Friday, April 30
I don't know whether to be amused or horrified.
At 3:11 Friday morning, I stumble out of some strange dream to realize that my phone is ringing. Alan explains that their car has broken down on the way back from a Ben Folds show, stranding himself and an unspecified set of friends in Council Bluffs. Realizing that I have far too much to get done before I can leave for Iowa and college ultimate frisbee sectionals, I tell Alan to call me back if he can't get ahold of anyone else.
Somewhere around 8:00, my alarm goes off and I wake up with severely jumbled memories. It seems just this side of likely that Alan actually did call me back, and that I fell asleep instead of throwing on some clothes and heading for the car. I stand in the living room and contemplate this for a while, then (instead of checking the call log on my cell phone, or remembering that if I were going to drive to Council Bluffs, I probably would have asked for directions) call Alan and wake him up.
After we establish that the second phone call never, in fact, occurred, I take a shower and think dark thoughts about the subjectivity of experience and the banality of my dreams.
Saturday night in Decorah, Iowa. Besides sectionals, it's prom night. Every room in town, but one, is booked. The better part of the team has crammed into that one room, along with years of fossilized cigarette smoke and four games worth of sweat. When I left, a Die Hard sequel was on television and no one had spoken in whole minutes.
I am in a minivan in the parking lot, trying to sleep on a bench seat. There is rain on the metal roof. Charter buses keep pulling in and out. Or maybe it is only one charter bus. I think about how when I was a little kid I would go outside and sit in one of the vehicles during a shower, just to watch the rain and hear that sound. Between parked cars, tall trees, and grain bins at sunset, I think I was more in touch with the contemplative life when I was twelve.
Decorah is built on and around a set of tree-covered bluffs. The terrain reminds me a little of Fayetteville. There're a Lutheran college and a lot of little businesses with self-consciously Norwegian names. The Wal-Mart looks small and old. What we have seen of the campus is appealing, and likewise the downtown, in a subdued way. Still, it's hard to escape the sense of too many Lutherans, too much of the wrong kind of quiet that I couldn't handle any more in small town Nebraska.
I keep thinking about how Greg Brown lives somewhere in this state.
Sunday night in Lincoln, Nebraska. Too tired to write, I drink beer with John and Levi. We talk about Zionism and neoconservatism, and about grad school and girls and getting published and just getting the hell out of Nebraska. When I finally make my way to a computer there are e-mails from Iraq and England and Missouri and North Dakota.
I don't really know how to respond to any of them.
the end of another semester,
and along with new-mown grass and
the scent of flowering trees
there is panic in the air.
myself, i'm not too worried
although i know i ought to be
if not about one final set of
last minute papers and mangled deadlines
then about what i'm going to do with my life after this
there seems to be a universe of possibility
if i can muster the agency to grab some of it
and make it into a concrete shape
those of you who have some things figured out,
i'm taking suggestions
and job offers.
yesterday the wind came into town and
filled the air with dust and the debris of
trashcans overturned, their contents exploding
it seemed all at once ridiculous, out of proportion
and yet totally normal, the background noise of a life
i'm only half aware of moving in
it came with the first tornado watch of the season,
the deep-shaded greens and grays you only see during
Re-reading the introduction to Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel:
Every cell in the body is marked with the pattern of the genes that stripe the chromosomes of the original fertilized egg. This is the physiological fact, the minute, infinitely complicated pattern of organic individuality. So, too, there is a psychological secret determinant. Each of us is a specific individual, that one and no other, out of billions. I think each of us knows his own mystery with a knowing that precedes the origins of all knowledge. None of us ever gives it away. No one can. We envelop it with talk and hide it with deeds.
Yet we always hope that somehow the others will know it is there, that a mystery in the other we cannot know will respond to a mystery in the self we cannot understand. The only full satisfaction life offers us is this sense of communion. We seek it constantly. Sometimes we find it. As we grow older we learn that it is never complete and sometimes it is entirely illusory.
But we keep looking.
I did an oral history interview with this guy the other day. I think I did a terrible job asking questions, but once you got him past the boilerplate stuff, so to speak, he had so much to say it would have been hard not to get something worthwhile.
Tonight, a page into the text of an oral presentation I don't have any clue how to finish, I break off and walk to Duggan's Pub for an open stage night. I'm surprised when most of the people playing turn out to be good.
A guy in a floppy, narrow-brimmed brown cap plays some Townes Van Zandt and the best Michael Jackson cover I ever expect to hear. Another guy who says he went to Wayne State for two years gets up and does Neil Young and the Dead. Shawn Cole, who is a badass on the harmonica and played it some on Lifted or The Story is the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, does a few with Levi. Levi sings a Greg Brown (by way of Glen Phillips) tune. I take my leave and come back to this godforsaken computer filled place where there is no ventillation.
Greg Brown's "Jesus & Elvis" comes on the radio stream as I sit here. I feel like saying something about what a great song it is.
I still don't know how I'm ever going to finish this thing.
Presently, I am going to my History of Rock lecture.
First, if you have Quicktime, you can go listen to Wilco's new album. As far as I can tell, the whole thing is there. The first track starts out slow and builds to a fuzzy, rocking kind of instrumental climax. I have high expectations for the rest.
I remember Jeff Tweedy, early in one of the best shows I've ever seen and fresh off the crashing success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, asking "How many of you 'borrowed' our record?" Applause. "How many of you bought it anyway?" And the crowd goes nuts.
If Glen Phillips is my favorite guitar-banging songwriter right now, then Nickel Creek are my favorite... Well, what are Nickel Creek? Amazingly talented bluegrass players, yeah, but it has been obvious for a while that they're taking this music places that it has very seldom been, places it needs to go. Thile and the Watkins somehow play to most of my respect for traditional music, and most of my hopes for music's future.
I used to regret having missed, in some sense, most of the music that seemed like it really mattered. And it's true, I never saw Led Zeppelin, an intact Grateful Dead on a good night, Bob Dylan when it was possible not to know who he was, Simon & Garfunkel when you could be sure it was for real, U2 before you had to wonder if they were going to be the band you believed in, Johnny Cash, the Band.
But I've seen Nickel Creek. In a week or two I'll see them again. And suddenly here is some perspective. This music matters, this is history being made and the future being born - at least the history I want to know and the future I care about.
sunrise 7:48 a.m.
rolling over-and-back, they are
swept out over Nebraska
(no doubt regretting it,
turn my car down the highway
past bare frozen fields,
sky's tide rising in the rear
this one goes out to
Wednesday morning, I sit in the lobby of the Dude Rancher Lodge and sketch, sketchily. There is an auditorium across the street. Set into the walls are blocks with a pattern of four rhomboid shapes in a grid. Across the top and bottom of each block, sans-serif capitals spell LHS (above) and AUD (below). I discover what LHS stands for, and find myself unable to commit it to memory.
Through the same window, I can see a tree and a lamp post. They defy my pencil. Eventually, I surrender and turn to the details of furniture and fireplace paraphernalia. Shortly, my fellow travelers arrive and we depart the lobby for our final Montana breakfast.
At checkout, I realize that there are still three bottles of Corona, that piss-yellow cerveza mas fina, in my sink. The ice has all melted and the beer is probably skunked. I leave the bottles and my last sad dollar bill for housecleaning.
When I came upstairs, Jae was watching The Ten Commandments on ABC - an unexpected reminder that it's Palm Sunday. Thus the guy walking down the sidewalk with a palm branch in one hand, earlier. And maybe a connection to the beautiful weather and the two skunks, one large and brightly striped, the other small and dingy, wandering dazed across the fields where we play frisbee. Like a character in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, the consistency I demand from my universe is not always logical.
Years and years ago, on one of the Palm Sundays we spent in Kansas, the Culver United Methodist Church gave out crosses made from dried palm leaves. They were six or seven inches tall and the color of dried grass. When we got back to my Grandma's house, I put a piece of magnetic tape on the back of my cross and stuck it to the refrigerator.
When we cleaned out her apartment just after this Christmas, the palm cross magnet had migrated to the door of the deep freeze. Otherwise it was the same. Still a small shock of recognition - I put that there. It was like a thousand other things in the world that had been her home. Random pieces of junk and irreplaceable antiques alike had all become layered and weighted with memory.
Sometimes I wonder about all of the tokens and totems we surround ourselves with, the little signifiers. I have piles of ticket stubs, half a dozen paperweights, a jar of bottle caps, dozens of coins, three busted watches. This wooden animal came from Bolivia, that rock is from a gravel road in Iowa, I picked up the stick on a mountain near Taos. They're like the physical embodiments of a vocabulary in some private language. Little chunks of memory and sympathetic magic.
I imagine this an impulse older than the human race. Even before beads on leather strings there must have been colorful rocks, bits of bone and wood.
It's not something every programmer can learn. Most programmers don't have any aptitude for UI design whatsoever. It's an art, and like any art, it requires innate ability. You can learn to be a better writer. You can learn to be a better illustrator. But most people can't write and can't draw, and no amount of practice or education is going to make them good at it. Improved, yes; good, no.
I am inclined to disagree.
Actually, I was inclined to write "Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit." and move on, but I realized that might be lacking in nuance.
I don't feel up to tackling the usability argument here, especially since it's kind of a sectarian usability argument. I get my kicks elsewhere these days. My problem here is the innate ability thing. It's not that I don't believe in innate ability or its impact on art. But what does that last sentence mean? "Improved, yes; good, no." So no matter how much better they get they'll never be good? Some people just happen to have been touched by the magic finger of Art and everyone else is SOL?
I admit it seems that way, some days. The best art is produced by people who are wired to sense more and express it better. For the vast majority of people who don't have the faculties of a great poet-essayist or draftsman, no amount of practice is likely to render them more than competent. But writing and drawing and UI design are all skills and skillsets, which means precisely that they are learned and practiced. And competence, no matter what disdain may be heaped upon the term, is admirable. I think it's also achievable. (I think the design of interfaces is part and parcel of being a competent programmer; this being one reason I do not consider myself a competent programmer.)
This has been something of an exercise in missing the point. Or at least in avoiding it. I agree with some bits of the quoted article, anyway. It's only that lately I am finding all sorts of assertions about innate and acquired human traits bothersome.