Category: Life

This is my jacket

Part of the This Is My series.

If you have met me in the last 15 years, there’s a decent chance you have seen me in this orange jacket:

I acquired it in 2004 on a trip from Madison to Kansas City with a few people from my youth group to attend a conference. We stopped at a Salvation Army somewhere along the way, which is where I spotted it. Don’t remember how much it cost, but since I’ve worn it for darn near half the year every year since, I’d say it was a sound investment regardless.

It had the same appeal then as it does now: a bold orange color, accessible pockets, and the perfect thickness for use as a spring and autumn jacket—not too thick and not too thin.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s time to find another light jacket. It’s starting to fray now, having served me and previous owners well for who knows how long. Something more waterproof or muted might be a better look and practical move.

But by Jove, I’m sticking with it, because I stick with useful things to their bitter end. It’s my only play against planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumerism. Until I accidentally lose it or it disintegrates beyond repair, it’s staying on my coat rack. That’s the only way to honor such a reliable companion.

When we make our art

“When we make our art, we are also making our lives. And I’m sure that the reverse is equally true.”

— Wendell Berry, in the beautiful documentary Look & See (currently streaming on Netflix). Might have found my new life motto.

Going to the movies is a gift

As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.

Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:

  • I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
  • I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
  • I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
  • I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.

(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)

My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.

I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.

For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.

The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”

A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.

Queer Eye and Straight Guys

Karamo Brown of Queer Eye recently gave a free talk nearby, so I availed myself of the opportunity to see him in the flesh. He was the same as you see on the show, except this time he made himself cry. He got emotional as soon as the talk began because an old college friend of his was in the audience, someone who reminded him of how far he’d come in life. He then briefly told stories from the show and about being a dad.

Unsurprisingly, he was very open with feelings and implored us not to make fear-based decisions. His sons probably do not appreciate when they bring girls home and Karamo pulls them aside and asks “Have you done anything out of fear lately?” But that’s something youths can only appreciate in hindsight (and something only a therapist/motivational speaker like Karamo could get away with).

I never watched the original Queer Eye, though vaguely remember its cultural impact. But while I was in Denver for a wedding last fall, my straight-dude friends were effusive in their praise for the new version. It’s so much more than fashion, they said. They were right. It’s fun to see the Fab Five work their magic: Bobby remodeling homes and Jonathan transforming hair and Antoni inspiring cooking and Tan remaking wardrobes and Karamo shepherding the show’s “heroes” to a new self-awareness.

But, like Karamo, I think I’m most interested in seeing what makes the subjects cry, or at least be vulnerable. Those moments are water wells, openings to the deep reserves of emotional underground that’s usually in darkness. Drawing from that space, for me anyway, involves work and risk but almost always reward. It happened for me that weekend in Denver, which is why I’ll always associate that time with the show. The ability to be vulnerable among friends—straight male friends, no less—and to do it so easily when it’s otherwise so daunting, meant it was good in the richest sense of the word.

That inspiring of goodness is one of my takeaways from the show. The Fab Five dedicate themselves to new and challenging experiences around Georgia for the first two seasons, and in doing so demonstrate their goodness to everyone. Being willing to share their expertise for the betterment of strangers, prodding when necessary but remaining open to being changed themselves—that’s good. That takes guts, and vulnerability. And that’s what I look forward to seeing even more of in season 3.

2018 in Review

What am I doing New Year’s Eve? Looking back at my 2018 calendar and logbook to remember the notable happenings that made up my year. In roughly chronological order:

  • Started a paper logbook (a la Austin Kleon) in a Moleskine notebook I got for Christmas. Have actually kept it going regularly, and enjoy it much more than my previous journals in composition notebooks, probably because it’s not lined. This encourages me to do things like magazine mashups and tape other life ephemera and keepsakes inside. It’s a much richer diary because of that.
  • 2/24/18 log: “Today at work an older guy was looking for White Heat, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I found them on the DVD shelves and he said, ‘You’re the nicest guy on this side of the tracks.’ Thank you?”
  • Started going to a local independent barber shop and love it
  • Wrote or quoted some opinions about Donald Trump and have yet to be proven wrong
  • Got a real, professional massage and why don’t I do that more often?
  • Saw I’m With Her in concert at Thalia Hall
  • Wrote several Refer Madness columns for Booklist
  • Bought a Royal Arrow typewriter and then sold my rickety Royal Quiet De Luxe
  • Saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Music Box in Chicago
  • Saw The Okee Dokee Brothers at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a college friend’s wedding at my alma mater
  • Switched to Firefox, fixed Twitter, and made other tech improvements
  • Hosted a type-in at an Evanston bookstore
  • Went on a pontoon boat with family in Madison
  • Had octopus and a sake bomb for the first time in Wicker Park with college friends
  • Went to Midsommarfest in Andersonville, where I bought my first pair of real Birkenstocks and got roped into a Swedish dance circle
  • Learned my wife was pregnant with our first child, visited Starved Rock, then saw Hamilton on stage, all within 24 hours
  • Walked the Custer Street Fair with friends, got dinner and dessert and talked tech ethics
  • Acquired, cleaned, and quickly sold a gorgeous Royal Empress
  • Went to wife’s cousin’s wedding at Illinois Beach State Park
  • Visited Colorado for my friend Tim’s wedding in Denver: stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb in Maintou Springs, hiked in the Rocky Mountain National Park, rode a vintage Otis elevator at the Hotel Boulderado, ogled the stunning Boulder Public Library, toured the Celestial Seasonings headquarters, wended through the hoodoos of the Painted Mines Interpretive Park, shot billiards until 1 AM, cried and danced and gave a speech at Tim’s wedding
  • Won my case on Judge John Hodgman
  • Celebrated 10 years of filmlogging
  • Spent a few days fishing and lounging in the restorative Northwoods of Wisconsin
  • Saw Rayland Baxter at Lincoln Hall
  • Went to a Cubs game on a super hot day
  • Gave my Royal Futura 800 to a neighbor who needed it
  • Went to another Cubs game on a super beautiful day
  • Got a Fisher space pen for my birthday and it’s fun to use
  • Visited Colorado again for my friend Taylor’s wedding: whacked balls at Top Golf, beheld the Crush Walls, sang the processional along with the wedding party, cried and danced hard
  • Tried to make a typewriter emoticon happen ‘(:::)
  • Canned homemade applesauce with the family
  • Dressed as Fred Rogers for Halloween
  • Went to Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the first time and sat in the Al Capone booth
  • Saw sound designer Gary Rydstrom speak at Northwestern
  • Acquired a new Olympia SM7 with an interesting story
  • Had fun putting together a LEGO Delorean
  • Released a full-length album of old demos called The Wonder Of It All
  • All things Baby C: baby showers, appointments, clothes, toys, books, classes, and so much more
  • Got a portable washing machine
  • Wrote some good blog posts, like:
  • Watched 70 movies (old and new) and read 72 books, according to my logbook
  • Read 2 presidential biographies: John Tyler and Harry Truman
  • Watched several good TV shows: The Crown season 1 and 2, Big Mouth season 2, Queer Eye seasons 1 and 2, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, and Big Little Lies

Now available: ‘The Wonder Of It All’, a new album of old demos

Surprise! I just released a new album of old demos called The Wonder Of It All, now available on SoundCloud.

Since 2010, when I first got my MacBook Pro, I’ve used GarageBand to record song ideas. Some of them remain fragments and half-songs, but many have become full songs. This album is a collection of the songs that became something.

Most of the songs were written and recorded in 2010 when I was in Colombia, or in 2011 after I returned home and had a good amount of spare time. None of them are professionally or even decently recorded; I did them all myself, usually just with the MacBook’s built-in microphone in a bedroom or other non-soundproofed space. (Piano and drums were recorded at Reba Place Church.) Except where noted I did all the singing and played all the instruments. I am not a good singer, but I am proud of how I composed and arranged many of the songs. Some turned out well, some make me cringe, some I’m just happy I finished.

I’m releasing them now for two reasons:

  • Now in my thirties with a kid on the way, I’d very much like to just get these out into the world and achieve some sense of closure rather than let them languish on a hard drive. They represent a formative time of my life for which I’m very grateful, but it’s time to say goodbye and thanks for the memories.
  • Without a band or reason to record them professionally, I’d rather release them as demos, lo-tech warts and all, because something is better than nothing.

Keep reading for some short liner notes on each track. Thanks for listening and sharing. And thanks to Richard Polt for the authentic Royal Executive typewriter font for the cover.

1. “The Wonder Of It All”

The most recently written and recorded song on the album, from 2015. Initially had some drums towards the end, but between that, the guitar, and piano, the rhythm got too choppy. Just realized how much the beginning sounds like “Hero” by Family of the Year (a.k.a. the Boyhood song).

2. “It All Comes Back To You”

Originally called “Shouldn’t Have Done,” written by my friend and former bandmate Taylor, I changed the chorus and wrote two more verses for this new version. (Original version is track 14.) The random children shouting in the background were playing in the Colombian church where I was recording.

3. “Minor Lovers (feat. Taylor Martin)”

With a little banjo and stand-up bass help from Taylor.

4. “Be Still Your Fears (Christmastime Is Here)”

Once I started coming back around on Christmas music in general, I figured I should try to write my own. A bit strange putting this together in a warm Colombian winter. Should have added some sleigh bells in the interludes.

5. “Rejoice Evermore”

Proud of the backing vocals on this one. Can you tell I was listening to Mumford & Sons a lot around that time? This and track 13 are the most explicitly worship-songy I think—not a surprise given I was living with a Colombian pastor’s family and heavily involved at church.

6. “I Can Do Anything Good”

Remember that viral video of a cute little girl saying affirmations in her bathroom mirror? I turned everything she said into lyrics.

7. “Heaven Knows”

My “sad bastard” emo song. Added the harmonica interludes after I got one for my birthday one year.

8. “I Will Find A Way”

Went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this more upbeat version. Regret not adding some foot-stomps to give it some meat and drive.

9. “Long Gone Days”

Also went through several different tempos and feels before landing on this slow rock rendition. Needs some bass or low-end.

10. “Today Starts”

Wrote this all the way back in high school, and even recorded it with Taylor on a 4-track mixer. But couldn’t locate the recording, so I tried it again. The original was better, and not just because Taylor sang it.

11. “I Carry Your Heart”

Chorus lyrics are quoting an e.e. cummings poem, which I first heard in the good movie In Her Shoes. Had fun stacking harmonies throughout.

12. “What Love Looks Like To Me”

Kinda funny that I wrote this before ever actually being in love and having botched two different shotgun relationships. Call it a creative writing experiment.

13. “Awake And Alive”

Another fun vocal one. Not sure what I was thinking with the claps but why not.

14. “It All Comes Back To You (feat. Taylor Martin)”

The original “Shouldn’t Have Done” with me on guitar and Taylor singing.

Grandma’s dressers

It’s been a year since my Grandma Helen died. I inherited several things from her before and after her death, including a Selectric typewriter and typewriter desk. But of these heirlooms, what I now notice most frequently, and what most often remind me of her, are the dressers.

One horizontal and one vertical, they are massive and sturdy things made of solid wood. We had to rent a U-Haul to get them home. They are properly worn in (but not worn down) by decades of previous use. My grandparents were frugal, but when they made big purchases they were of high quality.

Though I usually notice the distinct burnt orange color first, it’s the smell that triggers the memories. The dressers lived with her for so long that inevitably the aroma I associate with her—a melange of perfumes, deodorants, and who knows what other products that made up her graceful cosmetic presentation—seeped deeply into the wood and now wafts its way to me at random times throughout the day.

Then I think of the time we spent in her apartment baking and talking and laughing at eating grapes together in the final years of her life, and I smile.

Which movie changed you?

On Being—a top-5 podcast for me—has a new offshoot podcast called This Movie Changed Me, with “one fan talking about the transformative power of one movie.” So far they’ve featured Star Wars: A New HopeEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and You’ve Got Mail.

It made me think about what mine would be. The quick and easy answer would be Back to the Future, if only because of how much I’ve written about it on this site. But I think there are other candidates. Some that come to mind, all for different reasons, include It’s a Wonderful LifeHigh FidelityOnceToy Story, and Unbreakable.

I don’t know. I have to think about this. What’s yours?

Update: I want to include some of the replies I’ve gotten to this query:

  • “Oddly enough, Snowpiercer. While it’s a terribly chaotic movie, man, it haunts me every day. The ignorant frivolity of the front car compared to the ruthless survival of the back cars…way too real. I probably think about it every day. Because I’m one of the front car a**holes.”
  • “It’s A Wonderful Life. Each Christmas Eve we watch it I learn something from the movie that is applied to my life; courage through hardship, wisdom of God, love of family and friends, mystery of life. It’s amazing how this movie has been intertwined with me on a small yet profound level.”
  • “Cloud Atlas. I frankly had a spiritual experience in the theater. It articulated my worldview in a way I hadn’t really seen before (or at least to that extent). Uneven as it may be, it floored me.”
  • “While I look at it quite differently now, Chasing Amy had a huge impact on me. Her monologue about sexual freedom and independence is feminist AF and it was like finally having my thoughts and feelings validated.”
  • Do the Right Thing made me aware of how I process anger as a white person.”

‘Remember what’s important’ and other principles of the modern hunter-gatherer

Humans are not hunter-gatherers anymore, but we were for a long time. Nicholas Bate has a list of 50 skills we collectively gained from that era can go to waste in our modern existence, unless we realize how useful they still are. I like the list because it combines small practicalities with big-picture stuff. For example:

Tell stories that fire the imagination.

Use eyes for distances beyond the screen: look long, look up.

Remember what’s important.

Stare at night skies unpolluted by light.

Establish rituals: writing, building & crafting, reflecting

No elevators. No escalators. No PPT. No Facebook after the sun sets.

Be self-reliant: learn how it works, from pensions to mowers.

Believe in magic.

Scan the horizon.

Evolve, change and learn from the masters.

Never let the fire go out.

How to have better conversations

Via Kottke, here are radio interviewer Celeste Headlee’s 10 tips for better conversations:

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.

I’m better at some of these than others. I think about #6 a lot because it’s so easy to do, and I think about #5 a lot because, for me at least, it’s so hard to do.

Additionally, WSJ’s “Save Yourself From Tedious Small Talk” offers some conversation-openers that spark pleasure and deeper thinking beyond today’s weather and the traffic you hit on your way here:

  • Have you been working on anything exciting recently?
  • What was the highlight of your day?
  • Any exciting plans this summer?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • What’s keeping you awake at night?