Thursday, July 4, 2013

Things I Love 'Bout 'Merka

Click to enlarge. You'll thank me.
Really, there are too many to enumerate but these are ones that come readily to mind.

The New Colossus:

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The Declaration of Independence.

Thanks, TJ.

The oldest living constitution on earth.

It's seen four of its French cousins come and go.


It's hard to have a more American name than John Adams. Bust seriously, our minimalist composers can beat up your minimalist composers. Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Higher Education, or "Go For It"

Illustration of me by my brother.
I graduated from Brigham Young U this month, and tomorrow is my last day as a producer at BYU Radio. So my seven-year affiliation with the university has come to a close. I'm feeling nostalgic and retrospective, and I decided to write about it.

There's been a lot of talk recently about the value of higher education, and whether it's worth the increasingly high tuition and opportunity cost. Before I start talking about my experience (which, admittedly is not everyone's experience), I'd like to like to direct you to a recent article in The Atlantic. Matthew O'Brien makes a pretty compelling argument that although finding employment is no walk in the park for anyone, it's much harder for those who don't have a college degree. While jobs for college grads have been sluggishly growing since the worst point in the recession, jobs for those without a college degree have continued to decrease. That's grim.

But I'd like to argue that the monetary investment of an education pays off in ways that can't by measured by its monetary "return." Here are some things I learned entirely during my time at BYU:

  • German
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Guitar
  • Literary theory
  • Photoshop
  • InDesign
  • Audition
  • HTML
Here are skills that I got significantly better at while at BYU, but had begun to learn before:
  • Composition
  • Cello
  • Piano
  • Reading
  • Writing
It's crazy for me to imagine that I didn't know a bit of German or Latin before I started at BYU, two languages in which I'm pretty proficient now. I've lived in Germany and spoken for hours and hours in German, but before I started as a freshman, I'd never held a conversation in German. I've read Caesar's commentary on the Gallic wars, Ovid's sprawling Metamorphoses, and Virgil's epic Aeneid in Latin, but before I went to college, I couldn't really tell you what "E Pluribus Unum" meant.

It's crazy for me to think how much music I've heard and learned here, how many novels I've read, how many theories I've been exposed to, how much science I've come to understand. I got to play in orchestras and string quartets. I got to score a movie. And so much of what I've learned hasn't even been in class per se, but just in the environment that a university fosters.

How can you put a price tag on learning an entire language, with all that comes with it? How can you quantify the value of learning a skill like playing the cello? BYU's tuition was something like $2K a semester, and that seems pretty darn cheap.

And then for my last two years I worked at Classical 89 FM and BYU Radio. Boy, did that feel like robbery; I still can't believe that they paid me to do what I did. During my brief tenure, I got to interview these people:

  • A Malian presidential candidate
  • A Newbery Honor author
  • The chairperson of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians
  • My wildly talented and successful artist friend
And a whole bunch more. I got to spend hours talking to people whose hand I otherwise had no business shaking. To a national audience, I got to monologue, lecture, and rant about whatever topics I found interesting.

Robbery. It was robbery.

Was my tuition worth it? (For the first time, I'm going to swear on this blog.) HELL YES it was worth it. Sure I had a few crappy professors. Sure I had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops, but the benefits far outweighed the costs.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Template for Facebook Posts, or "Please Validate Me"

A lot of Facebook posts are grabs for attention. (Heck, Facebook itself was a grab for attention. Anybody else remember when it used to read "A Mark Zuckerberg production" at the bottom of the page?) At some point or other, we've all been guilty of shameless attention grabs. But if you haven't been validated recently, here are some tried and true methods to get your friends to express their "like."

The Man of Mystery

"That didn't go as expected…"
"Wonder where THAT came from…"
"Today was…interesting…"
"Best. Day. Ever."
"Worst. Day. Ever."

This is maybe the most effective way to elicit comments because someone will rush to your post with a "OMG! WHAT didn't go as expected?!" You can then bask in the attention of a mini comment thread right on your own wall.

The BDE/Forever Alone

This one works like so:
"[Junk food] + [Junk TV] = Best. Day. Ever."
Example: "Box of Peeps + CSI: Jersey Shore = Best. Day. Ever."

One of these days, I'd love to see someone post something more along these lines:
"Ham hocks + CSPAN = Best. Day. Ever."

The Sassy Diva

The Sassy Diva unapologetically announces that she's unspecifically unapologetic and that she doesn't care what anyone thinks of her, and then sits back anxiously to see who likes and comments on her status. Ex:

"If you have a problem with my attitude, that's YOUR problem, not MINE. Don't care what anyone thinks, anyway."

Then there will be a rush of people who say, "You tell 'em!" or "We love you for your attitude, girl!"

The Jukebox

This is sometimes a subset of "The Man of Mystery," but it's whenever someone posts random and seemingly meaningless song lyrics. Ex:

"Life goes on living long after the thrill of living is gone…"
"In the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take…"
"These two sides of my brain need to have a meeting…"
"Bind me not to the pasture, chain me not to the plow…"

Note the obligatory use of ellipses at the end of the quote. These are especially necessary if you want to pull a Man of Mystery. Or you could just stick a "Best. Day. Ever." at the end and call it quits.

The Constitutional Scholar

This is usually an offensive and fallacious repost from a Facebook group with a name like "Ronald Reagan is humanity's lord and savior" or "conservatives want to execute gays…probably because their closeted gays." They usually have 1) a disturbing image accompanied by 2) an alarmingly current-sounding quote attributed to a founding father 3) a Tolstoy-length explanation at the bottom that's more ignorant and offensive even than the image. You could substitute requirement 2 for an obviously erroneous statistic.

Oh, and 4) these must be easily debunkable by a light Google search or casual trip to

The Democratizer

"Hey everybody I just entered into [some competition]. Vote on my [pic, YouTube video, etc] so I can win a new knife set!"

Guilty. I did this one once. But never again—at least not until they start offering some really awesome knife sets.

The Seeker of the Obvious

These are people who could be directed to Google for the answer to their question. A few examples:

Q: "Anybody know where I can buy [obscure item]?"
A:, Ebay

Q: "Anybody know any deals on flights from ___ to ___?"

Q: "Anybody know if there are any Sushi places in ___?"
A: Google knows.

If you really want to be a jerk (and you shouldn't), there's actually a website for this: It stands for "Let me Google that for you."

The Latecomer

Someone who took a long time to catch that viral virus. We're talking, they're just now posting links to the Bed Intruder song.

The Benign Hack

"[Insert name of hacker here] is the bestest, most beautiful person I've ever met."

The Malevolent Hack

Yup. They clicked on the "OMG, you WON'T believe what this girl wore to SCHOOL" picture of the girl whose butt is hanging out of her shorts, and now it says that they "like" this video or page or whatever. Or they signed up for that unbelievably good deal from what looked like Southwest Airlines and then lost control of their Facebook page. 

The Dispenser of TMI

You know what I mean. This is the person who gives us instant updates on fights with relatives, problems with children, and all sorts of information that make your Facebook experience that much more awkward.

The #Hashtagger


The Conspiracy Theorist

Seriously. The govment is taking away mah rahts. Also, never get a vaccination. Also, barcodes are the mark of the beast. Also, Obama is responsible for 9/11.

The Guilt Trip Travel Agent

These are images that say things like "Repost this if you love your mother." The worst I ever saw was something like, "Repost this if Jesus is your Lord and Savior. Sadly, only 1/100 people will repost this." First of all, that statistic had to have been made up before the image was posted. Emphasis on "made up." Second, my religious convictions do not mandate that I repost anything. My commandments came from Sinai, not Mark Zuckerberg and his affiliates.

The Sweepstaker

They repost some obscure product photo with the caption "Love [company]." in the hopes of being selected for a freebie.

So…I wrote this for a laugh, and I think we've all been guilty of at least one of these. I've been guilty of several. If you, dear reader, think of more, post them in the comments and I'll curate them into the post with proper attribution. 

A Composer I Shouldn't Hate…But I Do

Franz Joseph
Some people accuse classical music of being boring, and sometimes they're right. Maybe the most boring composer I've ever come across is Franz Joseph Haydn. He taught Beethoven, who's one of my heroes, but Kate Beaton has something to say about that.

"But Michael," you may say. "You're a cellist. His cello concerti are part of the canon, and we wouldn't have string quartets if it weren't for him."

First, don't say concerti; it's pretentious. Second, I'm grateful that he kept string quartets around long enough for someone better like Beethoven to come along and perfect the art, but that doesn't mean I need to listen to them. And third, 'bout those concertos:

C major moderato. Could it be more of a snore fest? I really don't understand why anyone ever performs this piece. What is there to like? I'm listening to it right now, and I can't hum any of it back to you. It's not even that flashy for the soloist. A great concerto should tell a hero's story. This hero sounds like he's chilling at a picnic.

There are so many, so much better concertos to choose from. Even if you're not feeling up to the gargantuan might that is the Dvorak concerto, there are very playable and magnificent concertos by Saint-SaĆ«ns and Elgar. Shostakovich has a brilliant one, and John Williams's concerto is a powerhouse. Why choose Haydn? Why?

People talk about how witty Haydn is. I don't think that music by itself can be witty. It can certainly be clever, but not witty without referencing something external of itself. A melody by itself can't be funny.

Case in point against Haydn, his "Surprise" symphony. It's only funny because people kept falling asleep while listening to his music. Yeah.

National Poetry Month, or In Defense of Poems

Willie the Shake
I started writing this post at the beginning of the month, but it got unwieldy and I kind of gave up. But today on the day of Shakespeare's birth and death, I decided to man up and post. Here are my main points:

1) Currently, poetry is grossly under-appreciated and poorly taught. 2) Poetry isn't solely for emo wimps. 3) Poetry can express ideas and sentiments that just don't translate well into regular language. 4) If you like thought or language, you should like poetry.

Now, I'm well aware that the world is teeming with bad poetry. The world is also full of bad books and bad movies, but that doesn't mean you should swear off an entire medium. There are more great poems than you or I could ever read in a lifetime.

For the rest of the month I'll be posting a few poems a day that I think are great. And since today is the birthday of Willie the Shake, I'll start with one of his sonnets. But before you go dismissing his sonnets as gushing, hallow, romantic drivel, give this one a shot and see if you aren't just a little surprised:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Shakespeare is making fun of bad love poems that exaggerate the beauty and grace of the subject. The first few words set you up for yet another sappy, shallow, ridiculous poem, but then it takes an unexpected turn. The poet admits that his beloved is really nothing like these traditional superlatives. (Billy Collins uses this device to hilarious effect in his poem, "Litany.")

See? Shakespeare can be funny! He's often funny. But then just when we've gotten used to his very pedestrian view of his mistress, he surprises us again with an insightful twist. She doesn't live up to the comparisons everyone makes ("her cheeks are like roses, her hair is like gold, her voice is like music…she's like a goddess"), but her individuality is what endears her to him.

Good poem, Shakespeare.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert

He was the first film critic on the Hollywood walk of fame.
Roger Ebert, who is one of my heroes, passed away today. He was probably America's most important film critic and a force of nature on Twitter and the blogosphere. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer, and he's the "Ebert" in "Siskel and Ebert give it two thumbs up."

It's odd to think of how much influence this film critic has had on me. There are some obvious ways; for the past two years I've worked as a music critic, and I used his criticism as a model for my own work. I've written previously about four qualities of his that I admire and emulate: his generosity, his personableness, his enthusiasm, and his prose.

But there are more subtle ways his work has impacted me. Probably the best piece I did in my stint as a radio producer was an examination of his claim that "video games can never be art." I wound up disagreeing with him on the issue, but exploring his arguments led me to a much richer understanding of video games and art than I would have come to otherwise. All the Ebert fans I've talked to since his passing have mentioned that they always valued what he had to say, even if they disagreed with him. That has absolutely been my experience time and time again.

And I feel like I need to reiterate that Ebert's writing was just so darn good. He had great insights and great skill, but he was also highly accessible. Several times when I was teaching ESL or literacy classes, I used his reviews with students to teach them about reading for tone.

I was chatting with my brother about Ebert today, and he had this to offer:
"He helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with wanting to go to the movies every damn day of my life.

"Because there's MORE there for me than 90 minutes of good times. There's whole lifetimes of thought, lessons to be learned and actions to be taken. If it's worth seeing, it's worth thinking about.

"And it's worth seeing."

I think there's an idea of critics as deeply unhappy people who derive their only joy from tearing down the work of others. There are jerks in every field, but if that's your modus operandi, you'll never be a good critic. Ebert was great because he loved movies and saw in them more than the rest of us. It was a rare gift of having a childlike adoration for the form and a keen insight into the technical and theoretical aspects of the craft.

I could ramble on and on about the things he's introduced me to via his Twitter feed, which sounds ridiculous. But through that feed I was introduced to the Italian composer Giovanni Dettori, with whom I had a rewarding professional correspondance.

Two days before he passed, Ebert announced that the would be taking "a leave of presence" from the Chicago Sun-Times due to increased medical issues. But he outlined what he still wanted to accomplish on the Web and as a writer. I was really touched by two things he said.

First: "I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review."

Once again, this is a man who may be remembered for spectacular burns, but deep down, his occupation was a labor of love.

And second: "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."

I never had any communication with Roger Ebert, but it did feel very much like I went with him to the movies. And not only did his writing inform my own viewing experience, but it influenced the world. He has written about virtually every film of even slight importance from the beginning of cinema up until his death. His canon is a national treasure. And so I was struck by his continued optimism and hope to "see you at the movies."

I'll always see him at the movies.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The DC Metro, or "This Sucks"

I was just in DC this past weekend to visit a friend while I looked into a nearby law school. I don't know if you've been there, but DC is kind of an inspiring and inspired place. The memorials are tasteful and beautiful and appropriately grand. It's hard to not be moved when you stare Lincoln in the face and read his Gettysburg address. Patriotism rises up in you as suddenly and forcefully as a tremble.

But DC's Metro sucks. I've been on a number of Metro systems—New York, Boston, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, Rome, Athens, Toronto…—a whole bunch. Regular readers will remember that I collaborated with my brother on a short film that was a loving exploration of the unexpected places metros can take you. I adore and support public transit, especially the wild and wonderful bustle of a subway. I'm usually willing to forgive my inebriated co-passengers along with their oppressive body odor. I blithely skip over puddles of human excrement and rejoice at the cloud of nicotine that hovers around most metros. I'm usually giddy to hear the grating strains of a gypsy's accordion or the atonal shrieking of an amateur jazz saxophonist.

But DC's Metro sucks. It's oppressively lit by dim fluorescents, there's no relief from the dented concrete expanse, and there's the overwhelming and ever-present feeling that at any moment a shank is on its way for your ribcage.

DC's Metro sucks. The workers are cranky and unhelpful, signs informing you what to do when groped by a stranger are plastered across the walls, and the PA system periodically announces that we all need to be vigilant about abandoned bags, because…terrorists.

And DC's Metro sucks. The stops are awkwardly and inconveniently spread out, many of the entrances above ground are skeezy and more poorly lit than the subterranean dungeons they lead to, and you can never really make out what stop the announcer is saying.

But seriously, DC's Metro sucks. My day-pass kept getting stuck in the machines, the train doors take way too long to open and close too quickly, and I feel like I need to emphasize again the gloomy ennui that haunts the urban blight that is DC's sucky Metro.

It sucks.

When I was a kid visiting DC, the Metro was one of the first subway systems I ever used, so I didn't know just how bad it was by comparison. Compared to the world's great capitals, DC's public transit is horrifying and humiliating. To say it's the worst metro I've been on does a disservice to the word worst as an indicator of degree. It's so bad I can't begin to think of a second-to-last. No other subway I've been on deserves that disgrace.

And who designed this thing? Dante? What about all the beautiful neo-classicism that sits on the surface of the city? Why not some of that? What happened to L'Enfant's legacy? Why must the subway be a representation of all that is awful in bureaucracy? Where are the food vendors and the drink machines? Where are the sleazy magazine stands? Where is the LIFE that should fill the heart of a city's transportation?

DC's Metro. Sucks.