Wednesday, 28 January 2009

इफ इ हद अ हार्ट

The Knife threw the heart. That is, "If I Had a Heart."

Monday, 19 January 2009


I can mostly remember how I felt when I first heard Barack Obama speak because I remember how different it was from everything else then. Basics: I was sitting in a conference room at the New York Sun in the summer of 2004. That was a hot summer, summer of love, of confusion, unknowns, before a senior year of college that had already begun to burn with bright blankness. The summer that I had already spent half in London, mostly alone and feeling sheepish about being an American abroad, baffled and disappointed by the enterprise of journalism, by the shrinking of newspapers, the shrinking of certain ambitions. It was also the summer that I would also spend, as if in another lifetime, making new friends and loves, mapping Manhattan again for the first time, peeking at the city from rooftops, bridges, from low-slung Soho restaurants, from sweaty clubs, from close ups of faces, from mechanical rush hour subway rides and the edge of a still gaping hole in Lower Manhattan, the edge of an adolescence nearly over and an adulthood that would equal a sum, or add on more, of what I couldn't tell but skirted around in the hopes of getting a glimpse or venturing a guess. The summer as a fast-forwarded life, from the expansiveness of going abroad to dreary tabloid fonts on the Underground, emerging from the jazz rhythms of the 6 train stopping short downtown, from the possibilities of lower east side walkups to an end of summer countdown, told in colored alerts and alarming swift boat campaigns and the promise of a Bosch-like cataclysm around Madison Square Garden, just where I one day thought the world might end, but this time the Knicks were nowhere to be seen. If I was wondering about careers, about my idealism, part of me was also being smacked around: A summer of remembering the trifling days and ways of electioneering, scouring the streets reporting on the chaotic, begrieved sidelines of the GOP convention, a moment of nonsense and fear. 

I saw people getting thrown on the sidewalk, and police afraid, people searching for reasons to fight and tied up by police and lined up in the sweltering night. 

One night, I went to a party at Rockefeller Center, thrown by Senator Bill Frist, to celebrate the end of the convention and raise money for charities fighting AIDS in Africa (many of them evangelical Christian ones). Bono was there. He spoke about strange alliances in spite of parties, strange bedfellows, the better angels of our nature perhaps, and in the crowd, amidst the young blonde congressmen and gowns and glasses of rum, I heard two men who were bankers laugh at the Irish rock star under their breath.

When at last I, dressed in a tweed blazer and red pants, clutching my recorder, moved in to ask Bill Frist a question (about Bono, about medicine, about Africa, though I didn't know about this), I was very nearly tackled by the Secret Service. "It's okay, he's okay," said Frist. I forgot what I asked him, because he didn't really answer anything.

Cut back to that room. He says things about an America that could be one, and it sounds so hopeful and beautiful that I think I suspected then how removed my own wishes are from the siren-blaring New York all around me.

China, 2008. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold when people want things they know they deserve.

Philadelphia, 2008. Let America be America again.

Chicago, 2008. Let America be America again, again.

The room again, 2004. But the politics of the improbable, of the prophetic, of potential, is the politics of a country built on a revolution and a daring piece of paper and a thousand symbols, punched through, waved wildly, torn up, and again reread, with feeling, means.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Good Winter Sounds

Present pop music

You probably know that I am in a long term relationship with music. But given my commitment to Honesty, and after careful discussions with my family, I have an admission to make: this year I have had passionate if brief liaisons with these songs (which can be heard in the player on the left, and downloaded here). Thank you, friends who introduced us.

- DJ Al Jazzera

White Winter Hymnal / Fleet Foxes
Like Edgar Allen Poe with the Raven, Fleet Foxes carefully take the best ingredients of Charles Ives and the Garden State soundtrack to create a nearly perfect winter holiday song. 

"You were always on my mind."

Sabali / Amadou & Miriam
I thought I might be able to make it through 2008 without falling in love with Amadou and Miriam again, but I was wrong. Again.

Oh No / Andrew Bird
Oh yes yes yes yes. I want to be Andrew Bird's friend, and cry together, and whistle together. I know he's not, but I still think he's saying calcium minds, as in calcified minds, but he's actually taking about mining. The layering of the bum-bum-bum kills me. He wrote about the song on a blog at New York Times (?):
In the instance of this song I was on a flight from New York back to Chicago and a young mother and her 3-year-old son sat in front of me and it was looking to be the classic scenario of the child screaming bloody murder. However, I was struck by the mournfulness of this kid’s wail. He just kept crying “oh no” in a way that only someone who is certain of their demise could. Pure terror. Completely inconsolable. It was more moving than annoying.

So when I got home I picked up my guitar and tried to capture the slowly descending arc of that kid’s cry. It fit nicely over a violin loop that I had been toying with which moves from C-major to A-major.

We could be friends, us harmless sociopaths. I can learn the guitar. There was a New Yorker piece recently by John Seabrook about sociopathy and psychopathy, terms which tend to overlap, but which refer to "the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population." 

I think that number should be a lot higher. Anyway, in the piece, John Seabrook subjects himself to an experimental test for sociopathy that involves looking at some distrubing images while being brain scanned by a functional magnetic residence imaging machine. The other night on 60 Minutes, a brain scientist was saying that within five years we should be able to read people's thoughts, based on the colorful computer maps created by fMRI scans. Pretty at least. But Seabrook:
The scanner was housed in a tractor-trailer parked behind the prison’s I.D. center. We followed a correctional officer through an internal courtyard to the rehab wing, which consisted of a large common area surrounded by two-man cells. The prisoners were standing at attention outside their cells, some holding mops and brooms. I entered a vacant cell and saw the occupant’s brain, a grainy black-and-white image on a piece of a paper, its edges curling, tacked up over the desk.
Then we walked through the common room and out a door at the other end, passing under a large poster with lines that read, “I am here because there is no refuge, finally, from myself.” 

Bag of Hammers /Thao Nguyen


Half Asleep / School of Seven Bells
Running away without watches, skipping alongside dandelions, riding unicorns with your friends from camp. 

But it's just a virtual reality machine; you're actually on board a spaceship, shooting into the sun.

Obama / Extra Golden
Once my passport was stolen. How is too embarassing to say. But I spent three nights combing the streets of Cambridge in vain looking for it, in the outside chance someone had just taken the pretty stamps and left the rest behind. My desperate, insane hunt likely had something to do with the timing. Within days, my passport was due at the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, where it would receive a stamp allowing me to begin a Siberian exile. Sure, that might sound like a strange thing to get worked up about, but that was just how it was back then. Phone calls ensued. Yelling and accusations. Often at automated phone operators.

Eventually I spoke with a man named Dastagir Samee. Emailed. Wrote. Via FedEx, I handed off photos, information, money to Dastagir. Days later, a passport, with a sturdy three-month Russian visa. I was not then in the mood to sing a song of praise to Dastagir Samee. But I perhaps knew half of the struggle of getting a visa to the U.S.  

Until We Bleed/ Kleerup
An eternal night that ends before you realize it. Eternal relationship that hasn't started yet. 

Love Lockdown (Flying Lotus Remix) / Kanye West
"Keep a secret code / So everybody else don't have to know." The song sounds like a brute force attack on the password. But: do alien frying pans and autotune cancel each other out?

Shake That Devil / Antony and the Johnstons
Bitch hunt turned sock hop.

What Is Not but Could Be If / Silver Jews
For the longest time I thought this song was in the past conditional. And then recently I realized it was just conditional.

Red, Yellow and Blue / Born Ruffians
It is pretty. And it probably won't offend anyone, unlike this (which I saw happen, and also filmed).

Fatalist Palmistry / WHY?
One thing that musicians, unlike painters or filmmakers, don't have to worry about is lighting. 
Or do they?

Flaming Home / Mount Eerie
The illogical conclusion of Bag of Hammers, above.

Librarian / My Morning Jacket
When I was recently in California, I visited three libraries in the space of a week. It was really the only place to go. 
Still I miss no one more than the one that never missed me

Day n Nite / Kid Cudi
The song is sort of about lonelieness and desperation and stubborness and loss and failed dreams. Not exactly top 40 material. And yet it totally is. According to one Internet commenter, 
this kid is a official hype beast. this is the beginning of official hype beasts making it into the music world.

And that's the promise of America.

Bruises / Chairlift
Isn't it pretty to think so. And dance to.

Sad Song (RAC remix) / Au Revoir Simone
A song to bring you home.

Blackfly Rag / Carl Spidla
He's got so much to say and really should not stop.

Do Your Best / John Maus
The colors of points of light, waves of shadows, out the window late at night are not describeable in words, but they don't need to be because they don't belong to words, they don't belong to anything, and for a moment, when our eyes are both stuck in cycles of auto-focus in and out, they belong to me and you. Whoever you are.

Keep Yourself Warm / Frightened Rabbit
I am embarassed by the words, but it's the kind of glorious rock that I need to hear once and awhile. I'd like to see them take fellow Scots Snow Patrol in a fight. And Bono. Their Christmas one, which appeared on Alex-mas 2008, also verges on epic and kept me warm. Also: a lighter.

Family Tree / TV on the Radio

Dinosaur on the Ark / Esau Mwamwaya & Radioclit
The whole great album is free hereTengazako and I are still on dancing terms.

Malawi, where Esau Mwamwaya comes from, was once known as Nyasaland. Nyasa means lake and it also means rubbish, or bad. Wikipedia opines that the colonists might have thought that about the "undeveloped" land there. In other places visited by British colonists, the word used was "waste," which was often synonomous with the word "wasteland." Waste, they reasoned, was a problem to be solved, like the Native Americans, who clearly didn't know how to "use" their largely untouched land. But thing is, nobody did.

Generations later, this thinking would yield phrases like "manifest destiny." As much as I detest waste in so many of its forms (fiscal, emotional, temporal, sometimes it's like my whale), but that's probably because I can't get enough of waste, its potential, its lack of logic, its pleasure, its pain (o the white waste!).  And this waste -- in the sense of the un-used, waiting to be used, developed, transformed -- I love it. I love what its old usage says about colonialism, about capitalism, about blindness, etc. But I really love its double-meaning, its infinite-meaning, its potential, its space, its full emptiness. If you think about it, a lake is like a waste in a way, a perfect waste. It is non-land, a space that cannot be used, cannot even be walked upon, an amorphous body, a collection of an excess. It is just there, just beautiful.

So the dinosaur (the fiance of MIA, not Esau) is walking through a waste land. "Africa, Africa!" sings Esau. Is it Nyasaland? I don't know. But boy is he happy.

Drive on Driver / Magnetic Fields
The bad thing about L.A. is you have to drive everywhere. The good thing about L.A. is I don't know how to drive.

Bluster in the Air / No Kids

Listen for when he sings "time."

1259 Lullaby / Bedouin Soundclash
I think it works as a sequel to Justice's "One Minute to Midnight."

re:stacks / Bon Iver

Someone asked me why women don't gamble as much as men do, and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don't have as much money. That was a true and incomplete answer. In fact, women's total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.
- Gloria Steinem

And concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, why need I even speak when they are all the memory of men.

- Athenaeus, the Deipnosophistae

Monday, 5 January 2009

Beijing Subway Is Fast. I Am Not (An Appreciation)

Video by Josh Chin, Wall Street Journal

One of my new year's resolutions is to be faster. More efficient, yes, but also faster. Like lasers, and the Beijing subway, which makes up for what it lacks in panache (privet, Moscow!) with sleek zippy trains that get built at record speed. (I make up for what I lack in panache with fingernail biting.) The subway isn't the most complete in the world (O Moskva!) but over the past 14 months, with the opening of line 5, and then lines 10, 8 and the Airport Express, it grew by almost half (!), and suddenly people were being zipped to places in the city they probably had never heard about, much less visited. It was like manna from the underground (Actually, I think you can buy some good dark khleb in the Moscow Metro, but not in the Beijing ditie). 

Look, I don't love the Beijing subway, at least not in its current prepubescent stage (as opposed to its future Three-Gorges-size version), but there's nothing like a city with a terrible, sprawling urban plan to make you really appreciate a subway. 

Not long after it opened -- just in time for the Olympics -- Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about line 10, which he calls, correctly, "the iPhone of subways." Come to think of it, that, coupled with photos of the NYC subway, might actually be a really good marketing slogan to appeal to Beijing's rising middle class, who are buying cars the way New Yorkers buy iPhones (the Beijingers are buying iPhones too). If you want to see me, look for the guy in the video who is sporting a treehugger(.com) beard and speaking slower than the G train. I'm assuming this is why more of our interview wasn't used (to Josh's credit). 

Among the things left on the cutting room floor were my meditations on Beijing's smart cooperation with MTR, the private company that operates Hong Kong's Swiss watch of a subway in exchange for getting to own all the land above the subway too. MTR is developing Beijing's western line 4, and owns Ginza Mall, a Japanese watch of a shopping center that connects (surprise!) to the Dongzhimen metro station. I probably also talked about the pleasures of bicycles and pearl tea. Also: the problem with music criticism today.

I think we spoke for about half an hour, which means that by the time Josh left my apartment (to be accosted by a police officer checking registrations), somewhere in Beijing a new subway station had been planned, designed and built. 

Changing the Desire

If you think of the architects that we love the most, the ones that have really affected us, they didn’t simply build what they were asked to build – they built something that was surprisingly better than what they were asked for. They changed the desire. The good architect is the one who makes you realize that your desires could be more adventurous, and then who satisfies those new desires in ways that are very, very positive. That – that – is a really important social mission. If you say that the traditional architect monumentalizes existing desires, that doesn’t sound like such a hot mission anymore. 

-- mark wigley in an interview withbldgblog.

it might be obvious, but isn't that what we want from every leader, and what we only get from the visionaries? the possibility for possibilities. 

but is it good enough that only architect (or the client) is actor? where is there room for the public?