“earth song” – michael jackson (1995)

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I am sitting in my warm, cozy studio apartment in Chicago while the temperature outside continues to drop.  This week, Chicago is experiencing a string of days with below zero temperatures to the point of creating safety concerns for its residents and millions of other people outside of the city limits.  On one of those days, there is the possibility that the extreme cold will shatter several records including the coldest high temperature on record in Chicago.  Many businesses are closing, and warming centers are doing their best to promote their services to minimize that devastation such cold can bring.  I even temporarily disrupted my mail service and bought groceries in advance, so I didn’t have to subject some delivery driver to the brutal chill for the sake of my own convenience.

The extreme cold is forcing me to stay inside for several days without the need to leave my apartment.  That is situation I am not really accustomed to as I do enjoy getting out and walking around, if only for a few minutes.  However, as my weekly commitments such as my music class and volunteer shift get cancelled, I take it as a sign to just tough it out and enjoy the solitude and hiss of my radiator heat.

Though, getting cabin fever is not the only thing I have thought about concerning the weather.  Extreme cold like this comes around ever few years.  I remember the last polar vortices in 2013 and 2014 when a half inch of ice formed on the side of my window because the temperature differences between outside and inside were so vast.  These kinds of cold spells are an inconvenience, but they were the type of problem that only came about every few years.  Now, they happen with more frequency and intensity.

What concerns me most about this weather is that it is indicative of our environmental crisis.  What is proving to be the largest humanitarian issue in recent history, that has contributed to horrendous situations like the Syrian refugee crisis and more devastating hurricanes, climate change is an undeniable threat.

By nature, I am not a doomsday kind of person.  However, I don’t carry the same level of confidence I typically have when it comes to the matter of climate change. I feel this way because I think we have missed multiple opportunities to save this planet but are now left with the increasingly abysmal effects of climate change.  Through humanity’s greed and inability to come up with a solution that is not centered around profit, we have failed future generations who will inherit this planet.

I cannot stand the opinion that the extreme weather conditions currently moving across the U.S. are not a reflection of poor environmental policy.  It is a level of ignorance, and perhaps maliciousness in some cases, that I do not care to hear or entertain.  With all the evidence that exists about the serious threat climate change poses, I cannot help but think that actively dismissing it signifies one’s complicit attitude towards the deaths attributed to natural and environmental disasters. I am feeling so angry as I type this.

As I look out the window, I know that people will die.  Major cold fronts have occurred and will continue to do so, but there is a larger systemic issue at hand; one that will result in stronger and more frequent weather phenomenon and which also ignores how the most vulnerable and marginalized of society will be affected.  Libraries are a wonderful institution because they serve as a shelter to those who need it.  However, they do close.  The people who rely on them will have to leave, and a few may never return.

Released on the studio album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I in 1995, “Earth Song” is Michael Jackson’s first song to specifically address the issues facing our environment.  After a string of social conscious singles, the lyrics and music video for “Earth Song” paints a stunning portrait of the devastation our planet has and will continue to face unless major environmental policies are enacted.  What I like about this song is that it specifically calls out the effects of humanity’s greed.  It is a song that requires you to look into the mirror and understand that silence on the matter is death.

The U.S. government opened this week after the financial shutdown ended on Friday.  For over a month, various regulatory commissions and institutions were unable to carry out their duties.  We are expected to see an increase in foodborne illnesses.  Intruders trashed and wreaked havoc across multiple state parks.  The president joked about the cold asking for global warming to come back. If our government cannot run effectively, then it fails as an institution and government interference and cooperation is the only way to enact environmental policies with actual results.  However, with bullshit issues like border security, our leaders put people at risk when it comes to issues that really matter.  Issues that are proving to be deadly, costly, and irreversible.

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“new song” – howard jones (1983)

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I want to preface this blog entry by stating that this will not address, comment, or analyze any one specific event that has happened in the recent days, weeks, or months.  Rather, the point behind this blog entry is to appeal, on a more general level, to a sense of rationality that has increasingly been missing in our cultural dialogue in recent years.  This is primarily due to foreign active measures that have, in the last few years, aimed to divide people within this country through misinformation and deception.  As we currently face an existential crisis in this country, I have actively worked to maintain beliefs that do not further that divide.  Criticism of this may call me a centrist or someone committed to establishment principles, but that viewpoint is narrow-minded.  As much as I want radical change that challenges our deeply rooted intrinsic and extrinsic systemic principles, I also firmly believe that now is not the time for such radical principles as they will further create a rift within this country.  One that may be impossible to bridge if it becomes too wide.  Instead, we must hit reset to return things to a sense of normalcy, where rules and traditions are valued, and then work to change the systemic problems within the establishment this country has historically know.  And the first step to doing that is through nuance.

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a friend and colleague from the community radio station I volunteered with challenged the notion of misinformation as it relates to “call out culture,” a set of patterns and behaviors using social media to shed light on and amplify a specific person or group.  While social media, and the internet as a whole, has been a wonderful tool in uniting people, bringing power to the marginalized, and spreads useful information faster than mediums before it, it has also been utilized as a weapon to spread misinformation and foster distrust.

This friend published a book in 2017, a collection of feminist mantras that over the course of a year allow readers to embrace feminist principles in deeply meaningful and personal ways.  That book has expanded into a larger project involving podcasts, road trips to meet with feminist leaders, and so much more.

One of the negative aspects of out call ouR culture is that online digital mobs react to information on social media that violates their principles and, as a result, their response is more amplified and vitriolic than if they were to address the same issue in-person or within their own communities.  Calling out, addressing, and stopping problematic behavior online is essential to achieve progress for all people, but we must remember that social media is not altruistic.  It is not a moralistic entity.  It is amoral.  Whatever you put in, you get out.

That is how misinformation can be spread so effectively through all the different channels by agents whose goals are to further divides within their targets.  Quite simply, millions of people will cause damage as a result of baseless rumors, lies, and accusations with only minimum evidence, or the appearance of evidence, that validates their prejudices, belief systems, and biases.

Since America is currently facing an existential crisis, it is important to understand that you cannot believe everything you see online.  Instead of acting on impulse, you must, as my friend put it, find the nuance.  Sure, we live in reality, and some people do awful things.  However, people will also do normal things that, through the lens of social media, can be manipulated to reflect a consequence not originally intended.

In her mantra of finding the nuance, she says

a challenge to all of us to take time to seek and understand the details of reality before succumbing to Twitter’s endless hot takes. This work isn’t easy, but I see it as so politically important and necessarily feminist in the way it promotes transparency, honesty, and empathy. What’s one thing you can pause and look a little closer at this week? Maybe it’s a current event or maybe it’s just a way you’re thinking about your own life/self that needs reexamining. Find the nuance, take a breath in those contradictions, we’re better for recognizing them.

I know this isn’t easy.  We live in an age where we want everything, and we want it now.  However, until we get the Russian agents out of the White House, we do need a return to the status quo until we can work on real radical change that challenges the systemic issues within the establishment.  And the first step is to maintain healthy skepticism and finding the nuance.

“New Song” was the debut single from Howard Jones.  Released in 1983 off his 1984 debut studio album Human’s Lib, “New Song” is about having the patience to understand the nuance of our social issues.  Jones sings about not being fooled by what you see and hear and calls for people to challenge their preconceived ideas and longstanding fears.  By seeing both sides and throwing off your mental chains, Jones sings that you can breakaway from the cynical people who try to doom your path to progress.

“New Song” is about not accepting things at face value.  In the age of misinformation, this principle is incredibly important.  It is practically an ideal we need to hold sacred.  Sure, you cannot stop from reacting at something at face value.  That’s only natural. However, keep yourself open to the idea there may be more than meets the eye.  Especially during a time where our institutions are being challenged for their authenticity.

“mo ti mo” – king sunny adé and his african beats (1983)

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While everyone is out seeing the big blockbusters and films from the Oscars’ shortlist, it seems these days the only movies I go see are obscure and generally confusing to most people.  I’m not sure exactly why I go see these movies.  Maybe it is for the camp factor.  Or even just for the curiosity.  Or perhaps even the scarcity of the screening itself.  Does it really matter?  All I am saying is that I seem to spend money for the experience of seeing some esoteric bullshit.

Monday was no exception when I went to the Music Box Theatre to see the lost Robert Altman teen comedy O.C. and Stiggs.  Altman is a major name in the world of New Hollywood cinema having directed such great titles such as MASH, Nashville, and Short Cuts.  In addition to his making films with an aesthetic that highly stylized and satirical, he was also a maverick as a director in the sense that he was difficult to work with in the sense that he became anti-Hollywood during the 1980s.  It was during this era that he directed O.C. and Stiggs.

O.C. and Stiggs is a teen comedy about two trouble-making high schoolers who plot to prank an upper-middle class suburban family they despise in their hometown of Phoenix. Though it was shot in 1983 and finished production in 1984, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1987. The initial concept of O.C. and Stiggs was developed by the National Lampoon and meant to capitalize on the trend of teen comedies that had seen a boost of popularity a few years earlier with titles such as Animal House.

Not much is known about the film since it was a critical bomb and Altman’s least commercially successful movie having only earned $29,000+ at the box office.  Though somehow, in the film’s development, Altman was attached to direct and that is when the initial concept changed during the course of production.

While the film was intended to be a true teen comedy, Altman had the plan to derail the original vision and turn it into a parody of the teen comedy genre.  With appearances from notable talent such as Dennis Hopper and Melvin Van Peebles, plus early appearances of talent like Cynthia Nixon, O.C. and Stiggs is a bizarre examination of teenage mischief through the lens of Altman’s satirical take on the American culture of guns, capitalism, and freedom.

The Music Box Theatre was almost packed to see this obscure title. It was quite a strange experience.  The film does not age well with numerous sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic jokes and a style that obviously comes off as parody, even if that wasn’t evident to the studio and distributors at the time.  While I have seen movies of a worse quality than O.C. and Stiggs, it still stands out as one of my strangest viewing experiences.  I think with other bad movies, I sense an earnestness from the director and their thinking they were making something truly wonderful (i.e. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room).  With Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs, this was parody without irony which is something you don’t see much of.

The only thing that has stuck with me from the experience of seeing the film was the music.  In the film, the two leads are obsessed with King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, a Nigerian jùjú band.  Only two tracks were contributed to the film.  One was an original composition called “O.C. and Stiggs” which had an instrumental that appears frequently throughout the film and plays in its entirety over the ending credits.  Unfortunately, that track has never been released.  While it does appear on YouTube, I cannot include it in my blog as the focus track since it has never been officially released outside of the film.  So, for this purpose, I’ll focus on the other track that appeared in the film.

During one of the big pranks O.C. and Stiggs play on the town, they interrupt a local play production so King Sunny Adé’ & His African Beats can play a concert after being swindled by a promoter in Mexico.  They perform “Mo Ti Mo,” from their 1983 studio album Syncro System, in its entirety with everyone in the place dancing and jumping around and forgetting that they were supposed to see a play.  In an otherwise odd scene, the performance was fantastic (studio and film versions below).

I never have to see O.C. and Stiggs again.  I’m glad I saw it, but now it enters my long list of films I saw because of curiosity and scarcity.  You don’t need to see it as well.  But do check out King Sunny Adé & His African Beats.

“i don’t want to set the world on fire” – the ink spots (1941)

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It is said that January is the hardest month for people.  It follows the holidays, is typically the coldest, and is way too long.  In Chicago, January is when winter really kicks in with unbelievably cold temperatures.  January, with February coming in at a close second, makes Chicago a little unbearable.  So, I find ways to relax.

I’m a busy guy and I don’t relax much over the holidays.  I don’t believe that many people actually do feel rested up during the holidays.  There sometimes is a lot of travel involved and family can be a bit much to handle sometimes.  I always feel like I need a holiday from the holidays.  So, I try to make my January as relaxing as possible.  Both with regards to dealing with the weather and to get some me time.

When I was younger, I used to watch a lot of television and play a ton of video games.  They were just my hobbies.  However, I have new hobbies now.  I still watch some television, but I play video games very rarely.

The last few years, I have used January as a time to rewatch beloved shows that have since ended.  Last year, I marathoned Breaking Bad for its 10th anniversary.  I could not think of any shows I felt compelled to repeat, so I turned to my other former love.  I turned on my Xbox 360.

I remember purchasing Fallout 3 in 2010 after a friend’s recommendation.  I was never really into RPGs because I didn’t care for the turn-based gameplay that most of those types of games adhere to.  When I was told there was a real-time combat system, one that involved more than just pressing a button or two, I decided I would go for it.  And I loved it!

The open world, the scary creatures and environments, and the futuristic retro aesthetic really appealed to me.  Fallout 3 quickly became one of my favorite video games.  Since I was a recent college graduate and only working part-time, I had lots of free time over the summer to explore the Capital Wasteland! It was fantastic.

Fallout 3 is a massive video game with potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay.  Given the scope of the game, plus having recently moved to Chicago and focusing on finding work, I knew it wouldn’t be a game I would return to frequently.  I was also transitioning to a point a of my life, due to finances and apartment size, where video games were becomingly less and less of a priority.  It would be awhile before returned to the post-apocalyptic hellscape.

It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2014 when I returned to Fallout 3 and replayed it in its entirety.  I was nursing a breakup and didn’t have much going on, so Fallout 3 was a great escape.  It was amazing how I still remembered so much from the game, but was still left surprised by things I had forgotten or had not discovered before.  The second time through, it was still one of my favorites.

Now, in January 2019, I have returned to the ruins of Washington, D.C. for a third time.  Instead of catching up on a show, I have been revisiting Fallout 3 for the third time.  As I am playing through it, I have been taking a different strategy.  I’m exploring more than I had previously and am dedicating myself to more side missions.  I really want to get as much of an experience as I can because I don’t know when I’ll play it again.  Could be five years.  Could be ten.  Could be never.

Part of the reason why I’m getting more in-depth with it is because I’m missing out on the recent activity of the Fallout franchise.  I don’t really buy video games anymore, so I don’t have the latest system.  While everyone else has been exploring the reaches of Fallout 4 and Fallout ’76, I am being considerably more retro with my decade old game. And I am fine with that.  Maybe one day, when the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One is several generations old, I’ll purchase one used for $50, along with a used copy of Fallout 4 for $10, and see what I missed out on.  Maybe.

One of the signature qualities of the game is the music.  There are built in radio frequencies that you can tune into that each have their own characteristics.  And the music is featured in the game, and in the advertising, almost like a character itself.

While John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been the new featured tune because of the recent release of Fallout ’76, it doesn’t hold a candle to the legacy of its most iconic soundtrack choice.  Written in 1938 by Bennie Benjamin, Eddie Durham, Sol Marcus, and Eddie Seiler, the 1941 rendition of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by the Ink Spots has become that song’s official anthem.  I remember seeing the first trailer for Fallout 3 when a radio turns on playing the song as the camera backs out of rusted out bus to reveal a nuclear devastated landscape and a Brotherhood of Steel paladin looking towards the camera saying “War…war never changes.”  Cue hairs on neck standing.

I have heard that the song has been included in Fallout 4, but it will forever bring about images of a ruined Washington, D.C. with mutants, raiders, and a shadow government running amok.  And I’ll be there, as the lone survivor, to bring peace.

“happy new year” – abba (1980)

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New Years is such an interesting holiday.  People put so much stock into it with the belief that this arbitrary date within our concept of time will bring about some significance in their lives.  I know that is a cynical assessment, and I try not to be cynical because cynicism is just a symptom of fear, but it takes a lot of work to be optimistic.

I do think positively about New Year’s because the idea of marking our milestones, and the inherent sense of a new beginning, makes the difficulty aspects of our lives easier to bear because such a holiday gives us hope.  And hope is such an important thing to have.  Especially during these times.

Since I’ve started this blog, my posts about New Years have always been this idea that this next year will be when things truly amazing will happen. And, frankly, that just is not realistic.  Good things have happened, do happen, and will continue to happen.  But, so will bad things.  You must take them both to truly appreciate what you have in life.

So, instead of yammering on about the abstract concept of New Years and what is plays in our lives, I instead want to share a moment of tranquility I experienced a few days prior.

I was on a plane from Cincinnati to Chicago after spending the Christmas holiday with family.  I did not sleep much the night before and the flight was in the morning.  So, naturally, I knew I would fall asleep.  I boarded the plane, put on my headphones, tuned to Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, and was out before takeoff.  The flight is only about an hour, but I woke up a few minutes before the descent.  I was sitting in the window seat and it was open.  I have flown many times before, so I am fully aware of what being above the clouds looks like. However, this time felt different.  I was confused because what I saw did not resemble clouds.  The texture and coloring looked like a wintry snowscape of a mountain valley.  For a few brief seconds, I thought I was a flight to Alaska since the flight path takes you over such terrain.  Then, I realized that I was actually looking at clouds and I was mesmerized by them.  I experienced a few minutes where I was living in the present, tuned out from the problems of the world and my life, and focused on the curves, crests, and stillness of these clouds.  For a brief moment, I felt transported.  It was a beautifully tranquil experience that I will not forget.

After a few minutes, the plane began descending.  I was immersed in solid white as we crashed into the clouds.  Then, in subtle shifts, grey tones started to bleed through as the plane, as well as I, transitioned from such a magical moment to the dullness of a grey Chicago day.  I enjoyed the magic of what I had just seen, but returning to my normal life really cemented in my mind how special such a moment was.  That duality is necessary in life to appreciate such moments.

A lot of songs about New Years are celebratory or about the hope of all the good things that could come with it.  I’ve written about those songs in the past.  However, for this year, I wanted to find a song that reflected the duality of New Years as a concept.

I could not find a better song than “Happy New Year” by Abba.  A single from their 1980 studio album Super Trouper, though it would not be released as a single until 1999, it is a song about what one feels when the party dies down.  We all celebrated a milestone and reveled in the moments with good cheer, good drinks, and good friends, but it is never enough to solve all life’s problems.  They still exist.  New Years, in the song, gives us a vision now and then of a world where every neighbor is a friend, but some dreams die.  However, things are not as bleak as they can be as long as we have the hope and will to try to make our lives, and the lives of those around us, better.  Otherwise, what is the point?  We might as well lay down and lie, as sung in the song.

There is a truthful duality recognized in that song that captures New Years in ways that many ignore or choose not to see.  Don’t get me wrong.  It should be a time to celebrate accomplishments, loves milestones, and other happy things while surrounded by people you love and who love you back, but it is more than that.  To quote a different band, nothing changes on New Year’s Day.