Walking across campus, or driving without a passenger and with nothing pressing on my mind, I get a lot of good thinking done. On the way to the drycleaner’s today, I thought about:
1. How, this morning, the university maintenance workers said, “they’re pushing our guys out of jobs,” referring to “them boys from Zebulon,” a trio of Hispanic men who have put up three new office spaces on my hallway in the last two days. They probably are working for much less than what the University could conscionably pay its employees, and it is probably awkwardly silent while the Zebulon crew hangs sheetrock and the University guys are around doing the wiring, resenting the interlopers. And that is the problem with politics. When the University guys talked about getting pushed out of jobs, I found it very hard to dismiss them with the usual points about how immigration is good for our economy and our country. It is hard to say to someone who perceives that they are suffering directly at the hands of a very specific Other that this Other deserves what you have, deserves to take it from you. From this level, it is not so difficult to see where certain political rhetoric gets a somewhat legitimate start (but I still don’t forgive the ugly ways it manifests itself).
2. Whether ideological purists are boring or not. I think they probably are boring, but maybe I’m morally deficient for putting “interesting” higher on the hierarchy than “moral.” I am talking about vegans, feminists, fat acceptance activists, Christians, locavores, Democrats, Republicans, anarchists, yogis, a whole big motley crew. What I mean is, isn’t it sort of boring if someone can guess ahead of time where you will fall on every issue, what decisions you’d make, the talking points you’d use to back them up? At some point, do you lapse into intellectual laziness, comfortably borne along without having to do much thinking because other people already did it for you and laid it out in an easily digestible way? Furthermore, if you are an adherent to some ideology but you sometimes secretly and guiltily thrill to the knowledge that you have broken the ranks on some small matter, well, how bad are you? How guilty should you be? How much harm does it really do out in the universe? I DON’T KNOW! But anyway, I think I was originally thinking about the role of such characters in fiction, and got sidetracked.
3. IS King of the Hill secretly liberal, or conservative? I’ve decided that I can’t tell. Bobby’s non-gender-normative proclivities sometimes seem to me to be very affirming of the non-normative, but other times it seems they’re being played for laughs and we should side with the exasperated Hank, who just wants his boy to be a boy. On the other hand, sometimes we are supposed to laugh at Hank for being a rigid old fuddy duddy, and cheer him when he accepts Bobby as Bobby is. I think I will have to re-visit the text.
Finally, I wish it weren’t so pretentious to speak into a Dictaphone or similar device, because while I am thinking and driving, or walking, obviously, I can’t also be taking notes. And I also can’t tell what’s worth remembering and returning to later. In many ways, I dread the dawning of our brave new world (nasty extreme climate, humanoid androids, server farms growing exponentially, landfills also still growing at a good clip) save for the thing where they got some scientist to tweet directly from his brain. FROM HIS BRAIN. I can’t wait to be able to think things right onto the page, because it is in the transmission from brain to fingers to page that I most often get tripped up.
Some of my peers took from their childhoods an appreciation of Bruce Springsteen, or hair metal, or the Beatles. Stuff that, because their parents listened to it, is threaded through all of their memories, and now that it’s cool to like old stuff again, they get a lot of social mileage out of knowing a lot about these things that are cool now. Besides, everyone should be familiar with the Boss and the Beatles, but I’m not, really. Because the music I took away from childhood was Bluegrass (and Tom Petty, but that’s not where I’m going with this), which has what Bill Monroe famously called a “high, lonesome sound,” but it does not have very much cultural cache right now, compared to Springsteen or old Madonna or Motown hits.
A month ago, a professor I work with said that she liked to have bluegrass playing as background music while she writes. She said that, as a “foreigner,” she couldn’t really understand the lyrics through the colloquialisms and thick accents, and therefore it was all just one upbeat rollicking melody, the perfect aural backdrop for serious thinking and really getting down to business. This reminded me about my own bluegrassy past, so I started listening to a few Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe songs at my desk that afternoon. The professor and I had discussed the technical virtuosity with which the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar are played in bluegrass. We talked about the unusual intervals in the harmonies. It was all there, just like I had remembered.. I visited my parents, and when I left I took with me my dad’s old 4 disc Bill Monroe box set. It’s been over a month and I am still listening.
Sometimes when I am listening to bluegrass, I feel like some sort of awful ironic cultural appropriating asshole, but then I decide that it’s really probably ok. I think about my uncle’s mandolin, and my other uncle’s fiddle. I remember on humid nights standing barefoot on the front porch of our Penny Rd. rental singing with my dad and my uncle—they are unlikely bluegrass enthusiasts: that side of the family has Polish roots and moved to North Carolina from Ohio— we sang Tennessee Stud; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; the John Prine song about Muhlenberg County; Amazing Grace; In the Pines; Will the Circle be Unbroken. Sometimes I’d get excited about a big long high note and jump the gun and try to leap a whole octave up a verse too early, and half a beat into it I’d realize my mistake and be mortified and try to slide my voice back to where it belonged, smooth and casual, like I’d just been throwing in some fancy flourishes on purpose, but looking back, I’m pretty sure anyone listening could have heard through my game.
And from a time even earlier than the porch singing, I remember being taken to…a barn? Some big building in the middle of a field sweet with mown grass and clovers crushed by the milling crowd. I ran barefoot with other children. I think my dad introduced me to people in a kitchen full of smiling strangers. There was bluegrass somewhere in all that. Maybe it was my late uncle’s band? I don’t know what drew my uncle to bluegrass, but I think his affinity for it, and then his early death, strengthened its pull on my dad’s side of the family.A lot of my Christmas memories are punctuated by bluegrass songs and childhood Sundays by the bluegrass gospel program on some staid radio station, all of us riding to church in this big silver Buick. We weren’t listening for the Jesus, though, just those sweet, sweet harmonies.
After my uncle’s death, his mandolin became a treasure, even though it had been run over by a car and had been patched back together at the neck. It was the same iridescent black as oil, and the inside of its case was velvety, emerald green. It was always around, I was always eyeing it, touching it. I’ve mounted several short-lived, unsuccessful attempts to learn to play it.
Anyway, so I guess this is me laying it out: one small contributing factor to my ignorance of approximately 99% of pop culture references made in my presence, the reason I am often a non-contributor on trivia teams. ( I don’t have any good excuse for missing the Simpsons, though. And I don’t need an excuse for missing Lost. Whoops, I have overstayed my welcome. Ending this.)
1. I am going to Iceland tomorrow, for a week. For a very special elopement (not mine). I will be borne to the Raleigh airport by one high school bff, and retrieved from Boston’s Logan airport by another old friend–we will while away my long layover–then to Reykjavik and I will be reunited with the missing third of the Pleasure Club, the unholy triune that I was part of and that I will remember my early twenties by. I might eat fermented shark, and walk on lava fields, and see the Northern Lights, and ride Icelandic Ponies (they have an extra gait that normal ponies don’t have!).
2. Once in a while I look at my blog stats and almost all of my meager traffic is driven by searches for Bobby Hill! And many people have read about Bobby Hill as a feminist icon. I am really happy about this. I need to get back into my King of The Hill scholarship before warm weather arrives–I cannot imagine myself spending spring and summer nights streaming KOTH from Netflix.
3. For whatever reason, I have become a much more attuned basketball fan this season. I have watched almost every UNC men’s basketball game. I have read with great interest about the Larry Drew scandal (people on twitter, and elsewhere on the internet, are being really mean to him. What he did was cowardly and lame, but he’s kind of young and maybe not that mature, obvi, and I just think maybe everyone should cool out maybe), and I can sometimes now say things like, “But doesn’t FSU supposedly have one of the best defenses in the country? And didn’t we beat them handily!?”And I am bummed that, when UNC plays Duke tomorrow night, I will be in an airplane, unable to watch.
Being a more attentive fan has opened up a whole WORLD of safe conversational topics to use when in the company of co-workers and strangers. I am really getting a lot of social mileage out of it!
Some people like spicy food and others don’t. Some people like romantic comedies, and others don’t. I sort of do like romcoms, for some reason. Or I don’t like them so much as I like watching them and getting offended about the way they portray women, and relationships, and everything. Anyway, there are things in life that are difficult to quantify, but being humans, we give it our best shot. Scoville units measure the piquancy of peppers. Piquancy!, you are possibly exclaiming to yourself right now, I didn’t know they’d figured out how to measure piquancy! Well, they have. Similarly, my friends and I have a new way to measure the rom com-y-ness of rom coms.
The season for movie watching is here–too cold to go outside, holiday weekends leave you stranded, friendless, when everyone goes to visit their families, plus you find the cold weather makes you vaguely wistful and nostalgic for something, but you don’t know what, and you can’t quiet the strange feeling–and you still have your student i.d. in your wallet, and $6 isn’t so bad for a movie in the theaters these days…all this to explain why I may have seen so many movies in the last few weeks, and why you may need to know the information that follows.
OK, so there are two romcom-ish (one is lacking rom, the other lacks com, but hey, they’re close enough, ok. They occupy the same part of the pyramid in my movie diet: fluff. Sometimes fluff forms the base of my pyramid, other times, the tippy top.) films (that I’m aware of, which, hey, I don’t even know what the deal with Bieber is, so I’m not qualified to talk about current entertainment news, really) out right now, vying for your hard earned dollars. I watched them and weighed them and here’s my review: Love and Other Drugs is a bore and to be avoided. Morning Glory wins by a mile, purely because of the montages.
Love and... is about a pharmaceutical rep at Pfizer in the heady 90s/early aughts (why do we want to look back on those cringe-inducing days of careless excess now that the bill for the folly that was the 90s/early aughts has come due?). It’s just Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway having sex and sex and more sex, breaking up and crying, getting back together and crying, you know the drill.
Morning Glory has Diane Keaton, and also Jeff Goldblum, and Harrison Ford saying frittata numerous times. In Morning Glory, as in Love and.., the romance is boring and involves a good looking, nice guy with no personality. (I also appreciated that the romance was actually not the most important part of this girl’s life, or of this movie. She had career aspirations, and that’s what the movie was mostly about. It was fairly shocking.)
But there are AT LEAST TWELVE SNAPPY MONTAGES SET TO MUSIC in Morning Glory. TWELVE. MONTAGES. We counted. Love and Other Drugs had a measly 6 or 7. Just so you know.
One night after work last week, I spent over an hour watching “It Gets Better” videos. They are touching outpourings of warmth from happy adults for GLBT students, strangers-who-are-not-strangers. I really like the project, but it has its detractors, people who think it doesn’t do enough. Over on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog, people are trying to figure out how we can change high school so that it’s not so hellish.
We can do better in our schools than expecting kids to just suffer through. I think that rather than trying to keep a constant eye on every student-to-student interaction, poised to swoop in at the first sign of untoward behavior–an impossible game of whack-a-mole– we can change the culture at public schools so that there are fewer bullies to begin with. Instead of teaching to the bottom of the class, instead of letting our kids languish in what amounts to a big holding pen for 13 years, immerse students in a rigorous curriculum that keeps them so busy learning, they don’t have time to be bullies. School becomes more than just forced socializing with its often-cruel pecking order. It instead becomes a community of scholars, engaging with each other about ideas.
“I wish that I could bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles, and we’d all eat it and be happy,” but I don’t think PSA campaigns about the evils of bullying are going to do much. I remember my school’s “character education” program and I remember the fearsome, wild creatures who rode my bus, the “bad kids” who threw pencils and cut class and smoked pot and didn’t do the math homework (hilarious to me, by the way, how scary those kids seemed to me back then. They really weren’t so bad in hindsight). “If character education is supposed to make kids behave, and treat each other nicely,” I thought, “there is no way this is going to work.” I would never have dared to confront a bully with something so mild, so wholesome, so lame as school-sanctioned language about compassion or whatever.
In 1998 or 99, my eighth grade year, I remember taking time in homeroom to drag our desks across the floor with much scraping of chairs and thumping of books until we were arranged in a circle, the better to facilitate discussion. This arrangement was introduced to us as something new and exciting and different, called a Paideia seminar–a progressive Socratic/liberal arts approach to K-12 that was pioneered at UNC-G by Mortimer Adler and introduced to Guilford County’s public school in the 90s.
Paideia classrooms function the way a good college class should. Didactic lecturing is limited to a small portion of the learning period, while a bunch of different activities and Socratic style seminars are used to teach discrete, testable items as well as the harder-to-quantify stuff like critical thinking, civic engagement, problem solving, the skills that give each student the capacity to fully participate in civic life. Adler, back in 1982, saw quality public education for all–equal access to equally good schooling, one track for all– as a crucial element in fulfilling the promise of our democracy. I bring it up in relation to bullying and It Gets Better because it turns out that Paideia might have a bigger impact on the culture of the schools than does explicit “character education.” Grain of salt, obviously, since these blurbs are coming from the people behind Paideia (but most of the mentions I found in academic journals were positive, too):
” In addition to Paideia’s impact on achievement, the effects we observed on several measures of student affect are important to consider. In particular, the effects on interpersonal factors suggest that students in Paideia classrooms consistently experience less friction and alienation. Because of increased concern about school violence stemming from student alienation, this is a very important finding.”
1999 UNC-Greensboro Report
There was also powerful evidence that Paideia influenced students’ perceptions of the quality of schooling. The students claimed that teachers who implemented Paideia were better at explaining information, more able in ensuring that students had a good understanding, put more effort into teaching, taught in interesting ways, and showed by example that learning is fun. There was less friction in classes, less fooling around, students were considered more calm and not mean, and they felt safe.
(John Hattie, Influences on Student Learning, University of Auckland, 1999)
If this country gets serious about school reform, and if school districts get the funding and support to implement programs like Paideia on a big scale, I bet we’d see the incidences of bullying—of everyone, not just GLBT kids—drop. And to specifically address bullying against the GLBT group, I’ll quickly say that I will never forget sex ed in 7th grade. The teacher was great, told us we could ask any questions we wanted. “Except,” she said, “I am absolutely forbidden to talk to you about homosexuality or masturbation.” Change that. Get rid of top-down, institutional homophobia and use our schools to disseminate a culture of acceptance—that’s something our students might start taking home to their parents.
More about Paideia (
This blog doesn’t get updated enough. It isn’t for lack of stuff to write about. It’s more like I am paralyzed and muted by the sheer volume of it all. (You could take volume as a signifier of quantity or of intensity, because I mean it both ways.)
For example, the other night, my roommate and I found ourselves without plans, streaming Mystic Pizza from Netflix and drinking wine. I don’t want your pity! It was a fate we chose: I’d specifically had a hankering for a vaguely cheesy movie, where the lighting was soft and diffuse and the women had big sweaters and bigger hair. Mystic Pizza fit the bill. But I said to my roommate during the movie, “I’m disappointed that this isn’t more about pizza.” I could have sworn that the synopsis had paraphrased Mellow Mushroom’s creation myth, and that the movie would be about three stoner sisters working in their cool stoner pizza parlor, being sassy and independent and iconoclastic in their small town. But no. It was just another run of the mill Julia Roberts movie, a boring film where no one grew as a character and the ending was totally happy . And I thought about writing about why stoner movies always feature guys, and how the female pothead archetype doesn’t really exist (enough that Andrew Sullivan brought it up on his blog and Good Morning America did a segment about it and Marie Claire wrote about it), and I probably would have gotten around to making the point that stoners are supposed to be funny and ambitionless and slovenly, in an endearing way, but that we as a society don’t find women as funny as men, and stoners are supposed to be likable but we still don’t generally think of women as likable, where is our female James Franco!?, Mystic Pizza could never have been about stoners in the “just say no” 1980s and that whole movement has really done some long term damage, blah blah blah.
I never had the mental energy to sit down and write that, because the connected ideas and their connected tangents started to spiral into something unmanageable. Sometimes I think about young people and the economic situation, or what individuals can do to eat more ethically, or how we should think and write about the Tea Party (hint: I do not think Taibbi’s method is the way, though I do share his distaste for the movement. Their ideas are harebrained, but is it helpful to write so dismissively of them as just a bunch of angry white rubes, to compare them to dogs? Are they really just creating a lot of noise, static with no signal? Probably, but then again, will we be wringing our hands wondering what went wrong someday when a Tea Party candidate is sworn in as president?). I think to myself, “I should update my blog. I could write a post about this.” But I feel now like can’t write about one without necessarily writing about all the rest of it. It is all bound together in a knot that is horrifically Gordian.
Now that the dust has settled from Raleigh’s first Hopscotch Festival, everyone’s feeling pretty pleased about it–as they should. Everything seems to have gone off without a hitch and from what I can tell, almost every performer played to a decently sized, enthusiastic crowd. I wasn’t able to go to the day parties, because on Friday I was working, and on Saturday I was sleeping off the excesses of Friday’s partying and after-partying, but I did wander through the tail end of the day party on Hargett, and it had the air of a family-oriented block party, with families out enjoying themselves right alongside the all-weekend revelers in the 18-34 crowd. Hopscotch even got a write-up from Rolling Stone. So let’s call that a success all-around.
Before the fest, I heard some haters complaining about how there was “really only one band worth seeing” and that the $85 all-show pass wasn’t worth it; people called it lame and disparaged it in their status updates. I didn’t see $85 worth of my personal favorite bands on the lineup, but I did see enough interesting acts on the bill to convince me that this was a well-curated festival where I’d be able to show up and hear someone I’d never heard (of) before and totally enjoy myself (and I was right about that). But I bought my Hopscotch ticket for more than just the bands (which ruled, by the way). I want Hopscotch to succeed because I want for Raleigh (& surrounding areas) everything that the continued success of Hopscotch promises.
I see it working something like this: Hopscotch, in the coming years, continues to have an intoxicating blend of noise, metal, hip hop, hipster dance music, and folk bands that are local favorites or obscure but really good acts from the other side of the country, or totally recognizable, big-time headliners. This gets it talked about a lot in blogs, tweets, and message boards. It gets people saying the stuff about Raleigh/North Carolina that we’ve all said about other states/places with cooler fests. “Wish I didn’t live so far away.” “I’d totally drive down there for this!” “Man, you’re lucky you live there.” Meanwhile, the out-of-town bands that play Hopscotch notice that it’s nice to play shows in Raleigh and are pumped to tour through NC in the future. The already-healthy music scene here becomes outrageously robust.
The interminable Great Recession will drag on, and so will the extended adolescence of the Millennials. Kids will keep graduating with liberal arts degrees and no direction or job prospects. They will cast about for someplace cool and cheap to move to while they “find” themselves, someplace with a good music scene and other cool, like-minded people. Raleigh will be on the list. Then, the bearded, tattooed, flannel-swathed hordes will descend upon the Triangle. They will want more dive bars, more burrito joints, more places with vegan food, more food trucks, more bike lanes. And lo, they will be a sort of cultural ballast, to keep Raleigh from tipping too far into awful bland boring yuppie territory: all these “young” people moving here for RTP jobs as developers, video game designers, “analysts” and “researchers” of vaguely science-y corporate-y things–I have run into them before. They’re into Rum Runners and hot wings at sports bars and big planned “mixed use retail” areas with those faux-industrial luxury loft apartments. (These have their place in driving and sustaining growth, but otherwise, blech.)
Raleigh already wants to harvest the hipster dollar. They’ve commissioned a “retail-strategy” for the downtown that says as much. Do some googling about Richard Florida and his theory about the creative class, and you’ll get conflicting opinions as to the wisdom of this particular strategy (see also Berlin–creative types in spades and they’re still “poor but sexy” with double digit unemployment), but RTP is growing with or without so-called hipsters. The success of ventures like Hopscotch (and perhaps SparkCon, this coming weekend) will, over time, beget more successful creative/cultural ventures that will help keep things dynamic and unique and independently-run and community-oriented.
In sum, hipsters like things I like: good bands, good food, bike lanes, film festivals, dance parties, dive bars, recycling, local food, blue-state politics, the idea of living in an active downtown area, etc. (they also like some things I don’t like–I find their taste in fiction questionable) and I hope Hopscotch is wildly successful in the coming years and I hope one day the area gets light rail and high speed rail and we all live happily ever after in our “revitalized urban core,” or something.
(I hope it is clear that I don’t actually believe that Hopscotch will single-handedly do all of the above. I’m just speculatin’, prognosticatin’, like a crotchety old man in his rocking chair on the front porch.)
Thank you for reading my blog, if you’re my mom, one of my friends, one of my parents’ co-workers, or one of my co-workers. It was nice knowing that I had people following along! If you keep reading after this, it’s going to be a lot of semi-informed rambling, a potpourri of topics.
Anyway, so. I made it through the whole trip without getting scammed, pick pocketed, lost, or losing my passport. I read 5 books and used 5 currencies in two months. I learned a lot. I’m not qualified to write advice for solo travelers, or advice for first time backpackers, or anything like that, and really, you don’t need much advice. You read some pointers on what to pack, and then you pack, and then you just go. It only seems daunting. Once you’re doing it, it’s easy.
I mean, yes, getting from Budapest to Split to Sarajevo to Thessaloniki seems impossible when you’re trying to plan it from this side of the Atlantic. But when you’re there, you pretty much say to someone at the hostel, or someone at a train station, “hey, I want to go to Split tomorrow. Can I do that? How? Yes, in that case, I’d like to book that ticket, thanks very much,” and then you show up at the right platform at the right time, and you’re in business.
Anyway, because blogs are for unqualified amateurs with opinions, here are some of my opinions (and before I get to them, BOY, there are some unqualified opinions floating around on blogs. Like the food blogger who went on and on about how Mad Men is boring, unoriginal, and full of mediocre acting, while Lost is apparently the pinnacle of the medium. You’re wrong, but thanks for the curry recipe).
Bring a netbook. This was the best decision I ever made (I’d waffled about whether or not to bring one). Also, get a Skype account for calling home. Your parents will be pumped.
Maybe only bring one moderately-long book. I don’t think you should bring a stack of books, or you will tire of carrying them. And I don’t think you should lug Infinite Jest around, either, for the same reason. You can always track down some English books. Hostels often have book exchanges.
If you stay in hostels, hang out in the common room and be more aggressively social than you would be at home. Yes, it would be forward or weird to do these things at home, but you’re not at home! When someone new walks in, ‘sup them, ask where they are from. If someone says they are going out, invite yourself along, or announce that you are going somewhere, and invite others. Be convivial, have a drink!
Talk to the hostel staff, they’re all cool and full of good information and can help you with anything you need and probably wouldn’t mind going out with you for some drinks later (But first make sure to avoid large, lame hostels with hundreds of beds. These are not cool, and the staff are likely to be harried and uninterested in hanging with you).
Don’t wear performance wear. Like those tear-away swishy waterproof pants.
Give everyone a winning smile and a big “thank you! have a nice daay!” , everywhere you go. The lady at the ticket window in the Budapest rail station really visibly brightened when i said this, even though moments prior she’d been scowling at me for asking so many dumb questions. Surly to charmed in mere seconds.
Take fresh wipes (however much you may hate the phrase fresh wipes/moist wipes/wet wipes), you will be glad you have them after overnight train rides, or when you are invited out but havent had time to shower but are still greasy from sunscreen and salt water, or when the lavatory in the train has no toilet paper.
Take a tiny notebook, jot things down there if you dont want to look all conspicuous with a guidebook or map. Bonus, at the end of the trip, you have all the names and addresses of places you visited, people you met, thoughts you were thinking, train platforms, hostel names, and shopping lists, all in one place. Obviously, you will want to take some pens. I was glad I had two, because the window on the Sarajevo-Belgrade train didn’t want to stay open, and we used the pen to prop it open.
have money. Seriously. I mean, not millions, but don’t be totally broke, if you can help it. I only say this because it’s nice to be able to afford a proper meal or beer in each city, rather than living on pasta and tomato sauce that you cook every night in the hostel. And it’s nice to be able to afford to go out, or to visit attractions that cost money, or to tip your really great tour guide. It’s also comforting to know that if something goes wrong, if you miss a flight or lose a passport or have to book a hotel room or something–whatever–if something goes wrong, you’re covered. And most of what is likely to go wrong on a backpacking trip is not murder/kidnapping/crazy stuff, it’s stuff that is going to be inconvenient/expensive, like changing flights, re-booking trains, etc.
And finally, my number one tip: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO WRITE ANY FICTION ABOUT THE TIME YOU WENT BACKPACKING IN EUROPE. You will end up writing a dull story that does nothing but communicate to the reader what a privileged, sheltered life you lead and what an unoriginal author you are; the world is already full of bad fiction about undergrads who went backpacking in Europe; the world is also already full of really good travel writing and stories about things that happened to people in other countries.