Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

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Calvary and the weight of the World

There’s a powerful scene at the end of the film Calvary, where the town butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) confronts his priest Father James (Bredan Gleeson) on a beach in Ireland. He has a gun that he’s prepared to use.

For five years, Jack was sexually abused by a priest, raped “anally and orally, as they say.” A week earlier, at the beginning of the film, he had come to Father James during confession and said he was going to kill him because of the abuse he suffered.

Midway through the film, someone burns down the church where Father James ministers. And shortly after that, someone slashes the throat of his dog. In both incidents, he weeps.

As Jack stands here with his gun pointed at Father James, he asks him if he cried when his dog died. Father James says he did. Then Jack asks him how he reacted when he heard the news of the sexual abuse scandal among the Catholic clergy.

“Did you cry then?”

Father James’ hesitation condemns him. He didn’t weep over it. It was like reading something in the papers, he stammers. Jack can’t take it, and so he puts a bullet through Father James’ head.

That damning question is one for us all: Did you cry then? How can you weep over the death of a pet yet skim over stories of sexual abuse and hardly bat an eye? What a powerful indictment – the notion that we could live life like everything’s fine, detached from such great scandal and pain. But don’t we all do it every day, every time we read a newspaper or surf the web?

It’s almost cliché to lob this critique at middle-upper class America, Christian or otherwise. We slam politicians for not addressing or speaking to certain problems, or we slam them for focusing too much on relatively trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. We lament our affluent, entertainment-laced culture, where people watch hours of TV a day and fool around on the internet laughing at memes and trolling on YouTube while elsewhere in the world terrorist groups shoot children and tear women in two.

And maybe all those criticisms have a point – they undoubtedly do – but Jack had a point about Father James’ lack of tears too. That didn’t make Father James a heartless monster. He spent his days faithfully, though not perfectly, ministering to the people under his spiritual care. The problem is that Jack’s brand of moralizing – heaping guilt on people (implicitly or explicitly) for not caring about huge evils in the world – inevitably condemns us in our finiteness.

Suppose I give up a few hours of TV each week to volunteer at a homeless shelter. And then a bit later I decide to see one less movie a month and cut back on a latte or two to support aid to a poverty-ridden country. Guess what? There’s still human trafficking in Asia and drug violence in Central America and abortion here in America, and war in the Middle East. And what kind of person am I to stand by with my unprecedented American wealth and safety and comfort and do nothing about it? Here we are going about our comfortable, middle-class lives, maybe paying lip-service to a few of these horrors with a hashtag or dumping a bucket of ice on ourselves if we feel especially moved. What heartless wretches we are.

Source: Pixabay.com

The intent is not to downplay any of these things. They are tragic and real and, for all practical purposes, without number. And yet because of that, our hearts can’t bear the weight of the world’s problems. We really can’t. Not the emotional weight, nor the physical poverty, nor the pain. If we came to a full existential grip with all of it – every rape, beheading, bombing, starvation, theft, suicide, abuse – well, it would crush us.

Once in high school, I remember talking with a few of my more intellectually-savvy friends about the concept of equality. One of them was arguing there’s a certain absurdity or lie to the notion that we can treat people equally by loving every last one of our neighbors the same. We claim we stand for equal treatment, but we practice favoritism, he said, because when we give money to, say, some sort of cause, it benefits a few people, but leaves countless others who need help completely untouched. You can’t split a dollar a million ways, so how can you ever claim to treat everyone equally?

I don’t remember the exact point he was going for, probably trying to show me the absurdity of Christian ethics or something like that, but it shows what can happen when you abuse the James 4:17 card: “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” There is almost always something more obviously virtuous you could be doing. Like Father James and Jack, even the most righteous men among us cannot stand before every victim’s accusations. Sooner rather than later, we’re bound to appear callous. As this College Humor video illustrates, you can find a way to make it socially unacceptable to do just about anything. Some evils we have to choose not to care about.

So what do we do, then?

One extreme is denial, which I suspect we choose far more frequently than we’d like to think. Ignore it. As the band Dragonette sings:

“We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world, cuz it’s floating ‘round in the universe / Just swing it like it’s tied by a string that you hold, and let it go.”

We can adopt this carefree ethic of radical individualism and self-autonomy, choosing the bliss of ignorance by distracting ourselves. We can tell ourselves it’s not our problem because we didn’t do anything to directly cause it. It’s out there, thousands of miles away, in a different world, and we need not worry about it because others are more capable of helping and hence more responsible.

Such extreme apathy, of course, is despicable – perhaps downright sinful. But again, we can’t be a crusader against every evil. And who is to say where you draw the line and decide which ones?

The only answer that is both practical and principled, I’m convinced, is to turn everything over to a Being whose moral capacity and ability to act infinitely exceeds ours.

Christian means “little Christ,” but a Christ-figure is no substitute for the real Thing. In Calvary, Father James faces an inverse martyrdom – a vengeance that he bears as a public servant of God yet also because of the sins of those who outwardly claimed to be God’s servants. As a “little Christ”, he may be an agent of grace, but he is only one of many. As a finite, fallen man, he can’t dispense enough sympathy and counsel and prayers to support his community by himself. The world’s problems are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Who can bear it?

Weep with those who weep. Visit orphans and widows in their affliction. That’s true religion, sure. But Jesus tells us that sufficient for the day is its own trouble. And the Apostle Paul says to aspire to live quietly and mind your own affairs. We do not need to right every wrong, mourn every sin, and carry every burden, because we have a God who has already done it. And soon he will do so once and for all.

Spiting Winter: The Cold Is A Stage

Deep Creek Lake, MD – I’ve been here two days now. The weather app says it is zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can see the wind gusting as it picks up the fine powdery snow. That probably brings it down to a wind chill of negative ten or fifteen. I’ve hardly left the house, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the big glass door windows at Deep Creek Lake, a snowy plain for the sport of snowmobilers, with other cabins and hibernating trees surrounding it.

I decided last Thanksgiving that Winter has a beauty to its barrenness. I spent the weekend in a cabin in Virginia, much like the one I’m in now. In the morning I would go out to the big living room windows and look out over the gently hilled farmlands that precede Shenandoah. The unkempt grass still had traces of golden green. I could see bright red barns and silos and cows through the rising mist. A few small streams crisscrossed with aged barbed wire fencing to make little dividers in the hills. It was delightful, Psalmic even – streams and pastures and sheep and sublime divinity and all that. Seasons change as surely as God’s faithfulness. The days may grow colder and darker, but there’s a fire in the hearth, and I have a full belly and a heart of good cheer. Life outside may retreat, but it is replaced by a stunning stillness and peace that is wondrous to behold.

Being from California, the reality of Winter, as in Winter as a distinct season, is a new phenomenon to me. I can probably still count on two hands the number of good snows I’ve experienced. Now that I’m in a climate where temperatures regularly dip below freezing, I’ve determined that there are two different kinds of cold when temperatures reach such nether regions. There’s a gentle, welcoming cold that is pleasant to be out in; it wraps around you like a soft blanket without penetrating and sapping the vitality out of your body (I suspect humidity may affect this). Oftentimes this is the cold that accompanies a snowfall. But then there’s the hard, soul-sucking cold; it starts at your extremities – hands, feet, nose and ears – then travels right to your heart. Whenever you’re so unfortunate as to spend any length of time in it, it keeps you walking as quickly as possible for your warmer destination, and makes you stiff as a cold piece of plastic that would snap in half from a strong thwap.

This is undoubtedly the cruel sort of cold.

It occurred to me, as I was staring out at the pure, empty meat locker of a world stirring just a few inches away from me, that I was spiting Winter. Here I stood, oh so close to a world that could kill me in hours, if not minutes, calmly enjoying a cookie in my sweatpants and slippers. Someone had just flipped the switch to turn on the fireplace. Thank you, modern comforts. I’d been at leisure all day, and yet the elements raged and flew. The cold and ice used to constrain man as it pressed in, making us still and slow and impotent. Now it just makes us irritable.

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With this thought subconsciously in mind, I went outside on the lake for a few minutes this afternoon (pictured). The sun illuminated the world in white – beautiful clean light. Winter may command us to be still, may narrow our lives to this sharp focus of a single time and place, but she herself does not sit still. Not today, at least. The wind commands my attention and my senses, whisking up the powder as with a paintbrush, a ghostly, ethereal artist. We often use the wind as a metaphor for the spiritual, to show how it is unseen yet still real and felt. But I can see it right now as it catches up the snow, at least a little, like a current or perhaps a song around me. Yes, maybe that starts to get at the essence of it. What is the wind, or the Spirit, if not a melody?

Before the cold has seeped in to my extremities and nips crisply at my nose and lips with dry teeth, I feel a sense of grandeur on the lake, as if I am suddenly a great character in a great story bent upon a great mission. James Bond in some arctic locale, or maybe the dogged remnant of Shackleton’s crew. I follow the packed path of a snowmobile toward a bridge a few hundred yards away. It spans the lake, allowing automobiles to traverse the snowy hills. The wind whips at my back. I raise my hood to defect it. As I walk underneath the bridge the wind narrows between the pillars. Currents of frost dash around and between my feet. I can see through the ice more clearly under the bridge where the snows hasn’t fallen. It looks thick – at least six inches or so. I start to feel cold, like actually chilled, and I suddenly understand why that epic feeling swept over me.

This world of snowdrifts and flat white ice is beautiful; it has a sense of uncharted purity, and I must explore it, must chart the icy wonder. But more than that it is alien to me, and invites action. I must make it across the lake before my arch nemesis escapes, or find a way to stay alive among the ice floes until help can arrive. It fills me with awe and wonder, so why wouldn’t it be a stage on which I play out the adventure?

It also compels me for its hostility. The very act of existing in these conditions, putting one foot in front of another, slipping along the ice when the wind persists in its bitter course, is a feat. No sane person should be living out here, and yet here we are, conquerors against the elements. Life below freezing showcases man’s resolute will to survive, adapt, and take dominion, despite and against the hostility. But his boots, gloves, hood, and sunglasses give away his weakness – my weakness. I concede that this ten-minute adventure has been nice, but soon I am sprinting into the wind, letting the ice cut my eyes and face, so that I can get back indoors to the warm. I run as if a blizzard is behind me, to feel the cold in my lungs, to be chased by Winter, to admit that without the cabin and the road so close there is mortal danger. I can’t stay out here much longer. And so I flee, exhilarated, leaving a trail of heavy footprints behind me, and taste the first drops of exhaustion.

I recently heard a story through a friend of a friend about two snowboarders in Colorado who tried to make it down a run in a whiteout, much like one that came through and smothered the lake yesterday evening. I could barely see the trees 30 feet away. These two guys couldn’t see the run and mistakenly strayed onto a closed trail. By the time they realized their mistake, they couldn’t make it back. One of them huddled against a tree to wait it out. The other struck off for help, but only made it 500 yards in the wrong direction. The blizzard lasted two days. They were found six months later.

And so my looking out the window in serenity at the white plain and the gray trees and windy rivulets singing their song really is spiting Winter. My sense of adventure is not misplaced. The snow doesn’t exist solely for our enjoyment, but to stiffen the business of life, slow our routines, and make us wonder. That’s why I’m growing to love Winter, learning to give thanks for it, because when the whiteout storms through I don’t have the last word. My existence is subject to forces far beyond my control, and sometimes they demand humility. At best I can mitigate it, but my freedom doesn’t extend much beyond the glass doors through which I gaze. Instead, I must contemplate, blow the knee, and be still.

My top five albums of 2014

Last year around this time I posted a list of my top ten songs from 2013. Over the past year, however, I’ve listened to more music–and more new music–than ever before. I’ve also been going to more live shows of my favorite artists than ever before. It’s too hard to pick another set of top ten songs, so this time I’ve broadened the scope.

If I could only listen to five albums from 2014 for the rest of my life, here’s what they would be:

1. Fading West – Switchfoot

Anyone who knows me remotely well knows that Switchfoot is my favorite band, so it’s natural that their latest album would the top spot of the year. Spotify data further backs this up as most of the tracks from Fading West topped my 100-most-played-songs list.

As I concluded in my review of the album:

“The subjects and the struggles of Switchfoot’s songs are timeless – brokenness and depravity, cultural numbness and consumerism, time and morality, hope and restoration. Rightly grappled with, those never get old. They probe the vast depths of our humanity with questions worthy of song. In Fading West, Switchfoot found a way to skirt the clichés by returning to the same eternal questions in a fresh musical context, reminding us that true hope is ‘anchored on the other side / with the colors that live outside of the lines.'”

2. Rivers in the Wasteland – Needtobreathe

I will always remember 2014 as the year that I truly “discovered” Needtobreathe. I had heard of them and listened to their hits on Christian radio in junior high and high school, and while I didn’t overtly dislike them, my attitude toward them had been pretty “meh”.

Seeing them live changed all of that. Aside from Switchfoot, it was my favorite concert of the year. I’ve grown to love these guys for many of the same reasons I like Switchfoot. Since opening for Taylor Swift a while back, they’ve been straddling the line between the Christian and secular music scenes (they played in the Thanksgiving Parade this year, for example), but they do it by writing stinking good songs. I think Rivers in the Wasteland is their best album to date.

3. When I Was Younger – Colony House

If one could conceive of an alternative/indie-rock act in the tradition of Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, it might look something like Colony House. Two of the band members are sons of Contemporary Christian Music legend Steven Curtis Chapman. They’ve clearly inherited some musical talent but refuse to live inside their father’s niche. The result is a punchy yet spiritually substantive freshman album that is uplifting without being cliche, guaranteed to cure a case of the Mondays as well as provide emotional solace to those facing the worst of life’s sufferings.

“We’ve got to roll with the punches, fight through the fire,” sings vocalist Caleb Chapman in one of the my favorite tracks. “When the trouble comes baby we can work our way around it / Love is a lesson to be learned with time / If we can climb the mountain then we can work our way around it.”

Tell me you don’t feel better already.

4. Talking Is Hard – Walk the Moon

This one only came out a few weeks ago, so I may be biased by the novelty of it and have yet to see if it will stand the test of time. What I do know, however, is that it features the hands-down best party song of the year, “Shut Up and Dance.” For what it attempts to be, that song is perfect. What Owl City’s “Good Time” was to my summer of 2012, Shut Up and Dance was to the fall of 2014. It has already sparked a number of impromptu dance parties with some of my best friends. It stands as the cornerstone and inspiration for my collaborative “Chairdancing” playlist on Spotify (which you should follow). And I already have no doubt that hearing it live when I see Walk the Moon this April will be one of the best moments of 2015.

There’s much to be said for the rest of the album too, which solidifies Walk the Moon’s dominance in the indie rock world. The opening track Different Colors hits the catchy, progressive, millennial sweet spot, and Aquaman closes it down with some nostalgia-heavy, emotive 80s vibes.

5. Before the Waves – Magic Man

This Boston synth-pop group has been described as a mashup of Death Cab for Cutie and Passion Pit. It’s an apt comparison that effectively sums why these guys are so fantastic. Their music is downright infectious, but it has enough freshness and a sense of romance and wanderlust (song titles include “Texas” and “Paris”, for example) so that hipsters can listen to it without feeling ashamed.

 

Honorable mentions

(read: albums that would make a top 10 list and really good EPs)

Strange Desire – Bleachers: Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff is a great artist in his own right.

Blonde – Ghost Beach: Self-dubbed “tropical grit-pop;” this is perfect escapist music if warm coastal locales and sticky-sweet electronic pop are your thing.

Supermodel – Foster the People: This is actually a really good sophomore album thanks to its heavy existential bent; I can’t figure out why it didn’t make more waves.

From the Spark EP – Grizfolk: I’d make this a centerpiece of any roadtrip playlist.

Parallel Play EP – Panama Wedding: All The People is the quintessential summer jam.

Smoke EP – House of Heroes: These guys might have my favorite album of all time in The End is Not the End. Their latest EP continues their signature, spiritually substantive, alt-rock.

The Edge of the Earth: Unreleased Songs from the film “Fading West” – Switchfoot: In addition to being an album, “Fading West” was also the title of a surf film that Switchfoot made; this EP of unreleased songs from the film made for a pleasant surprise later in the year.

Suburbia and the stock backdrop

washington-dc-architecture

Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

suburbs-tract-housing

That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

washington-dc-sunset

“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.

London: First impressions

London Eye

In October I visited the U.K. for the first time – just for pleasure. I spent all of the week-long trip in London, with the exception of a day trip to Oxford. This is what I thought about it:

It feels like I’ve stepped into a parallel universe. Cars drive on the opposite side of the road – smaller, generally, than vehicles in America. Many of the trucks, vans, and fire engines are made by Mercedes, which strikes me as odd given Mercedes’ status in the U.S. Everyone is speaking a language I can understand, even though I can’t replicate its tone, style, and vernacular. For the first time I am self-conscious of how my voice sounds – of how it stands out. The currency in my pocket in familiar denominations – bills of twenty, ten, and five pounds, and coins worth two, one, half, fifth, tenth, twentieth, hundredth. Like the American dime and nickel, their value does not line up logically with their size. The underground public transportation system runs on familiar electric rails, but trains come every few minutes at all hours of the day, unlike in my current home of Washington, DC. Reports of “good service on all lines” echo from the intercom more often than anything else (also unlike DC), and the lines have fun names like Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Jubilee – rather than being called by the colors that denote them.

A river flows through the city, moseying under a series of ever-trafficked bridges, grimy but affectionately embedded in the national consciousness. I think of my own Potomac River. Americans know it thanks to a famous painting of George Washington, but the River Thames goes back in civilization’s memory more than a millennium. I try to reconcile this with the glass-paneled buildings puncturing the skyline around aged structures like Westminster Abbey and The Tower, marveling at the contrast. Over the week I will tour these places, along with Parliament. I do not have a category of experience for any of them, no reference point for places that go back seven or eight hundred years. In preparation for this trip I read Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. All of them have seen more historic events than I can keep track of. I will continue to try wrapping my mind around it the rest of the week.

London Slouching

The government buildings surrounding parliament are remarkably similar to those in D.C., reminding me how much of my heritage as an American I owe to the British. Their War Department building, for instance, could pass for a congressional office building or the IRS headquarters on Constitution Avenue. On the narrow, tangled streets surrounding these marvelous buildings, men and women in sharp suits swarm everywhere, as well as tourists, foreigners, and people who look like they could be in one of my favorite indie bands.

I probably use that description about the bands because it seems the U.K. produces a disproportionately large number of music artists and actors. I chalk this up to superior culture and civilization, evident even after a brief observation of the public space. “Mind the gap” sounds nicer than “watch out,” as does “alight” rather than “get off.” And that’s only considering the way everyone talks. It’s the norm. I’ve already mentioned the superior public transportation. I never venture to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but just by look of them, I’m convinced I would find anyone in the surprisingly diverse mix of people streaming past me on the tube profoundly fascinating. London is the hub of the U.K., after all; people come here from all over the place. After a day or two I come up with a formula from my America-centric experience: London = DC + New York City + 1000 years.

What a seductive cocktail for anyone who has any sort of ambition in almost any field – business, foreign affairs, the arts, academia. This is all apparent the first time I emerge from Waterloo station and walk to the path along the River Thames to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Unlike the gently-flowing Thames, the city’s waters are vigorous and tempestuous, and they run deep. I decide within the hour that I want to be here. I want to live here. I want to be a life among all the others, riding the swells of the vast sea of knowledge and experience that humanity has to offer. I want to let wave after wave of history and creation and innovation break over me as I walk past these bridges, monuments, pubs, museums, business meetings, markets, and theaters. I want to be in the setting that inspired Shakespeare and captured the imagination of Dickens. The city that survived the blitz with a stiff upper lip. The city which even still lingers in the fantasies of the English-speaking world (Sherlock, anyone?).

London Tower bridge

For all of the Brits’ talent and sophistication and place in the world’s attention, I notice after a day or two that Londoners are generally not a physically attractive bunch (the bad teeth stereotype comes to mind). They compensate plenty for it, however, by dressing and speaking well. I’m reminded of a joke I share with one of my best friends that British girls instantly become two points more attractive as soon as they start talking – as in she would be like a six, but with that accent, a solid eight. This creates an amusing contrast between the United States and the U.K. With American girls, it’s usually the other way around.

I oscillate between the feeling of intense alienation that comes from being a foreigner, and the sense that I could easily make this city my home. Three times during my week there someone stopped me to ask for directions. This was a source of immense pride for me because I think it means that I look the part – at least before I open my mouth.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Bakersfield, California, I assumed the identity of being from Bakersfield. When I moved from California to D.C. I assumed the much-cooler identity of a Californian. In London, I’d be an American, and I’d be okay with that, even if it came with certain baggage and stereotypes. It would be an instant signifier to anyone I met, a conversation starter.

I start making a mental list of the virtues of living in London. I would become more conscious of my American-ness as I fully steeped myself in the parent civilization that has long since ceded its world superpower status to its offspring. My use of the English language would improve markedly, even if the accent never developed. And the ghosts of literary past, the universities, the libraries, the museums and bookstores – surely they could all be absorbed through osmosis or something like that.

But perhaps I’ve added a touch of rosiness to my glasses on that last point. On my last day I took a train out to Oxford for the afternoon. It was delayed an hour and a half. A friend there took me around a number of the colleges, all of which were delightfully old and full of serene gardens and Hogwarts-like lecture halls. I had tea in his dorm room and we talked intelligently about literature and politics and film. But the true purpose of my visit was a pub called the Eagle and Child, which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien frequented as part of a group called the Inklings. I sat down with some fish and chips ready to breathe in a bit of Middle Earth or Narnia, only to find American pop songs by Train and Owl City filling the ambiance. I like both of those songs, but I cannot think of a more ill-fitting place or time for them.

A Silent Film on the Absurdity of Relationships

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One of my favorite songs right now is Let Them Feel Your Heartbeat by the alt-rock band A Silent Film. I remember when I first listened to it a couple weeks ago – it seemed like a nice jam with a pleasant melody, until I heard the second verse:

The Heart is deceitful above all things

So desperately wicked, and who can really know it? Are you listening?

And if you know what I’m talking about

Let me feel your heartbeat, let me feel your heartbeat beat beat

The first two lines are almost an exact quote of Jeremiah 17:9, the classic proof-text in the Bible about the depravity of man. They seemed out of place because the song then launched into a call for intimacy in the chorus:

When it’s closing time and the night is young, do you need a friend to help you on?

You can lean on me and I’ll carry our bones home

As the stars explode in the sky above and the pieces fall back down to earth

If you lean on me then I’ll let you feel my heartbeat, let you feel my heartbeat

I love these lines because they confront the absurdity of relationships head on. Theoretically friendship of any kind should not work. Assuming that the human heart is in fact deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and unsearchable, then it would intuitively follow that any sort of meaningful relationship – romance, friendship, father, daughter, etc. – is a lose-lose proposition. I mean, let’s take the fundamental problem here, a wicked human heart, and put two or more of them right next to each other so that they can feel each other beat.

How could that ever work? When two self-centered entities come together, they tend not to dissolve into harmony. They clash and oppose one another; they take from the other to enrich themselves; they render judgment upon the other so that they can puff themselves up; they impose discomfort on the other so that they can have pleasure.

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It sure gives me pause, sometimes, about opening up, especially when under the hood of my generally nice-looking life you find a heart that is often distressed and insecure and looking down on others and consumed with its own well-being. It really isn’t all that attractive. It’s easy for me to feel justified in this fear because I will inevitably hurt the people I bring closest to me.

Living on the surface is much easier. The superficial feels safer, except that it’s just that – fake. You can’t sustain a lie indefinitely. You can’t keep all the pressures bottled up and out of sight and out of mind. It’s not good to be alone. Many suicides and overdoses and anonymous forums testify to this. People seem just fine and happy to the outside world, while on the inside sorrow destroys them. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if there’s anything worse than not being known – not being understood.

Experience, then, teaches us that isolation is no way to live. There’s nothing for it but to move into that dangerous space around people, accepting the risk. C.S. Lewis confronts the paradox in this much-quoted passage from The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Wrung and possibly broken. Possibly may be an understatement. The song acknowledges this in the opening lines:

The devil puts words in my mouth when we’re close

And you’re like the snow in spring, ever receding

Here we have the confession. When we start getting that heart-on-heart contact, I screw up. I say evil, hurtful things. I break you. And you understandably pull back from his. You try to shut yourself away so you can’t get hurt. But like that snow in spring, it leaves you melting into nothingness.

There is no greater asset in this world than the friend who sticks closer than a brother. As the ancient sage says in Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

If you know what I’m talking about, let them feel your heartbeat.