Monday, October 26, 2009
On that note, I posted my first blog entry on that site earlier which you can read below. It’s from a few weeks ago, but mostly focuses on the anxiety and paranoia I encountered within my first 48 hours of being here in Jiaozuo, China. But as the following self-introspection that came afterward in the post (typical of one of my entries) will reveal, I got over that quickly enough and I have been enjoying myself.
Therefore, I write to you that I’ve found a routine. I’ve settled in. I’ve gotten the ‘swing of things,’ as the many sayings go. What does this mean exactly? I’m not sure I know myself, but I can tell you I’m certainly used to being here, and I know my way around. Moreover, I’m basically used to my class schedule (though I’m never sure exactly who’s going to show up to my classes) and I more or less have a steady schedule. So let me walk you through a typical few days as they stand now.
Mondays and Tuesdays I have only one class and it’s not until 4:30 in the afternoon. If I actually had some sort of office, I’d use it, but I don’t so I just sit around in my apartment. Naturally, I sleep as late as I want, but I try to wake up within a decent hour, usually around 9am, and then try to be as pro-active as I can: wash up, make breakfast, write emails, and work on ideas for class. Though because I never have much food on hand, I have to leave and walk outside of my apartment to a little food stand where they have fresh vegetables, some noodles, and some meat and eggs. That’s about it, so you have to get creative if you don’t want to eat the same thing everyday, which for me is usually scrambled eggs mixed with diced mushrooms and onions, and some boiled carrots and bok choi on the side. However, I often make my meals with Brandon, who is resourceful and trying to learn how to cook, so we often fry up meet and eggs and veggies in a big wok, or make a big noodle soup.
Anyway, Mondays I plan out the lesson for the week, and depending on how it goes on Monday evening when I teach it for the first time, I tweak it for the coming classes over the course of the week. I teach 8 classes per weak, each two hours long, and because they’re all about the same skill level, I do more or less the same thing with each class. It’s very boring for me after a while, but it works and it’s giving me a good idea of which activities are effective and how to improve the ones that aren’t.
The most salient fact is that planning the lessons takes a few hours, but even that leaves me plenty of time to spare for other things throughout the course of the week. In class this week we talked about the simple past tense, did a few exercises to practice it, then watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” After that, I told the kids they have to prepare a simple role play for next time, and then gave them a few minutes to work on it. Not very complicated, I realize, but with each day I’m learning a lot on how to teach and teach better.
Of course if you know me, you’ll know that I’m a ham and love being the center of attention and public speaking. It won’t surprise you that I really enjoy the teaching and being in front of the class, being the funny American, cracking jokes, and trying to lead conservation. I’m quite certain the kids enjoy me. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun and rewarding.
However, with my few hours each Monday planning the weekly lesson aside, there is still a lot of free time to occupy. Thus far, I must admit I’ve been unproductive. I have lofty dreams of being ultra productive and type A, yet so far they go unrealized. I want to exercise as much as I can, but unfortunately a nagging flu has kept me from doing so for the past few weeks and it just won’t seem to go away completely. I also want to write, which I am doing now, as my form of self expression, and of course, I want to practice Chinese each day and learn it to a decent level. I want to read a lot, too. And I even want to do philanthropic work or environmental conservation remotely from where I’m at. Hey, what’s the difference between writing a congressman via email from here than back in Chicagoland?
The moral of the story is, there is very little socially-imposed structure to my life here. If I’m going to be productive and not waste all my time here, I have to motivate myself and give myself the structure. This is admittedly something difficult for me; I know I work harder when people are watching me and judging my every move.
I suppose that’s the moral of the story for today: I’ve been getting adjusted, relaxing, taking my time getting into the swing of things here in China, but until I’m pleased with how I’m handling my schedule well and being productive with spare time, I don’t think I’ll truly be adjusted to life here the way I wish to be. And though I’ve made many new friends, met a bunch of kids here, and am enjoying myself, I guess I’ll continue to feel there is more work to be done. Wow, such a serious ending to a post that began so lightly.
For over one whole month now, I have been living in this new country called China. I figured if I was ever going to do it, now would be the time to start this memoir of life anew. I will assume, unsafely perhaps, that the first month is the hardest when acclimating oneself to a new culture and environment, and initially, it certainly felt like this was the case.
My first 48 hours in this new place, where I didn't know the language, I didn't know a soul, and I didn't have a clue, were a bit overwhelming. I landed, got out off the plane, and was in a new world that at first didn't seem the slightest bit enticing: a state run Chinese university in the middle of a sprawling, rural province, where the freshmen dressed up in uniform and marched around all morning and night in a militia chanting slogans, and where I stuck out like a sore thumb wherever I set foot, perpetually the object of curiosity and staring. Naturally, all this can cause an individual to begin to harbor feelings of alienation and shock. But I reminded myself that this was what I had been searching for, or what I thought I wanted: to be out of place and learn to rebuild, rebuild one's attitude, one's outlook, and release all the stresses of my former life, if only for a short while.
I realize that this is clearly impossible: I can't move to a new place and expect to be a new man, without my previous anxieties, faults, and responsibilities. Not even moving halfway around the globe can free a person from that. In the end, we all live within our socially constituted minds; a change of geography alone won't do anything. But then again, I do believe a change of culture, of the relationships around a person, will do something in turn. The anxieties of my life up to this point do continue to persist; I have not mastered my past, and I never will. My past memories will always continue to drive me. As for the time being, I have the luxury of only thinking of my new environment, my new social sphere, where the problems are nothing but novel, trivial, and light.
I have settled into my routine, and have begun focusing on teaching my classes, which I really do enjoy very much. And of course, myself and the other westerners have established our pocket culture, our center of relationships and understanding that we have based on our mutual past culture and language. I hope that it’s not just the result of necessity, that we truly are friends and that we don’t spend time together for lack of other options. I believe I can optimistically say that this is not the case, that we truly are friends and would find each other in a larger pool of people.
But here I am, in a new place, doing something adventurous. I probably wouldn't be able to sleep comfortably if I weren't in such a fucked up position.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Anyway, I'll get to the point, and quit all the gibberish. I don't post that often because I need a very good idea to explore, and it takes me some time to develop one. I think that explains all this gibberish. I enjoyed writing the previous post, and although I said I would return, I think I'll leave it to those few memories. They seem to be quite salient to me regarding last year.
The real point is that I wanted share this for those who may be interested. It's a video of Henan Polytechnic University, a preview of my soon-to-be home away from home. I think you'll agree with me that it appears to be quite nice. Enjoy!
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
So, with such a definitive end to my freshmen year in the real world fast approaching, I thought this an appropriate time to touch on a few memories that have defined the past year for me. As my friend Xander told me bluntly about the first year out of college, "it is a strange time of life," and I feel I don't need to ask anyone else currently living it for their thoughts, because chances are they will agree.
The short of it is, this past year I never had much of a job, and I never had much aspiration for one either. I lived alone for a while, which I've never done before, and then I moved home to live with my folks again, something I really didn't want to do, but it didn't go too poorly, I must admit. I got to visit Seoul, South Korea, and I'm thankful for that, as well as kept up with some good friends, and made some new ones. But enough summary, I'll just get to the memories. Before I start, to make sure we're absolutely on the same page, the following recounts are not meant to efficiently recap an entire year's activity, but are simply some more sentimental moments that stick out to me to this day. In the end, they hold the feeling of the year.
Living alone. By mid August 2008 I was living alone in a studio apartment in Hyde Park. I had more than a month left as a sub-letter paying rent, which I had to set aside nearly all my money to pay for. I had no job, and hardly any money to spend on things other than rent. I didn't have many connections left in Hyde Park, either, and the few people that I knew there seemed to be a keeping low profiles that didn't usually include calling me. Most people had skipped town, or at least it felt that way. The streets were mostly full of strangers in the place that was once my familiar home. Maybe that goes to show you that home is really just where the people you love are. Anyway, I had no internet connection, and would wake up whenever I really cared to, shower, eat something small, and then go to Crerar where I would pretend to look for jobs while mostly surfing the internet for hours. The only money I had was the fives and tens I would get from doing psych studies and going to the decision research lab in the business school. I would take the money and try to stretch it as far as I could at Hyde Park produce, across the street from my apartment. I could have asked my parents for money and they would have gladly given it, but for some reason, I chose not to. The truth is, I was quite happy with things that way, and I'm not sure why. Life was peaceful and serene, and I tried to enjoy the palpable calm before the next necessary chapter in my life began. That, and the one person I got to see most often was Richard Fetchik, who was in similar circumstances like myself (if you know Richard, this is a real treat, because he's often hard to pin down). I'll never forget a quiet evening walk him and I once took from my apartment to his during a cool night in late September. We passed Obama's house, guarded well by countless police and barricades, and admired how lovely we thought 50th Street could be. I cherished Hyde Park.
Election night. This night is an obvious choice for the year in review, but its meaning is still something I'm grasping. Being a registered Obama supporter, I was privy to some tickets, and went with some friends, namely Hal Connick. It was a long night of standing, walking, waiting, going through security checkpoints, and watching Wolf Blitzer on a giant jumbotron give us the results. But I'll never forget the moment we heard Pennsylvania would go blue, and I'll never forget saying "yes we can" along with Barack during his acceptance speech. I really, really don't want to make things political on this blog; I would rather discuss countless other things, but I have one message for partisan naysayers of that night: if you think we overreacted that night to our candidate winning, than I probably won't be able to convince you otherwise; Obama is human, not free from criticism, and will no doubt make some choices that I don't agree with. But if you mock the fact that we rejoiced in being part of history, in participating in the democratic process, and in once again being proud of our president and feeling trust in him, than you can go to Hell.
One cold night. One thing I certainly did a lot this year was crash on my friends Seth and Tiffany's couch. I remember distinctly the first time I did it. It was around Christmas time, and I had taken the train into the city. I wanted to walk around Michigan Avenue and look at the lights, but on my way there, I decided it was too damn cold, so I immediately took the el up to their neighborhood and hung out for a while. I believe it was a Sunday, and I had only a part time job that didn't seem to be getting many hours at the time, and didn't have to wake up Monday morning to go to work. At the time, Seth worked from home, so the two of us went out for beers at about 11pm on an absolutely freezing night in December. I think I remember it so vividly because it was a damn strange time to be out. And we stayed there till the bar closed at 1 or 2am, I believe. I generally feel really cool in those situations, being a night owl, being out when no one else is, like most times I'm out doing anything on a Sunday night. When we were finished with a couple rounds the crisp, Chicago winter air filled our lungs as we walked back to Seth's with a buzz. I slept peacefully on the fold out couch that was surprisingly warm and comfortable.
I don't usually do this, this is just what I have so far and will return to it later. I'm fucking tired and want to go to bed. If you're intrigued thus far, take heed: there is more to come from the mind of Darian.
Friday, July 31, 2009
So what's next? Expectations of winning the world cup in 2010? Not quite. But hopefully, if the team is playing to its potential, and with a little luck, we can expect them to fair well come next summer in South Africa.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Anyway, it's just a letter I spent some considerable time and thought on regarding America's soccer situation. I know that the producers got the letter, but they chose not to address it in any podcast I've heard (not that I'm bitter). If you're a soccer fan, read it, and perhaps you'll agree with me:
Dear Adriano, Jonathon, Dan, et al,
First off, I am a really big fan of your show. I never miss it.
Lately, I've been pondering something regarding American soccer and I don't know who else to ask for an answer. It's a long discussion, but perhaps you can get to it now that it's the off season.
Anyone well knows that American soccer is generally lackluster compared to most of the rest of the world. The typical explanation is that soccer is just not a priority sport in America compared to American football, baseball, basketball, etc. However, these days, it seems most young children in America who are the slightest bit interested in sports play soccer from a young age. Where I'm from (Chicagoland), there are both public and private leagues for kids as young as 4 or 5 and as old as 18. Most colleges in the US have a varsity soccer team, many of them quite good. And America is now home to the MLS, smaller in popularity compared to the NFL for example, but with a respectable and growing following.
My point is that we certainly have many opportunities for kids to play soccer competively in the United States and a growing market for its fans. Many of the most athletic kids in high school chose soccer over other sports. Our population is several times that of England or Spain, but America still seems to be incapable of producing a player like a Steven Gerrard or a Fernando Torres. Why does America seem doomed to mediocrity in soccer? Why can't we produce world class players? (I'll admit Landon Donovan, for example, is quite impressive, but seems to struggle when he comes to Europe and faces more daunting competitors.) Winning the World Cup, as you English well know only winning it once yourselves, is a very difficult thing to achieve, but could the US ever expect to win it? We can dominate in the Olympics, for instance, but most Americans don't seem to consider track and field, gymnastics, or swimming high interest sports. Certainly more kids in America play soccer than those sports (with the possible exception of track and field). Then again, most other nations probably don't care much about the Olympics except for Russia and Australia with swimming. And in the Olympics, stories of the more dominant nation falling to the less favored seem common practice, like Korea beating the USA in baseball, or the US men's basketball team losing in the 2004 Olympic games. Why can't the US beat Brazil sometime at soccer? We never do.
Perhaps it is, after all, because our best athletes chose other sports over soccer, unlike the best athletes of most other nations; Chad Ochocinco (formally Chad Johnson) was an excellent soccer player in his youth, but was forced to chose between it and American football, ultimately going for the fame and fortune of being an NFL wide receiver.
I simply don't know. Perhaps we lack proper instruction and coaching. Or perhaps its because our soccer league is just not rich enough to bring in adequate competition like the Premier League can, giving players from all over the chance to improve by facing stiffer competition.
Anyway, it's a long and ongoing debate, just like this is a long and ongoing email. Perhaps we'll never know, but I would like to know your opinions on the subject.
Darian Gier from Wheaton, Illinois
*I should add that after I had written this email, the United States, after looking like they would subsequently return from the Confederations Cup tournament as embarrassed losers, did manage to make it to the semifinals against Spain in an amazing turn of events (the semifinal match is tomorrow, but I assume the US will lose to a really, really awesome Spanish team).
Even regardless of their recent success (or luck, as it were) I do think that our national soccer team is respectable, and a pretty decent team considering the field of talent they often play among. They are a group to be proud of, whether you embrace soccer or not. That said, I still cheer for Germany.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Anyway, I really just wanted to share a skit that has always been one of my favorites. Walken has hosted the show many times, and I believe only Alec Baldwin has hosted more. I've seen this skit 50 times, and every time, it still gets me.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I've known Sam for about four years, and known who he is for even longer. He first appeared on the scene of UChicago as a goofy freshmen kid with a mop-top living in Max Pavelsky who was friends with Rob Huff. At least before I knew him I respected him, or at least who he appeared to be; but alas, I got to know him, which has removed all doubt of his shitiness.
When he first met me, he has said he instantly didn't like me. Which, he confessed a few years later, is generally the case with every other poor, innocent soul who has the misfortune of making his acquaintance. The bastard will immediately judge your every little move superficially and hold it against you. One instance I observed, someone offered him a chocolate bar, which he accepted and enjoyed. Then, once the chocolate giver had left the room, he turned to me and said, "Who the Hell gives away free chocolate bars? That kid sucks." I said to Sam that he had given you a chocolate bar, and that was a venerable deed, to which Sam replied "to Hell with him."
Over the years, I have watched Sam tragically become the victim of his own demented character. Girls reject him, and he wonders why. He hates and sucks at doing his schoolwork and makes a scapegoat of his choice of collegiate institution and every random person associated with it. He has been unable to hold a job better than a carpet cleaner or tea barista, and has subsequently pissed away all his earned money indulging in a collection of terrible action movies and barbecued pork.
The instance in Sam's life he will be quick to tell you he is most proud of is founding and leading a successful men's choir. To be fair, this is an accomplishment on some level, but like any example from Sam's life, he has taken something pure and true, and killed it. How one person can take an honest men's choir full of good natured college kids and turn it into a make-shift frat full of sexual deviants who throw horrible parties is beyond me, but I assure you, Sam has managed to do it, and do it well. And I haven't even mentioned their worthless, boring performances which don't seem to attract anyone Sam doesn't force at knife point to attend. I honestly will give 50 dollars to any single person who can attend and not fall asleep. Seriously, if you can do it, email me and prove it, and I will pay you 50 dollars.
To give you a more illustrated idea of what it's like to actually know Sam, here are a few of his more memorable quotations:
Me: Hey Sam, I went for a jog today for the first time in a while.
Sam: You went for a jog? Did the EARTH SHAKE?!
Me: It's my goal to lose some weight this Summer. I think I can do it.
Sam: You fat piece of shit, you're incapable of losing a pound the way you cram your fat ass full of pie all the time. Forget it.
Me: Sam, I'm supporting this new thing called the One campaign to end global poverty.
Sam: That's a ridiculous, Marxist idea. For there to be rich people there have to be poor people. I say keep the poor people down and out of the way of the rich folks. Rich people are better.
"I hate everyone that's different from me."
Sam: Did you just fart?
Chick Sam is trying to bone: I can't believe you just said that, get away from me, you creep.
"Come on guys, Hitler, Stalin, and Torquemada weren't so bad. In fact, I like them. I like them all."
"My favorite actor is John Leguizamo."
But these are just a taste of what it's like to know Sam Martin. To be his friend, as I have ventured to be for a few years, is much more painful. If you're like me, and you end up unwisely entering into a friendship with Sam Martin, don't expect to be fulfilled. Instead, expect scorn and abuse at every turn. As Sam's friend you'll develop a complex about your weight and physical appearance. If you're even moderately overweight, he will rain fat comments upon you, like "gigantor". If you're too skinny, he'll tell you to go gain some weight, "skeletor". And if you're perfectly in shape, he'll still tell you you're too fat. In any case, he will continue to put you down until you are on the verge of taking your own life, taking his first as a souvenir.
Thus, I give you one last word of advice. Someday, if you see Sam Martin approaching you with open arms and a crazy smile on his face, you do what I should have done four years ago: run. And then shoot the bastard.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
My birthday is May 23rd (a birthday I share with Ken Jennings, Phil Selway, and Mitch Albom, among others), currently about 26 hours away from the time I am writing this post. Today, May 21st, actually happens to be the birthday of my older brother, Witte. Wit, here's a shout out to you, if you ever read this: Happy Birthday! Born three years apart almost to the day... my parents must have loved late August, if you catch my drift. Anyway, my birthday being May 23rd, and me currently turning the age of 23 this year-of-our-lord 2009, makes it my Golden Birthday. I'm trying to decide whether to let that affect how I think it should be. Should my expectations be higher simply because it's my 'Golden Birthday?' Or should I take it for really just the simple happenstance value that it has?
Birthdays are truly a hyped occurrence in our culture; great time is spent in their anticipation, an entire year practically, and then when the day comes, the meaning of the day's reification is tricky. They remind me of practically any holiday in our American culture. We anticipate Christmas, Easter, New Year's (my favorite), our birthdays, and when their time arrives, and it is truly Christmas Day, Easter morning, 12:01am on New Year's, or our birthday, what is the feeling that comes over us? Is it something more than what we can normally feel; an intensely significant moment whose purpose we can truly grasp? Are our emotions expected to be purely joyous? I sound like Ricky Roma in his opening monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross. He asked, "what is the moment?" Is it something we'll always remember, something we can always recall, touch, and taste in our minds?
Humans have a way of projecting the meaning of their lives onto material things and the very processes of our lives. A birthday is a day to celebrate the life of an individual and recognize the passing of another year in his life, to recognize his accomplishments and the impact he has made on others. When I awake on May 23rd in two days, I don't think I will feel a rush of these thoughts come to my head. I don't think I will truly feel the moment then, aside from just some light and happy realization that today is the day I had been waiting for. Maybe I dwell on that fact that it is my Golden Birthday, and should perhaps expect it to be even better than a normal birthday. After that, I will just know that it is my birthday, without a proper grasp on the implications of this, and that I have to be at work by 9:30am that day. Perhaps the real moment will come when I gather with my friends, to celebrate, well, myself. Another time with familiar faces to enjoy life, and celebrate all I may have done (and I truly feel I've done a lot in my short life, as young as I am). The evening will be fun and joyful, an evening with friends that I adore so much, but really, just like any other evening with friends. And then it will be over, the 24 hours that actually constitute my birthday will pass so quickly, and it will not be my birthday anymore. My moment, the one I have been yearning for and anticipating will have passed, so fleetingly.
Perhaps it is simply naive to go on inferring that birthdays inherently bring some form of disappointment, or let down, or loss. Perhaps it is simply naive to expect some grand moment, epiphany, recognition of one's self importance and mental celebration to actually occur upon my birthday. But that's what I feel my anticipation is telling me. No doubt others may feel differently, but I think we can all agree on the importance of the anticipation, its existence, the hope and joy it may give us (it certainly gives me those things). I think I may prefer it to the actual moment, because maybe there is no real moment the way we anticipate, but nonetheless, we still wait, and hope, and feel the joy of the coming day of earned celebration. Yahoo.
That's why I sit and write during one of the most joyous times of my year. Today is my brother's birthday, which is one thing I can rejoice in, and two days before mine. I am still 22, soon to be 23, god willing, and I anxiously await, feel, taste, a growing sensation. My day of celebration will soon pass, a regular 24 hour day, short and gone by quickly with a melancholy haste. My expectation will no doubt to one degree be let down, that something truly unique was waiting for me on the 23rd of May, and when it arrived, I didn't really feel any different. But even though I realize this, I anticipate with joy just the same. It is a worthwhile trade, to feel that special feeling in anticipation, and try to appreciate it while it is with me, and make it last, only to lose it to something that may not be as good.
Maybe that's why birthdays often bring us sadness, though I think this is usually attributed to the fact that they mark our life clock ticking closer to the time of our demise. Like many people, I fear death to some extent, but I think I am more in tune with my mortality than most. So I don't fear birthdays in this regard, but would if I always looked back and found that I wasn't at least trying to live life to the fullest, with no regrets. Luckily, it is this fear that perpetually drives to "live deeply and suck out all the morrow of life." Carpe diem. Amen.
When my (Golden) birthday comes on Saturday, I will awake, realize it is just a day and feel a touch grounded (I use this word carefully, in place of "sad"), and remind myself that it is just liken any other day, but do my best to enjoy it with my loved ones, to celebrate what I have accomplished, and most of all I think, be thankful that I have been so fortunate, had such a good life, and made it this far. I believe this is all I can hope for. This, and the material gifts I may or may not receive, another aspect of birthdays that can certainly be a let down, so enjoy be sure to try to enjoy their anticipation, if you don't get what you wanted.
This is why I have some of the birthday blues, but ultimately, more of the birthday cheers. I look forward to my special day with a light heart and a smile on my lips. I'm having a party with German food. What could be better? And if there's one fact about myself that I truly can rejoice in the whole day long on my birthday, its that god I love being the center of attention.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
After having read the comic entirely now, from cover to cover, including each additional set of a few pages of text that come at the end of every chapter, I must say, I don't agree with them, those peers of mine. I would probably give the comic an overall grade of B, maybe B+. Naturally, there are things I think it did well and others it did poorly, but overall, comparing it to an average work of fictional literature, I don't think it was that great. But perhaps my thesis is undermined by the fact that I have little to compare it to; I'm no graphic novel nut and its the only one I've ever read. But as some people have told me, that it was good as an average work of lit, that I must say, in my opinion, is false.
As the comic began, it had me entertained with psychological introspection and back story for the more major of the major characters. Nite Owl, Silk Specter, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan (the only character with technically real superpowers, though Ozymandias arguably has some superhuman traits if not actually "superpowers"), their development into superheroes, their past alliances, their particular socioeconomic backgrounds, and interestingly what they may have done with their inherent fame from being a superhero. Basically, each chapter was an in depth analysis of why they chose to become a superhero: their back story.
This is a very didactic approach to story telling. It makes sense for a large work with many central characters, and is very useful in explaining the different aspects that drive each individual to become an extremist for martial justice. Some of them are from very honest blue-collar backgrounds who seek justice, some tormented as children and seek vengeance on the criminal world, and others driven into the profession through familial influence. But that's all the comic is: back story. As we are introduced to each character we learn all about them, each chapter a new character, and just when you think the back story is over, that the comic will quit reflecting on the previous majority of the 20th century and something in the present (1985 NYC) will happen, the chapter is just more back story, even practically till the very end.
Again, I enjoyed most of these biographical, short novellas that come in the form of each chapter of the book for what they are. They combine superheroes with something that they are not usually associated with: realism. I personally enjoy realism in media and deter sensationalism; generally I like a good and exciting story, but things do need to be believable for me (and most other people too, I believe). The author, Alan Moore, does a good job of examining the way, were it actually attempted and achieved successfully, a person may actually become a superhero as we know them in fictional culture. Watchmen actually does reference Superman and highlights the whimsicality and ridiculousness of one actually attempting to become a superhero with thoughtful realism, care, and style. This is evident in the character's costumes, bizarre behavior, and their relationship with the media. And that's what I like: the characters are all centrally human, even the most powerful, Dr. Manhattan, can be seen as flawed and incomplete. But each, for different reasons has chosen to adapt this albeit strange lifestyle for better or for worse, and each history examines exactly why, what motivated them, what they did with their fame, and even the political associations they assumed.
So, that's all well and good, but nothing really happens till the end of the fucking book. As I consider the story more and more, it must be understood that each chapter was released separately from the others as a series, a new one introduced every week or every month till the story was complete. In that form, the book does seem to make more sense, or at least I can understand why the author chose to make each chapter a novella of just back story. But that's the pro side of work. The con side is that the story contemporaneous with the present is really supposed to be the main aspect of the work, or at least well-fused with back story and its affect on the present. But in Watchmen, this central story seems as more of a side to each individual back story. Each character in present day just looks back on the way things were and laments. The only character who seems to do anything and be concerned with the present is Rorschach (my favorite character by far because he's the most bad ass), who refused to quit being a superhero when the government outlawed it and now serves as a vigilante detective, wanted by the law himself, as well as despised by the criminal world for his particularly cruel treatment of them. That leaves each chapter with back story, a few small events in the present day that don't explain much, and a few reoccurring marginal characters who seem to be there to provide more plain human touch, but I find their presence irritating and distracting.
Another key aspect to the work, and thus it shows its age, is the emphasis it has on the cold war. The actual story of the work culminates with The Soviet Union and The United States on the brink of nuclear war that will surely end the world. It turns out that, in this strange plot twist that came completely out of left field from anything that actually fucking occurs in the piece, that the Watchmen, basically Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre, are hunting one of their former alliances Ozymandias, who has composed this goofy scheme to save the world from nuclear holocaust by simulating an alien attack on New York City that kills 250,000 civilians. I think it sucks: with so many great characters, if Moore had just taken more time and space, I feel he could have written a better story altogether, with less back story, or if not less back story, certainly more front story, if you will. Something that could have actually involved the governments of each opposing country maybe, and gave more orderly clues as the mystery progresses, and not just conjure some weird crap about a simulated alien attack on the earth that it feels like Moore just tapped on at the end after he finished writing each individual character's story.
But I'm a story man, and I suppose that's only half the comic book. The other half is obviously the illustrations themselves, which I think are undoubtedly done very well and are works of great talent. The artist, Dave Gibbons, gives life to all of Moore's creations with style and breaks the mold of the simple comic book sets of boxes by expanding them and manipulating them as he pleases, at times with illustrations that stretch entire pages, and others just simple and to the point.
So all in all, that's my take. I certainly enjoyed parts of it very much, but perhaps in the end my expectations were too high. If you are considering reading it, and if that is the case I hope you didn't just read this because I gave away the ending, perhaps read it as something not on par with timeless works of western fiction, but instead as a damn well-written comic book, as comic books go.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Much like higher education itself in this country, jazz higher education programs around the United States are certainly not created equal. In Chicago, an aspiring jazz musician is lucky to be able to choose from the noteworthy jazz studies programs of DePaul, Roosevelt, Northwestern, Columbia, and Northern Illinois Universities. Outside of these examples in Chicagoland, one’s list of options grows thin of finding a university jazz ensemble ripe with highly creative and artistically mature musicians.
That is what is so unique about The University of Chicago’s Jazz X-Tet large group jazz ensemble (“X” symbolizing the unknown variable of mathematics, referencing that the ensemble’s size is subject to change). The group played its most recent concert last Thursday, June 5th, 2008 in Fulton Recital Hall on the campus of The U. of C. This third and final concert of the school year featured guest artist Jeff Parker of Tortoise on guitar. Though the University does feature a music department unsurprisingly renown in many academic circles as one of the top places to study musicology or music theory, the school does not actually feature a music performance major (they do offer a music major with emphasis on theory and musicology), and certainly not a jazz studies major.
Nonetheless, the Jazz X-Tet in concert is a beaming example of artistic large ensemble cooperation mixed with large doses of individual creative freedom. At the helm is director Mwata Bowden, a legend in Chicago known for his lifetime of contribution to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). With the X-Tet, Bowden follows his own personal avant garde rubric on jazz direction by dissecting each piece to its core elements and allowing practically limitless freedom for his musicians to creatively improvise in extended free sections, often going beyond appropriate key signature or even the commonplace way of making sound out of one’s instrument. With collective improvisation that can begin with one soloist and often expand to include the entire band, it may seem that Bowden has completely lost control. However, like the conductor of a highly disciplined symphony, Bowden instead masterfully orchestrates the band to an intense climax, then back down into the piece. This is perhaps more a testament to the student musicians in the X-Tet, who, as young as they may be as mostly college students (some are graduate students), display a deep artistic maturity in understanding Bowden’s avant garde creative wishes.
The concert on Thursday featured the X-Tet weave through familiar jazz standards like Gingerbread Boy and Ellington’s Stray-Horn, both by somewhat esoteric jazz legend Jimmy Heath, coupled with two contemporary compositions from the modern jazz scene, the mellow yet cerebral Blue After Two, by New York based trombonist and band leader John Fedchock, and Count Bubba, a ubiquitous heal-stomper by composer and band leader Gordon Goodwin which served as the heavy handed finale to the evening. Without a doubt, each piece carried the signature creative stamp given by Bowden and the band with sectional and ensemble improvisation, and an “anything goes” artistic vision that constantly challenges the audience, making it utterly impossible to imagine what could possibly come next in the hour and a half show of rich, live music.
And not to be outdone, guest artist Jeff Parker, the Chicago-based experimental guitarist of post-rock group Tortoise, contributed his rich knowledge of diminished jazz chords as well as his willingness to explore the avant garde with use of pedals and effects on his feature tune, Ellington’s Stray-horn. Parker’s superior technical knowledge of the guitar as well as familiarity with experimental music allowed him to not just feel at home within the X-Tet’s musical philosophy, but star. His musical spotlight was unsurprisingly one of the top highlights of the evening.
Parker’s star may have shined brightest, but it was not untested by tremendous X-Tet student soloists Donnie Bungum on tenor saxophone and Ben Neuman on piano, each a junior in the college, majoring in chemistry and philosophy, respectively. Bungum’s tone and technical prowess with the saxophone is practically uncanny for someone not found deep in the jazz studies department of one of the nation’s leading musical institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, Neuman’s skill of quick tempo bop-like rhythms on the piano could not also go unnoticed by even the most casual observer.
For all those willing to travel down to Hyde Park for a Thursday evening concert (The X-Tet’s next show will not be until Fall of 2008, check The U. of C.’s music department website for details: http://music.uchicago.edu), you will be reminded that jazz is not dead among today’s young people, but alive and well, continuing to occupy its necessary place within the artistic consciousness of America’s new generations.
Monday, April 13, 2009
And there it is: food. It is actually over food that my first real meeting with the four Burmese Chin immigrants came to pass. These four are from Burma, or Myanmar. They don't speak English very well at all, of course, and although that fact makes them labeled and disadvantaged in the US, one should recognize that they do already speak 3 languages: Burmese, Malay, and their Chin language. The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma and are hated and oppressed by their totalitarian government. They were never in a refugee camp because there are not camps in Burma or at its borders, but instead, were constantly on the run from the Burmese military that would put them in jail or forced labor for merely being Chin (and Christian I should mention, the Chins were Christianized by I believe Baptist missionaries). So calling them refugees I guess is kind of incorrect, but perhaps it is useful to indicate what is basically their situation in the US.
Their names, which I am still trying to get right, are Tawk Zel (age 22), Khua Tin Han (35 or so), Neng Sian Lian (45), and John (22). They live in a pretty shabby apartment on Roosevelt Road and Blanchard in Wheaton. I met them earlier in an extraordinarily awkward first meeting mediated by Jenna, the volunteer coordinator for World Relief, and another Chin man who spoke English and lived in the same apartment. That is one plus, actually, that there already are a lot of other Chin living near them and have some community base. At this first meeting, we got it through to them that I was going to be their American friend and would see them sometimes, that's about as far as I think we got.
Therefore, because of the mere simplicity our interactions must take, I constantly wonder what is going through their heads. For one thing, the fact that I was chosen to be their friend, and that they didn't chose me, seems like it may be a strange concept, at least to a Westerner like myself. But maybe they haven't considered that at all. I often wonder if they question my sincerity, or why I would want to try to spend time with them, but again, with more consideration I think both of these anxieties are figments of my own culturally constituted psyche. Hopefully, they truly appreciate me as much as they can and believe that I am making an effort to help them assimilate and get the feel of our commercially consumer-driven society.
So today, I arrive at 6:15pm as I told them before a previous time I stopped by. I had to stop in a second time, after the first meeting, to change the time we were to meet because I had work. This was another event I was anxious about completing, but got through. This time, we were planning on playing football (soccer, to the layman) the international language, which was practically all I could think of to do with them considering our linguistic barrier. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy, and there was no soccer to be played at all. Arriving at their door, they let me in right away, and said sit down, about the most complex thing they can basically say (I don't mean to sound condescending, but it gives you an idea of the level we can communicate verbally). So, I said, no football today, we can do something else. I had brainstormed all day about what I could possibly to with them if soccer was rained out. I thought of driving them around and pointing out community essentials, like the library, hospital, and Wheaton College. So there we were, sitting around awkwardly trying to decide. But they got the picture and as they spoke among themselves, I asked if they needed to go and buy food. They responded in the overwhelmingly affirmative. First deciding who of the four should go, to which I responded by holding up four fingers, which they understood meant that they all could come.
So we all packed into my piece of shit little car and drove to the Jewel near their house, which is also right next to where I work, Huntington Learning Center. As we walked by Huntington I pointed out to them and said "my work, my work". The parents inside waiting in the lobby looked back at me pointing in their direction with overwhelming confusion and a health dose of indignation. Hence, I moved on into the store pretty quickly.
Once we were in there, the guys basically knew what to do. I didn't think I'd have to explain to them how to use a shopping cart and what not; they had been to the store before. But naturally, I was fascinated and not surprised by what they chose to purchase. I wonder if most of the things in the aisles were unknown to them, like cereal, most spices, processed foods, etc. But I don't certainly don't think they all were. In any case, they pretty much bought purely raw meats and fruits and vegetables, pure salt, sugar, toilet paper, and Coca-Cola. Man, you cannot escape that stuff. But looking at the guys, obesity is clearly not a problem to them with their native diet. God, I hate American food sometimes, but most of the time, I love it.
We packed the food into the car, which already had a pretty full trunk, and had to squeeze along side my soccer ball and cleats and gym bag had I brought for soccer. Neng Sian Lian looked at them and laughed as he said "very big." Of course, my big, well-nourished body towers over all of them. As soon as we arrived at their apartment, Tawk, before even putting all the groceries away (with which I tried meagerly to help with) put on some Chin music videos. The guys have a DVD player and small TV, as well as a book of DVDs and we watched some very basic video of Burma. The people in the video were singing and doing some very simple dancing, featuring views of their countryside and traditional lifestyle. These videos are spliced with clips of some campy scenes from the Gospel being reenacted from some old cheap Christian film.
Neng Sian Lian offered me a Coke, which I thought would be rude not to accept, so I drank it and had an apple at the same time, which is a strange combination. What I couldn't figure out was why Tawk put these videos on so immediately. Maybe, I thought, because he wanted to show me and relax, or maybe I thought, because they are all he has as vision of his homeland that is gone forever. Maybe he missed watching them like he misses his home, or they'll simple all he has to watch, at least that's in a language they can speak. I wonder if they think about home all the time, if they want to go back. They must. They must have family and friends they miss dearly, and they must be afraid of this suburban landscape that has them trapped into a small apartment, with campy videos to watch as their only communion with their homeland, their identity.
But I think that's all I'll say on the matter. I must iterate that it's not as if these men just came from a completely traditional lifestyle into America. They must be pretty familiar with Western trends. Nothing is more evident of this than their clothes. John's clothing was quite nice and trendy, even for America. His jeans looked almost designer brand, and he wore a pretty sweet Nike track jacket. But they do need help. They need help assimilating and learning to live in this very individually driven culture (as opposed to more family based, which America is certainly not as much compared to most Eastern cultures, sorry to generalize).
After having half my Coke, I told them I had to leave, but that we would meet again on Wednesday to play football. I'm certainly looking forward to that, to slowly getting to know them, and for them to get to know me. I hope over time that I can learn each of their stories, about life in Burma as a Chin, and about their feelings on America so far. I know that Neng Sian Lian has children he is separated from in Burma. That must be awful, and soccer will not alleviate such longing. But over time, I know I can help. Hopefully, by driving them around today, I already have.
Monday, March 30, 2009
In actuality, it is never quite that easy to describe a concert experience to someone not in attendance of any musical genre. Yes, we’re all familiar with what the basic rock concert is like, or what actions some notorious live groups take on stage, like Led Zeppelin for example. But imagine you have never heard of Led Zeppelin or even rock and roll. After your first Zeppelin concert, using simple words to describe the magnitude of what you have seen to someone who has not seen it would be, frankly, impossible.
I use this Zeppelin analogy as a way to describe my task to you, the reader. The music of the Billy Cobham / George Duke Band was so unique and also somewhat short lived that few people even with a jazz consciousness are familiar with it. Furthermore, their musical style, if given a name, is fusion. The very name, fusion (typically meaning a fusion of jazz and rock), though useful in trying to group a time period of jazz neatly into the history books, inadequately describes the dramatically different music that separate musicians played. If one compares the central ideas inherent in Bitches Brew, to the recordings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and those of Weather Report, all three beacons of jazz ‘fusion’ as we know it, one would find three very different ideologies of style. I know I do.
Hopefully that serves as a proper introduction to the Billy Cobham / George Duke Band concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival of 1976. Let fusion be the term that describes their music, but until you hear it for yourself, attempt to have no predisposition of what it will resemble. The group’s line-up was a perfect quartet of masterful players who all made a name for themselves playing with anyone but the band that appeared at Montreux. Cobham, co-leader and drummer, had played with Miles Davis on the album Live-Evil, and at this point in ’76, had already co-founded and toured extensively with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. George Duke, the other co-leader and keyboardist, was already known for being a constant collaborator with Frank Zappa and had also played with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and bassist Stanley Clarke. The other half of the quartet unnamed in its title is Alphonso Johnson of Weather Report fame on bass, and John Scofield, on guitar, a young and budding jazz fusionist who would go on to achieve his own considerable solo fame.
Amazing how just a quartet could seem like a veritable who’s who of jazz fusion at this mid ‘70s period. However, with all these various influences thrown into the blender together, the result in Montreux is a unique, high-energy display of groove-oriented musicians who understand the collectivity of small ensemble playing and throw in a touch of atmospheric whimsicality (particularly on the song “Almustafa the Beloved”, which features a sampled oral interpretation by Chapman Stick and vocals by Duke and Johnson). On tracks like “Juicy” and “Hip Pockets,” a relentless groove is laid down as a foundation by not just the combination of Cobham and Johnson, but the melodic instruments of keyboard and guitar, who dance effortlessly into perfectly timed phrases, mixed with sections of tension building, time-keeping rhythm that set up intervals of improvisational explosions. Johnson even manages to dance among his own groove, providing improvised fills up and down the bass neck with record speed. However, the driver of the group is unquestionably Cobham himself, whose technical prowess over his elaborate drum-set fills, transitions between grooves, and begins or ends songs, giving the group an essential piece of its unique sound that undoubtedly brings to mind funk, blues, and rock simultaneously.
But this unique sound is by no means complete without a contribution by each member of the band, creating a truly collective quartet where each musician is truly dependent on the other three to give context to his creativity. This is what is so special about the group: their insistent cooperation. Each player understands his role perfectly, where and when to stand out, and when to fit back into the ensemble, always building for another epic release that may feature one musician, or them all. It is truly a perfect example of the term “jam” as it describes group improvisation alone (and not the subsequent culture that has become synonymous with it contemporarily in
Both Duke and Scofield’s playing can constantly go back and forth between melody and rhythm, as the group switches grooves several times within songs, creating tunes that are multi-faceted and intriguing. And when any one member of the group has paid his dues on the rhythm side of the ensemble, they are all capable of slicing in with either a well-timed riff on keyboard, short improvisation of bass, tasteful drum fill, or a brief, but screaming guitar entry. All told, a constant cycle is repeated that fluctuates between the sum of the whole group musical organism and its featured partitions.
But there are no more words that can go further in describing the music of Billy Cobham / George Duke Band, at least not that I can produce. I could write pages and pages on each tune from this epic concert, but the music undoubtedly must be heard by the individual to be understood. And thanks to the magic of youtube.com, anyone with internet access may view the majority of the concert with a simple search. I encourage you to do so. This concert is one of my own personal favorites, and that’s why I recommend it so strongly. One can spend a lifetime with jazz and still discover a new group or performance that has completely mastered its own unique approach. Enjoy.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Anyway, something else highly topical to this Monday and this blog entry was watching Jimmy Fallon's first show of Late Night (naturally taking over for Conan O'Brien) with my dad. It was his idea; he says he has liked Jimmy Fallon since he saw his movie Fever Pitch about Boston Red Sox fans and what not. Now, I'm going to state the obvious information that's already in the room: most people were predicting this show to suck, to fail, because Fallon is too awkward, doesn't have the right interviewing perosnal skills, and just isn't a very funny comedian to begin with. The natural response to such criticism is that Conan was awkward and a poor interviewer himself on his stint on Late Night, which wasn't good for three years but eventually gained a loyal fan base and earned him the seat in the Tonight Show.
Well, after watching the first show, I think the concerns of most early critics have been realized. The show was not funny, quite awkward, and at times, downright awful, almost unbearable. His monologue jokes were alright actually, though his delivery and poise made them seem less funny and apt- sorry to say for his writers' sake. This was followed by an audience game show participation segment which was just fucking gross. Its theme: getting people to lick inanimate objects for $10. After commercials was Fallon's first guest, the legendary, but usually poor interviewee, Robert De Niro. This interview was nothing more than strange: it featured a clueless Fallon poking De Niro with some whimsical questions. The first few questions, I must say though, were actually somewhat funny, in which Fallon said he would ask De Niro for only one word answers to begin with to get things rolling. All in all, however, it was hardly an interview at all, or at least one that completely lacked purpose, direction, and meaning. De Niro was followed by the likeable and talented Justin Timberlake, who did well in his segment in spite of Fallon's poor questions and lack of tact. The musical guest was the also legendary Van Morrison, whose performance was good for a man his age, but only that, and nothing much more. I personally did not care for the song, but hey, like everything on this site, that's just me, and just one man's opinion.
So on that note, I'll say that I'm pretty smug. I'm a very harsh critic, but I expect art (and we can debate how much television talk-shows are an art form) to be as true as possible. What do I mean by that? I'm not sure, but, though I know it's more difficult than it may look to make a TV show like Late Night popular and likeable, or at least I realize there is a lot that goes into the equation, when one has a template for people that do their job well (i.e. Johnny Carson) then we have no choice but to compare and give credit and criticism where they are due.
So, Fallon, your first show sucked, may god aid your shows to come.
Perhaps the one bright spot most viewers would recognize was Fallon's house band, the omnipresent, tasteful hip hop combo, The Roots. They are a talented group no doubt, and are clearly meant to be a very modern and trendy incantation of the typical talk show band, one that appeals to younger viewers. I get the feeling they won't be on Fallon's show forever if it lasts, but instead the position will be shifting. In any case, Fallon and his writers made good use of them during a monologue segment entitled something like "Breaking the News- Slow Jam." It was ok. I personally do prefer something more old fashioned like Conan's Max Weinberg 7. This band had a more catchy and accessible theme and style of music than The Roots, whose opening and closing theme to Late Night I found to be somewhat irritating.
But again, that's just me, and I could be wrong. All in all, however, Fallon has a long way to go to catch up with Conan, but he has time, it's just the first show.
And man, I don't know why I made my very first entry on a TV show I didn't like. We'll see if it becomes a trend.