Why is Music So Intimate?

headphones class

“Do you want to use the classroom speakers?” I ask the student about to use his headphones during classwork.

No longer a student but a deer in the headlights, his first movement is to make a quick sidelong glance at me. He doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s asking if I’m serious…

Quiet classrooms are quite boring. Some people remain convinced that Capital-L Learning can only take place when the audio levels are equivalent to a library housed in a mausoleum, but I need that low-level of background music to muffle the nervous coughs and clacks of the keyboards, or even general levels of conversation about texts and classwork. Why does the best writers always park themselves in busily percolating coffee shops, after all? And I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m assuming every one of my students plays music during their private study.

For me, however, the actual music that’s playing doesn’t actually matter. In fact, if I recognize the music, it will likely be distracting. I’d rather my subconscious be taken over by the secondhand sounds that float through the room. And because it doesn’t matter, I’ll suggest that some student share their music over the classroom speakers rather than to hear my eclectic internet radio every day.    

So why does Mr. Student not want to share? What is it about his personal playlist that’s so embarrassing? Perhaps there is too many swears? The song has something sexual in nature? Is swearing and sex somehow ok for personal consumption but not public? And if so, then how does it get airplay in the first place? Where is the fine line between private art and public?

And to paraphrase High Fidelity, the 2000 film directed by Stephen Frears, “People everywhere are worried about children playing with guns or watching violent videos, like some culture of violence will take them over, but nobody is worried about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands, of pop songs about… misery.” Or about love, sex, misogyny, rebellion, drug use, or any of the countless other topics expressed through our music, and by extension, embraced by way of our music.

In some ways, creating a playlist is like trying to find resonance with something unexpressed by our own soul, and by sharing it with another, you are sharing in some subconscious way the way you see the world. Is it any wonder then, that the somewhat-forgotten art of making a mix tape has lost its poignance? What an intimate gesture that once was. It’s not quite the same sending a link to a YouTube playlist, or a one-off click on a Like button.

So I applaud the student that speaks up after I catch one deer in the headlights. “I’ll do it!” he gladly offers.

Now, if only I can explain about how mixing audio levels should work…


Wednesday’s Lament


The days of the week sat in a circle. It was yet another meeting but not all that much seemed to have changed since last time. The room was the same slightly musky basement-level multi-purpose space, the one with rows that plastic-covered fluorescent tubes tried their best to buzz light into, and the bulletin boards held way too many flyers and ratty old notices if anyone bothered to read them anymore.  The long folding table at the back was way too big to hold the deli platter brought by Thursday, next to the napkins and paper cups and droning monotone of the water cooler.

Saturday was bouncing slightly to some unseen tune as he perused the offering of deli meats and cheese wedges, until Monday finally had to say something to call everyone’s attention.

“Look, we might as well get started,” he tried not to move too much to make his folding chair squeak.

“Don’t we have a holiday?” Saturday asked, his napkin loaded down with only slightly more meats than necessary. “I thought we were going to skip this meeting.”

“It’s always a holiday for you, I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Wednesday said. “Do you know how long I have to wait for a holiday?”

Tuesday and Thursday, seated side by side as always, nodded in unison to each other.

“Oh-kay, *Whines*-day,” Saturday rolled his eyes. Friday laughed at the joke, suddenly and hard, looking among the group for commiseration, especially with Saturday. Saturday pursed his lips, just to acknowledge Friday’s attempt at being him, but sunk into his chair. Sunday looked up suddenly as if wondering if he should have been paying attention.

“See?” Wednesday said, “This is what we were talking about before, about respect?” Then, taking inspiration from a new thought, he shot his hand in the air, “You know what? New business. I move to add to the agenda.”

Saturday groaned the loudest, through the murmur of small protests.     

“What is it this time?” Monday asked. His natural professionalism nearly cracked, and remained strained, at best.

“Rearrange the schedule,” Wednesday said. “Move me between Saturday and Sunday.” This led to a new round of protests, much more vocal this time. Except from Tuesday and Thursday. They exchanged a look that held a small thrill, and brought their hands together.

“Well, that’s simply not going to work,” Monday sat back in his chair. He had given up on the clipboard he had brought.

“No, really,” Wednesday went on, “Think about it. I’m already in the middle of the week. Now, I’d just be in the middle of the weekend!”

Friday was blown away. Saturday, however, was indignant. “So, what, there’s like three days in a weekend then? Are you trying to be a weekend, now?”

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you could handle that. You are clearly not weekend material.”

Sunday too a deep breath in order to sigh “I really don’t want to be after him.”

“I could be a weekend,” Wednesday said, but his voice had weakened a lot from his initial passion.

Friday still grasped at the concept, pointing at Saturday. “Then *you* would be like *me* for *you.*”

“Oh my god,” Saturday nearly flailed for dramatic flair. “Wednesday you’re so got to get ahold of yourself. The weekends are already set.”

“Get a hold of myself? You don’t even know. Everyone *likes* you. Everyone’s cool with Saturday. Saturday’s *fun,* Whoo-hoo. Saturday. When people think of *me,* they groan and sigh and say stuff like ‘Oh, it’s only *Wednesday,* and call me Hump Day. They just can’t wait to get rid of me.”

“People thank *God* for me,” Friday whispered to Sunday. “Ha!” Sunday nearly snorted. “I *am* the Lord’s day.”

Monday picked up after Wednesday’s rant. “Oh, it’s so hard to be you. Did you ever consider *my* situation? Do you honestly know what it’s like to *follow* after those guys? And you think you have it bad. Who do you think is the only truly hated one here? Honestly, the one people truly hate?” Monday raised his hand to answer his own question.

“At least you can join them more often than not. What is a three-day weekend without Monday?”

“Ooh, I love three-days,” Friday chimed in.

“Fine,” Monday threw his hands up. “Let’s just upend our whole schedule just so you can feel like people like you a bit better. Who’s next? Friday, you want to start us off? Sunday, you want to switch with Tuesday, instead? Hell, let’s just get rid of Thursday altogether!”

Tuesday and Thursday gasped and reached out to one another.

“Oh, please,” Monday continued. “It’s not like you really do anything on your own anyway. It’s always Tuesday AND Thursday, isn’t it?”

Thursday demurred, sinking into himself.

“Friends, friends,” Sunday rose slowly, reaching out. “You guys are failing to realize how important Wednesday really is. We need a balance. Two weekdays on either side of you, with one weekend day at the end of the week and another weekend day on the other. Only Wednesday in the middle.” Sunday put his palms together in front of his lips. “Symmetry.”     

Sunday added in the quiet space, “Be Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Wednesday said after a moment, in a tone that wasn’t. “You guys are impossible.”

Saturday laughed. “Bro, I gotta introduce you to February. You’re going to love that guy.”

TV Discussion: Gotham (“Pilot”)


At this point, there’s probably not much more that I can add to the reviews of Gotham, the new television series on Fox. Created by Bruno Heller (formerly of Rome and The Mentalist) and starring Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock, and young David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne, the pilot episode was seen by over 8 million people at last report, with at least that many different opinions being expressed through various social media.

For what it’s worth, I found it enjoyable, thanks to its emphasis on keeping a specific tone through both the visuals, plot, and acting. It’s effectively grungy and retro, while not necessarily literally “dark” per se in palette, as befitting a modern urban noir. You could, conceivably, take away the presence and story of Bruce Wayne and still have an effective storytelling world. At least, in the sense that there’s not really anything quite matching it in tone or setting on TV today. By adding the comicbook elements, it’s trying to further distinguish itself in tone and setting, but in fact I found that to the one aspect that was a bit unsatisfying. A comicbook setting should have some kind of “magical realism” twist to its world, and we don’t have that in Gotham, at least, not yet. (Perhaps all we have so far is the ability of young Selina Kyle to acrobatically traverse a cityscape so “magically.”) For example, how weirdly poetic it would have been to have the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), escaping his death at the end of the episode and swimming the length of the river, to kill the fisherman and gobble up the *fish* instead of the sandwich? Suddenly, he’s even more weirdly a monster, less than human, and metaphorically shows his conflict with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But anyway. More interesting is that this series debuts the same week that NPR’s podcast, This American Life, features a show dedicated the theme of “Origins.” (It’s not superhero origins, though. I know. I was disappointed, too.) As the host Ira Glass explains, “We love them so much.” And it’s true. Pretty much every iteration of Batman has to include his origin story. There’s even a supercut making the YouTube rounds that includes Bruce’s parents getting shot in every movie/cartoon Batman has appeared in.

It’s not enough to have a Batman or to have Batman stories. We have to know *why* there’s a Batman, and how that Batman came to be. And, essentially, it’s the *same* story every time, but we want to keep hearing it, over and over. Why?

Well, on one hand, I’ve argued before that origin stories are, for lack of a better term, economical. They already have a definite beginning, middle, and end, and the beginning usually starts from a place that’s “recognizable” or “the world next door,” so there’s less exposition needed to bring an audience up to speed. So I guess I use the word economical to mean both for budgetary reasons and in the literary sense. That last sense, if you remember from English class, means that the plot contains only the stuff that’s necessary for the story– there’s nothing extra in terms of characters, plot details, or tangents, derailments.

There’s could be other reasons why we like origins, too. I’m sure there’s something about the inherent curiosity of humankind, the psychological drive that leads us to create mythological connections between what we see, what we feel, what we imagine. Sorry for those who are more existentially zen then the rest of us– you might be content to see a weirdly shaped rock and accept it, maybe even marvel at it, as simply a weirdly shaped rock. The rest of us, we wonder WHY it’s there and so weirdly shaped.

I think it’s because we do that for ourselves. We’re in too weird of a shape to simply accept it as itself, let alone marvel at it. We have to ask why, to obsess over our past, to find new ways to repeat its story over and over.

Just like we do with Batman and his story. Because Batman is, frankly, so very awesome. But he’s also pretty deranged and damaged, too. He’s the best of us, better than us, but also the weirdest of us. So his story is keenly tragic. If someone like Batman can take a tragedy like that and become “better” than us, it gives us hope that no matter our tragedy, we can can be better, too. And even if we’re weird, we can still be better, too. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

So in this modern mythology we’ve made for ourselves, Batman is the God of Dark Tragedy. He suffered his tragedy to overcome and show us how to beat it back for ourselves. He fights the insanity so we don’t have to, but if we need to, we can also call upon him to assume his power for ourselves (or at least, that’s how it worked for Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and etc. etc.)

Essentially, this is what Gotham will be about: finding out how we triumph over tragedy and darkness. The good news is that we already know it happens– there will someday be a Batman, after all. The point of the story is the process, not the result. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

“There will someday be a Batman, after all.” Quote of the week.

A Coffee For Your Thoughts


“Oof!” the lady couldn’t help but exhale as her body fell into the booth.

It was one of those long booths that ran the length of the wall of the coffee shop. The man was half-way down, but that only meant he was maybe two seats away from her, on the same side. His once-piping hot Americano still occupied a quarter of the paper cup in front of him. It had tasted good, of course, or as good as could be expected for overroasted, overpressed espresso and tap water. It was his habit, you see, to not to finish it. That quarter cup was the only thing allowing him to stay seated for a couple of hours.

There was once another fellow occupant of this line of booth, on the far side from where the lady just sat. The only artifacts of this lost occupant were an empty cup, a dangling tea bag flapping like a white flag, and three lonely napkins, unused except for having served their purpose as some token acknowledgement that *something* besides a cup of tea should be taken to the table.

The man frowned. He had wondered at the time if he should have slid all the way over once that seat was vacant, but he had sat in the middle, and such decisions always had such a finality about them, no matter how random their beginning. Now the comfort of old decisions meant the lady had no choice but to sit in a place just a little too close for normalcy.

Not that normalcy seemed too much of a concern for her. Her older, somewhat ample frame was draped by a flowing blouse with bold swatches of color, a close-up of technicolor giraffe. Her jewelry was equally as bold and generously round, with wide hoops for earrings, of course. Her hair was still desperately trying to be blonde rather than white, and curly rather than frizzy. Her eyes would certainly be bold enough on their own, but the heavy makeup made a point of reaching out to the world ahead of them.

Her coffee was the smallest available, still labeled as regular, of course, and loaded up with whipped cream and caramel sauce that had become the new definition of “coffee.” Her bag was also larger than necessary, but all of this seemed appropriate for a woman who was likely more comfortable with excess.

She protruded a thin, badly reddened smile toward the man in gratuitous hello, as if they would be in on a great secret, just for the two of them. The man’s smile was a bit more wan. His eyes, considerably more deadened, rolling as he did so. His only thought was “Crap.”

“Crappity-crap-crap,” he thought. “This lady’s going to want to talk to me, isn’t she? Can’t someone go to a public place any more in private?”

He tried to turn his attention to his Economist magazine. He liked to stare at the long columns of words and think about nothing, but he noticed her out of the corner of his eyes reaching into her bag and producing yet another,

like some weird Russian nesting doll or some new show called Housewife Magic.

She set the second bag on the table, then proceeded to set the table around her coffee with a bottle of water, a well-worn Dan Brown novel, earphones with no music player, and, naturally, some token napkins. There also was yet another bag, this one a flimsy white plastic shopping bag.

The lady caught the man staring at her cornucopia of cafe survival essentials then, impossibly, widened her eyes even more. She was indeed sharing a secret with the man, and opened the bag to reveal the sushi she had bought at the grocery store and smuggled inside. She flashed a “shush” with her forefinger in front of a blown kiss.

The man’s eyes said “whatever!” silently. And he snapped his magazine to attention.

The woman looked ahead, too, but leaned slightly to the left, toward the man. Clearly, he would be included in the conversation regardless of his silent protests.   

“It’s made with brown rice. Really,” she made the implicit conversation more explicit. “And a bit of hummus, cucumber and red pepper, feta. Greek Sushi, can you believe it? I just *had* to try it of course.”     

He forced his eyebrows to raise for a beat.

“I had a friend from work who was from Japan, you know. He brought some sushi for an office party one time? From the grocery store. I mean I *know* people don’t eat it for like every meal or something, or whatever he said, but I just thought it was kind of funny, you know?” She turned to look fully at that man, just to make sure she was clear for her next point: “Well, not *funny*-funny, I mean. You know.

“Anyway, I just say that because I know this has to be kind of wrong. I see a *lot* of cooking shows, though, and fusion is like *the* thing. I don’t think you can really be any kind of chef nowadays and not do something fusion.”

The man wondered why conversation had to happen to him, of all people. Maybe there was something about his face. If so, there would be something kind of hopelessly sad about that.

By this time, the woman had busied herself enough to open a sachet of aoli, herb and wasabi dressing for dipping. “Oh my,” she said. “This looks so healthy! Isn’t it weird that something can look healthy? I guess we can say that something looks ‘delicious,’ but you’re really just mixing up your senses, right?       

“I try to eat healthy as much as I can, you know. Not that I started as young as I should have, but what can you do? Everything’s so importantly healthy, or maybe healthfully important, or whatever. It’s too hard to escape it.”

By this time, she managed to pop one of the one-inch oil-dipped faux-sushi rolls into her mouth. She chewed for just a few split seconds then flashed the man a surprised smile, hiding her lips like she needed to cover a quick chuckle. “Oh my gosh! It’s so *good!” she confided.

“It’s hard to think about food as food anymore, right? Just some weird combination of natural flavors with a bunch of vitamins and fibers and what not. It’s like you’re not making decisions about food on a daily basis, but about medicine.”

The man wondered if anyone else would be coming to this section of the cafe.

She went on, the bites of sushi doing little to stem the rising stream of consciousness. “I remember when French cooking was all the rage. Eggs, cream, beurre blancs… And pastries, naturally. God! What was food supposed to be then?” She leaned to the side again, answering her own question, “Cuisine as pleasure.”       

She didn’t want to raise a sushi piece too high for the barista to see, but held it firmly as an example in the shadow of the plastic bag. “And this was supposed to be something elegant, right? Japanese food is so carefully presented– crafted, really. I mean, this is tasty,” she said as it too got popped into her wide maw, “but some people dedicate their whole lives to this kind of thing. Like art really.  Food as aesthetic.”

“But hey, this had whole grain brown rice, and it’s all organic, too. My package told me it’s the best combination of cancer-fighting vitamins and low-fat, gluten-free, all-natural superfoods. You’d almost think it was farmed locally and all artisan, too.”     

The man ruefully looked at the cooled coffee on the table in front of him. He thought it was Fair Trade, but wasn’t really paying attention at the register and really didn’t want to say anything about it anyway.

“If you haven’t been to the farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons, you really *should.* And I’m not saying that because it’s the trendy thing or something. I really think you should. Whether it’s pastries or sushi or artisanny stuff up the wallapazoo you’ll find it there. Ohmygod I *love* the chilaquiles they have.”

He had to stop himself from asking what chilaquiles were.

“I guess what food really is,” she said, putting away the plastic, like she was trying to hide comic book from her Science teacher. “It’s a community. People at that market aren’t just giving you a piece of their wares, their giving  you a piece of their world. And the place in the home that everyone gathers? The kitchen. It’s something that really binds us all, you know, food.”

She raised her whipped cream with coffee underbelly as a kind of cheers to welcome the man once more into her philosophy.

The man stuck out his lower lip and bulged his eyes slightly. Without a word, he threw back his quarter cup of coffee like a shot, for courage. He lifted his weight off the seat and exited, an empty cup a signal of his disagreement, or at least the punctuation to the end of the conversation.

Oblivious to the significance, the woman held her own cup with both hands and smiled as she regarded the whirls of cream before her.

Universal Truth

Google's Time Life Archives; February 1959; Photographer: John Dominis

Google’s Time Life Archives; February 1959; Photographer: John Dominis

What if doing the Hokey Pokey and turning yourself around really IS what it’s all about?


Movie Discussion – Maleficient (2014)


Sometimes, the most entertainment from watching a film comes from watching the audience.

Opening weekend for Maleficient was huge for my area of Taiwan. How do I know? Well, most people will buy tickets ahead of time online, which always includes being able to pick your seat, by row and seat number. When my friend and I tried to use a specially-priced ticket, we couldn’t use the online system accordingly, but we could use it to gauge how popular each screening time would be. And that’s how we found out how nearly every screening was close to selling out that weekend.

Well, why not still try for it? One just has to psyche himself up to be prepared for more people-watching!

Case in point, during the big scene when the Prince would kiss the Princess– the whole set-up for the fairy tale, after all– many of audience was on the edge of their seats. Literally. Most of the audience were young women, and one lady in particular was poised with both palms together, outstretched fingers in excitement and nearly applauding as the Prince bent down to kiss Aurora.


And then the kiss didn’t work.

The audience overall let out a collective, and kind of frustrated, half-sigh/half-chuckle as they settled back into their seats. In their minds, they were telling the filmmakers “OK, you got us. Good one,” while also feeling “Oh. I wished that would have worked.” Some neighbors even commisserated, in whispered Chinese.

Then Maleficient came forward, and kissed Aurora, causing her to wake.

Which reminds me, I have one question, despite the tangent to my story — did Maleficient know that her kiss would work? On the face of it, perhaps she didn’t, at least not consciously. After all, she did tote Prince Andrew through the forest and castle to force them to kiss instead. But what if she *did* know, or at least suspect? This is an extremely vulnerable moment for the character and the true emotional climax of the film. If she didn’t know/suspect, then really there is no agency for the main character, and it’s only a “surprise” reveal that love does exist. In other words, in that case, “Love,” even in an abstract sense, becomes the deus ex machina that before a true prince would have enacted in order to wake the girl.

Instead, it’s more interesting to consider that Maleficient suspects this to be true. At this point, she is not only saving the girl she feels motherly toward, but it’s also that she must release control/faith in her own power and acknowledge the power of something greater than herself. In a way, it’s a humbling of a character who has never been humble before– not even as a child. She must now *choose* to be vulnerable, to be a “part” of the curse that she placed years before, which in a way is a kind of sacrifice. This mixture of “will it work/will it not” is true dramatic tension for the character.

That said, in either case (knowing/not knowing), the film is more about redefining what love might be, using the context of a fairy tale. This much is obvious, right? Whereas a fairy tale makes certain assumptions about love, the filmmakers deliberately invert the tale in order to make a different thematic statement. And not merely “oh, look at different ways ‘true love’ can be between others.” That’s just “where” love is, not “what” it can be.

If a prince would have kissed Aurora to wake her, there would be no sacrifice, no humbling, no risk. If Maleificient were to kiss Aurora, this truly does say something about love. Thus, according to this movie, love is something that must develop over time, by spending time with another, by allowing yourself to be changed just as much as you wish to safeguard the other person. To humble yourself. And to risk that, even if you do all these things, it still might not work and you do it anyway.

With all that being said, there are just some audiences that want a traditional fairy tale. When the Prince failed, the audience deflated. When Maleficient succeeded, the audience laughed.

They laughed because, story-wise, at that point it was “obvious” but the characters still had to play out their dramatic tension. They laughed to tell the filmmakers “Oh, fine. Redefine love for us. Sure.” Or even to say “Oh, that’s not supposed to happen” and a few probably “Wait. Are they girls in love with each other?” All of that is pretty superficial. What I really think the laughter was about? I think they all laughed in spite of themselves. Because they all KNEW that love is more complicated than what a Disney fairy tale will show us. But that didn’t mean they wanted to stop seeing that kind of story.

They watched the rest of the film, and no one was angry but me that Maleficent didn’t turn into the dragon and the raven did instead, and they all clapped dutifully when all the characters took their final positions for the sweeping camera move at the end.

Then the lights came on, and we all left the theater and went back out into the real world, where we’d find all the complicated questions of love that were still there were we left them, somewhere still waiting outside.