So This Is Weird.

It’s been way more than a year since I’ve published anything here, let alone read any of my old stuff. I mostly know why, but I’ve come to really miss sharing my writing (and having some accountability for writing in the first place). So I decided to come back and clean up a little: new year, new thoughts, new platform. If you’ve known me for a while, you know that this blog — and my writing style — have gone through their fair share of transformations. This time around, though, I feel much more at ease with the constancy of change, and much more comfortable with its visibility. Whatever. It’s just the human condition.

Since my last post, a lot of stuff has happened, including:

  • moving into a sustainable living cooperative and learning how to make anything in a rice cooker
  • cutting my hair! and then cutting it again
  • making a children’s book about music and the modern black freedom struggle (digital form coming soon!)

but mostly:

  • thinking a lot of thoughts that got buried in desk drawers (metaphorically and literally)

At some point in my first semester of college, I decided that people didn’t need to see my messy parts, to watch me stumbling over the flood of new information, ideas, and emotions that was crashing over my head. And to some extent, that’s true — there are ideas and feelings I need to grapple with on my own, or with close friends and mentors, before I go adding my voice to the towering wall of noise that is the internet (and the universe in general, sometimes).

But also, it got to the point where I was devaluing my own learning process enough that I didn’t even embrace it alone. I spent a lot of time over the past eighteen months feeling like I was halfway through a sentence that I would never know how to end, and telling myself to pipe down before I’d even really opened my mouth. And that’s a problem, y’all.

Beyond the ramifications it had within myself and the limitations it placed on my personal relationships, it kept me from creating and writing as much as I needed to. Sometimes it led me to hand in first drafts to professors I really respect because I had spent so much time worrying about producing sucky work instead of actually doing the work.

I was forgetting that the first step to creating something good is creating something at all. I was forgetting that even if there are hardly any truly new ideas out there, there are always new ways of framing and conveying ideas that hold weight for a huge range of unique individuals. I was forgetting that even though I have a drive to build a better future for everyone, my individual growth and experiences within that framework still matter.

Also, I was really afraid of what everyone thought of me.

And I realize now that those are never particularly helpful pillars to build your life and work (especially creative work) around, but god, it’s tempting, right?

I really truly believe that the only thing we can ever offer the world is ourselves. And that there is a little corner of infinity in everyone. And that we are not all interchangable little boxes, even if our identities, occupations, and interests are similar. So like, take the risk. Share yourself. Respect your brain. You’re all you’ve got.

England By the Numbers

The Journey

Hours in transit: too many

Hours of sleep: ha ha, funny joke

Pages read: 423

Episodes of Welcome to Night Vale consumed: 7

Conclusion: I blame Cecil Baldwin for my jet lag.

Sighted

People who look vaguely like Morrissey and/or David Beckham: 3

South African hip-hop dancers: 16

People with eerily perfect facial structures: at least 4

Telephone boxes: 2

TARDISes: 0

Misc.

Times I’ve been called “love”: a mere once. Come on now, England, step it up!

Six-String Sentinels

The weather today is a soft embodiment of melancholia, light diffusing through dove grey clouds–the kind of cloud you’d want to drape around your shoulders. The sky looks like a whisper. It’s nice to feel cold again.

There are really only a few options when it comes to giving this sort of day a soundtrack. The lethargic wind implores you to make it gentle, while the sky’s white glow holds you back from pure gloom. Brief spatters of rain and the anticipation of more cultivate contemplation. There are four men who stand up to these demands, seamlessly compatible despite their individuality.

i. Jens Lekman

Jens Lekman has an incredible talent for contrast, writing insightful, witty, and irreverent lyrics backed up by instrumentals that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the saccharine pop scene of the early 60s. A Gothenburg native, Lekman gets at unity, nuance, and self-effacing humor with his endearing accent. Though much of his music feels upbeat, he adeptly tugs at the wistfulness you store in your solar plexus. Unsurprisingly, that sense of loss is strongest on his 2012 breakup album, I Know What Love Isn’t. In his typical style, Lekman covers a broad range of tempos and genres. But this time, each track balances euphony with throbbing misery–even the groove of “Erica America” is tempered by his bitter verses.

Key tracks:

“I Want a Pair of Cowboy Boots”

“I Know What Love Isn’t”

“Every Little Hair Knows Your Name” 

ii. Sufjan Stevens

Each word Sufjan sings feels carefully placed and half-held-back. Remember those moments at summer camp when you should’ve been asleep but were exchanging childish pearls of wisdom instead? He sings like those memories, cautious, slow, and piercingly sincere. Stevens’ tracks range from full-on symphonies, featuring rich instrumentation and a formidable chorus of background singers, to bare acoustic guitar and banjo, the perfect landscape for his earnest, complex lyrics. Whatever part of him is responsible for his song titles is the part I want to hug

Key tracks:

“Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One”

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

“The Dress Looks Nice On You”

iii. Lyle Lovett

Another great patriarch of blues and country, Lyle Lovett is a master of making music in black, white, and grey. He’s got a left-field sense of humor, but is equally adept with dark, sentimental ballads. Sometimes, he even combines the two, making for results as shocking and uncomfortably charming as Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone.”

Key tracks:

“LA County”

“Pontiac”

“Lungs”

iv. Iron & Wine

Samuel Beam’s rustic riffs are a flawless match for the archaic simplicity of his stage name. His songs can be strong and driving, but the force within them hearkens back to looming heathen gods. Any markers of modernity serve a greater purpose: creating a texture that feels nigh antediluvian. His whispered verses are plain, primal, and evocative, reminiscent of Tamora Pierce’s world of thief lords, mages, and lady knights. At the other end of the spectrum are his ballads, which sound like the gentle caress of leathery hands. His tracks are a tincture of fortitude, sensitivity, and well-worn teakwood. 

Key tracks:

“Woman King”

“Gray Stables”

“Flightless Bird, American Mouth”

Rain or shine, readers, enjoy your day.

The Roadtrip Journals

I am a firm believer in the restorative power of driving to faraway lands with a ragtag crew and a carefully crafted playlist, which is why I talked my poor, unsuspecting parents into a 13-hour journey to the Best Coast a few weeks ago. This summer is shaping up to be a dream, but it’s also a tad weird on the emotional front, which means the notes I kept as we ventured out are somewhat less than digestible. I’m still fond of a few scraps of thought that came out of it, though, so I’ve stitched those together. Grab your Ray-Bans and turn up the self-aware alt rock, we’re going on an adventure.

Miles and miles of trackless desert, and all I can see is water. There’s the Great Salt Lake, with its pulsing mass of seagulls all congregated on gritty peninsulas, and the shimmering white remnants of Lake Bonneville. But the interstate plays at fluidity, too: a shallow puddle seems to glaze the tarmac, perpetually eluding your pursuit. It’s a cruel mirage that makes you crave a pebble beneath your tongue even as you drink from a bottled spring.

The pretense is contagious: soon, the variegated mountains seem to swell with a current, and the brush conspires with sand to mimic sunlight glinting off the sea. Either I am starved for shore, or the lonely desert imitates the ocean.

***

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that podunk towns aren’t just a collective practical joke. We’re stopped in Winnemucca, Nevada, where 104 degrees of dry heat feels surprisingly pleasant. But I just can’t get it through my head that someone named this thoroughfare Potato Road.

***

Driving into a storm that shrouds the mountains, everything in the foreground looks more and more 3-D. Out the window, the sage-green-banded rocks are dulled by grey erosion control netting. It’s cute how we try to impose our will on nature.

Abruptly, the storm breaks like someone emptying a vase of glass beads onto our windshield. The drops hit with force and skitter along our windows, sharp in contrast to the soft grey sky. I crack the window to let in a miniature cascade.

***

There’s nothing like the bracing sting of chlorine up one’s nose. Despite junglelike humidity, the pool makes for a strange kind of heaven: the best place to sink into the pleasant give of paperback pages. Later, in the empty parking lot with coppery plait still dripping, the breeze carries with it the scent of pines. If you close your eyes, you can almost forget the ticky-tacky taiga out there. In your mind, it’s a forest of trees, not billboards.

***

You know you’re in the Castro when the insurance ads are queer-rights-themed and a guy swooshes into the bagel shop on teal-sequined rollerblades.

***

It’s hard to be alone in San Francisco. There’s no buffer between all these pastel wedding cake houses and the roaring streets. But there’s at least one place where you can shut off the chaos and fill your lungs with quiet, still air. “Grace Cathedral: a place of immunity, anonymity, unity.” Yards of blue and red ribbons like veins hang suspended from the granite rafters. It is dark, save for the weak shafts of sunlight that cloak the altar and the crucifix. It smells like Sunday mornings, like wax and matches and burning wicks. Without warning, quavering organ notes shatter the silence and shake the floor. Dark wood, dark tremelos, a different kind of commotion.

The gift shop taught me that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvey Milk are martyrs of the Church, which makes perfect sense. I want the corresponding icon candles.

***

We went to the pier today. Conclusions: I want to live on a sailboat, and while Rudyard Kipling may have been an imperialist old sod, he was still a pretty great poet.

***

The universe just conspired to create an uncannily perfect last moment in SF. By sheer accident, we exited via the Golden Gate Bridge, rolling onto CA-1 just as the achingly poetic song of the same name came up on our playlist. I’ll miss this sweet fog.

***

Nothing suggests eerie, post-apocalyptic America like a parking lot full of baking cars but no people. It doesn’t hurt that it’s adjacent to an over-air-conditioned movie theatre where you are a nobody and Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies.

***

Rolling across the salt flats, imagination surging. Lyle Lovett keeps us company until we arrive, catching the last fleeting trace of a recent rain. It’s good to be home.

A Field Guide to Female Singers: Fiona Apple

You know when you’ve had a falling out with a friend and it feels like you’re experiencing every possible manifestation of anger and sadness? Fiona Apple sure does. Her music covers a grand variety of reactions to people who make your life difficult, channeling her emotional turmoil with authenticity and nuance. Apple goes from indignance to wistfulness and right back to devil-may-care defiance, using her musical intensity to get listeners fired up on her behalf.

Apple’s typical sound is characterized by piano that stands out, bassy and percussive, against a haze of organ, strings, and muffled drums. Her voice is honeyed, but make no mistake—Apple herself is not out to please, and her independence comes through in the tremendous strength of her timbre. Surprisingly, though, Apple’s locution is indifferent, almost lazy. It’s almost as though she’s so upset with whomever her songs address that she can’t be bothered to move her lips—she’s trying to get from her bottomless reserve of heartbreak to retribution and catharsis, and her mouth is just in the way.

From her 1996 debut album Tidal to last summer’s The Idler Wheel…, Fiona Apple has created art that is artless, letting her angst ride on raw talent and vampy instrumentation. That’s not to say that her writing is purely straightforward, rather that Apple speaks her truth both frankly and poetically. The end product is often darkly beautiful, but that isn’t because of trickery: Apple uses language primarily to capture, not to embellish or obscure. That in itself is a service to the universe—come on, don’t tell me that you really craved intricacy the last time you were fuming mad. But for all of Apple’s candor, she’s certainly got a penchant for covering the old-fashioned and borderline hokey.

Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” Conway Twitty’s “Only Make Believe,” Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” All of these songs are built on sentiments that strike modern sensibilities as shopworn and saccharine, yet Apple somehow brings an incredible new dimension of soulfulness to them. Perhaps it’s her emphasis on the angsty undertones that are already there, or maybe it’s just the surprise of hearing a woman—a deep-voiced woman, at that—sing them. But whatever it is, and whatever draws her to these selections, I’m grateful for it: I’ll never forget how enchanting it was to watch Apple shift from her Idler Wheel…-fueled paroxysms into a captivatingly smooth performance of “Only Make Believe” at her concert last July.

Fiona Apple isn’t afraid of calling herself dysfunctional. She certainly doesn’t care if the world sees her more unstable moments—she polishes and displays them for a living. And perhaps that’s why we keep coming back to her emotional rollercoaster. Through her, we see that it’s okay to be on one ourselves. Maybe we even learn to find something beautiful in the worst part of it.

A Field Guide to Female Singers: Amanda Palmer

First up, we have the envelope-pushing, piano-pounding Amanda Effin’ Palmer. Her eccentricities prompt some to call her the Lady Gaga of the underground music scene, but that title belies her mind-boggling stylistic and vocal range. From her audience’s vantage point, Palmer seems to be eternally chasing after a creative impulse she can’t contain, epitomizing prolific virtuosity. She paints on her eyebrows, walks the fine line between artsy and crazy, and still manages to make records that my dad likes.

Palmer is distinctive, but far from predictable or monotonous: she has recorded and performed as a member of multiple bands, as a solo artist, and in numerous collaborations, each of which has its own recognizable sound and aesthetic while still remaining identifiably Palmer-esque. From The Dresden Dolls to The Grand Theft Orchestra to Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele, AFP retains an inimitable mix of theatricality, irreverence, and verisimilitude.

If you want to identify Palmer’s music by ear, just listen for raucous piano and a brazen alto voice, half vibrant splinters of mahogany and half time-worn gravel from icy stream beds. She’ll tell you heartbreaking stories with a wink and a smile, “seamlessly floating with grace between eras and genres,” before tricking you into profound thought through a focus on the mundane and material.

But her musical style is just a cross-section of her talent and the soul behind it. Unlike some celebrity blogs, Palmer’s is more than a tool for self-promotion, but a vessel for free-verse poetry and thoughtful, philosophical journal entries. She recently reviewed the newest novel by her husband (the illustrious Neil Gaiman), and in so doing managed to tease apart the artist’s self and the artist’s work, two concepts so tightly intertwined that it’s hard to remember they were separate entities to begin with. Palmer writes openly about the ups and downs of life, on both specific and general scales, and through this, offers her audience an invitation to create a bond of trust. The series of entries she wrote in the aftermath of the Marathon Bombings, particularly poignant coming from someone so vocally attached to the Boston area, revealed a deeply felt impulse toward human collaboration and unity through eloquent, raw, and sometimes controversial prose.

Palmer’s brand of artistry is built on deftly balanced paradoxes: her ostentation is not a mask, but a tool that allows for transparency. Her irreverence works alongside humility, and her bluntness creates space for constructive conversation. Amanda Palmer may be a theatre kid through and through, but you don’t have to strip away the stage makeup to see that she’s a person, not a persona.

P.S. You’ll be seeing more of her philosophical musings around here soon enough, but for now, I encourage you all to check out her ingenious TED Talk. 

The Lighthouse Tour

Hey, dearest readers—welcome to the Lighthouse! The only important change in this new layout is the organizational system for posts, but I changed that to better reflect some stuff that I think is significant to the real world. To the right, beneath the handy-dandy subscription button, you’ll see a list of the new categories. For the most part, they correspond to components of my model of social change, which remains in its infancy, but here’s the important bit:

We’re faced with what previous generations might think of as a Battle of Britain—a pivotal moment during which we can either prove ourselves and instigate an upward inflection point in the course of humanity, or we can fall short, letting circumstances force radical adaptation rather than fronting the movement towards positive change ourselves. Our current economic system, which happens to be deeply intertwined with the well-being of most things on this planet, isn’t truly sustainable, nor are the institutions that support it.

It seems pretty clear to me that something’s got to give. Fortunately, we’ve got leverage: we are our strongest and most numerous resource. We’re the ones who build the connections that form communities, and who comprise the institutions we want to improve. We have created a definition of “prosperity” that has overtaxed our planet and overlooked one another’s well-being, and we’re the ones who can rewrite it.

And we have powerful tools. We can infiltrate pop culture to make attitudes towards material wealth, race, gender, and violence more constructive. We can harness the power of art to rebuild ourselves and the ties between us. We can study the process of social change to see which tactics are worth our effort. We can rethink the role of education in our lives, and use it more effectively to encourage innovation and compassion.

Thinking about manmade crises can be overwhelming and discouraging, but it’s pretty reassuring—and arguably pretty imperative—to simultaneously recognize how much collaborative power we as a species have to impact global quality of life for the better. If you don’t believe me, just ask Hank Green.