Thoughts on the New Year, 2017 Edition

It sure looks like I’m late with this, the sixth(!) edition of my annual New Years essay. And technically, I am — I typically post on December 31st or January 1, depending on my schedule. This year, I actually wrote it early, writing over 1,200 words on Wednesday, December 28. Though it was ready to post, I never hit “publish.” I just couldn’t. It was too intense, too personal. It felt right when I wrote it, but I couldn’t put myself out there like that.

Here’s an excerpt:

But still I’m finishing this year in a deep, dark funk paralleled only by the Great Financial Freakout of 2013, when my material situation was so bad and it affected my psychological health in such a way that I was worried for my safety. The way I described it to my wife earlier this week — immediately before getting mad at her for nothing at all — is that I feel like I’m riding a wave of anger. I almost said that I’m sitting in a cloud of negativity, but that’s not quite right. It’s a wave of anger carrying me along against my will, crashing into and destroying every little ship it comes across.

Get a load of that shit. How self-involved and mopey can I get? That reads like my angsty journal entries from when I was 17.

That version of this essay focused entirely too much on last year, but in this new version I still want to look backward a little bit. 2016 did end with me feeling pretty down but it wasn’t all bad. I turned 30 and ate around 20 different pies (only a small slice of each, except for the really good ones). I had the best weekend of the year in Santa Barbara in the spring, for a friend’s wedding. My wife continues to be the best person I’ve ever known — in 2017 I hope to be even just a fraction as great as her — and with our rascal of a cat we have the best family I could hope for right now.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the New Year, 2017 Edition”

More Music than You Can Shake a Fist At

2015 was a great year. 2016, not so much. I am not leaving 2016 with much love or nostalgia for the last 12 months. Not in the way that’s popular on the internet right now — OMG GO AWAY  2016 YOU SUCK I CAN’T BELIEVE PRINCE AND ALAN RICKMAN DIED — but, just, I don’t know. I’ll to get into it more when I do my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay in a few weeks.

It’s impossible to say it was all bad, though. This may be just a minor source of pleasure, but just like last year, I listened to lots and lots of good music. But still: while I manage to get nearly a dozen albums into this list of my favorites from the last 12 months, I honestly doubt that as many will resonate long-term as some of the great music I listened to in 2015.

In this listicle, just as last year, I am refusing to say that these are the “best” albums of the year. So many great albums came out again this year, and not just in the genres in which my knowledge goes deepest. Who am I to say what was, objectively, the best hip hop or mainstream country album? I have no clue. But I can say, objectively and without hesitation, that the new A Tribe Called Quest album was an integral part of my life immediately after the election, and I will always consider it one of my favorites of the year.

That’s enough of a preface. Let’s get into the music.

Kaia Kater – Nine Pin

Kaia Kater has so much going on that makes her pretty much the perfect artist for me: She’s a she (and I prefer Women Who Sing over Dudes Who Shout), she’s Canadian, she plays North American folk music. Nine Pin was one of the three albums I most looked forward to this year, and it did not disappoint. Her previous album, Sorrow Bound (2015) was very good. Nine Pin is incredible.

This was a great year for minimalist bluegrass records from exceptional, younger players. (The other two I was super excited about are in that same vein.) Each song on this album is distinct, original in style or arrangement, and memorable. The opening track, Saint Elizabeth, sets up the album perfectly, making it the ideal opening track:

Continue reading “More Music than You Can Shake a Fist At”

The Rhetoric of Negativity, or, Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

-Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

My life as a political being goes in waves, from peaks of heightened political engagement where I think often about the current state of our country and the philosophical foundations of the American political system, to valleys where I maybe still read history and philosophy but don’t bother much to think about politics as such. The last few years have been such a valley — I’ve spent most of the Obama presidency with a deep respect and admiration for our current president and general annoyance at Republican obstructionism, punctuated by occasional interest in (without taking action on) key issues.

A few recent events have quickly taken me from a valley to a peak: the emergence of the new civil rights movement, particularly in and around my hometown; my wife’s and my decision to start watching The West Wing beginning back in November;  the massive popularity of the musical Hamilton, which got me reading more deeply about the early days of our country; and the current election, which vivifies everything wrong with our country today. In this current bout of consciousness I’ve bought a copy of the US Constitution and read it several times, while also beginning to read The Federalist Papers to be better understand the logic and history behind that Constitution.

One unintended result of this is that I like our current president more and more, while increasingly detesting the opposition party. In Barack Obama we have a pretty good president and a great, inspiring leader, willing to work with the opposition. In reaction, the Republican party has done the opposite at every turn. The end result is a rhetorically strong but intellectually dishonest attitude that has the potential to take our country in a disastrous direction. Continue reading “The Rhetoric of Negativity, or, Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton”

The Patron Saint of the Arbors

I.

There’s a handsome young gentleman who lives in my apartment complex who, the first year or so that I lived here, I thought was not a he but rather a she. This is a mistake many of us make when presented with a non-human creature: too often we address the cool, tough, intense, or energetic creatures as he, while the softer, gentler, more demure ones we call she. When we see a hawk or a bad-ass dog or a cartoon of a fierce dinosaur, we say, “Whoa, look at that guy!” With pretty birds and adorable pups it’s always, “Who’s a pretty girl?” This is crazy, though, and it reveals how deeply held our prejudices are.

So this gentleman in my complex, for over a year I referred to her as Honkers, a name drawn from her meow that is only barely deeper and bolder than a squeak. It’s a soft little Owmp, which in its pitifulness matches the cat’s scrawny size. Honkers is only seen at night, hanging around outside the apartment of one of our neighbors on the floor below us. She sleeps out there just outside the door, on a bed that her person put there for that purpose. But more often Honkers can be seen about ten feet down the way, sitting erect and looking out through the little wrought iron fence that blocks the walkway from the courtyard below. Always sitting there, Honkers just looks out on the nighttime world. When we come up from the car, she greets us with her little noise, honking and bonking and rubbing and purring. For a stranger, Honkers is the perfect cat.

Once or twice, I’d be talking to Honkers about what she’d seen and done since the last time we’d seen each other, when her owner would crack the door to see who was out there. Acting more skittish than the cats, I would dart away for fear of getting caught being the weirdo that I am. Eventually, though, I did get caught. On that occasion, my wife was standing there with our groceries — I had set my bag down, knowing that Honkers was, wisely, afraid of shopping bags — and she was patiently indulging me as I pet the cat. Then the door opened too quickly for me to gather my groceries and run away, so I tried chatting a bit with Honkers’ owner.

As friendly and chatty as Honkers is, her person is the opposite. But I was able to learn from her that Honkers’ real name is Tiggs — presumably short for Tigger, a terrible and obvious name for a cat — and that she is a boy cat. More accurately, she’s a grown-ass man cat. Tiggs just showed up at the person’s door one day and has been attached to her ever since.

After my conversation with Tiggs’ person, I still take time to say hello to him whenever I can, and avoid her at all costs. Also, while common sense suggests his name is short for Tigger, I assume it’s actually an elision of Taye Diggs, so that’s what I call him. I don’t work nights anymore so I don’t see him as much, and besides I think he’s usually allowed to sleep inside when it’s below freezing, as it has been lately. But still, on warm nights sometimes he’s outside when I’m leaving for my pre-dawn run, and at the risk of disturbing his slumber I still usually exchange good mornings with him. Recently I saw him on the opposite side of the apartment complex, an area to which he rarely strays except for those occasions when he’s feeling so sociable that he follows my wife and I to our door. When he follows us, he usually lays outside our apartment for an hour or two, driving our cat Puss — full name Hunter Paxton Pusserton — absolutely crazy as he spies from the window.

On this occasion, though, Taye Diggs was on the landing half a flight of stairs up from the laundry room, pacing distractedly. I said hello, of course, and scratched him a bit behind the ears. Then I continued to the laundry room, to do those things that people do there. Then it became clear why Taye was just a half-flight of stairs away: his person was doing her laundry, and he had chosen to accompany her. We all always knew Taye Diggs was a true gentleman.

Continue reading “The Patron Saint of the Arbors”

2015 Was a Very Good Year for Music

This was a good year for me, on a number of different levels. I ran a ton, broke three hours in the marathon, worked at a great company where my job was to talk to smart people, left that one for a much larger company where my job continues to be to talk to smart people, started learning the harmonica, and wrote the first song I’ve written in maybe 10 year. (It’s a terrible song, but still.) I also started writing for fun again. Oh, and I got married.

My general thoughts on this past year — and the one to come — will come through in a later essay as I celebrate the fifth year of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. But something happened to me this year that I neither planned nor expected: I got really knowledgeable about music. I’ve played music since I was a kid and always listened to it constantly, but I’ve never been the sort of person who reads Pitchfork or anything like that and has been able to speak fluently about the “best” albums of the year, or the music from the past year they were most excited about*. In general, I’m always a couple of years behind. But this year, I began using Spotify as a way to dive deeper into the genres that I love, and I made a deliberate effort to concentrate on songs and albums that came out within the last year or so. I’ve found a way to pursue a comprehensive knowledge of where my favorite kinds of music — bluegrass, “progressive” bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana — stand in 2015.

These are, of course, not the only genres I listen to, but they certainly are the ones I listen to the most. In this post I’m going to discuss bluegrass and country and their offshoots as purely and natively American genres, but while I won’t list the other great American genres I pay attention to, it’s worth noting that others exist. This year has also seen some incredibly innovative, groundbreaking, and powerful releases in other areas of the American music world. It would be a tragedy for me to ignore a landmark album like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or a largely unknown but powerful protest record like Active(ist), by the incredible Baltimore organizer, artist, speaker and rapper Kwame Rose. So while they won’t be discussed in more detail below, those albums and that broader sense of American-ness —  encompassing not just white, Southern things like bluegrass but a more broadly integrative idea of what it means to be an American — deserve being mentioned above the fold.

At any rate, here, now, a listicle of (some of) my favorite** albums from 2015:

The Railsplitters: The Faster It Goes

This is probably my favorite of all the performers I’ve discovered this year. (Maybe up there with William Elliott Whitmore, who we’ll get to next.) Getting to Colorado to see them live or, you know, seeing them on tour in California, is one of my top priorities, and it’s maybe my biggest regret from having been unable to make it  to Denver for work this fall. This record is full of fun tracks where the band takes traditional bluegrass instrumentation — guitars, double bass, mandolin — and infuse them with enough pop melodies and jazz rhythms that it feels alive, new, and dynamic. It’s important for traditional music to engage with contemporary sounds. Culture is a dynamic beast that grows and evolves, and The Railsplitters are one of the great groups out there today making sure that bluegrass thrives in the 21st Century.

The perfectly-named instrumental track The Estuary shows their bluegrass chops, but the song You is among the most fun ones on the album:

Continue reading “2015 Was a Very Good Year for Music”

Race Report: San Francisco (Second) Half Marathon

Success is an easy thing to desire, a tricky thing to define, and a trickier thing to achieve. Being successful — or at least considering yourself such — largely depends upon how you’ve decided to define it, what it is that you’ve come to desire. Whatever your definition is, one thing is certain: None of us ever achieves anything without help — some help — from others. Whether it’s a coach, a friend, parents, a loving partner who supports you when you decide to take on a challenge — all of our hard work must be supported by those around us. We’re social creatures.

But of course this is just me being deep-and-thoughty. I ran the San Francisco Half Marathon this past weekend. It went well. I came short of my goals, but still: I consider it a success.

My goals were, admittedly, ambitious. I was shooting for a 6:30 mile, which doesn’t sound too crazy considering I did a 6:49 at the Oakland Half four months ago (my first race ever). With that much time to prep, my second race should be even better. I hurt my foot in May, missing enough training time to basically be training for my second race ever on about a month. But still, felt good.

In the end, I finished in 1:26:36, good for a 6:36 mile pace, 13 seconds per mile better than my Oakland time. See? A success. But I couldn’t help finishing and thinking, “Man. If only I’d pushed myself harder, I’d have done better. Six seconds per mile isn’t that much. I could’ve — should’ve — done 6:30, or even better.”

I wouldn’t have done even that well, though, if I hadn’t been effectively adopted by an ultra-marathoner from Marin County named John. At the start, I noticed a pace group for a 1:25 half-marathon, or a 6:25 pace, a little better than I was aiming for. But I decided to latch onto them as long as I could. One, two, three, four miles fly by, as the course loops around inside Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. (The SF Marathon is cool in that it has two half marathons, one for the first half of the full, and another for the second half. I did the second half.) I stuck with them, two pacers are two or three other guys. I’d never intended to use pacers, intending instead to practice the strategy of racing, rather than racing. But this was a chance to push myself as hard as possible, and I couldn’t pass that up.

Somewhere in Haight-Ashbury I started to lose my strength and ultimately lost the pacers, and then the course — which has a couple “alternate” sections where runners are pushed onto different streets to ease congestion — pushed me into one of these alternates. Alone on a different stretch of the course, I decided to use the downhill sections of hilly SF (not to mention the promise of an energy station coming up) to catch them. Shortly after I regained the main course, I caught back up with one of the pacers, who had slowed down to push another one of the runners needing pacing.

“I thought I’d lost you guys,” I said as I pulled up behind them.

“I thought we’d lost you,” said the pacer. The other one was continuing the actual 1:25 pace with another runner maybe 50 yards ahead.

“You had.”

“Way to use the downhills for speed.”

Shortly after, the other guy running with the pacer dropped off, and it was just he and I. Then the other pacer, the one actually going 6:25/mile, lost the last runner going with him. He kept up the pace, and the other stayed back with me, shouting encouragement and generally coaching me through the last 5 miles or so.

At mile 10: “Okay, basically just a 5K left.” I haven’t run a 5K since middle school. I’m not sure what that distance should feel like, but it sure felt longer than it should have. Every time there was a slight uphill section and I slowed, or when I was starting to look fatigued, he’d tell me to push it. Not shout, just instruct. We’ve been running together for an hour, I have no idea who the guy is, but he’s teaching me how to run.

In the middle of a race through one of the most famous cities in the world.

The race itself was fun enough. It was well-organized if a bit crowded, and I don’t think I like the big-popular-city-race thing as much as the smaller race in Oakland.

But point is, I’ve got the bug. I’ve got it really bad. Not sure when the next race is, but there’s only one option: to keep running, to keep improving, and to recognize the people who help you every step of the way.

The NFL’s Concussion Crisis is Terrifying Because Football Players are People, Too

Former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling died on Thursday from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head. He was 62 years old and had long suffered from depression, insomnia and dementia—three ailments that occur in rates far greater in football players than the general population. And in addition to occurring more often, dementia—along with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, another illness appearing more regularly in retired football players—often takes hold much earlier in life. These are all relatively rare, old-people’s ailments; for football players, they’re common, young people’s illnesses.

Per the New York Times and other outlets, Easterling was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NFL filed last summer. The lawsuit contended the league had known about the concussion risk in football for decades and done nothing to address it, ignoring, lying about and capitalizing from concussion-inducing hits in the game while not providing adequate treatment to concussed players. (As someone who recently suffered a sports-related concussion, I can attest that adequate treatment goes a hell of a long way to speeding up recovery time and generally helping with quality of life. And that’s with just one concussion, not one or more per year for several years.) In response, the league has taken a number of steps in recent years to address concussions in the sport, changing many of the rules to protect players, fining players guilty of illegal or dangerous hits and attempting to stamp out a widespread culture of bounties and intentionally injurious play. The efficacy of these steps isn’t quite certain, as they sometimes come off as cynical attempts to minimize legal liability in lawsuits such as Easterling’s by shifting the blame for violent hits from the league-as-arbiter-of-sport’s-culture to rogue players and teams. Still, they’re steps.

But despite any changes in rules, discipline or culture, football will continue to be violent, as that violence is inherent to the sport. For it to continue as tackle football as such, defenders will tackle, ballcarriers will attempt to barrel over tacklers and linemen will battle in the trenches, crashing into each other with all their might over and over and over again. No matter what, players will continue to suffer brain trauma. They know this, but the exciting, entertaining, beautiful, challenging and violent sport is worth it to them. The net result of this is that the Ray Easterlings of tomorrow will be the Austin Collies of today.

How will we, as fans, feel when the broken shell of Ray Lewis is taken out on a wheelchair to “throw” the first pitch at the Orioles’ Opening Day in 2042? How should we react to the future suicides of our current heroes? Is our fandom worth their future pain?

Ray Easterling played only seven seasons in the NFL, helping the Falcons set team and league records. For his troubles, he got depression and dementia, leading to his suicide. (Granted, there is a very good chance Easterling was genetically predisposed to these ailments; we do not know his family history. The caveat is that football does not cause these issues, but it exacerbates and accelerates them.) His is the human face of a sport that is more often reduced to the ultimate goal of athletics: wins and losses. Fans and pundits dissect and analyze and criticize players’ performances based on their stat lines, reducing their existences to quantifiable measures that obscure the fact that these are regular, hard-working, freakishly athletic human beings with histories, families, feelings and futures.

Let’s take a fairly typical player (one of my favorites) as an example: Jabari Greer, a former undrafted free agent who recently received a contract extension from the Saints. As an engaged member of his hometown community and a talented, funny writer, Greer has proven himself to be more than just a talented cover corner. As a Saints fan, I love having him on our team and in our city. But on top of that he is, quite simply, a human being. He seems like a pretty good guy. The idea that his quality of life and his intellectual power might be reduced significantly when his football career ends is deeply saddening.

When you start to think of these players as human beings rather than stat lines and spots on a depth chart, you can’t help but wish them the best. All of them. I don’t like the Falcons and think Roddy White is an ass, but he’s still a person whom I would hate to see fall victim to any sort of catastrophic injury or slowly-degenerating ailment.

We often discuss football in terms inspired by warfare. Teams are run with military-level secrecy; games are war; linemen battle in the trenches; quarterbacks throw bombs. On another level, the sport is very much at war with itself as its inherent violence threatens the long term viability of the NFL’s presently unimaginable profitability. And as fans we continue to cheer it on as these men destroy themselves for the competition, inspiring us with pure enjoyment and community pride.

But the players are not just players. They are people. Let us not forget that.