Sunday, June 12, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 5

America, a haiku...

Well the road trip is over. I know what you’re thinking: “OMG Justin, you guys just started LOL!1! Wasn’t your last blog entry from all the way back in Santa Fe!?!?!” Well, you’re right. The last half of our trip was a whirlwind of activity - driving 10-14 hours each day, sleeping in shitty motel rooms in the middle of nowhere, and stopping at various hotspots just long enough to grab dinner and a caffeine hit. And it was all for this little guy:

That’s Abe, Lauren’s new dog and the reason for our rushed return home. We had known the whole time that he would be coming into the picture when we got back, but it wasn’t until the night of the 7th that we learned the lengths that we would have to go to in order to make it work. We were in Austin at the time, enjoying beers with our friends Sarah and Tim, when Lauren got a call from the dog shelter. As it turned out, Abe was to be transported from Chicago to Connecticut along with another group of dogs. He would be arriving at 4:00PM on the 11th, and it would be our only chance to pick him up. In other words, the race was on.

The next morning, Lauren and I got into the car with a newly revised plan. We would spend the next four days going at a breakneck pace, stopping for dinner in New Orleans, Nashville, and Washington D.C. along the way. We would ride that poor Miata with authority, surviving almost solely on beef jerky, Cliff Bars, and peanut butter & jelly. Come hell or high water, we would make it back to get that dog.

And so it was. As I write this final act of our travel blog from the comfort of my parents’ home in Wrentham, I am finally able to sit back and marvel at our success. But we aren’t done yet. I started this blog to share my experiences and thoughts on America’s varied landscape, and I intend to finish that job... via haiku.

That’s right. As our grand finale, I present to you a haiku on each of the places we visited. Without further ado:

Los Angeles
Think you're an actor?
How's bartending sound instead
Good luck being poor

Grand Canyon
So many people
Something about a canyon
Let's get out of here

Canyon De Chelly
If there were a God
This would be his greatest gift
So awesome it hurts

Santa Fe
Stupid white tourists
Love campy Indian stuff
Wolves howling at moon?!

Beautiful people
Spending all day at whole foods
Hipsters and gays too

New Orleans
Bars starving for cash
Strippers grab you by the arm
Too bad they aren't hot

Country music fest
Lots of Hicks in cowboy boots
Sing about their trucks

(Note: Nashville is actually an amazing city, second only to Austin on this trip. The people at the country music fest were mostly tourists)

Washington D.C.
Didn't meet Obama
But I'm sure he wanted to
Guess I'll forgive him

Thursday, June 9, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 4

Santa Fe and the Story of Tom

Note: I have been a bit lazy with the blog, so keep in mind that this portion of the trip actually happened a few days ago. Since the events of this story, we have already gone through Austin and are now in the New Orleans area. That will come too.

Of all of our stories so far, this one may be the most remarkable. But it requires a bit of setup.

Lauren and I have the unfortunate predicament of being poor. But when life gives you lemons, you eat the stupid lemons and you damn well like it. Such was the case when I put us up on, an open community of travel enthusiasts committed to simple notion of hospitality. There are hordes of people out there who take great pleasure in hosting wayward souls from around the world, and who were we to deny them the gift of our company?

Our search for lodging led us to a man named Tom, a frequent host of CouchSurfers with a list of glowing recommendations long enough to open his own bed-and-breakfast. He enthusiastically offered to let us stay, under the caveat that he would be hosting another traveler at the same time – which was fine with us. We arrived the afternoon of the 2nd, excited to see our new digs but at the same time feeling more than a little trepidation. The directions we had been given led us off the highway a few exits before Santa Fe, where we proceeded down a seven-mile stretch of Rt. 14 before turning down a long dirt road. It was a relatively rural area, with adobe houses scattered about in no discernable pattern. As we rounded the last bend of the thin dirt road, our final destination came into view – an unassuming adobe home with a dilapidated pickup truck in the driveway. Tom hadn’t picked up his phone, so we correctly assumed that he wasn’t around. But (coincidentally) waiting for us was the other CouchSurfer that he had mentioned, Kari, casually digging through her belongings in the trunk of a newer looking Jeep. She was thin, perhaps in her mid-thirties, with a quiet demeanor and an outfit that invoked visions of an Appalachian hippie. During our brief introduction we learned that she was an aspiring farmer from Chicago, traveling the country to learn where she wanted to settle down. Fortunately, she had been staying with Tom for a few nights and was happy to show us the ropes. After instructing us to take off our shoes, she took us through an unlocked screen door into an interior that nearly knocked us off our feet. Spacious rooms overlapped to form a wide-open layout, bathed in natural light from a back wall almost exclusively consisting of windows and broad sliding doors. White adobe walls rose into a ceiling of thick, wooden beams to create an organic look, while luxurious vegetation, stained glass, and worn musical instruments contributed to the serene ambiance. It was just as much of a temple as it was a home.

After about five minutes of gawking, Tom sauntered into the house, his appearance and countenance perfectly matching what I had come to expect from his CouchSurfing profile. He was in his late 50’s, with windswept grey hair, soft blue eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard flanking a wide smile. You could instantly tell that this was the kind of man that had never shaken a hand in his life, only hugged. After brief introductions, he offered us each a Heineken and we took seats around a long dining room table made of thick, naturally treated wood. As we sipped our beers, we took the opportunity to get to know each other a bit. Through our conversation, we learned that he had owned multiple bars and restaurants in the Santa Fe area, only recently selling them off to make a living doing construction. The house, as it turned out, was his own work. He talked about his daughters, all of whom from previous relationships, and his love of jazz and world music. The most interesting thing we learned of, however, was his sense of spirituality. He was a devout Christian unlike any other I had met – an unreserved liberal with a deep respect for the historical aspects of his faith and an attitude toward the supernatural that ranged from lighthearted amusement to downright skepticism (with the exception of his fascination with the more mystical disciplines of holistic healing). His was a joyful attitude that was both pleasantly contagious and borderline obnoxious.

The first evening of our stay was quiet and relaxing. Lauren and I went to get beer while Tom cooked us a delicious meal – pasta and scallops with fresh sausage and caprese. We sat at the dining room table where we were joined by Kari and a young woman named Nina, who was renting from him in a separate guest house that he had built on his property. Amazingly, Nina was even more bizarre than Tom - a 23 year-old healer from Vermont with a soft voice and a sense of tranquility that far exceeded her age. Together, we spent the evening listening to jazz music, sharing stories from our travels, and learning of Nina’s odd fascination with astrology and pseudo-psychology (Lauren and I secretly smirking with disbelief the entire time).

After our first night’s sleep in a real bed since the EconoLodge in Flagstaff, we headed out to explore Santa Fe. You would expect the city itself to be the coolest part of New Mexico, but it really wasn’t. While it was staggeringly beautiful with its sparklingly clean streets, open-air markets, and two-story adobe buildings, it was touristy to the point where it made you wonder if you were really just walking through a cleverly designed Disney reenactment of the real thing. Art galleries swarmed you like Starbucks stores, offering cheesy Native American crafts at prices that would make your head bleed. Meanwhile, fancy jewelry stores attempted to ensnare you with overly enthusiastic saleswomen drowning in makeup and hairspray. But once we figured out how to avoid these pitfalls by sticking to breweries and one particularly awesome gelato place, it all came together quite nicely.

That evening, Lauren and I returned to Tom’s place sporting a few hot pizzas from his old restaurant, ample beer, and a serious intent to spend our last night in style. Nina joined us at the dinner table once again, along with Tom’s 5 year-old daughter, Anja, and friend, Tim. After a number of beers we went out to the back yard, where Tom lit up his fire pit and he and Anja grabbed their guitars (Anja’s being small enough to fit in her tiny hands). They began to play some blues, Tom teaching his daughter chords along the way. There we sat, basking in the cool desert breeze and the warm glow of the fire under the vivid night sky. The next morning, Lauren and I were on the road once again.

I tell this story because I feel that there is something genuinely special about experiencing a new city in this manner – avoiding the tedium of a hotel room and making a new friend along the way. I have to say, though, that it wasn’t all rosy. Despite the fact that we had a great time with Tom, he was clearly attracted to Lauren in a way that would have made both of us uncomfortable had I not been there. He didn’t make any moves that suggested forcefulness or downright audacity, but there were plenty of those awkwardly long hugs that reeked a bit of desperation. Still, knowing what I do now, I would gladly take my chances on another CouchSurfer. There wasn’t a single moment that I felt unsafe, and we left with some trinkets for our trip that we wouldn’t have been able to get any other way: some excellent memories, a new friend, and a pretty sweet stack of jazz albums that Tom had burned for me.

Tom and Anja with their guitars.

Just some beautiful woman I met in Santa Fe. Note: the breweries there were awesome.

A wedding procession leading through the park... with MARIACHIS!

The sunset leaving Santa Fe. While you can't see it here, it was blood red due to forest fires come up from California and Arizona. Just freakishly beautiful.

Friday, June 3, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 3

Mind the Gaps

I’ve been to a number of places in my life – India, Australia, Italy, Aruba, Rhode Island – but Arizona was the first time I felt that I was truly on a different planet. It’s like Mars, only less hospitable and with fewer people. But it’s as beautiful as it is foreign, and that’s saying a lot.

It was an uninspiring start to this leg of the trip. We had high hopes of leaving L.A. bright and early, making the 9-hour drive to the Grand Canyon in time to set up a tent at a nearby campsite before dark. A foolish plan, as it turned out. By the time the sun set we were still hours away, leaving us no choice but to set up shop at an EconoLodge in Flagstaff – proud home of a Chile’s and a Casa Bonita. It was a 2-hour drive from the Grand Canyon, meaning we would have to cut our stay there short if we wanted to make it to Canyon De Chelly in time to camp out the next night. Luckily, that wasn’t so difficult. The Grand Canyon was grand… and then we left. There were tour buses, a massive visitor’s center, a tollbooth that charged a $25 entrance fee (made out of wooden logs so as to look organic), and a canyon tucked in there somewhere. It wasn’t until afterwards that things got interesting.

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Canyon De Chelly was many things: beautiful, remote, educational, and a bit depressing. We took the scenic route, a largely uninhabited road going straight through the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations. There was magic in the mere thought of trespassing through these magnificent lands, hallowed by the presence of those who had lived with the Earth, and who dared to stand up against the white man’s promise of jager-bombs and reality TV shows. But that magic was quickly tempered by the bittersweet reality of things. These reservations were hardly luxurious. Amenities were scarce, and for every gas station (truly an oasis in Arizona) there were many more pairs of mangy dogs engaged in life-or-death battles over scraps left by passing cars. But at the same time, there was something inspirational about this group of people so content in their sovereignty and isolation. These are not the Native Americans you read about in your history textbooks. While the spiritual mystique of these lands may have dwindled, the ability of their residents to remain both modern and completely homogenous at the same time is nothing short of a miracle.

As we arrived at Canyon De Chelly that evening, it became immediately apparent that this wasn't the bustling hive of tour buses and rascal scooters that the Grand Canyon had turned out to be. Instead, we found ourselves in the quiet town of Chinle – a tiny Navajo hamlet at the base of the Canyon rim. Our lodging for the night was a local campsite, where, because of the Navajo nation’s attitude toward alcohol, we had to be extra shifty-eyed about our remorseless drinking. But damned if we were going to be caught dead camping without our copy of Kung Fu Panda and a bottle of $6 table wine.

We awoke that morning with high spirits, eager for a day spent at Canyon De Chelly. The site, as we had come to learn, was the home of numerous Anasazi cities built directly into the canyon walls roughly 1,100 years ago. It is a 700-foot drop into a stunning valley of lush forests and shockingly fertile farmland, still occupied by Navajo tribespeople who utilize the land in much the same way as it was used so long ago (with the exception of the tourist influence). Simply put, it was one of the most incredible things I have ever had the gift of seeing. Strict restrictions placed on sightseers helped to preserve billions of years of geological history, as well as thousands of years of cultural history, in their purest form. Most of the canyon was only viewable from the top of the rim, stretching across 15 miles of well-preserved road. Each bend of the canyon gave way to a completely unique view featuring expertly engineered Anasazi cities built high up into the canyon walls, gently-shifting sandstone adorned with the markings of careful erosion and brightly colored lichen, and tiny ranches occupied by the region’s current residents. And a 1.5 mile hike down to the base of the canyon (the only area where tourists are allowed to enter unguided) made the visit physically exhausting as well as visually inspiring. Were I a more spiritual man, I'd swear there was something mystical about that place.

And with that, I leave you with some breathtaking photo evidence:

The Grand Canyon. Yay.
A Navajo craft fair found on the side of the road. We had to stop.
Spider Rock in Canyon De Chelly. Met a really cool Navajo guy named Crek (pronounced Craik) who lives down here.
Ruins at the bottom of Canyon De Chelly. Built in A.D. 900, it is by far the oldest man-made structure I have ever seen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 2

A Beer to Send us Off

It's our last night in L.A. I'm drinking orange juice straight from the carton, sitting indian-style on the floor of an empty apartment with a belly full of sushi and sake. Our two days here have been spent living like rock stars, which is fitting considering the next two weeks will be spent living out of a Miata.

L.A. is like a mistress to me. She's enchanting to spend a night with - maybe even a few - but I could never imagine living with her. Those few nights, however, are off the charts. Scattered amidst all the packing and last-minute cleaning were some truly unforgettable moments: savoring local IPA's and fried risotto cakes at The Darkroom, drinking New Belgium Flat Tire on an outdoor patio in Santa Monica, and soaking our feet in the warm Pacific waters during sunset.

But for every tricked-out Range Rover and gated mansion, there are about a million waiters and bartenders who just barely missed the cut. It's a city of dreamers, divided into those who made it and those who dreamed just a little too big. And that dividing line is nowhere near the middle. Still, the mania of this town is infectious. Listening to a few jaw-dropping tales from even the most unassuming of locals makes you realize that, regardless of what side of the monogrammed gate you're standing on, everyone feels a part of that dream.

And now, the slideshow:

As a close friend and wise man once said, "double-double fries and coke."

The silhouette you see is actually Sean Penn. So much smaller in person than in the movies.

Enjoying a beer at some enormous sports bar.  The photographer: Also Sean Penn.  The dude was everywhere.

Monday, May 30, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: A Tale of Mania and Misconduct across the Greatest Country in America


Alright ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts. We're about to go on a journey to de-mystify the far reaches of this great land of ours. At 5:30 yesterday morning, with naught but a duffle bag and a backpack, I left my cozy apartment in Somerville to board a Virgin America flight to the savage, untamed land of Los Angeles. Not for gold, nor celebrity-endorsed Botox specialists, but for adventure. For the next two weeks this will be a travel blog chronicling two woefully underprepared suckers as they brave the American southland.

My partner in crime throughout this debacle is Lauren, the comely young lass you see below.

Mr. Froggy is our resident survival expert. We'll be drinking our own pee in no time.
Poor Lauren has been a bit out of sorts lately, so we're getting her out of this cesspool of fake tans and poorly-written screenplays and back to the gleaming cesspool of misogynistic "yah-dudes" and brown-colored snow that we like to call Boston. And we're doing it in this:

That's a speed dent. It makes the car go faster.
We haven't even started yet and already a snag: because of the ducktail spoiler, we had to jury-rig the luggage rack with bungee cords.
So stay tuned, because on Tuesday morning Lauren and I will begin piloting our comically undersized chariot East toward the rising sun. I hope you'll join us for the ride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Most Beautiful Widget: The Commercialization of Art and Music

Nothing is sacred in this country. Anything and everything that can possibly be commercialized, has. Not that there's anything wrong with that; after all, innovation is simply learning how to capitalize on things in new ways. But one of the most fascinating modern innovations is the convergence of commerce and art, in all of its many forms - the pinnacle of human expression and creativity turned profitable. The forces of industrialization and individual uniqueness could not be more polar opposite, and the efforts of many to resist have created a wondrous dichotomy. On one hand you have the stereotypical starving artist, the passionate idealist who sacrifices all hope of financial stability for the sake of creating beauty. On the other hand you have the brand, the person whose mass appeal to all but the most discerning of consumers makes them a goldmine waiting to be tapped. The difference between these two, simple aesthetic and true meaning, can be blurry. One demands to be seen, heard, or experienced by all while the other seeks only to exist. But there is one area in particular where the clash between culture and counter-culture has become game-changing - the music industry.

The thing about music is its scope. The popularity and accessibility of the medium has given rise to a staggeringly lucrative industry, while at the same time fueling an "indie" resistance so passionate that it almost singlehandedly influenced the revival the hipster subculture. Behind it all are the five major corporate labels - Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Live Nation - whose attempts at mass production have resulted in billboard charts literally full of indistinguishable cookie-cutters. Theirs is a system that works for some. Artists can make a killing cashing in on their tight bodies and carefully crafted images, all without having to learn a single chord. Consumers are rewarded with a sound that is catchy and familiar to them. But the forces that built Justin Bieber's bank account are not harmless. The subtle tricks used by these kings of commerce have degraded the art form as a whole, both for artists and listeners alike.

The defining element of a "major" record label (as opposed to an indie one) is the fact that it owns the means of distribution. As a result, it can be difficult for aspiring musicians to have their art heard or bought without making a deal with the devil. This applies to both live and recorded music. The former is overwhelmingly dominated by Live Nation. They are not only the largest promoter of live music, but they also own Ticketmaster and most of the large venues in the U.S. This gives them unprecedented power to influence ticket prices and tack on extra fees, something that some artists have fought against with limited success. According to the Chicago Tribune: "Since Ticketmaster and Live Nation came to dominate their respective industries over the last decade, concert prices have more than doubled and service fees for processing tickets have climbed to as high as 50 percent per order. In 1995, Pearl Jam tried to boycott Ticketmaster because the agency was charging more than $2 for an $18 ticket. The band found it nearly impossible to tour outside that system because Ticketmaster was locked into long-term deals with most major concert venues nationwide."

In the recording studio things are no better. In a typical deal, the record label will provide the artist with an advance in exchange for recording a pre-determined amount of songs or albums. The label will oversee the process and pay all costs including recording fees, marketing and promotion, and manufacturing and distribution of physical media (CD's, vinyl, etc.) if necessary. The artist will also receive royalties based on online or in-store sales, merchandising, and so forth. But the catch is that the artist must give up ownership to their own music, something that often comes with additional layers of control over varying other aspects of their likeness - everything down to what they wear to how they walk, talk, and act. They become walking endorsements of themselves, where their very image is a marketing ploy meant to appeal to a targeted demographic.

But the true artists aren't the only ones that suffer. Competition among corporate labels has led to some pretty cheap tricks in the recording booth that affect the sound of the music itself. The two big culprits are auto-tune and something a bit less familiar known as dynamic range compression. Auto-tune, first popularized by Cher as a gimmicky voice effect, has turned into pandemic of synthesized talent among performers that have none. It is a means of pitch correction that can substitute a poorly sung note for one that is exactly perfect. The abuse of this technology has allowed for the birth of a new breed of performer that relies solely on aesthetic, neither writing nor correctly singing their own songs - giving record labels a broader selection of marketable candidates to represent. And it has become particularly rampant in the pop genre, making it uniformly flawless to the extent that it completely removes from the equation one of the finer aspects of any art form - imperfection.

The other trick commonly used in the studio is quite a bit more subtle. Dynamic range compression (DRC) is a technology that has been applied to music, TV commercials, and a number of other mediums allowing engineers to increase the relative loudness of audio content. It is a response to a psychological study by Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson demonstrating that human listeners, when presented with two recordings at different levels, are subconsciously drawn to the louder one. The technique compresses the amplitude range of a recording so that the loudness can be increased without exceeding the clearly defined maximum peak amplitude limits placed on all digital media formats. It is the same thing that makes television commercials so much louder than the actual show. The "loudness war," a term used to decry the use of DRC in music recording, has been addressed by many notable artists and audiophiles who resent the fact that some musicians have been forced to take part against their will. As Bob Dylan put it: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."

Amidst this assembly line of mechanized voice-overs, generic major chords, and scantily clad bodies lies the indie movement. Having roots all the way back to the post-war era in the United States, it has gathered enough steam to represent a legitimate alternative market. But indie music is not immune to exploitation, and now it too is at risk of becoming commercialized. Unlike their larger counterparts, indie labels do not own the means of production. Instead, they subsist through partnerships, licensing deals, and agreements with those that do. Today, indies represent just over 18% of U.S. music market share. But while many of these were started by purists looking to clean up the industry, others are "vanity" or "boutique" spinoffs from major labels looking to cash in on an audience that thinks they know better. It is a brilliant play to the susceptibility of young consumers to anything that is perceived to be outside the mainstream.

Fortunately, there will always be an underground. Musicians looking to avoid the quagmire of unsavory agreements and engineering hocus pocus now have easy, cheap access to home recording equipment that can produce truly professional results. And there is no shortage of outrage from artists and luminaries that have the clout to fight back. More and more DRC-free albums are sprouting up, and non-profits such as Turn Me Up! have emerged with the mission of giving artists the power to preserve the dynamic range of their music. As consumers, our responsibility is to stay informed. Commercialized music absolutely has its place, but the choice of whether or not we wish to enjoy it should be deliberate. Until we remove the wool from over our eyes, we will never have that power.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Now that Osama bin Laden is Dead, Where's Our World Peace?

This morning I awoke to the kind of raucous celebration only ever demonstrated during World Series or Superbowl victories.  The Afghan Assassin, the Jester of Jihad, the Turbaned Terror himself - Osama bin Laden - is finally dead.  Now that that's over with, we can pronounce terrorism done for and world peace successfully achieved, right?  Wrong.

Nobody likes being a buzzkill.  I appreciate the historic nature of this event because of the harm that he has caused many innocent people around the world, the power of his voice and propaganda to incite violence, and because he turned out to be so damn hard to get.  But this was revenge, and revenge doesn't end wars.  I don't doubt that killing him was the necessary thing to do, but in a few years we will not be looking back on this as the pivot point that finally allowed us to take our men and women in uniform out of Afghanistan.  Rather than celebrate in the streets as many in America are doing, I grudgingly accept the grim reality that this needed to be done, regret the price in terms of lives and dollars that we paid along the way, and lament the long road we still have ahead of us.

Some have argued with me that we desperately need a victory right now and should take this opportunity to celebrate.  I can certainly understand that, but my biggest fear is that the media is creating unrealistic expectations for what this means for America and the world.  Just a few Google searches brings up ample parallels between Osama bin Laden's death and that of Hitler.  I know that they share the same May 1st anniversary, but there are a number of reasons why yesterday's events will be anti-climactic in comparison.  Hitler rose to power by capitalizing on the suffocating sense of defeat, desperation, and betrayal among his countrymen following the first World War.  He was a prominent and outgoing leader who built a military machine from his own charisma, and the sense of nationalism that he cultivated allowed him to get away with some pretty heinous acts... for a while.  By the time of his death, many in Germany had come to learn of the terrible crimes that he committed and were just as horrified as we were here in America.  They were ready to shake off that dark part of their history and join the Western world once again.  On the other hand, bin Laden headed an organization built upon decades of international misconduct and religious extremism.  Theirs is a holy conflict that goes beyond mere hatred.  There will be no peace treaty, no end in sight for al Qaeda, and definitely no end to terrorism.  Worse yet, we will continue to see the loss of American and Afghani lives as the war rages on.

So what does this mean for us, should we sit quietly and refuse to enjoy this satisfying accomplishment?  Of course not.  What we should do is avoid unrealistic expectations for what this means going forward, understand that in all likelihood the euphoria that we feel is bound to be short-lived, and behave knowing that our reaction to this has the potential to endear us or antagonize us further in the eyes of the Muslim world.