no reversing the trend and little we can do to arrest the corporate clutch of our communication that has become ubiquitous.
There are those who consider Berman too dark and depressing and prefer to remain in denial. Books like TTOAC aren’t for those types. They remain ensconced in their cocoon, informed by reality television, video games and WIRED articles.
On the contrary, one of the most intriguing aspects of Berman’s book isn’t any hope of a cultural revival, but what he characterizes as some hope for anyone that desires to find meaning in a culture that’s rapidly disintegrating. It’s what Berman refers to as the “monastic option,” and he calls those who accept the charge as “new monastic individuals,” or NMIs. The monastic aspect is a nod to medieval monks who retreated from conventional society in an attempt to preserve its literary and historical treasures.
What Berman is talking about is creating “zones of intelligence” in both a private, as well as local ways. He maintains that it is important that these monastic activities be kept out of the public eye as much as possible. He specifically picks on simplistic efforts like “fifty ways to save the earth” and “voluntary simplicity,” to name two. Berman cites Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the “book people.” It is about adopting a “guerrilla” way of life. I found his ideas intriguing back in 2000 when the book first came out, and his prescriptions ring truer now, almost a decade later.
What could be done to adopt our own monastic option? What if a small band of monastic individuals made a pact to write letters periodically, possibly once per month to one another? I’ve heard of others who have done similar things. We could return to mailing articles to one another, cut from newspapers, or copied from a magazine, much the way these things happened before people began incessantly forwarding links.
Technology has resulted in a truncated style of communication. The nature of technology lies in its ability to reduce all things to a binary function—the number one, or a zero. This makes communication, and in particular, correspondence, transactional vs. remaining relational.
Most human beings have a gregarious side. Our evolution has incorporated storytelling and narrative as part of our development. Anthropologists have discovered remnants of early communication involving elements of stories, even if these were just pictures on the wall of a cave.
Writing letters has been man’s preferred method of communication, at least since the invention of paper. Historians have been able to piece together the lives, and develop portraits of important men (and women) primarily by sorting through their letters and correspondence. David McCullough’s delightful book on the life of John Adams relied heavily on Adams’ letters, back and forth between Adams and his wife Abigail, with Thomas Jefferson, and other historical figures that are now revered, who happened to be contemporaries of Adams.
I don’t know what will happen to history and those men and women living during our current epoch, a period of emails, Facebook wall postings, and Twitter. Will it be possible to reconstruct a life 100 years out into the future, if nothing tangible remains? What kind of archiving of email correspondence is taking place? If an ISP has records of your communication today, what happens 25, 50, or 100 years out, given the possibility of mergers, acquisitions, or the disappearance of the ISP, displaced by some newer, more effective communications platform?
Will historians acquire an alternative means to capture people’s correspondence? What becomes of history at that point, and does anyone even give a damn about it?
I don’t want this post to devolve into a philosophical exercise. It does concern me on several different levels, however, including technology’s obvious orientation towards altering our ability to remain connected to our past. I see this as one of technology’s most serious negative implications, its ability to sever our tether to who we were.
I’ve been ruminating about what could be done to enhance Berman’s model of new monasticism, and letter writing might be an entry point to becoming a new monastic individual, or a NMI. Choosing to be a member of a small group of letter writers, sending off a letter, possibly once per month, handwritten (or not, depending on whether you still have some semblance of penmanship remaining), one or two pages in length, dispatched to a post office box, roadside mailbox, or apartment letter-box seems like an exercise worth considering. An added benefit might be the anticipation of receiving a delayed response in the form of a letter, which takes time to travel from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
One of the challenges to aging in our own time is the rapid acceleration of change. Change no longer brings improvements, like moving from ice box to refrigerator did for food storage, or the reductions in physical labor required to live, where bodies wore out by the age of 55, or 60 (hence the age of retirement being 65). Granted, even those kinds of improvements wrought by technology could bring contrary opinions about benefit. Unless you subscribe to the belief that all technology is suspect, we might agree that technology did bring improvements in quality of life. Of course, there are those like John Zerzan and others who present ideas positing contrarian views about technology and its impact on civilization. I’ve read Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and others. Their points have some appeal, but that’s fodder for another day.
My point here is that the acceleration of change and technology’s reach, have far exceeded our capacity to regulate and set parameters for the benefit of all of us, not only the elite. I think of the reach of technology today and its impact on our ability to preserve basic privacy, if we choose. Governments around the world can track and monitor everything we do, or say, and our own vote whether to participate, or refuse, has been usurped by the onslaught of change.
Writing a letter won’t necessarily alter technology’s relentless march forward (or backward, depending on your orientation), but it might allow us a periodic reconnect with the human side.
I’d be happy to get the ball rolling by writing a letter to the first five people that send an email with your name and address. Once you receive my letter, I hope you’ll consider sending back a letter response of your own.
In my way of seeing things, this reestablishes a more human (and maybe, humane) way of interacting and communicating.
[A regular reader points out that I have no listed email, which might be a problem if you would like a personal letter. I'll use an innocuous email for obvious reasons (spam and all that other good stuff connected to "benign and altruistic" technology); here it is-- mediadrop04 (at) yahoo (dot) com, remember to replace the (at) with an @ and the (dot) with a .--Jim]