Category Archives: ponderings

The Sounds of Silence: My Taste in Music is Nothing New and Not Much At All

I really don’t care about music anymore. I can’t point out the day it happened on a calendar, but somewhere along the line I just stopped getting excited about it. It’s just one more aspect of my life where I’m turning more and more into an “Area Man” from an Onion article (here’s another). It wasn’t always this way. Like everyone else, my teenage years were set to a specific soundtrack. Music was, if not the center of my universe, at least a massive object with an awesome gravitational pull that kept me coming back again and again. I listened to the radio for hours every day, turning my stereo on upon waking, listening in my car on the drive to school, and drifting off to sleep with the stereo playing on a timer. Music filled my car and was a near constant in my room – the two major loci of my teenage years. I actively sought out new bands and styles of music. I browsed through cd stores for hours at a time. I went to concerts. I listened to Biohazard and Pantera on my walkman before wrestling matches, and cranked up the Chris Isaak when it was time for love.

But somewhere, all that changed. Like every step in the inexorable slide to old age and lameness, it happened in incremental steps. Somewhere in the undergraduate years, my tastes began to crystallize. I went from an omnivorous consumer of multiple styles and genres into a more focused afficianado of “the rock music.” Despite ready exposure to a fairly awesome college radio station, my tastes started to narrow. I still looked for new bands and albums, but only within the rock genre.

Some time later, I noticed that I was no longer watching MTV or VH1 and that every time I turned on the radio I pushed the dial deep into the nether regions of the fm dial where NPR always lives. I don’t talk about music anymore. Gone are the drunken pontifications upon the deeper meanings of “Yellow Leadbetter” or the socio-economic implications of “The Ballad of Curtis Leow.” Looking back, I can’t remember the last time I bought new music. Oh, sure, I still pick up the new albums that come out from bands that I already know and like, but even that list is pretty scant. I don’t even have a stereo anymore, so all new albums have come from (perfectly legal) downloads. The albums I’ve acquired over the last year are:

The Meanest of Times by the Dropkick Murphys

Sam’s Town by the Killers

Chase this Light by Jimmy Eat World

Icky Thump by the White Stripes

New Maps of Hell by Bad Religion

Float from Flogging Molly

The Mix-Up by the Beastie Boys

and

Ghosts I-IV by Nine Inch Nails

Ghosts I-Iv Album Art

No entries from bands that I’m not already a fan of. My heart has grown cold and my mind is closed. The urge to expose myself to anything new has withered and died alongside my desire (if not ability to do kegstands). I honestly cannot recall the last time I heard a new song that made me want to hear anything more from that artist. At best, I feel a passive appreciation that lasts only until the next song comes up on the bar sound system.

In short: I’m getting old. If my current 27 year old self were to have a conversation with my 17 year old self and told him that a day would come where he bought only eight albums over the course of a year (and they were all from bands that are at least 15 years old (with some at least 28 years)), it would seem ridiculous. 17 year old me would also be pretty pissed that we don’t have flying cars or hoverboards yet, but that is neither here nor there.

Two of them are instrumental, for Pete’s sake. They are background noise for when I’m reading or writing (the chief pursuits of a 1L) because they don’t distract me too much. I like all these albums, but not with the same fervor that used to have me wearing out new cds with constant pushes of the “repeat all tracks” button as I explored every new album from multiple angles. Today, I just play them while I’m doing the dishes or something else that seems like it would benefit from a soundtrack. I don’t even use my portable mp3 player anymore, as I apparently prefer the sounds of weights clanking and people grunting over whatever the gym happens to play than to listen to my own music.

The reason I know I’m getting old is because I’m not really bothered by progression (at least not enough to try to reverse it). Beyond some wistful curiosity, I’m perfectly content with this lame state of affairs. If I never listen to another new song for the rest of my life, I don’t think I’ll be overly troubled by it. And the day when I yell “Keep it down!” to the neighbors is surely on my horizon. It won’t be too long before I just prefer the silence. Am I alone in this?

It Was a Dark and Stormy Opening

Guy Dammann has an article up over at the Guardian Book Blog about his favorite first lines (but since he is British, he spells it “favourite”). This is something I’ve always thought about. For many, the first line is the most important part of a novel. It’s the hook that has to make people want to keep reading. I have often stared at the open white space on the screen and watched my cursor blink as I tried and tried to come up with a poetic, resonant opening.

“Some openers are so prescient that they seem to burn a hole through the rest of the book, the semantic resonance recurring with the persistence of the first theme in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The effervescent, pitiless bleakness of Camus’ The Stranger is like that: “My mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday.” Others ease you effortlessly into their world: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,” begins A River Runs Through It. Like a trout, you’re hooked.”

The Stranger is one that has always stuck with me. I’ve read many novels in my time on this earth. Even keeping with a conservative estimate of three books a month, that’s 36 books a year for, let’s say, 15 years. That’s 540 books so far (and that is a definite lowball). Of those, I can remember maybe handful of opening lines. The above-mentioned Camus is one. The rest? I’m glad you asked:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”- Stephen King, The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowel of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” -James Joyce, Ulysses

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobit.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

“Call me Ishmael.”- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was love at first sight.” —Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”- George Orwell, 1984

The American Book Review has their list of the top 100, which I only consulted after compiling my list. Most of mine were on there, at least the big canonical ones. I must confess that A Tale of Two Cities is there chiefly through cultural osmosis, since I have never read it. I also see that I got Slaughterhouse-Five wrong. Now that I look, I see that I was mentally skipping over the preamble of the first chapter and jumping right into the narrative.

What does this mean? What is it about these first lines that made them stick in my consciousness while the other 531 or so have slipped through like sand in a sieve? They are poetic, to be sure. But is that all it takes? The list has many equally poetic openings that I have read but that just didn’t resonate with me. These lines not only roll off the tongue with an impressive artistry, but they plant you within the narrative immediately. They incite curiosity as much as they inspire repetition. In what sense is he not Jacob Horner? Who is Ishmael? Why was it love at first sight? Striking thirteen? WTF?

But that can’t be all it takes, either. I don’t necessarily care about Buck Mulligan, no matter how plump or stately he happens to be, and his progress down the stairs is none of my business. But Joyce’s way with language keeps me reading. It’s a mystery, an alchemy that I am still trying to understand.

Pascal’s Wager, redux.

In the last week or so, I have been deluged by a ridiculous amount of spam and phishing expeditions on myspace. I have been fervently avoiding watching naughty webcams and offers of awesome ringtones or a free ipod for filling out surveys. Somewhere in the ugly mess of ignorance and greed, my friend Preston has been thinking philosophically about the nature of belief and the rewards of faith. He has taken the old “betting man’s theory of religion.” And rejiggered it. Interesting stuff, and don’t let the math deter you, it’s more conceptual than anything else.

My reaction (which you can see with typos if you follow the above link) is this:

While I always come at the Wager from the faith versus action angle, that is the idea (which you address, albeit briefly) that salvation may or may not require more than mere belief- works over faith, etc., I see where you’re going here and I’ll come along for the ride. But I have two thoughts on the matter.
1. Pascal’s Wager, whether in its original incarnation, or in your reworked version presupposes that people behave rationally. For this formulation to work, we have to assume that human beings behave in a way that yields the most good in the long term, and forgo instant gratification for future dividends. While this is no doubt true of some rational actors, I think there is a great deal of evidence (current environmental concerns, war, obesity, et al.) for the assertion that man behaves in destructive, irrational, contrary ways.
2. In my experience, conversations about faith have no place for rationality and logic. And the more formal the logic, the greater the likelihood that you will lose your audience. I don’t mean to say that people with faith are incapable of grasping the schema, just that faith comes from a different part of us than mathematics and matrices. True believers won’t be swayed or tempted from their path by the Devil’s Arithmetic.

Sure and Begorrah

It’s that time of year again, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts Guinness and avoiding the pinching punishment of those who forget to wear green. It’s a magical time of year when we can all come together over a pint and look back at the man who made Ireland a serpent-free zone, your man Saint Patrick.

Most people don’t realize that the brother wasn’t even Irish. He was kidnapped from Britain when he was young and the pirates sold him as a slave to some Irish folks. He eventually escaped, but returned years later as a missionary. Tradition has it that he was responsible for converting the pagan Celts to Christianity. He was an early appreciator of a good visual aid, and used the shamrock to drop some knowledge on the locals and help them understand the concept of the holy trinity. Most awesomely, legend has it that old Padraig was able to banish every last snake from the emerald isle. Chances are there weren’t any there to begin with, but the Irish have never been known to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

What does all this have to day with the holiday we celebrate tomorrow? Absolutely nothing for most people. The masses tend to use it as an excuse to drink way more than they should, wear stupid plastic green derbies and generally act like wankers. Now far be it from me to hate on St. Paddy’s day, but I do get annoyed at the amateur night spectacle of people trying to order Guinness, trying a sip and realizing they don’t like before going back to green beer. Green food coloring in beer? Why? I find it both retarded and gross. And then there are the fuckwits who go about doing their best Lucky Charms impression and making futile attempts to riverdance.

Leave it to the professionals.

I went to a catholic school filled with Irish nuns who would frequently threatened to whack us their shillelaghs if we did not behave. St. Patrick’ s Day was the center of the school at year at St. Marys. Uniform restrictions were relaxed to allow the wearing of green. There was a day long festival where Sister Joan Grace would dance a jig and lead the entire school in several good old drinking songs. At one point, they even used the “The Wild Rover,” a song about drunken gambling and general debauchery to illustrate the biblical parable about the prodigal son. Good times.

I drink Guinness, Jameson’s, and Bushmills. I love potatoes, and I eat them like apples. I listen to Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, The Pogues, and even U2. I went to catholic school, have kissed the blarney stone, and once wrote a thesis paper on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I have many siblings. My name is Sean MacGillivray, and Saint Patrick’s Day is mine. Leave the plastic shamrock at home.