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newtown, connecticut

My dad is a postal worker and the term “going postal” was a joke in our house growing up, a way of diffusing or reclaiming a phrase that perpetuates a hurtful stereotype that postal workers are crazy and violent or that the post office is somehow a dangerous place. Less than a year after my parents moved away from my hometown and my dad transferred to a post office out of state, a woman walked into the facility where he used to work and murdered six of his former coworkers. The woman was an ex-employee, someone my dad had worked with years before. He remembered her as seeming not quite right.

I was a senior in high school when Columbine happened. I remember finding out about it after school on a warm spring day a couple of months before graduation and thinking, cynically, that it wasn’t surprising. There had been quite a few school shootings in the years leading up to that, everyone had seen Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video a few years back, and the shootings always seemed to happen in places I assumed were oppressive–cookie-cutter suburbs and rural backwaters. I felt detached from it all and annoyed with the media for repeating the phrase “trenchcoat mafia.” I don’t remember ever feeling unsafe at my school, like anything like that could happen there. High school sucked, but mine didn’t seem to have a particularly exclusive culture. There were athletes and goths and hippies and no clear popular group to make any “type” or weirdo feel like the only one on the outside. I’m not saying there weren’t outcasts; it just wasn’t an environment that seemed likely to drive outcasts to revenge or insanity. I think we were all pretty privileged to know there was a lot more to life than high school. This is what I remember, anyway.

The charter school I teach at shares a campus with a large, comprehensive high school. Our classrooms are hooked up to their intercom system, which they say they can’t disconnect because what if there was an emergency? Every day, we have to listen to the other school’s announcements and their students being called to the attendance office. We usually talk over it, me shouting the homework or instructions for the beginning of class. This morning, there was a lot of commotion in class, kids bustling to find papers, turn things in, etc., so I could only hear snippets of the announcements, including the other school’s principal saying, “There are things on the news that make us want to cry.” I thought, “Well, yeah, now that you mention it the budget crisis does make me want to cry.” She went on to say something about “peace and love,” which was unusual but I didn’t think too much of it. My student teacher was teaching that period, so I left to go to the bathroom and make tea before sitting down at the computer in the corner of the room and opening up the news to learn of the school shooting in Connecticut. I sat there in a daze while class went on. When I was a teenager, these events didn’t surprise me, but as an adult, each one arrests my heart for a second. Watching the news feels surreal, like I’m watching a dystopian horror film, warning that this is what America could come to. I listen to news analysis that goes on and on about guns, mental healthcare, and media–all of which are relevant–but it is my belief that mass shootings are a virus or a symptom of one, a sign that the society we live in is seriously ill. I do not believe that this kind of crime occurs in a society with a moral compass or in a culture that lives by a value system in which all human beings are treated like they have equal and inherent worth. Mass shootings, I am sure, only happen in a society where people feel alienated by a lack of meaningful relationships and a lack of meaningful work, in a society where the only power available is brute force. Let’s be clear: guns, mental healthcare, media are not roots of anything. These are products of our culture, just like killers are. What do they say about the values we live by? About how and to what we assign worth? I’m not talking about the values we say we live by. I’m talking about where we put our money. Where we put our time. Where we put our eyes, our ears, our energy. What that says about us. We’re all part of this.

how music works

David Byrne is a genius, and he steals all my ideas.

I had no idea he had this new book out until I stumbled across it in the pirate store, of all places. From the preface:

…the same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning. Depending on where you hear it–in a concert hall or on the street–or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting, or you could find yourself dancing to it. How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works–if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but what it is.

This is what I call “the politics of Bruce Springsteen appreciation.” Awhile ago, I noticed that people about ten years older than me whose taste in music I respected didn’t like Bruce Springsteen, while people that age who had what I thought of as pedestrian taste in music thought he was the shit. I thought he was the shit, so this confused me until I thought about sociocultural context. My generation doesn’t care that Ronald Reagan stole “Born in the U.S.A.” or that a bunch of frat boys listened to Springsteen in the ’80s because we were babies then. We can know it as really awesome music without any cultural associations we don’t want. But another generation was defining their taste in music (and their image along with it) in the ’80s, and if you were a punk, it wasn’t “cool” to like Springsteen. That kind of prejudice can tend to stick even after you’ve matured past image bullshit. Springsteen’s music is the same, but it’s heard differently by different people at different times, and even someone whose music preferences otherwise align with mine is going to find points of contention if their formative social environment didn’t support the same hearing mine did.

I was recently on the other end of this experience when my students invited me to participate in their mix CD exchange. It was fascinating to listen to one 16-year-old’s mix after another. For one thing, their mixes contained way more ’90s music than mine. Some of it is respectable (The Pixies, Beck, Radiohead, etc.), but that other songs have withstood the test of time boggles the mind. Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” for example, made it on two different kids’ CDs. I don’t like any of their mixes all the way through, and had a friend given one of them to me and said, “Here, I made you this mix,” I would have been confused, but hearing the songs recontextualized from a 2012 teenager’s point of view changes how they sound. It can simply inspire marveling at how two tracks can coexist on the same CD: “Wow! You like MGMT and The Dave Matthews Band?” or it can alter my perception of the music itself, like the day I found myself driving home from work with one of the more smoothly crafted mixes in my car and actually enjoying an Oasis song. The horror!

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where some guy said my tattoo reminded him of the Hall and Oates’ song “Private Eyes.” I said I didn’t know the song and mostly associated Hall and Oates with people making fun of them. He said, “Really? I think they’re one of the best bands of the twentieth century!” I scanned for irony, detected none, and then felt like an asshole. For a day, I thought maybe I was missing something, that Hall and Oates was a great musical oversight on my part, so I watched a bunch of their videos on YouTube, and UH, NO. But then I thought about the politics of Bruce Springsteen appreciation and felt like an asshole again. Without knowing this guy’s music-listening context, how could I judge? He looked about my age, but clearly something about where, how, or with whom he grew up had disposed him to hear music competely different from me. Maybe Hall and Oates is the best band out of all the other bands he knows. Jesus, though, out of what musical pool does Hall and Oates rise to the top? I mean, really.

i’m a lover but i’m in it to win

It was an epic week. By midmorning Monday, I was sure it was Thursday. I had something going on after work every night this week and was at school until nine or ten last night and the night before. It was 80 degrees early in the week, and then the temperature plummeted 30 degrees overnight and I turned on the heat for the first time.

On Tuesday, I voted on a pool table in the same youth center where I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. I still have my ballot stub from that election, but it was this one that felt like the most important election of my lifetime. Never have I felt like so much was on the line and never have I seen an outcome that good. Not only was Obama reelected, Prop 30 passed (avoiding draconian budget cuts to an already destitute school system), Democrats won a two-thirds majority in the California state legislature, and a couple of states legalized pot and gay marriage.

I went to a Cat Power concert the night of the election, which I would say was the weirdest day I can imagine seeing a concert except I went to a show on September 11th, 2001 (Belle and Sebastian at the Roseland in Portland–it was weird). Although the reactions to Obama’s win were more subdued than four years ago, car horns blared again in Berkeley and Oakland as the networks started to call his victory and revelers poured gleefully out of the bars around the Fox. My friend and I got there during the second opening act’s set to find most of the audience in the lobby watching TV.

I was at a party recently where some of the guests had kids. They started talking about babies and someone said, “You can’t have two good babies in a row,” meaning if your first child doesn’t cry too much, your second one will cry all the time and never sleep. I would riff on that to say you can’t see Cat Power twice and have a good show both times. I saw her in 2004 and it was wonderful. She was at the piano most of the time and just put on a lovely performance without any of the weird onstage behavior she’s known for. Though I do remember being in the front row at Great American Music Hall that night and her asking the entire audience to sit down on the floor before she played, insisting in her Southern drawl, “I think y’all might be more comfortable if you sat down.” I thought about this and looked up reviews of the Sun tour the night before the show, and they were decidedly mixed. It was certainly one of the worst sounding concerts I’ve ever been to. Her beautiful voice was drowned out by two drummers (why?), and she played songs I couldn’t even recognize under the constant overpowering thump. The audience was half fanatical and half not paying attention. There was a guy in a head-to-toe LION SUIT, dancing around until he obviously got too hot and ran out of the crowd like he was about to pass out or throw up. Chan Marshall put the mic down halfway through a song to autograph a record someone handed her from the front row. Instead of an encore, she came back on stage, took a picture of the audience, and waved. Instead of applauding, I waved back.

We listened to a rebroadcast of Obama’s victory speech on the car radio afterward and drove stunned into silence by the power of his hoarse voice. I got goosebumps thinking what a close call this election was and how deflating a loss would have been to liberals, to young people, and to people of color. I almost wonder if we could have withstood it. “Hope” is just a word and people are right to probe any message for the substance behind its language, but do not underestimate the weight of hope itself. It’s not just because of Obama that I’ve been more engaged in politics the past four years, but he is part of it. I don’t want to expect too much from a president who faces an unpleasant Congress and who leads within an economic system that promotes a lot of values that run counter to democracy, but I have hope. On Wednesday, I woke up in a world where I truly believe that justice and goodness are not only possible but inherent in the air we breathe.

The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.

This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our university, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth.The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for comes with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great….

And tonight, despite all the hardship we’ve been through, despite all the frustrations of Washington, I’ve never been more hopeful about our future.

I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

And together with your help and God’s grace we will continue our journey forward…

library of diaries

“The bookbinders,” she said “have always been the illiterate ones.”

The teachers I’ve had at the San Francisco Center for the Book have all been women with nicks and scars on their hands and a style of dress I’ll call “indie rock librarian.”

It’s odd I would take up bookbinding at a time in my life when I’m also renouncing perfectionism–it’s an exact art. We use an old-fashioned protractor-like device and measure things in millimeters. The boards and pages are cut uniformly with a two-ton steel paper cutter the size of a car. The teachers discourage using pencil marks for anything and say the lines of the cloth shouldn’t show too much through the endsheets.

Sewing is one of the best parts about making books. It’s graceful and meditative, but though I’ve done the stitches before, I can never remember the pattern on my own. The teacher said something about sense memory, and I wonder at times if mine isn’t a little underdeveloped. My memory, it seems, is more tightly tied to language than most people’s. It’s why I have to be taught how to play chess every single time I play chess and why, though I love jazz, I can’t remember any wordless jazz song no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I was taken to a silent movie once and afterward had no idea what happened in it at all. Had I been born deaf and mute or raised by wolves, I wonder if I’d even have a memory. It isn’t a negative thing–it’s also why I win nine out of ten games of Words With Friends, earned a rare 800 on the verbal section of the SAT the first time I took it, and write well despite very little formal composition instruction outside of the usual school classes. Language isn’t symbolic to me; it’s concrete. This is opposite how most people think of it. Whereas what most people think of as black-and-white, logical, like numbers, stress me out and I don’t have an intuitive sense of how things are put together, built. To cook I need a recipe, written in words.

Bookmaking is, in a way, a marriage of my strengths and weaknesses. I measure, cut, sew, and glue exactly so in order to have a house for my words, a vehicle in which to convey the transformative power of language, naming. I remember the lovers I came to love in the utterance of the word, “love,” and the lovers I never said I loved, but had I said it, would have. Given my intimacy with language, it’s ironic how difficult it can be for me to communicate. But I hate confrontation, not communicating. It’s like knocking on a door, looking for a house for my language and my love, fearing the entry requires a perfection I know my stumbling through the doorway won’t have. But it does now:


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