HOW IS THIS REAL, installment #1: Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa”

I’m pleased to announce the launch of a brand new segment here at Hold My Life: HOW IS THIS REAL.

A fact: when a popular musician releases a Christmas song, chances are quite high that it’s not going to be the opus of their career. Even so, the recent past has given us a couple of decent pop Christmas songs — remember No Doubt’s “Oi To the World”? That ruled. And, helloooo, “Christmas in Hollis” anybody? And what about that version of “Santa Baby” that had Diddy, Snoop, Mase and Salt ‘n’ Pepa? That was a thoroughly decent song. (Correction: A Google search has just confirmed that this song contains the Snoop line: “Cookies and milk/Satin and silk/I’m chillin’ in the living room, wrapped in a quilt;” that song officially rules too.)

Another fact: we all know the deal with 2000s Bob Dylan. Enough said.

So, I am going to give you a minute to click the link below, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the “listen” button in the lower lefthand corner, and feast your ears on the festive cornucopia of “WHAT?” that is Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa.”

I mean, I like that it’s for charity. But all the goodwill and Christmas cheer on earth cannot prevent me from wondering, HOW IS THIS REAL?

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On Beauty and Being Wrong

Still unemployed, in need of a fax machine and temporarily residing in a decidedly Kinko’s-less neighborhood; it was under these circumstances that I found myself, once again, on the campus of American University last week. My attempt at inconspicuousness was predictably short-lived. The quad was a sea of half-familiar faces, and it was not long before I ran into one of my favorite professors. She asked the inevitable question; I replied with the usual stammered half-sentences about looking for a new apartment, looking for a job and the difficulties of attaining the former when the latter more and more resembles a mythical beast from a fairytale with each passing day. “Well,” she said, “you should be applying to grad schools.” It’s not something I haven’t heard before. My friends, my family members, and most of my professors have all at one point or another thought they glimpsed a little twinkle of academia in my eye. And, like a churchgoing lady going on one last bender though she can feel The Call twitching in her fingertips, I have planned a sad and private sort of rebellion. I am going to take some time off. I am going to get a job. “I am,” as I told this former professor of mine last week, “going to go to graduate school only after I have become disgusted with every other alternative,” the subtext of this disgusting flash of candor disguised as a flippant witticism conceding, It’s not you; it’s me.

Earlier that week, I’d picked up an immaculate used copy of Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty — a total blind buy. I’d been meaning to read Smith for a while, but White Teeth was higher up on my to-read list and I had no idea what this one was about. Despite the mock-precision of its title, On Beauty is about a lot of things — race, class, marriage, poetry, the trappings of neo-liberal rhetoric, New England winters, to name just a few of them. But, more than anything, On Beauty is about the emotional lives of academics. And as a former literature student currently “taking a few years off” to meditate on how thoroughly a life of academia would destroy her ability to experience things like “earnestness” and “healthy human relationships” and, you know, “literature,” I could not have possibly made a more fortuitous choice at that used book store.

I was immediately spellbound by Smith’s style. Her characters are full of life and emotional nuance, and the fluidity with which she weaves in and out of their interioriorities is pretty astonishing, given the wide range of their personalities. She writes characters young, old, black, white, British, American, female, and male with equal sensitivity, peeling away the dead skin of cliche to reveal the more interesting things that lurk beneath. But, beyond that, look at how wonderfully she can poke fun at academics: “[Kiki] called a rose a rose. [Howard] called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around the mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.” Zing.

I finished On Beauty this evening. I enjoyed it immensely, in spite of a few minor flaws that I won’t quibble about here. Because the best thing about it was the moment in which it found me — trying to figure out exactly what it is I love so much about the things I studied in college and if I can somehow translate that love into a career, sitting like a kid under a big tree during a thunderstorm.

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3 Ways in Which the Universe Has Tried This Week to Give Me a Big Cosmic Hug by Bringing Together Pairs of Really Disparate Things That I Love:

1. DAMON ALBARN

+ THE OLYMPICS

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DAMON ALBARN MIGHT DIRECT THE OPENING CEREMONIES OF THE 2012 OLYMPICS.

I can think of no one on this planet better qualified to curate the opening ceremonies of THE MOST BALLER EVENT IN THE WHOLE WORLD than Damon Albarn — world music afficianado, frontman of one of the best and most nationalistic bands the host country has spawned in the past few decades (no, actually not talking about Gorillaz) and, most crucially, one of my biggest celebrity crushes of all time. Olympic Committee, if you have even the slightest doubt that Damon is the perfect man for this job, I ask you to envision Graham Coxon ripping through an unbelievably gnarly solo while a man of ambiguous ethnicity wearing a track suit of ambivalent national colors pole vaults 40 stories overtop the Olympic the stadium and soars through a giant ring of ambivalently-hued fireworks, while, on the vibrant Astroturf below him, all the athletes of the world hold hands and sing the gospel choir part in the chorus of “Tender;” HOLY SHIT, I have goosebumps.

This news is exciting to me on a very personal level, since the only thing in my life more enduring than my crush on Damon Albarn has been my wholehearted, so-intense-it’s-sort-of-frightening-to-those-around-me love for the Olympics. I think it began during the 1992 winter games; I was six years old. Smack in the middle of my short-lived stint as an aspiring figure skater, I didn’t just watch every televised minute of skating as it aired, but I also taped each event so I could later sort through a meticulously labeled library of “1992 Olympic Figure Skating” VHS tapes and relive the magic Kristi Yamaguchi’s exhibition routine over and over again. Around this time, and much to the dismay of my parents, I developed a strange and forceful affinity for Tonya Harding. Though I remained innocently unaware of the later Kneecap Thwack Heard ‘Round the World thing and, in retrospect, I realize this affinity arose solely out of an admiration of her outfits, I’ve since come to regard my pre-teen Tonya Harding obsession as a sort of character-defining moment in my young and increasingly unladylike life.

Last year, circumstances aligned in a way that allowed me ample time to rekindle my love for the ‘Games: they happen to span the two weeks after my summer job had ended and before the semester began. So basically, for two glorious weeks I had little else to do than sit back and watch the Olympics. And watch them I did. It began rather casually, and then I was suddenly sucked in with a fervor I hadn’t experienced since 1992; I began to cancel plans on the nights that gymnastic events were to be televised in prime time (which, as Olympic watchers know, amounts to roughly twelve of the fourteen nights of network coverage). Before long, I was completely entwined in all the drama. I got so worked up about China blatantly trying to bend the rules about age qualifications that I could barely sleep at night. I woke sleeping family members with a bloodcurdling shriek when Alicia Sacramone fell in the team competition. And, when Nastia Lukin won her much deserved gold medal, I cried tears of wet, hot, American joy. Like the fabled 1980 hockey team’s victory, that all-around medal represented a golden moment when America did what it does best — grabs the quill pen of justice and tags MISSION ACCOMPLISHED all over the face of anybody who steps to us. Did my mascara run that night? Indeed. But if you think that means these colors do too, get real.

So, if you’re trying to make plans to hang out with me in 2012, you’d better forget it. I plan on spending the better part of the calendar year sitting outside the Olympic stadium in a fold-out chair, getting prematurely pumped for this particular collision of awesome things that I love by encouraging passersby to join me in chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and blasting Parklife out of my camper’s soundsystem. And even if I don’t snag a coveteted ticket to a gymnastic event, the games will not be without a silver lining, for we can all be absolutely certain that Oasis will not be performing at the 2012 Olympics.

2. JOHN KEATS

+ JANE CAMPION

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BRIGHT STAR FINALLY RELEASED IN DC THIS WEEK.

When I heard that Jane Campion was directing a biopic about John Keats, I thought that a very tiny elf had crawled into my ear while I was sleeping and stolen the premise of my wildest, nerdiest dreams, or at the very least, that he had hacked into my laptop and read all of the term papers I’d written for school in the past year. After a semester during which I concurrently took a Romantic Poetry course and completed an independent study on female directors, Campion and Keats had emerged as my latest academic superstars. Both were so inspiring to me because they were critically misunderstood. Keats, the unpretentious “Cockney” poet who critics called “effeminiate;” Campion the rare auteur who dared to make bold, uncompromising films about women’s issues. I gobbled up everything I could find on both of them. I fell in love with Campion’s early shorts and found endless insight in Keats’s letters. I was spellbound by Sweetie; “Ode to a Nightengale” was my jam. So, as you can imagine, when I stumbled upon the in-production IMDB page for Bright Star, I nearly fell out of my chair.

I saw the film yesterday afternoon, and it surpassed even my impossibly high expectations. It’s stunning — undoubtedly one of Campion’s best. Visually, Bright Star is absolute bliss; nearly every frame is gilded with sumptuous flowers, fluttering curtains and other things of beauty. But Campion’s most impressive feat is how deftly she sidesteps every one of the modern biopics’s empty truisms. She never succumbs to cliche, and she doesn’t even do it the honor of subversion or parody. She simply proceeds blithely forth, and — as she did with the wonderful Janet Frame ‘biopic’ An Angel At My Table nearly twenty years ago — transcends convention to create a stirring, imaginative, and brilliantly focused film. The emphasis of Bright Star is not on Keats the figurehead, the marble bust, the Poet, but on a single writer’s personal interpretation of Keats’s love affair with Fanny Brawne. And by filtering out all the unnecessaries (the trite, psychologically explanatory childhood sequences, the constant hammering home of how important an artist Keats was to become, the unbelievable temptation to cast, like, Stanley Tucci or Jack Black in a comedic supporting role as an opium-smoking Coleridge — in short, the stuff Hollywood biopics are made of) — Campion creates one of the most unique, intimate and deeply felt representations of love I’ve seen on film in a long time.

Since Bright Star was such a delight, I can’t help but wonder what kind of collabo I can expect the next time my filmic and literary heroes bump heads. Are you going to tell me that Lars Von Trier working on a disturbing-on-purpose conceptual piece about Virginia Woolf? Are you going to tell me that Ricky Gervais has, at the last minute, overwritten John Krasinski’s directorial credit on the forthcoming and sort of terrible-looking Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and, while he was at it, made everyone involved with the U.S. version of The Office issue a formal public apology? Universe, if you’re reading this: please.

3. MILKSHAKES

+ HAPPY HOUR

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Z-BURGER MILKSHAKE HAPPY HOUR.

As I learned recently while accompanying an out-of-town friend on a Monday afternoon trek through Dupont Circle, happy hours rarely start at 2. A select few of them do start at 3, but, something about arriving promptly to a happy hour feels sort of shameful. As if to say, “Hey, I was going to drink a beer about half an hour ago, at an equally sort of unseasonable time in the afternoon, but I figured I’d wait around a couple of minutes and kill some time until it’d be a few dollars cheaper, and also I don’t have a job.” Not exactly a feeling you feel like toasting . A fact that I have done my fair share of field work in proving, though, is that there is no such thing as a shameful time to drink a milkshake.

So kudos to ZBurger — Tenleytown’s answer to Five Guys, if Five Guys boasted 50 different flavors of milkshakes — for creating a happy hour that I feel no shame about arriving promptly to: Milkshake Happy Hour. That’s right, every Monday from 3-6pm, Z-Burger sells milkshakes for the decidedly guilt-free cost of $0.99.

And further kudos to ZBurger for recently offering its customers free WiFi. Because when you’re unemployed and have not yet sprung for an internet connection in your apartment, Milkshake Happy Hour is reason enough to hop a bus to the old neighborhood, laptop in tow. Because sometimes a girl just needs a quiet place where she can apply for some government jobs that she’s tantalizingly close to being qualified for (though not quite, the required department-specific questionaire gently reminds her) while sipping on a Banana Oreo milkshake that’s so delicious that it momentarily masks all of her earthly troubles. But sometimes a girl has trouble coming up with more synonyms for “managed” and “organized” when a minor Counting Crows hit playing from above has been cranked up loud enough to drown out her every thought. And then the 3:30 wave of noisy, high school hooligans (girl can’t believe she just said hooligans, worries she’s already past the yuppie stage and into full curmudgeon territory) isn’t helping her concentrate either. So sometimes, against all better judgment and for reasons that later feel very flimsy, a girl ends up back on the very WiFi friendly campus of her alma mater, updating her resume in a quiet, unspecified location and ducking behind vending machines every time she spies someone who sort of looks like her Career Center adviser from behind.

I will close, and cleanse your mind of this sad (but completely true) scene by asking you a question that I have given academic levels of consideration during my continued unemployment: Is there anyone in the history of time cuter than Damon Albarn circa 1994?

(The only acceptable, if not correct, answer would have been, “Graham Coxon,” as evidenced below. )

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To be dead, center of a curious crowd

Themselves and Why? — two artists who have made phenomenal contributions to the Anticon Records collective and who, I’d imagine, are at least a little bit difficult to Google — have teamed up to record a song called “Canada.” It’s a wonderful, haunting track, but also a lot more restrained than either act’s usual fare: strained whispers for vocals and a subtle, pocket-change jingle of a beat. “You’re showing your pinkest parts in my absence,” Dose One coos, sounding too wounded for it to qualify as a real zinger. From there it all crumbles into an unsettling tale of infidelity and melancholy; Why’s Yoni Wolf comes in with backing vocals for a fitting conclusion. You can listen to it here.

Anticon is a record label, a collective of like-minded artists, and also a sort of parallel universe that understands how imaginative contemporary hip-hop could be if it didn’t worry about selling records and scoring Reebok endorsement deals and winning Video Music Awards; if the ingenuity and inventiveness exhibited in the first few years of its inception had continued on this really dramatic slope upward until sounding astoundingly daring and completely otherworldly became the status quo. Inhabitants of this universe will know that the track “Canada” is not the first time its stars have aligned in the form of a Doseone/Yoni Wolf collabo. The two, along with Anticon beatsmith Odd Nosdam joined forces to release a slew of singles and one proper full length under the name cLOUDDEAD from 1999-2004.

cLOUDDEAD’s sound is near impossible to describe, though the term “surrealist hip-hop” cuts it sort of close. The group’s full length, Ten (2005) might be one of the most bizarre records you will ever hear; it is also — except for the last two Why? records — my favorite thing ever released on the label. Ten is not the kind of thing I want to listen to all the time, but when I’m in the mood for it, it transports me to a place outside of space and time. A place equally tranquil and unsettling, where weird, macabre collages come to life and the backbeat of everything sounds sort of like the echo of a ghost wailing inside of a hollowed out bone.

Ten‘s aesthetic — which is slightly less ambitious but much more cohesive than the group’s self-titled album — is that of a cut-and-paste project tacking together a whole junkyard of samples; the songs sound like schizophrenic collages, with sudden and unexpected little explosions of really unsettling pop music. Or, as Doseone may have once said, if one believes a rather unadorned and questionably attributed quote on the band’s Wikipedia page, “Just call it hip-hop.” When I’m done listening to Ten, though, I usually don’t want to come back to the actual universe — the one where most people think that Lil’ John going “YEAH!” is what 21st century hip-hop is all about and that “avant-garde hip-hop” is a synonym for “the Black Eyed Peas.” As the final track of the record fades out in a prolonged drone, a lot of times, I kind of want to just stay there.

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The Secret of the Ooze

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The light had not yet turned green, but a large group of pedestrians scooted across the street, undaunted by a speeding car that looked, from my position, like it was certainly going to kill them all. Andy, my friend, who just moved to Cambridge from Jamaica Plain and hosted me on his couch for a couple of days, walked backwards in mock-tour-guide fashion and said, “Boston pedestrians are notoriously the most aggressive pedestrians in the world.” He paused, then added, as though alluding to some sort of mythical, universal undercurrent humming in every Bostonians’ subconscious: “One thing about Boston drivers is that none of them want to get charged with vehicular homicide.” I nodded as we hurried across the street.

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(Portrait of a Boston pedestrian: a man called “Bubba” paying little mind to incoming traffic.)

Andy lives in a part of Cambridge that looks like the setting of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Weird, ornate architecture, eerily empty streets, and a lot of colorful tubes that look like they are pumping some sort of mysterious ooze, the chemical properties of which the locals all know but only talk about in hushed tones in front of visiting folk like me. Exhibits A & B, just blocks from his house:

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These buildings are a part of MIT, which along with Harvard and to some extent also BU and Emerson and BC, Andy explained to me, seem to made up a sort of metonymic identity of Boston, the consummate college town. The identity that outsiders like me plainly observe and then jot notes about in a notebook on the train ride home; the identity that insiders describe to their visiting friends with a sort of cynicism, but they continue to describe it just the same. “The Athens of the west,” as Andy heard it described a few nights before on television by a mayoral candidate.

I had been to Boston once before, during an awful March snowstorm. I was 20 and staying with two friends in their house in Allston, a neighborhood infamously populated with a lot of young people. All told, I left Allston only once during my three or four day visit; this occurance does not seem uncommon. My friend who lived there used to describe Allston as “Sesame Street.” Andy’s friend describes it as being “like the suburbs, if everyone’s parents went away for the weekend and never came back.” Things are stagnant in Allston, but visiting this time, having spent the last month of my life living in weird, suburban post-graduate exile, it was exactly where I wanted to be, navigating through labrynthine basements that –when you’re drunk enough, but also sometimes when you’re not — all seem connected like capilaries pumping you through the inner workings of a neighborhood alive with a whole mess of strange things.
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(A hot dog from Spike’s in Allston.)

In a cafe, during an aftenoon whose defining activity was “evesdropping,” I listened to two men chat about neuroscience and read Adam Gopnik’s terrific piece about Michael Ignatieff in last week’s New Yorker. “Loving a country is an act of the imagination,” Ignatieff says, and Gopnik adds, “though he insists that this does not make it unreal.” I think this is true about loving cities too.

I thought of DC in that moment — a city which I have loved, spurned, called my home, left, felt nostalgia for and, after a month and a half of exile and long-distance apartment-hunting, a city to which I am preparing to make a bizarrely emotional return that feels, so unexpectedly, like a homecoming. I thought of two friends who came to visit me there for a couple of days in July right before I moved. The places I took them, the things I said while walking backwards like a tour guide, the narratives that I, as a resident, keep afloat. Why am I trying to move back to DC in the first place?, I asked myself a lot this past month. Why this city and not another one? How am I connected to other people that live there? By everything, and by nothing, I think — by leaps of a collective imagination.

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RIP D.F.W.

David Foster Wallace died a year ago today. I cannot think of a “celebrity” death that has bummed (and continues to bum) me out as much as his has, especially over the latter third of this year. I spent a particularly emotional two months of the year reading Infinite Jest (monogamously, I should add), and though it’s been a couple of months since I finished it, little pieces of that book continue to shake me, brutally and on an almost daily basis. I am planning on writing a longer post about the whole experience sometime soon, but today all I can think to say is that, even with the countless essays I had to read as an undergraduate about the Intentional Fallacy and Reader Response and the Death of the Author ceaselessly in mind, I have found it impossible to shake a very pointed feeling of sadness at the fact that David Foster Wallace, the person, is dead.

If you have some free time and are unfamiliar with Wallace’s work (or also if you are), then today is an absolutely perfect day to do one of two things. First, you could read one of his essays or short stories which Harper’s has kindly made available for free online here (of this grouping, my favorites that I’ve read are “Tense Present,” “Shipping Out” and “The Depressed Person”). Or, you could listen to this KCRW podcast of an interview with Wallace on the program Bookworm. This podcast is fantastic and I will admit to listening to it in its entirety at least a few times as I was nearing the end of Infinite Jest. Over the past year, the internet response to Wallace’s death has been both overwhelming and fascinating. I noticed today that a lot of people are putting a particularly apt quote from Infinite Jest protagonist Mario Incandenza in their Twitter feeds: “It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know.” Weird indeed.

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Le Aught Blog: LAUNCHED!

I’m back from a Labor Day visit to Boston; expect a post about my travels in the next day or so. But in the meantime, check out Le Aught Blog, a new project that four friends and I launched today. It’s a music blog featuring personal reminiscences about our favorite songs and albums of the decade. Each of the five bloggers will post pieces about of their favorite 20 songs of the 00s, and then later on we’ll post and write about our top 100 albums. You can check out my first post, which is about Q and Not U’s song “Soft Pyramids.”

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