|Bradenton, Florida. A shit-hole ghetto town about an hour south of Tampa. I think it was the summer of 1990. I remember it being really, really hot. I was in high school and my friend Chris suggested starting a band. He played guitar already and told me I should get a bass. I took that week’s paycheck from the grocery store I worked at and went to a local used music equipment shop and asked what that could get me, I bought whatever it was they suggested. In my memory it was a sunburst Fender but I honestly can’t remember. I didn’t know I needed an amplifier for it to work, and had trouble figuring out how to play it at home. The following week we got together in another friends garage for “band practice” which was a serious lesson in humility. I showed up without an amp, but luckily (or unluckily) someone there had a guitar amp I could plug into. This was the first time I’d ever heard what the bass even sounded like.|
Chris proposed that we start off playing “New Direction.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Chris pointed out that I was wearing a Gorilla Biscuits t-shirt at the time, New Direction of course was the first song on their recently released album Start Today. I didn’t actually have the album yet, I had a dubbed cassette copy that my neighbor Max had made for me which I listened to all the time – so once Chris started playing it I knew what he was talking about, but Max hadn’t written the names of any of the songs so didn’t know what any of them were called. Max would later sell me his blue and white swirled vinyl copy of that album, which has remained one of my prized possessions even to this day. Anyway, I knew the song but I had no idea how to play it, given that I had no idea how to play bass. I stood there in the garage all afternoon while my friends jammed one song after another that I knew but I had no idea how to play. That was the only band practice I ever went to, and I wasn’t ever invited to be any of their bands ever again, rightly so.
I kept that bass and every once and a while I’d pick it up and hope I’d magically learned how to play something. I never did. When I’d fantasize about being in a band I always pictured myself singing, so just never got motivated enough to try and learn it. Besides, my favorite band in town at the time, Tired From Now On, already had a bass player and a singer and I wasn’t going to even try to start a Tired From Now On copycat band. I think I sold it to my friend from Canada Kyle for $50 when one of his bands was passing through Gainesville a few years later. At least I’d spray painted it black so it looked much cooler than that crappy sunburst. I wonder if he still has it?
A few years later when I was working at Victory Records my co-worker Chuck told me he wanted to start a band and asked if I’d be interested in singing. Of course I said yes, instantly. He said he was getting the rest of the band together and we’d have a proper rehearsal in a few weeks. At that time I was often the last person to leave the office, which was in a 3 story condo in an industrial part of Chicago. My office was on the 3rd floor, and when everyone else would leave I’d often turn up my stereo as loud as it would go and jump around screaming along like an idiot to the loudest, angriest thing I had. It was excellent therapy. I highly recommend everyone try it sometime. My private karaoke included many bands, but vocalist Tim Singer’s bands – No Escape, Deadguy and the recently released (at the time) Kiss It Goodbye were in heavy rotation. I guess I always kind of related to his “I tried, but everything is fucked anyway” lyrical narrative. In my mind, that’s how I’d sing in a band.
Eventually Chuck would rope in the rest of a band and we’d all get together one evening after work in the basement of Bulldog Records, Victory’s record store in Wicker Park where bands like Blood For Blood and Murphy’s Law had recently played some already legendary shows. Drums set up, amps plugged in and blasting. I knew enough lyrics to enough songs that I figured there wouldn’t be a repeat of the New Direction situation and I was ready to go with whatever song they pulled out of the hardcore repertoire. Except the songs they’d written themselves and had already been practicing that I’d never heard before. Chuck handed me the mic and said “let’s go!” and I just stood there. I didn’t know what to sing, or what to say. I’d never written lyrics before, and certainly hadn’t anticipated doing it on the spot. I’d been daydreaming about doing this for years, and now when given the chance I froze. I convinced myself that anything I’d come up with would be so stupid the band would stop playing and I’d be laughed out of the basement. Of course, just standing there like an idiot had a similar effect.
Decades later I of course recognize how letting my insecurity keep me from doing the thing I was dreaming of doing, when I directly had the opportunity to do it, was just about the stupidest thing I could have ever done. I’m not really big on regret, we all do things that if given another chance we might do differently or applying hindsight realize our errors, but pushing past that fear and doing actually band with my friends sometime in the 90’s when I had countless opportunities is something that I’d totally should have done. If life had do overs, that’s where I’d use mine.
I mention this because totally out of the blue this week there’s a new EP out by Tim’s new band Bitter Branches and it’s incredible. It’s the last thing I was expecting in 2020, and after listening to it on repeat essentially since buying it I can attest it’s exactly what I needed. If anything I’ve mentioned in this sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s what you need as well. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder to take the chances we have, when we have them. They won’t always be there and even trying and failing is way better than not trying at all.
During the 2016 US Presidential campaign the above ‘This is fine’ meme gained significant popularity as it perfectly captured how many people were feeling about the overall situation. It was not created for that however, and is actually part of a 2013 comic by KC Green, which you political buffs out there will recognize as a date not long into then President Obama’s 2nd term. There’s no question that 2020 is shaping up to be a disaster, and people are understandably asking how long until we get back to normal. But when exactly is this “normal” that everyone is talking about? It certainly wasn’t 2019, nor 2016. If you think back to the George W. Bush years following 9/11 and the resulting ‘war on terror’ there was a lot of hoping for a “return to normal” then too. The response to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign certainly made it clear that for a lot of people, Bill Clinton’s presidency was far from ideal. That takes us back to ’93. Was it normal before then? Under Bush Sr? How about Regan?
The truth is it’s been a disaster for a long time, we simply forget how much we hated yesterday because of the overwhelming pain of today. So we trick ourselves into reaching for something slightly less terrible, rather than something better. “Normal” sucked. “Normal” was broken. “Normal” was dysfunctional and oppressive.
If “normal” was so great we wouldn’t have needed 4 waves of feminism. If “normal” was so great we wouldn’t have to explain to anyone why black lives matter. If “normal” was so great there would be no debate about who deserves health care, or an education. There would be no argument about what kind of basic lifestyle can or can’t be afforded with a full time minimum wage paycheck. There wouldn’t be countless examples of laws being enforced differently based on someone’s income or race. Teachers, the people we put in charge of educating future generations, wouldn’t be having to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets. Artists and musicians, people who make our world beautiful and enjoyable, wouldn’t be seen as disposable. The oceans wouldn’t be full of garbage. We wouldn’t be talking about how amazingly clear the skies and air are in cities that have imposed shelter in place rules, keeping people out of their cars. We wouldn’t be counting how many people died from the latest pandemic that jumped to humans in the unsanitary conditions from selling wild animal parts in wet markets.
And that’s the moment we are in right now.
It’s not hyperbole to say that everything is going to change. There’s the world we knew before the virus, and the world we make after it. No one will ever think of handshakes or face masks the same again. That’s a given. But what about everything else? I don’t want the world to go back to normal. I don’t want something just not quite as bad. I want us to take the opportunity that we have been presented with and strive for something better.
You can call me an idealist, but that would be a hard sell given how much time I spend talking about how everything sucks. But I’m trying to make tomorrow better, and I believe that’s possible. And I’m not the only one. Here is a very short and very incomplete list of a few people I consider friends. People I know who won’t settle for “not quite as bad” and are actively working for something better. Take a few moments and see what they are up to, and feel free to add more names, projects and links in the comments.
(this post can be found at arethingsbacktonormalagain.com)
[This is an excerpt from my newsletter, sign up here if you want]
On Joi’s recommendation I started reading White Fragility. As a white kid who grew up in the south at various times getting my ass kicked by racists, who now lives in a country where over 99% of the population doesn’t look like me and has been refused access and services because of my race, I have a hard time personally relating to any of the popular narratives around race in the US but I think it’s important to understand what they are and how other people experience them.
I’m reminded of a moment a few years ago when I was visiting Detroit. My friend Shaka helped arrange a tour of some urban farms for me and some of our friends from MIT. The tour was led by Malik Yakini, a community leader who spent a lot of time helping people in many of the blighted neighborhoods. He started the tour by saying “As part of my introduction let me just say that I’m a recovering misogynist” which caused the women in our group to exchange some looks. He continued “I grew up in a time and place and environment that colored my view of things, and as I got older I realized the problems with those and I work every day to correct that.” Everyone relaxed and smiled. But he wasn’t done, and followed that quickly with “I say that, because it’s just like how all of you are recovering white supremacists, and you have to work on that every day too.” This jarred everyone as you might imagine. This guy didn’t know anything about me or my background, who was he to make a call like that? I’ve literally punched nazis! I got in trouble in high school for wearing a “Fuck Racism” shirt!! I wanted to argue with him, but wisely I kept my mouth shut. I recognized pretty quickly that the fact that his words bothered me so much meant there was something to them that I wasn’t prepared for at the time. I thought about it a lot then, and I think about it a lot now. As I consider the reverse culture shock I’m sure to have when I move back to the US it’s something I’ll continue to think about. I don’t have a nicely packaged resolution to that thought yet, I don’t know that anyone ever really can. But we can work on it.
I was reading a fantastic post by my friend Wil about how he ended up as a “believe whatever you want just leave me out of it atheist” and was reminded of a very similar path I found myself on. I’ve written before about coming to terms with my own beliefs, or lack of beliefs as the case may be and fitting those in with my very religious family and upbringing. Growing up I went to many schools run by monks and nuns and was very frequently faced with the “believe, or else” philosophy of christian religion. I was regularly threatened with eternal damnation if I didn’t do any number of things, religious or otherwise. A family member once tried to exorcise the demons from me because she didn’t like my attitude. These people use threat of hell to create fear to build power and when that became obvious to me as I kid it lost all it’s power. When you realize someone is just trying to scare you into doing their thing, and that they are threatening you with made up nonsense, it’s really hard to get behind anything they have to say. You start asking question. And in my experience, those kinds of folks really don’t like being questioned. This reminded me about something I blogged about almost exactly one year ago about a pastor – a full grown man – bragging about punching a kid who wasn’t buying into his crap. I wrote that post on the occasion of National Religious Freedom Day which as it turns out is tomorrow.
It’s one thing to lament about things that happened back when we were kids, but in todays world the topic of “believe or else” is unfortunately just as current. And I’m not even talking about extremist events like the terrorist group ISIS beheading people on YouTube because you don’t even need to look that far. The United States prides itself on being the land of freedom, with freedom of religion baked right into the Bill of Rights, yet our currency declares allegiance to a supreme being (that was added in 1956 by the way) and Saudi Arabia considers atheists terrorists. A crime punishable by death, by a country that just last week beheaded 47 people in public for various crimes, most of which weren’t capital. This from a US ally and member of the UN Human Rights Council. One has to question the level of religious freedom and tolerance that exists a country that helps decide global human rights thinks it’s OK to kill people because they don’t believe in their personal favorite fairy tale. How many countries is that now that I can’t travel to, for fear of being murdered because I had the audacity to think for myself?
Thinking about all this causes me to constantly weigh out my own feelings. I think everyone should have the freedom to believe whatever they want, including the belief that all these superstitions are a bunch of crap. And I think they should grant me the same to me. I think if everyone just left everyone else alone to their own conclusions we’d be fine. But the fact of the matter is that for so many of these people, the only way they can feel good about their own choices are to condemn the choices of others. All religions have blood on their hands, and it’s almost always from people who decided to believe something else. And it’s because of that I can’t help thinking how much better off we’d all be without any of it.
So happy Religious Freedom Day, I look forward to the time when I can say that while actually enjoying religious freedom. That day certainly isn’t today.
I talked m friend Harper into buying a ridiculous camera and his payback was to ask me to come up with some photography tips. It’s no secret that I take the occasional photo but I’m not sure I consider myself someone overflowing with advice on the subject. That said, I jotted down a few things that came to mind and thought I’d post them here for future reference. Maybe they will be helpful for you too.
- The world has no shortage of fast and crappy photos, so I try not to add to that. I’m not always successful, but it’s something I keep in mind.
- In 2012 I wrote about why I like shooting with film and while obviously now I have started shooting primarily digital I try to keep a lot of those ideas in mind. Anyone can shoot 10 million pictures and find a good one in there, but I don’t think that’s really something to be proud of and I think the notion that “good photography is all about good editing” is crap.
- I used to think of my photography as documenting things and now I think of it as trying to create something – which is a subtle difference but a difference none the less.
- I try to think about “the obvious shot” – that is, if 20 other photographers were standing where I am would they all take the same photo? If so then I try not to take it.
- Obviously everyone has their own voice so to speak, and my photos kind of run the gamut, but I tend to think my strongest work is when I catch little personal moments .
- I try NOT to process photos just after I’ve taken them, because I’m too close to them and my memory of the event clouds my objective view of the photo. If I can wait a week or a month to go back and look at them, then I more often judge photos based on the photo itself, and that helps me in thinking about what photos to take in the future.
- I carry my camera everywhere and try to have it in hand ready to shoot at every moment. I might not even take a photo all day, but some of the most amazing photos I know I missed was because my camera was in my bag at the time. So I’m quicker at getting the thing I want when I
- Look at a lot of photos. I went to a class on photography once and the best thing I took away from it was to look at a shit ton of photos, pick the few that jump out at you and then try and figure out why. Find photographers or subjects that resonate with you and it’ll tell you something about what you are looking for.
[This is a recent excerpt from my newsletter where I send out thoughts and links and stories once a week or so about whatever happens to be on my mind at the time. That is to say, the topic below isn’t something I write about all the time, but I do every once and a while.]
Speaking of the pre-internet early 90’s when I was in high school and controversial topics – In HS I had an english teacher who I thought was the coolest, though he had an obsession with The Rolling Stones that I could never quite wrap my head around. Anyway, his name was Jon Scott and he was one of the few teachers I ever interacted with who I felt I learned something from and helped me along the way. At one point, in an exercise about journalism and writing from a non-biased perspective, he assigned us to write a paper about something controversial that would have clear opposite sides that we could examine. Not to decide which side was right, but to be able to write about differing viewpoints without taking sides – and compare and contrast the viewpoints. I recall other kids in my class choosing things like “which are better, cats or dogs” and “why SPORTS GUY changed the face of SPORTS” and things like that. For my paper I decided to write about Satanism. I don’t think I could pinpoint exactly what led me to that decision but my family was super religious and took huge offense to any questioning of things they felt were unquestionable so probably played into it on some level.
Mr Scott had to approve everyone’s topics and when he got to mine he asked to talk to me after class and wanted to know what I was getting at. I must have made a convincing argument though I don’t recall it because he signed off on the idea and let me write the paper. I wish I still had that paper because I’d like to see now how my 15 year old brain was processing things, but I remember that after spending countless hours in both the school and local public library I couldn’t find a single book making the case for, but there were endless writings against. I thought that was odd, it was like there was this giant discussion about something but no one actually involved was included. So instead of writing a compare/contrast piece I wrote about this bias and wondered how all these authors could have so many opinions and consider themselves authorities on something they had never had any actual interaction with. Seemed odd to me. I remember Mr Scott liked my approach and gave me a nice grade on the paper. He told me later that he was very used to topics having two sides and that I’d approached this from a completely different perspective and surprised him which wasn’t something he was used to happening at the middle of nowhere Florida high school where we crossed paths. I’ve thought about that many times over the years and think I owe much of my approach to research to his encouragement of my questioning the motives of the sources. I imagine if I had known then that Satanists were not in fact devil worshipers but rather atheists I could have written an even more surprising paper. Speaking of memories, turns out morality, not memory, makes us who we are.
Anyway, there’s a point to this and that is that the other night I fell down a google search rabbit hole and found a 2014 article called “Satanism and Scholars of American Religion” by John L. Crow which I found fascinating. He wrote:
“If we look at Oxford’s recent volume, The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity, of the twelve scholars, only one teaches in America, Eugene V. Gallagher, a prominent scholar of New Religious Movements. The rest are from or teach in Northern Europe, mostly Scandinavian countries. While a number of the scholars in the book examine Satanism in a European context, seven of the essays look at aspects of American Satanism, many focusing specifically on the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. Why is it that European scholars of religion have more to say about religious Satanism, a religious tradition that emerged in America, than American scholars of religion?”
“The answer to all of this is that scholars of religion in America are deeply ambivalent about Satanism, and much of this ambivalence comes from the field’s theological history and the theological commitments of its members. American scholars of religion are frequently uninformed about religious Satanism, and more importantly, due to a variety of reasons, mostly theological, do not consider Satanism a “real” religion or a religion worth study. Satanism shares many of the same problems as the traditions in the field of New Religious Studies. However, it has the added burden that, unlike other traditions studied and engaged by the field of NRM, Satanism rarely has anyone clarifying and educating about its historical background or place in American religious practice. Our field repeatedly attempts to portray itself as secular and independent of theology, particularly Christian theology. But the ambivalence about Satanism brings into focus the ways in which theology still shapes the field of religious studies, especially in America. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves. Are we theologians or are we social scientists? Sadly, when the topic is Satanism, the field, as a whole in America, looks more like the former than the latter.”
He followed that up a few months later with a post on his own blog with more thoughts on the topic and links to some other books addressing the issue. I bought all the books and can’t wait to read them.
(This is excerpted from my latest email newsletter which you can and should subscribe to if you know what’s good for you.)
A few months ago on the Grumpy Old Geeks podcast, Brian was talking about his daily routine and while the specifics of it aren’t that important some bits jumped out at me. I’m going to get this wrong but it was something like “2 hours of news followed by 2 hours of email in the morning, break for lunch, bike ride, 4 hours of work work, 1 hour of email, end at 6pm no questions asked. That last bit was what hit me – he said basically “if it’s 5:55pm and what I’m doing will take 10 more minutes to finish then I do 5 minutes of it today, stop at 6pm and then finish that 5 minutes first tomorrow.” The argument being that there’s always 5 more minutes you can jam in, and before you realize it it’s 7pm, or 10pm or 3am. Setting the firm cut off point gave him the ability to have work free evenings.
Today I was listening to Max’s new Untitled Podcast and there was a similar notion being discussed. Max used the term “designing your life” which I thought was interesting, but it was following a conversation about budgets and how no one questions the sensibility of sticking to a financial budget if you want to reach certain goals. Similar logic should apply to time, and a time budget is the way to do that. Max talked about a horrid evil piece of software which I won’t even mention but it runs in the background and give him reports on how he spends his time. “You spent 732 hours in the last month on twitter” etc. That is information that is horrifying to me, but it shouldn’t be – for any of us – because we should be able to know exactly how much time we want to do certain things and how to ensure those things happen.
I want to read for at least an hour a day, but often it hits 11pm and I’m exhausted and I just crash. If I had a time budget dictating that I spend an hour a day reading it would be easier to justify, and I’d be happier, and my overall life would be improved. I’m guilty of working all the time, but I’d like to spend more time not working and just playing with my son. A dictated budget might give me the metal approval to allow that to happen.
I thought it was noteworthy that in Max’s conversation he commented that in some professions there is a time when work is actually done. When you finish X that’s all there is for the day. When I worked as a professional graphic designer in the 90’s that was often the case – I’d have done everything I could and next steps were waiting on something from someone else so I could call it a day. But now, with the web, and social sites, and constant email there is never an end. There is always a flow of new things to do, so unless you consciously decide that you are going to put it down and do something else for X hours a day, you won’t. And before you know it you’ll be dead and will have wasted your life chasing likes on Facebook.
(Excerpted from something I sent to my mailing list, you should subscribe)
The other day I was hanging out in a local coffee shop with Rips (my 5yo son for anyone who doesn’t know) when Madonna’s “Like a prayer” came on the sound system, he started dancing in his seat and said he really liked the song. I’ve been trying to take note of what music he reacts to and encourage it when I can. Since I bought him a record player for his birthday, I pinged my friend who has a record shop near by and told him I needed to get that record. He only had “Like a virgin” in stock, but tracked down “Like a prayer” for me in a few days. I bought “Like a virgin” too just for the hell of it. When I got home and gave them a listen I remembered one of the formative moments of my childhood that I’d long since forgotten. I suppose everyone has a point growing up when they realize their parents/family aren’t flawless, and maybe they are actively misleading them. Unintentionally Madonna tipped me off to that.
Mid 80’s, early MTV days. Madonna was everywhere. My very Catholic family was not impressed and took every opportunity to tell me how horrid she was. Unsolicited. She was a blasphemer. She was mocking *our* faith by calling herself Madonna and wearing a crucifix. She was probably a Satanist. Definitely a slut. A hussy. She was certainly trying to corrupt innocent minds. Etc. etc. As a kid, hearing this from authority figures I assumed it must be true. But it had a contrary impact on me, rather than scare me away which was the intended motivation, it made me curious. Who was this lady who would make such a public attack on a group of people. Why would she do that? What was her story?
Once I started digging into it a different story came out, of course it’s much easier to find now, but I learned then that she wasn’t using the name “Madonna” as a slam against Catholics, but rather that was her actual name given to her by her very Catholic parents – it’s on her birth certificate. And her music, her art, was influenced by the imagery she’d grown up around. Like almost every other artist I’d learned about. An anti-climatic end to a story that had been so built up. I have to say, it was a little disappointing. (Luckily I soon found Slayer) But that got me thinking – if nothing my family had told me about Madonna was actually true, what else had they told me wasn’t based entirely in fact? And why would they tell me something like that?
Either they were purposefully trying to deceive me, or more likely someone had told this to them and they’d just accepted it as truth. Or maybe no one told them and that was just their gut reaction having been conditioned to react certain ways to certain things and assumed they had it all figured out – also a very real possibility. Maybe they were so insecure about their own beliefs that they had to proactively attack anything that they felt challenged them in the slightest bit. All options – but regardless, none of those options were reassuring. All of them lead to the inevitable truth that I could no longer accept anything they told me as the truth. I guess that stuck with me more than I realized. Thanks Madonna.
Subconsciously I’ve incorporated that lesson into my own parenting efforts, when my son asks me a question I make sure to answer honestly or if I don’t know, I tell him that I don’t know. Sometimes we look up the answers together. When I talk to him about my opinions I make it clear that people have different opinions and feelings about things, that this is what I think but he’s welcome to think about it and decide what he wants to think. I know I’m setting myself up for him eventually making decisions I don’t agree with, but he’s his own person and that’s his right. And him having his own opinions is far more appealing to me than him someday coming to the conclusion that I’ve been lying to him.