Friday, November 17, 2006

the cities to the swamplands, the highways to the hills

a year and a half ago (or so), my brother and his friends and their roommates all came up with their top 25 favorite songs, songs that they would tell other people to listen to, that are as important to their lives as any they know. i made my list then, and since then i've told other friends to do the same. after telling one such friend earlier this autumn, she asked me to send her back my own responses--only fair really, but i didn't feel like sending her my list--it felt outdated somehow (even though there's a lot of overlap. so i guess it means that my choices, then and now, weren't timeless. and that's fine. but here's the list i compiled this morning (rather than grading, researching, or writing--i've done enough of those in the last few days). write to me (or post) what your favorite 25 songs are--i'd love to know.

1. The Valleys by Electrelane
2. California One Youth and Beauty Brigade by the Decemberists
3. To Sheila by the Smashing Pumpkins
4. First Song by Andrew Bird
5. Naked as We Came by Iron and Wine
6. Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl by Broken Social Scene
7. He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot by Grandaddy
8. Vito's Ordination Song by Sufjan Stevens
9. Gold Day by Sparklehorse
10. Exit Music by Radiohead
11. Untitled One by Sigur Ros
12. Distortions by Clinic
13. Sleepy California by Her Space Holiday
14. The Golden Age by Beck
15. Autumn Sweater by Yo La Tengo
16. Pink Bullets by the Shins
17. River by Joni Mitchell
18. The Execution of All Things by Rilo Kiley
19. Such Great Heights by Iron & Wine
20. Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie
21. Samson by Regina Spektor
22. Predatory Wasp of the Palisades by Sufjan Stevens
23. Don't Just Do Something by Spiritualized
24. If You Could Read my Mind by Johnny Cash (Gordon Lightfoot)
25. Up Above the Sea by John Vanderslice

Others (not ordered):
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Kissing the Lipless by the Shins
Konstantine by Something Corporate
Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance by Sufjan Stevens
The Dress Looks Nice on You by Sufjan Stevens
Both Hands by Ani DiFranco
Falling is like this by Ani DiFranco
Don't Ever Fucking Question That by Atmosphere
Shhh by Atmosphere
New Slang by the Shins
Where You've Been Hiding by Architecture in Helsinki
Go Ahead by Rilo Kiley
Sleeping In by the Postal Service
Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk by Rufus Wainwright
Wild Honey by U2
The Mariner's Revenge Song by the Decemberists
The Tain by the Decemberists
Morningwatch by Dolorean
Sixteen, Maybe Less by Iron & Wine and Calexico
Photobooth by Death Cab for Cutie
Oceanside by the Decemberists
Red Right Ankle by the Decemberists
Rebellion (Lies) by the Arcade Fire
Frontier Psychiatrist by the Avalanches
Popular Mechanics for Lovers by Beulah
Lull by Andrew Bird
Nature Anthem by Grandaddy
Broken Household Appliance National Forest by Grandaddy
Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)
Pale Horse by John Vanderslice
Recycled Air by the Postal Service
No Children by the Mountain Goats
Love Love Love by the Mountain Goats
Barbeque by Wendy Rene
Reservations by Wilco
Black Star by Radiohead
Street Spirit by Radiohead
Nice Dream by Radiohead
Everything in its Right Place by Radiohead
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
We Close Our Eyes by Oingo Boingo
Mr. E's Beautiful Blues by the Eels
Fresh Feeling by the Eels
On the Radio by Regina Spektor
Fidelity by Regina Spektor
High and Dry by Radiohead
Viorar vel til Loftarasa by Sigur Ros
Oh My Sweet Carolina by Ryan Adams
Lover's Spit by Broken Social Scene
Heart by Stars
Don't Be Scared by Andrew Bird
I See a Darkness by Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham)
The Bagman's Gambit by the Decemberists
The Engine Driver by the Decemberists
Absolutely Cuckoo by the Magnetic Fields
World at Large by Modest Mouse
Lovers and Aeroplanes by Rebels Victorious
Pull Shapes by the Pipettes
The Bus Mall by the Decemberists

as always, the list above is hugely incomplete--it doesn't capture close to all of the songs i find important to my life, now or in the past.

considering that i'm writing a paper on highways, and how they transect a variety of landscapes (swamplands, cities, hills) and environmental issues, i figure this is a good song to mention here. i think that the effect of these lyrics is amazing--use a bunch of common experiences, but then combine them in strange ways.

old college try by the mountain goats

From the housetops to the gutters
From the ocean to the shore
The warning signs have all been bright and garish
Far too great in number to ignore

From the cities to the swamplands
From the highways to the hills
Our love has never had a leg to stand on
From the aspirins to the cross-tops to the Elevils
But I will walk down to the end with you
If you will come all the way down with me

From the entrance to the exit
Is longer than it looks from where we stand
I want to say I'm sorry for stuff I haven't done yet
Things will shortly get completely out of hand
I can feel it in the rotten air tonight
In the tips of my fingers
In the skin on my face
In the weak last gasp of the evening's dying light
In the way those eyes I've always loved illuminate this place
Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell
Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell
I will walk down to the end with you
If you will come all the way down with me

Saturday, November 11, 2006

all that i care for is

my friend has woken up already, gotten coffee, and continued reading thoreau, as i checked my email messages and news. it's not his first time through walden i know--it wouldn't be mine either, yet this time through is richer for both of us now that we both have studied thoreau so intently--i'm reminded that graduate school is good for something after all, and that's a pleasant thought for a busy phd student. we spent most of yesterday talking, sharing quotes from books we're reading, thoughts about programs and writers, all the while eating good food.

today promises to be just as pleasant, though the cool air of the outside world feels crisp compared to the warm and pleasant odors of cafes, living rooms, and restaurants. and the smell of this season is almost too much for me, flooding me with memories of hikes back home, of warmups before end-of-season soccer games, of decomposing leaves in my favorite forests. especially the last of those. there's something about cool--still tolerable--air of my face, and perhaps the hint of the smell in the air. i can't think of anything i'd rather be doing than walking slowly through a forest, leaves bending and sometimes breaking, like once-malleable plastic turning to thin and somewhat flexible glass before decomposing at speeds that neither glass nor plastic can hope to rival. i've hiked in many forests, in floodplains and creekbeds all over the area. and today, with the cool air of autumn, i'm ready for that kind of hike again.

i'm a busy guy, needing to grade an unfortunately large number of papers this weekend, so i compromise, and i mean that in both senses of the word--the pragmatic and pejorative--allowing myself some enjoyment while getting some work done, but also selling my desires short--this is a special day, a sunday when a best friend is visiting from a distant place (california). it won't be the perfect day, the perfect walk, in the perfect streambed. but it'll have to be good enough, to be one of the memories i keep from this fall, the kind of memories that keep me happy and stable through the cold winters when i spend so much time indoors. it'll have to be good enough. and it is. combined with a frisbee game later that day, the short walk refreshes, clarifies, makes real that i'm a person, living a real life, not just a being that grades papers, reads books, and does research. these fall walks make me happy, give me motivation and meaning.

although i'm often wrong about these sorts of things (and quite enjoy being wrong), i think that the end of the warmer side of autumn has come--it's likely the rest of the official season will be much cooler, with more wind, snow, and cold. winter is coming, and i'm committed to enjoying it as much as i can (i'm an outside sort of person, and it's harder for me to be outside as much in the winter here).

so i figured i'd try out the following--show you a few of my memorable moments of fall, at least a few that i captured on camera--there were many more. even though it has been a busy semester, it's also been an important time for me--i've learned much about myself and my desires for the rest of my life. i guess i'd even say it's been full of meaning.

i'll start with my new neighborhood. i really love where i'm living now--part of it is the house, but i also really like the neighborhood--the cafe a block away, the relaxed setting. i think this picture gets at some of the beauty of the place--though i walk here often, most often these walks have been after dark, and it's nice that i feel safe here, that it's quiet enough to collect your thoughts rather than worry about traffic.

the neighborhood is great, but perhaps this picture of the creek just south of my house captures the beauty and wonder i find in little walks, whether i'm with someone else, or by myself. this particular picture was taken the day i describe in the short narrative above--the creek and the trees and the sky and the air were beautiful that day. thanks, kevin, for going on your walk, and for letting me walk a ways with you.

it's hard to follow that picture with any depiction of natural beauty, so i'll turn instead to a place that holds great memories along with hopes for the future. this spring i'll be teaching at the college i attended just a few years ago--it's kind of a quick return i'll admit, but i'm excited, and quite truthfully, there are few things i'd like more than to be teaching at this particular place. the small number of places that hold this much meaning in my life are limited, and the very building in which i'll have my office is the same building that first inspired me to attend college at saint olaf. it looks beautiful any time of year, but when the vines have changed color as they did this fall, i find it quite spectactular.

i find a lot of beauty in natural things, but i think that holland hall manages to bring that same kind of beauty (slightly transformed, organized, designed) into the world of people and buildings. it sets the bar high for how a building should age with the landscape, should grow into its life as it ages. fall leaves capture my attention in much the same way, whether they're on trees, on the ground, twirling through the air in miniature swirls, or breaking into pieces and becoming soil. these leaves capture a softer kind of beauty as they moved in the breeze.

finally, the beauty of autumn can be shown in the sunset skies, when so many of the things i love about our earth come together. if i look for hope and engaged action in the world and look beyond the people i could mention--people who are working just as hard as i am to shape the world--when i look for this kind of hope displayed in the landscape, i find it every time. here i find it in a sunset framed by the work of caring students, engaged faculty, devoted institutions, and in the good work of many people, most of whom i'll never meet. i'm thankful for the diverse group of people and non-people that shaped my experience of autumn this year.

where you've been hiding by architecture in helsinki

stuck at your front gate
with some pictures i just want to hand ya
almost made the door knock twice
broke down on your verandah

turn the dry concrete, into wet concrete

i can't find you anywhere
i can't find you anywhere
so i wrote you a letter in capital letters
saying all that I care for, all that i care for is...

where you've been hiding,
where you've been hiding

which way the habits collect neatly
upon your stairs
which way we'll slide down them discreetly
leaving 'em for dead

when I find...

where you've been hiding

Thursday, November 09, 2006

cliches that don't rhyme

when reminiscing about your childhood, the key is to try to remember things you don't have pictures of--it's much more difficult, but you feel a lot better about it once you're there. true, it is fun and interesting to remember things that have some picture reminding you of the event, but all too often i feel like those memories are more of the picture than of the place--it's almost like telling a story really--once you've told a version of the experience, you remember telling the story a certain way, more so than the experience itself.

some of my strongest memories of growing up in an expanding neighborhood (no more vacant lots on my block any more) are of the huge dirt piles that were made behind the houses, when the basements were dug and the foundations were put in. these were the urban wilds my brothers and i cherished (along with the foundations and framed houses themselves). we would dig holes, make forts, play king of the mountain (and yes, i fell down more than my share of times), and even sled down the mounds if they lasted into winter. the house which shares a backyard with my own seems like it's been there forever--most of my memories of the backyard come after the house was there, most of my time playing soccer, tag, and baseball (along with the more imaginative games too involved to describe here) came after the house was there and the dirt mound cleared out.

yet a vivid memory i have, a foolish memory really, involves this dirt mound in our backyard, before it was moved back to fill and landscape the yard there. my mother's college roommate and her family were visiting (i didn't really know who they were, or what connection they had to us, but they seemed nice so i spent time hanging around with them--i've now been on the other side of this experience, spending time with kids who probably don't understand who i am or why i'm visiting their family, who i am at all really).

the former roommate had a grown son, probably as old as my older brothers, but he was a lot nicer to me than they were so i liked him. and he had this squishy watery-balloon type toy that was fun to throw and catch--it had tougher rubber skin than water balloons, but was squishy and yellow like them (my favorite color at the time). and we went out on the dirt mound and played some games--mostly king of the mountain this particular time, which i wasn't very good at, being the smallest, but i did give them trouble because i didn't care if they threw me down the mountain--i'd climb right back up. usually i never won such a game because by the time i managed to be the only one on top of the hill, the others had stopped playing and i had been left alone (i had a longer attention span i guess).

and that's most of the vivid memory--i could describe what the day looked like, the smell of the dirt, the feel on my continually-bare feet of black top soil packed into chunks i would sometimes break, pretending i was strong enough to break rocks--sometimes i would do this for hours on end (or when visiting my grandparents, i would spend hours digging up a single rock embedded in their gravel driveway because i liked rocks so much and thought this was a good one). i could describe the view of the sparsely settled neighborhood on the south side a small south dakotan town--a view from the mound, like the view from our roof one of the best views available since they weren't good climbing trees at this house, not yet--i always had to climb trees at my grandparents' farm, but there i exercised this chance wholeheartedly.

i could describe how young i felt, how willing i was to look up to older people who seemed friendly, who seemed to care because my brothers were always competing with me (and usually winning) or beating me up or making fun of me for being dumber than they were. it wasn't a bad life, and i'm pretty sure it's a pretty normal life for anyone who happens to be the third of four boys. and it was my life, and it was good.

and more than anything, i know it was never captured on any camera ever, my normal, everyday times in the backyard, my little standout moments when some little toy or person made a special guest appearance in my life for an hour or two when i was five. so i try to hold out for those memories, to fish for them in my slightly grownup head.

below is my october 2006 playlist. i admit that it isn't as unified or purposeful as some of my previous lists, i do like it for its diversity, both in terms of style and in terms of the songs' relevance at various times in my life (from we are the champions--a song i would turn on with my parents 8-track player back when i was four years old--to songs from high school, college, and the last week or so).

not an addict by k's choice
friday i'm in love by the cure
sunny road by emiliana torrini
smart went crazy by atmosphere
high hopes by pink floyd
the world's not falling apart by dar williams
to be young by ryan adams
popular mechanics for lovers by beulah
on the radio by regina spektor
long way down by guster
hubris by rebels victorious
how it should be by ben kweller
the beauty of the rain by dar williams
we are the champions by queen
sunset soon forgotten by iron & wine
because the night by 10,000 maniacs
untitled one by sigur ros
alien by bush

i admit that the playlist doesn't make as much sense as many of my past lists, but it's what i put together this month. enjoy. and if you're into love songs or beulah or the magnetic fields, you'll be interested in this song. when i'm feeling whimsical, i describe the band as post-ska, driving-cross-country music. they're fun and often have a groove/pulse to their music i like for traveling.

it also reminds me of another of my crazy, but in this case i think good, ideas--to release an album called exit 69 love songs. the reference, like the one in this song, is to the magnetic fields' album. but it's also a reference to northfield, the town where i went to college, where both saint olaf and carleton students live. i haven't quite decided how to position the album--whether it should be love songs written by bands/people living in northfield, or perhaps covers of magnetic fields songs played by people from wherever benefiting something in northfield. i haven't decided yet, but for all you people with connections to any of these topics, you should email me (or post a comment) and let me know--i might try to make it happen this spring--we'll see.

but here's the song by beulah--it's probably one of my favorite songs that references other good music in the lyrics--they don't come along all that often, but they're usually successful when they do make such references.

popular mechanics for lovers by beulah

I know he knocks you off your feet
You’re so bitter; you think he’s sweet
Well he’s wrong for you, I swear

Did you forget to read the script?
There was never a role for him
It was always you and me, just me

Popular mechanics for broken hearts could help me now

I know you never felt romance
And we always lack suspense
I can edit those parts out

I never made you feel complete
I would fall beneath your feet
I would never bring you down, so down

Popular mechanics for broken hearts could help me now

Just because he loves you too
He would never take a bullet for you
Don’t believe a word he says
He would never cut his heart out for you

I heard he wrote you a song
But so what
Some guy wrote 69
And one just ain’t enough

And there’s so sense in trying
I know cuz I’ve been
Trying all the time to find something that would make you mine
But all I ever find my love
Are clichés that don’t rhyme

Popular mechanics for broken hearts could help me now

Just because he loves you too
He would never take a bullet for you
Don’t believe a word he says
He would never cut his heart out for you