LP’s, EP’s, and MP3 Brevity

Remember when men were real men, women were real women, and albums were…well…not singles?

For that matter, remember when singles and EP’s were released in specific distinction against an album? In days of yesteryear, there were a few albums by intentional artists that were not just a collection of many songs, but a musical and lyrical journey that had a definite beginning, middle, and end…a plot, if you will. Albums by the likes of Bob Dylan or U2 or Pink Floyd, or any number of amazing musicians and lyricists that aspired for more than pop fluff, whatever their genre, to make a complete work. You didn’t just listen to a group of great songs with those albums…you went along for a ride that had a departure and an ending point.

I think we’ve lost that in our current mode of a la carte shopping. Recently I was browsing iTunes upon a recommendation from a trusted blog to check out a new band. I liked some of the tracks, and some had too much of a folk feel for my taste, so I purchased the tracks I liked and left the rest. Don’t I have the right for that? Certainly. Is it a good idea? Not necessarily. I have a feeling that the entire album might be a story, that it would take me on a specific journey were I to have purchased all of the tracks and listened to them from beginning to end. My excuse was that I didn’t want to spend the money on an entire album…yet I would spend money on a novel, knowing up front that I won’t like every chapter, simply on the principle that a plot takes us places we don’t like to go in order to weave a complete story. I wouldn’t just buy a few chapters from a novel…I wouldn’t get the entire experience.

Yet this is the sort of consumerism that drives our perusing of art. I choose music as an example partly because it is (arguably) the most dominant and easily accessible medium available today, but the ramifications extend far beyond this. Continuing with the example, though, I think that many artists surrender artistic merit for the sake of a business model, focusing on releasing individual tracks that will hook a listener, because that individual track is more likely to be purchased than an entire album.

I suppose, however, that there could be something said for the discovery. I’ve ended up purchasing albums from artists that I discovered through Starbucks free “Pick of the Week” program, albums that I likely wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Similarly, I wonder if the reader of Salinger’s chronicles of his fictional Glass Family, reading them as individual short stories, would have made the immediate connections that were more accessible to me reading them collected in Nine Stories.

Of course, the immediate literary answer to this is the poem, which is often meant to stand alone, at least when printed in literary journals. Yet, even here the poem is often a “chapter” in a larger story when read in the context of the collection in which it was intended.

A friend recently referred to Twitter as “a 160-character literature sniper.” His comment, while perhaps a bit over-stated, leaves me to ponder the result of our “sound-byte” culture, where one of the reasons for independent, briefer snippets of art removed from their context aren’t always just to serve as samplers, as it were, but often the recourse of those too impatient or too distracted to read an entire book, or to listen to an entire album by one artist (remember those friends that used to incessantly change the television channel or radio station?). At least full length movies can still hold us, although the descriptor of “epic length” is enough to keep some from the theatre.

What stories do we miss by not taking the time to take in the journey in its entirety? Is this perhaps metaphorical, indicative of our tendency to compartmentalize ourselves away from experiencing anything at its intended depth in the name of experiencing many things in the same time frame? Does this pose a warning to a mindset of quantity’s perceived supremacy over quality? Perhaps it does.

Or, perhaps I’m just over-analyzing.


(Photo Attribution:

Forward-Looking Inconvenience

This morning, I listened to a reading of Peter Taylor’s Port Chochere. The character of “Old Ben” is inspiring of sympathy…sort of in the same way that the elderly man in the garage inspires a sort of sympathy in my last post. There’s a great deal of depth to this character, a depth that leaves you disliking him and feeling sorry for him at the same time.

It’s interesting where fiction takes us when we read it…how it can take two different readers to two entirely different places. I found that I was placing myself in the position of an elderly man, separated from the world and watching it pass by, helpless to engage it despite my best efforts, and, most intensely, longing for affection. I can only imagine what it would be to experience a deprivation of affection from those closest to you, to live in anticipation as they politely engaged you for a defined period of time. What would it be like to exist in that precious time, knowing it would end soon…likely as soon as your children or grandchildren became hungry and needed to get some fresh air? What would it be like in the possible despair of knowing that you were condemned to remain in whatever environment in which they chose to limit their time? What sort of way would that be to finish out one’s mortal existence?

I suppose I carry this as a sort of guilt, because I know that, despite my best intentions, I did that very thing with my grandmother before her death last winter. I would travel to visit her whenever possible, sure, and I would talk to her on the phone sporadically. My phone conversations were cut short when I became irritated at having to repeat the same information over and over due to her rapidly deteriorating memory, and my visits were limited by boredom and an inability to engage her in conversation as she struggled to maintain contact with the reality surrounding her. I didn’t realize how many moments and potential conversational breakthroughs that I had permitted to pass without any attempt to apprehend them until they…and she…were gone. On my best day, I want to muster the energy to never let that happen again.

Karen and I still have grandparents on both sides of our family, but exist in the tension of knowing that they likely won’t be around much longer. I’ve been wondering today about the edge placed on their daily existence as they are confronted with their pending mortality. I wonder how it feels for them. I wonder how our visits feel to them. I wonder if those visits are giving of any sort of emotional life at all.

It’s so easy to become bored and disengaged when visiting elderly family…so easy to want to get back to the quicker pace of the daily lifestyle to which we’re accustomed. I think that temptation, though, may ironically be just the sort of flaw from which Old Ben suffered in Port Cochere: an escape from what was necessary in favor of what we want for ourselves. Phrases like “it’s not about me” become over-used to the point of disgusting cliche in some religious circles; the concept of “moving outside of yourself” has been used in one too many motivational speeches. Yet, the key to breathing some vitality into the final days of elderly family members is prioritizing their emotional pulse over our own comforts.

The beauty is that it is about us at one level, because we only benefit: we are offered the opportunity to hear amazing stories, and benefit from the wisdom of a life already lived…a chance to be warned away from mistakes. This reciprocates vitality back to the one giving the wisdom, because someone one receiving their wisdom means that their life meant something, that something will indeed be missing from the terrestrial world when they are gone.

Geographic distances make it difficult to see family members on a regular basis for most of us (assuming that most grandparents don’t Skype). So perhaps the focus of our effort should be quality instead of quantity? As the Holidays are around the proverbial corner, perhaps we can manage to partake of some wisdom, to take vitality to those elderly in our families, to just be present in a tangible way to those people.

I know that we’ll long for the same kindness when we’re in their position.

Walking at Dusk

There’s an elderly gentleman that occasionally sits in a garage in the bottom of my apartment building. He just sort of watches people come and go, observing, nodding hello in a typical Southern way when you speak to him in passing. I think he’s the father or grandfather of a guy who lives elsewhere in the building. This elderly gentleman invokes that curious sort of sympathy that one tends to feel when seeing someone who’s entire life seems to us to be comprised of sitting and watching people go by, perhaps remembering a time when they could engage, but finding themselves unable to do so now.

I worked the evening shift at my last job, and always used the same street to get there. Two or three days a week I would drive a few blocks down that street around 2:00 in the afternoon, and there was this guy who was almost always sitting in a folding lawn chair in what I presumed to be his lawn, watching the traffic go by. He was old, but not that old. I always wondered if he was disabled, or perhaps suffering from some sort of psychiatric condition. He always seemed so separated from those of us with places to be.

There have been several such people that I’ve seen during various commutes and living arrangements in my life. They always leave an impression on my mind in some form or another. Those around us invariably do, I suppose.

I’ve been trying to make a habit of taking a walk in the evenings while weather permits, just to get away from computer screens, clear my head, and get some of the fresh air that all of us get far too little of. This evening there was an older gentleman (I don’t think its the same guy who is always sitting in the garage downstairs) walking with a guy that was my age. I couldn’t see them well, as it was just a bit past dusk, but they smiled and nodded in that Southern politeness that is part of the culture in the American Southeast as they kept moving past.

Perhaps it was because I saw them at dusk tonight, at a time when I was trying to focus on things other than day-to-day stresses and material stuff, in what the Celts would call a “thin place,” that I thought of these other people I’ve seen. I’m not sure why I find myself considering them…I don’t have any amazingly profound truth to draw out of painting verbal portraits of them, although I have a close friend that, when speaking of poetry, says that capturing the moment is profound enough in itself. I just know that it really makes me want to be present for my father, who has always been there for me, when he nears the end of his life. I don’t want him (or my mother for that matter) do be sitting alone in a folding lawn chair watching traffic go by, wishing to engage with someone at a deeper level than “hello.” I want to be able to take a walk with him, or even let him sit in my garage if he wanted to watch the people go by (although I don’t have a garage, but…)

The funny thing is that my father would probably do just that because he has always been a people watcher. I would always see him peeking through the curtains when he heard neighbors or people walking down the street, always curious, always observant. I inherited that from him, because I find myself observant in the same ways, always fascinated by people. That’s likely part of the draw to both writing and psychology for me, because I’m always fascinated by the human experience.

And, ultimately, I suppose that’s what seeing these people through the course of my life has been: an encounter with the human experience, poignant at its worst, evoking laughter at its best. I’m sure there will be other people on other commutes in other places that I live. If nothing else, I hope they remind me of the importance of each other. If I’m really fortunate, they will give inspiration and teach me, as well.

Mid-Level Management

Don’t we all struggle with time management?

Seriously, the fact that we’ve coined the phrase “time management” is indicative of something that’s seriously amiss in our collective lives. It’s something that has plagued Karen and I since we’ve been married: work the 9-5, pay the bills, work on the things we’re really passionate about, make time for each other, take in all of the information we’re overloaded with…ummm, I mean, fortunate enough to have coming into our brains. Not to mention the logistics of household management. Someone has to cook, clean, do laundry…ah, if only we could be unburdened by those insignificant but annoying details of life.

Well, as part of her current servitude in the corporate world, Karen attended a course in time management and goal-setting this week. This was one of those things that I didn’t even know was going on with her, despite all of our digital calendar syncing and other tools for productivity…um…management. She was really impressed by the course, and wanted to discuss goals as we are considering the next phase of our educational and professional endeavors.

These goals included very distinct labels for every small part of life. My response was that I already did this: I have a different calendar in my trusty iCal for major responsibilities: work, personal, educational, etc. These are color-coordinated with all of the documents on my desktop, and synced to her iCal via our Google Calendars…I have a seriously complex system up and running here to make sure our busy lives are well…managed.

You see, I push back on these types of courses because it seems that they always want you to label yourself in some capacity; this particular course wants you to distinguish whether you’re a “short-burst” or “long-burst” worker, for example. Well, we all know how I feel about labels, so…I became a bit incorrigible relatively early in the conversation.

“Your dislike of labels makes it really difficulty to teach you anything!” Karen exclaimed in exasperation. And thus the conversation digressed to a point where it had to be better….managed.

There was some sort of positive contribution to be made here, I must admit. We discussed how we had observed each other work in grad school: Karen will work on a project for an extended period of time with no break until it is finished. I budget specific amounts of time for individual projects each day, carrying several simultaneously to distribute the workload. That’s useful to know, I realize, in thinking of how we handle various projects, and ways in which we can assist each other with those projects. This helps us to have better household…management.

Wait a second…are we managing too much here?

See, I keep telling myself that I’ll be less stressed after we achieve our educational goals and I’m able to actively pursue what I really love doing as my living. Then again, though, I sometimes ponder if I’m not actually doing that more actively now than I think I am. Then I write this off as being a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, and go back to the beginning…a vicious circle of “now what???” that requires further management. So, the answer appears to be that our lives will always necessitate active management.

The geek in me thinks it is really cool that this gives me an excuse to find new productivity tools in which to assist in this management. The philosopher in me thinks it is robbing us of something intrinsic to our humanity if we lose the time to be contemplative. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that this is a plot by the technology industry to force us to need more of their productivity tools. The realist in me realizes that we just have to make intentional efforts to get away from the noise and prioritize what is most important in our lives.

The realist wins, which may be unfortunate, but is…well…realistic. The important thing, I think, is to maintain some optimism, not succumb to needless cultural pressures, and somehow keep focused on the goals in our life that are most important.

See? I think I can manage that.

Passing Too Closely

"Daily Traffic" by Nam Nguyen. Used under Creative Commons.Did somebody need a nap?

This morning I read about this nasty little road rage incident in which a Canadian ex-politico was ultimately charged in the death of a bicycle rider that he allegedly drug from his car onto sidewalks and other sordid travels until the rider eventually fell off into the street after being struck against a mailbox.

And that, ladies and gents, is what we call a disproportionate response.

In all seriousness…in the seriousness that this atrocity deserves, I hope…I’m more than a little concerned that the Times would refer to this incident as “road rage.” Granted, road rage has earned its place in both legal and psychological vernacular as it has become common worldwide. The more appropriate terminology here, however, is murder, don’t you think? Intentionality or un-intentionality, or the presence or lack of premeditation, may alter the legal nuance of the act, but, at the end of the day, one human being took the life of another, something none of us have a right to do.

I’ll try to eschew an attempt to diagnose or theologically label this sort of behavior, as it goes by different names in different realms. What I think we may be seeing, however, is a consistent difficulty seeing fellow human beings as human once we’re caged in the metal frame of a motor vehicle. I jokingly claim that the average Virginian loses about 10 IQ points upon seating themselves behind the wheel of a car, but, in all seriousness, I think we begin to have our perception of each other distorted while driving, to see each other as less than human, as nameless causes of our inconvenience, as the proverbial straw breaking the back of our day’s camel.

I’m not the first to come up with this idea. Although I (of course) cannot find the article for the life of me now, another writer recently hypothesized that walking is not only a more environmentally friendly solution than driving, but also a more humane solution, as, seeing each other as people sharing a common space with ourselves, we are significantly less likely to enact some sort of twisted revenge for their act of frustration, fear, or other momentary lapse of reason. While I discover upon an examination of my own obligations and geographic location that no longer driving would transform my life into one of unemployed dysfunction (and I live in a city…this would be even more the case for rural dwellers), thus recognizing that we can’t leave the automobile behind us, I think there is much to the suggestion for us to meditate on. Our morning commutes should be marked by the realization that those are other people…mothers, daughters, brothers, fathers, sons, and sisters…behind the wheels of the automobiles whizzing by us. They are also late, stressed, overwhelmed, and frustrated, just like us. They are as imperfect as us, and thus make mistakes and have accidents (they’re called “accidents” for a reason). There is a short distance between giving the one-finger salute (of which I’m certainly guilty) and letting a brief fantasy of revenge take over. I wonder, when that fantasy takes place, if any of us are far from doing what this Canadian man did to his fellow human being? There are repercussions for that bicyclist’s death throughout many lives, an earth-shattering grief that exponentially outweighs the momentary frustration experienced in traffic. Yet, somehow, in the heat of the moment, with our guards down, something as trite as a lane change without a signal can become worthy of that grief for us.

Each day we are faced with repeated opportunities to make the choice of either giving life, or taking it. We can’t afford even the momentary consideration of taking that life, physically, spiritually, or emotionally. To do so leaves us all too close to the same atrocity that occurred in Ottawa on Monday.

I don’t want to get that close. Do you?

Image attribution: Nam Nguyen under Creative Commons.