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why i will always be mediocre and sometimes downright worthless at bar trivia

February 9, 2011

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!

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