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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Fair and Balanced? You Bet!

Normally I pick on Christian music almost as much as Christian theology, but the bible-thumpers responsible for this send up of Sir Mixalot deserve a special place in God's kingdom.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Poem about a Clearcut

If aliens came to
talk with me,
I too would assume such
twisted visages.

Attempted armors like
an elephant’s slow eyes or
the broad smile of the
elusive platypus.

But only my nephew comes
to speak with me
and when he does
I run
not unlike a drunk
escaping a squirt gun.

An inheritor of invertebrate
evasions I hide,
worming inside the wood,
bending my form to
painful alien contours.

Hunched, twisted
I am still while
snot drips from my nose
in the rain
but I still cannot
grasp their plan.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Rotary Foreign Exchange Program - Part 2

Spending that year abroad created a feeling of condensed time. Ten months felt like ten years' worth of experiences. The bonds I made with fellow exchange students in a few short months seemed stronger than those that developed over my four years of highschool. There was Matt from upstate New York who played drums and brought a hackeysack. We once had a conversation for 24 straight hours, and he borrowed my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And Julie from Michigan with her infectious sense of humor. She lived with a Muslim family that served food so hot that none of us could eat it. She got fat subsisting instead on the pastries and cakes that her host-family made for their bakery. Daphne came from Virginia with her reading glasses and classical musician training, but lived for skipping classes and riding in cabs. And there was Nayda from Canada with her apple-cheeked optimism; Karena from Mexico who struggled with the language barrier; Anne from Anne Arbor who smuggled in half a pharmacy; and Teddy the good-natured redneck. I have occasionally regretted spending so much time with my fellow North Americans, but the temptation to talk to people who could relate was overwhelming.

Perhaps the first time I felt like I'd "gone native" was on the day India beat Pakistan during the cricket season. Pakistan won the world cup that year, but India dealt them a rare defeat behind the crafty bowling and aggressive batting of aging superstar Kapil Dev. This was not my game. Not my country. Not my archnemesis. And yet I surged with happiness and solidarity with the passing of every over.

Even still, separateness was maintained. For example, one of my host-brothers explained their history with Pakistan. The state was created to deal with the “Muslim problem”. Mahatma Gandhi brokered a separate-but-equal deal that many Indians still resent. Gandhi gave the Islamic citizens half the national treasury and enough land to create their own border state. This man shocked me when he told me that Gandhi was assassinated by a “patriotic Indian”. I was also amazed when I found out that one of my host-grandfathers had fought in World War II, by enlisting with the Japanese forces. He explained that no true Indian would have served with the Allies… not after England’s history of colonial exploitation. Despite the rationales, I could not fathom what kind of person could harbor these beliefs.

A major source of “otherness” came from the inherent difference of being pale in a brown country. Recognizing the facets of privilege can lead one down strange alleyways. I was aware that having dark skin could result in harassment and racism in America, but I hadn’t yet realized that having a white face meant privilege. At Saint Xavier's college, I was encouraged into the starting lineup (and even asked to lead warm-ups) for the school basketball team, despite never having played organized sports. I actually had to convince the coach to bench me sometimes because he couldn't bring himself to do it. I once found myself bribing a police officer whose job was to check tickets on the train. I was riding illegally in the first class section (seeking a tiny moment of relief from the throngs.) Pretending that I didn't understand the system, and throwing all the money I had at him (about fifty cents worth of Indian rupees,) I left him no choice but to accept my "bribe" and let me go. As an American, I felt surprisingly confident that he wouldn't argue with me if I bluffed ignorance and greased the deal with a bit of coin. Unexpected rights of adulthood were foisted upon me too, including the right to walk into any bar and order whatever I wanted. And rooms full of successful business men listened respectfully when I was asked to address Rotary assemblies about cultural or philosophical differences between the East and West. I never expected any of these things.


At the midpoint of my stay, we spent seven days in paradise. Jetu Lalvani, the main figure behind Bombay’s Rotary Exchange program, packed all the exchange students down to the former Portuguese colony of Goa. In Goa, we spent days strolling the beaches, living on fresh fruit and Port wine. I spent a whole week shirtless. At night, the lazy hospitality of the waterfront, with its endless parties, embraced us. I remember talking to a coin seller at a flea market who wanted to become an artist. Being an art student myself, I bought some old and interesting coins to support him. Then he explained to me that his plan was to copy all the traditional Indian masterworks and sell them to tourists. He already had my money at that point. I wondered what the actual word "art" meant to a population living at bare sustenance levels.

Too quickly, we left the land of vacationing European playboys, aging hippy goddesses, and all-night tranced-out dance parties. Back in the city, my businessmen hosts smoked tobacco rolled with hash resin and drank imported liquor. In the morning, I read stories in the Times of India that alarming numbers of the peasantry were dying while purposely enticing poisonous snakes to bite them; it was the only kind of "high" they could afford. Letting a cobra bite you, inducing a near-death hallucinatory experience, was a recreational drug for the have-nots.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rotary Foreign Exchange Program - Part 1

In 1991 and 92 I lived in Mumbai, India for ten months. I left after celebrating my Summer of emancipation, following my graduation from North Kitsap High School. At 17, I set off for a destination diametrically opposed to where I stood on the globe. And I celebrated my 18th birthday immersed in a culture completely opposite as well. Fifteen years after having been a Rotary Foreign Exchange Student, I still find myself attempting to quantify the experience.

I believe in pivotal, life-changing experiences in life; more so when you're 18 than 33. These events, when they happen, consume a person with a feeling that they have been indelibly altered, often in ways that cannot be fully understood. Maybe these things are phenomenological. Maybe they cannot be quantified or objectively studied. From that perspective, I will probably fail in any effort to demonstrate exactly how it affected my development.

But it seems to me that profundity charts the course to our destinations. So I will catalog those things that stand out in my memory, that seemed profound at the time, in the hope that they will guide me to understanding how that year impacted me.


As a teenager, I fancied myself an intellectual rebel. Declaring myself a vegetarian, atheist and socialist since junior high, I thought I understood what constituted a provincial attitude. It loomed in all directions in the form of small town frowns. When I flew to Bombay I wanted to find something radically different, and perhaps (in the bosom of another culture) I would feel less alien.

I blithely assumed I would find a human connection at the core of my experience... an ultimate similarity that transcended East and West and would allow connection at the most important levels. This was not my experience. Instead I was impressed at the resounding enormity of the chasm existing between my own perception of the world and that of my hosting Indians. I became acutely aware of my own assumptions and ethnocentricity.

Poverty, the most striking example, is redefined when you live in India. I equated poverty with growing up in a trailer park, leaving one's teeth unstraightened by braces, owning just a single television, or using the Fishline foodbank. I was ignorant when it came to indifferent streets full of dead and dying bodies; allyways bursting like blood vessels overfilled with homeless families, beggars, bicycles, hucksters, prostitutes, con men, holy men and business men; railroad tracks used as public toilets; masses of people living under tarps, eating nothing but rice cooked over open fires.

While navigating the urban jungle of Mumbai, beggars stalked me from blocks away, many of them grotesquely disfigured. Seeing white skin, they locked eyes and raced toward me. I remember an emaciated and legless man, whose lower body consisted of a small cardboard box. He spotted me from a block away and pursued me with incredible speed, swinging forward on his rag-wrapped knuckles like crutches... his box clomping down on the broken sidewalk with desperate rhythm. Another time, at a train station, a band of gypsies dressed in screaming colors and done-up like drag queens brandished bullwhips and began lashing themselves. They only stopped once the tourists gave them money. Holding out only increased their masochistic self-flagellation.

In a city of ten million inhabitants, probably 80 percent came from India’s lowest caste. Begging, prostitution and servitude are the three popular career paths for the city’s untouchables. I was told that many of those destined to become beggars are deliberately maimed at early ages to increase their profitability. This might include amputating a limb or deliberately breaking an arm and twisting it backwards so that it would result in a horrible contortion.

In the tent cities at night, the chaos of hundreds of children orbited small circles of men and women. The adults squatted around open fires… the men in shorts with skinny knees almost touching their ears, eyed a shared bottle of rotgut... women adjusted their soiled saris and stirred pots of boiling rice. Everyone was yelling and laughing and spitting and eating and shitting and sweating and arguing and boiling over with the very processes of life.

Up in the penthouse apartments, families sat quietly in their respective rooms... or gathered for a civilized game of carrom. There was peace, and relative sterility. People worried about a sick family member, or a cousin's efforts to get into an American school. The adults were all very obese and depressed; the children thin and nervous. We read the Times of India where I learned about a man who killed his wife by putting cobras in her bed, and about an apartment building that burned down killing 450 people, and about how people are losing limbs because they’ve fallen off of (or been run over by) the trains. These stories were reported with none of the outrage or tragedy I’d come to expect from the American media. Human life started to feel like a depressed currency.

Getting around town required use of the public transit. Hopping onboard a bus often meant literally jumping onto a moving vehicle. Buses generally didn't stop so much as they slowed down occasionally. I often boarded overcrowded buses where my only chance was to get one foot onto the floor and grasp ahold of the steel pole handgrip, hanging the rest of my body off the side until I could pull myself fully onto the main floor. Eventually, securing myself safely aboard became less important. I even began to enjoy the added ventilation of hanging off the side of bus and train compartments... And if my own life or limb were at risk, well, it stopped feeling quite so important.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sick with Leonard

For the last three nights I've been delirious with fever, wracked with throbbing aches and pierced with chills. Each night it starts about 7pm and lasts until 4 or 5 in the morning when I wake up from fever-dream and find that the horror has switched off; the fever and delirium are gone, the ague dissipated.

During the day, I just feel sluggish and congested... I even tried to go to work yesterday since I felt halfway decent in the morning. Probably, this was a mistake. Today I was smart enough to stay home. First I emailed my doctor. Then I slept. Then I checked the mail. Luckily Netflix arrived so I have something to occupy me.

I watched I'm Your Man in the bathtub earlier. A few observations about the documentary/live tribute concert for Leonard Cohen:

It would be weird to be famous in Montreal, where nasally rat-boy Rufus Wainwright and his twitchy, scoliotic sister Martha skulk around following you. At least Martha can sing. And they do seem devoted.

Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, gives the single best performance with his version of If it be your Will.

Leonard is at his most charming when he laughs at his own foibles: First when he can't come up with the term "punk". He is trying to talk about a music "movement" that embraced his album Death of a Ladies Man and stumbles trying to think of which movement it was. When he finally remembers, his smile is perfect. Later he talks about a moment of indiscretion when he told an interviewer that his (somewhat graphic) song Chelsea Hotel was about Janice Joplin. He says that Janice wouldn't have minded, but that he was sure he offended his mother. I interpreted this to mean that his mother didn't mind him writing a song that included reference to oral sex, but that it was shameful to dishonor that woman by later naming her. I thought that was sweet.

Bono is a hyperbolic bore during his interview scenes, but the final musical number Tower of Song (featuring U2 as Leonard Cohen's backing band) is pretty cool.

Mr. Cohen's two long-time back up singers Julie and Perla (who go back at least as far as the 1988 Austin City Limits recording) finally get to stand center stage as they tackled Anthem. This track, like a few others, was overdone. Cohen's lyrics lose their all-important humility and honesty when turned into such large productions. The line, "There's a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in," stops sounding profound when repeated 20 times during the song's finale.

Jarvis Cocker is still trying too hard.

Nick Cave has stopped trying hard enough... although his Vegas-style take on I'm Your Man is the show's only touch of humor.

Cohen's pet symbol, that Star of David that's made up of two overlapping hearts rather than overlapping triangles, shows up a lot on scraps of artwork or correspondence that he has written.

Beth Orton is utterly forgettable. I think her song Galaxy of Emptiness (which I REALLY like) will be the only thing she does that I'll care about.

The Handsome Family (husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks) appear, but Rennie just stands there. Brett is the singer/guitarist (Rennie writes the lyrics) but rather than only have Brett appear, Rennie comes out and simply stands there for the duration of the song. I don't think they even gave her a tambourine.

Leonard Cohen is pretty damn good songwriter.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

I'm Syked

An early contender for album of the year, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter have released a sweet little disc called Like, Love, Lust and the Open Halls of the Soul. I haven't been this happy listening to a country-influenced pop album since The Scud Mountain Boys put out the gorgeous Pine Box. Jesse's vocals don't have the range of a Neko Case, but they make up for it in smoky presence... and the disc seems more consistently brilliant than Case's work. One could also argue that Like, Love, Lust is less literary than the typical Handsome Family disc, but Sykes and her band's strength is crafting complete songs rather than focusing on storytelling. They may be a bit verbose when it comes to choosing titles, but the lyrics don't feel overwrought, and the music is outstanding. Check out the lovely little tune Aftermath in the Audio Snack Bar.