Tuesday, August 3, 2010

RTT: Stuff I thought about while walking the dog


Read below.  Click above.  Go see Keely and the gang at The Un Mom for random fun.

Perhaps because of my recent brush with death and flirtation with narcotics, I have had some contemplative moments lately.  Last night, for instance, while walking Stella at the park (blasting ipod, avoiding sprinklers and eye contact with cruisers), I fell into deep reverie.  Here are the things I thought about

Walking past the tennis courts
it occurred to me once again that lot of bands become more conventional (i.e. commercially viable) over the years, but Radiohead seems to get less conventional even as they get more popular.  Their first album, "Pablo Honey" was a pretty blatant homage to (i.e. ripoff of) R.E.M., except for the song "Creep" which was a brilliant teen-angst anthem that didn't sound like any other band that came before them.

They found their legs on their sophomore album (traditionally the suckiest for most bands), "The Bends," which lived up to the promise of "Creep" and is still my favorite.  I love every track on that album, except for the last one, "Street Spirit" which sounds a little too much like "Dust in the Wind."

Their next album, "OK Computer," has some great songs on it, but doesn't hang together the way "The Bends" does.  Same goes for every album after that.  It's funny that "In Rainbows" would be the album that marked the apogee of their critical and commercial success, even though it's much less accessible than "The Bends."

Although "The Bends" is one of my favorite albums of all time, I'm glad that Radiohead have continued to experiment with different sounds and concepts, even if the songs that result are "difficult" or even annoying.  "The Bends" is as close to perfect as an album can get, and trying to recreate it would sully that achievement.

Near the velodrome
I caught a whiff of death, and it made me recoil a little and call Stella before she caught wind of it and went to explore.

When I lived in Virginia, I was used to smelling roadkill, or the festering carcasses of woodland creatures in the subtropical forest; but in arid SoCal, dead things become petrified before they decay, so the smell last night startled me.

Back in Virginia, I would ride variations on a 20-mile bike route with a couple friends about three times a week, and it was not unusual to find a decapitated deer alongside the road where a "sportsman" had tossed it after removing his trophy.  Therefore it didn't faze us when, one week in August, the same quarter mile stretch of country road smelled like overripe flesh every day, causing us to hold our breath as we passed.

Only later, after the newspaper reported that a woman's body had been found under eight inches of leaves just off the pavement, did we start talking about how there had been something different--sweeter--about the smell we had been avoiding all week.  

Rounding the corner by the baseball field
I wondered why we bother making literature a required subject in high school and college.  I love literature and enjoy teaching it, but more and more, it strikes me as a bit frivolous.  I have tried pitching it to students several ways: "this is how we learn to empathize," or "there's this thing called 'cultural literacy'," or "reading the stories of different cultures gives us insight into human nature."  Students who are inclined to read can get a lot out of these classes, but for others, it doesn't stick.  As a high school teacher, I was shocked that many of my students seemed to have never read a book before.  Now I'm teaching college classes and I have students who can't name a novel they have read.  Seriously.

The class I'm teaching now, at a kind of digital art trade school, ends up being more of a literature "appreciation" class than a real college lit class.  And that's fine with me.  It's fun to teach and there is very little pressure on the students and virtually none on me (except for what I create for myself).  But if the idea is for the students to improve their understanding of the written word (which is kind of a prerequisite for "appreciation" as far as I'm concerned), what they really need is a few reading/writing/linguistics (rhetoric) classes, rather than a touchy-feely lit class.

We're now reading selections from Beowulf in the easiest translation I've ever encountered, and I still need to translate it for them.  They don't know words like "spawn" and "moor."  I'm supposed to teach them prose, poetry, and drama in fifteen class sessions, and they're not expected to do any reading at home.  I could spend the entire semester (or "module" as it's called here) teaching one short story. 

On my way home
I thought about a family friend who passed away recently.  She was younger than me by about eight years and had some shitty kind of cancer.  I was good friends with her older brother and had a crush on their older sister.  The only memory I have of her is playing with her when she was about two years old.  My friend and I put her in the little battery-operated swing and then later played "airplane" with her by lying on our backs and holding her up with our feet.  I think that was the first time I enjoyed playing with a baby.  It's hard to imagine that her life is already over.  

Bummed?  Sorry.  Maybe this will help:


  1. I had all kinds of insightful comments spooling up as I followed you along on your walk, but they all went out the window when I got to the part about how your students don't know the word "spawn." Now all I can think about is how lame it is that students REFUSE TO LOOK UP WORDS. In the age of Dictionary.com, there's no excuse to simply allow yourself to not know words. Arrgghh!!!!!!!!

    And... I'm back. I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

  2. My son read Beowulf for English in 11th Grade, he enjoyed it. What are your thoughts on 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies'? Seth Grahame-Smith is attempting to get students to read, my son loves all things Zombie (is it perhaps that boys enter Zombiehood at the age of 14?)

    Love Kindle, you can look up words as you read. :)

    Sorry to hear about your friend. :`(

  3. There is nothing a baby's laugh can't make better, even hearing about young people dying of cancer, bodies decaying at the side of the road and kids who've made it to college without reading a single book.
    In other words, you totally just saved this post!

  4. I think Radiohead lost me a little after OK Computer.

    Sorry to hear about the death of your friend. More and more lately I find myself contemplating about how fleeting this life is...or something equally as cliche. No less true though.

    The laughing babies are delicious. Thanks for that ending.

  5. Sounds like what you really need to teach is reading skills, sad as that is. These kids need to learn how to use context clues. I totally wonder about teaching literature to kids, too. Some of them are just never going to get anything out of it. It's fun to torture them sometimes, though. ;P

  6. While I am incredibly happy you are feeling well enough to walk around smelling weird odors and contemplating heavy thoughts, I must take exception to your budding career as a rock music critic.

    Perhaps it is our age difference -- did you catch that subtle dig? -- but to me, "The Bends" is Radiohead finding their footing, not showing their voice. It reminds me of short stories I wrote in junior high. They seemed so good. But rereading them now, they were just rehashes of themes covered by real writers.

    I'm not saying it's not a good album. It's fine, if you're looking for catchy tunes and melodic angst.

    But to me, "OK Computer" is where Radiohead truly begins. They didn't just take a wrong turn. They got out of their car, lit it on fire, and decided to hitchhike. It's almost as if they realized, "Bloody hell (or whatever Brits say), we don't have to play the same old shite everyone else plays!"

    Every album since has gotten weirder and, in my opinion, better. "In Rainbows" is possibly the greatest album since Sgt. Pepper. Not because it has catchy tunes (there are quite a few), but because I have no idea what it is I'm listening to. And I like that.

    Also, that video is friggin' adorable.

  7. oh man, I loved this

  8. @DiPi,
    It's hard to figure out how to make them accountable for vocabulary when they're not expected to read at home, but I think I'm going to start doing vocab quizzes from the texts anyway. I've done that in the past, not giving them a list or anything, just picking words from the readings. Gets them in the habit of looking up definitions.

    My bro-in-law (a better curriculum designer than music critic) suggested that book and I think it's a fantastic idea. It's too late to assign it for this class, but maybe I'll use it in the future.

    @Mrs. Bear,
    I feel kind of the same way about Radiohead. They didn't quite "lose me," but I wasn't as excited about them after OK Computer.

    I agree about the baby laughter. It is a sonic elixir!

    I know. I realized that (at least at the colleges where I've taught), a lot of students have serious reading comprehension problems. It's hard to see how they can get through any class, let alone an English class.

    Perhaps I could take your music criticism more seriously if I didn't happen to know that you only started listening to rock music in 2004, and only got into Radiohead in the days of "In Rainbows." I won't even mention that you didn't know who The Smiths were until last week.

    I think your lack of appreciation for The Bends is much like my disappointment in Jack Kerouac's "On The Road." I had read so much stuff that was influenced by that book--and did what Kerouac was trying to do, only better--that Kerouac seemed like an amateur by comparison when I finally got around to reading him. It's also like old Bowie--it sounds pretty tame now, but before everyone started absorbing his style(s), it was the weirdest thing ever.

    If you, Young Whippersnapper, had been listening to something other than musicals and doo-wop bands when The Bends came out, you would realize that there was nothing out there that sounded even remotely like it, so they weren't in fact playing the "same old shite" everyone else was playing.

    Also, Sgt. Pepper is vastly overrated.

  9. Glad to hear you're on the mend.

    The girls look great.

  10. I loooooooove Radiohead. Liked your treatise on them too!! I've seen them live twice and both times were out of this world.

    Kid A is my favorite album, but I like them all for different reasons. Think I'm going to turn some on now!

  11. I've seen Radiohead and both times were amazing - they have that telepathic thing as players that you only find in the greatest bands, where somewhere in the middle of a song, something clicks and everything, invisibly, moves up a notch, becomes much much more than the sum of its parts. OK Computer is Dark Side Of The Moon, of course - but try playing them back to back - both great records of progressive rock recast as short, sharp, tuneful rock songs.

    Gillian Welch does a great cover of Black Star, by the way. It's on Emusic somewhere.

    It's always strange when someone you knew who's younger than you dies. It's as if the universe has slipped a gear.

  12. Everyone should have to read a lot and also should only listen to music and see art in chronological order so that it can all be appreciated.

    Thomas Jefferson was a badass because he had a private bathroom when no one else did. He wouldn't be a badass now. (That was some kind of metaphor for what you all are saying about music, but since I went to high school in the late 90's, I don't really know how to express myself.)


Don't hold back.


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