Monday, January 01, 2018


I did not write on my 48th birthday, breaking a long-running streak of annual check-ins. It just seemed pointless, and I felt I had nothing to say or discover that I did not already know, or that anyone would care about.

Singing "Mr. Positive" at my 48th birthday.
Photo by Mark Jordan.
The rest of 2017 replayed and reinforced those feelings, and looking back there is much cause for unhappiness.

I write the following from a physical and mental location that can accurately be described as "my happy place".

My fury still burns for all who enabled Trump: The dupes, cynics, and self-serving cowards who voted for him. The lazy fools who did not vote at all. The useful idiots that voted for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. Most of all, the corrupt-in-every-conceivable-way GOP and GOP-controlled Congress who continue to smash away at decency, goodwill, cultural norms, and the rule of law to achieve their ends.

While much of the legal damage being done can be reversed with time, it will take much longer to repair than it has taken to smash. Judges, laws, respect, trust. Real damage has been done.

One is torn between adopting and implementing the tactics of "the other side" with a fresh viciousness in order to "win" (at the cost of losing so much) or continuing to act with principles and dignity and suffer more short-term losses. 

When I think of our political future, it smells like blood and fire and sounds like an angry mob. History will not be kind, assuming we last long enough to write it.

Little respite was found in the arts. I listened to and watched much of what the new gatekeepers said was important and noteworthy. 

A bright spot was the new album from Slowdive, which suggested it is possible for old bands to simultaneously recapture what is best about their old albums while moving forward. Album closer "Falling Ashes" provided an eerie/beautiful soundtrack for the fires which burned so much of California.

U2's new album, however, was perhaps the polar opposite: a cartoonishly bad album by almost any standard, and the kind of thing that casts negative, unflattering light on their previous work, by showing how fragile and meager their abilities can be. At this point, U2 are nearly at the Rolling Stones inflection point of having been a terrible (or worse, mediocre) band longer than they've been a great one.

I find much current and popular hip-hop unlistenable. Perhaps it is because I am old, but the lyrics lack internal consistency, and what words can be deciphered are nihilistic and narcissistic (and not even in a cool way), lacking even the power to shock in any meaningful way. It's depressing like late-period hair-metal, with poses and imagery offering endless variations on tired and uninteresting themes. When an act stumbles across something approximating a "sound", they and everyone else reproduce it until it is meaningless. It doesn't even sound good, swerving from tinny and pinging to massively overcompressed. And it all quickly starts to sound the same.

Taylor Swift's latest album suggests that her aw-shucks mask seems to be slipping and showing the sociopath underneath, and not to good or interesting result. Her professionalism is solid, but her overwhelming desire to succeed means her songs are a Frankenstein's monster of current sounds and parts, bereft of soul and meaning.

The flipside here would be something like St. Vincent's new album "Masseduction", which finally allows her to subvert and comment on pop music and desire by becoming a sexy pop star and making a great pop album. 

The attention and energy dumped into superhero movies and Star Wars and its attendant mythology has stripped me of any real desire to see these kinds of films. Still, I am sure I will diligently trudge to the multiplex. I remain astounded at how the public continues to demand Big Media pander to them more, and how upset people get about the details of said pandering when it isn't exactly perfect, like children demanding pancakes and then screaming because they're not perfectly round or shaped like Mickey Mouse.

There's a larger point to be made about the lack of cultural literacy. The public "reads" content and critiques it on the basis of how well the characters conform to the public's ideas and ideals about how "real people" could and should behave. It's as though the public has never considered that these are not real people, but simply cardboard cut-outs being waved around in a frame for storytelling purposes. Treating them like real people, and grading the authors on their verisimilitude is absurd.

And perhaps one should ask further what the purpose of the storytelling actually is. (In most cases, the primary purpose is for you to give them your money/attention/time/data and the secondary purpose is to program your values and validate the values that have been programmed).

In fact, much of the fury and debate around these fictive endeavors was that their imaginary, created worlds did not conform enough to people's desires about what the world "should" look like, either by being insufficiently conforming to canonical ideas or by insufficiently demonstrating commitment to real-world political ideals and positions. 

Yes, there is probably some "good stuff" on screen, especially when calibrated by the standards of those who grew up with 3 big networks and lazy sitcoms. It's still just a way to kill time while time kills you. "This show changed my life", they say. Really? How? What did you do differently the next day?

I look at the wall of shows on Netflix and it reminds me of the sinking feeling I used to get in video stores. Or when I look at the endless rows of suggested albums in Spotify. There's too much. And it's all nothing. 

If you want to get really depressed, read the "criticism" or, god forbid, the recaps. 

At a higher level, 2017 showed that, at the moment, the culture cares far more about the artist than the art. Tear down the Picassos, because he was an asshole. But celebrate mediocre-to-bad art if it was created by people we like, with the right credentials or background or politics. As the public asks whether artists should even be allowed to use certain words or images or ideas -- or even have studio space -- we edge closer towards a world of truly corporate art. Rather than challenging or surprising us, we demand the content do the opposite: Comfort and conform and reinforce. 

2017 also marked the triumph of capitalism. In a time when people have no shame, the weapon wielded by both sides is economic exile: We'll have you fired from your job. For what you did on your own time. For your thoughts. For whatever. 

It's OK, though, you can GoFundYourself and if you do it right, end up ahead.

All of this darkness and bleakness is against a backdrop of what was mostly a good year for me, and somehow that made it all worse.

The author in Tokyo, October 2018.
I'm healthy as can be. In good shape. I like my job. I finished an album or two's worth of music that I cannot wait to no one. I made a few new friends and tried to help my old ones. I had a nice coffee this morning.

The sun pokes through the gray skies and glitters against the churning ocean. I read over this and wonder if it's too dark, too bitter. Maybe. That was 2017 and 48 for me. Maybe too dark, too bitter. But there you go.

2018 is right around the corner. See you there.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tokyo Rain

When I was a teenager and trying to learn about Japan, other cultures, and different ways of thinking, I read a Zen parable referred to as "The monk and the strawberry".

In this parable, a monk is out walking when he encounters a hungry tiger. As he backs away from the tiger, he finds he is now on a cliff outcropping with nowhere to go. As the tiger approaches, he stumbles over the edge, grabbing a vine. Hanging from the vine, he notices two mice, one black and one white, nibbling at the vine. Contemplating his fate -- tiger or vine -- he sees a single strawberry growing nearby. The monk plucks the strawberry. The story concludes "how sweet it tasted!"

At the time, I thought it was absurdist.

Today it is raining in Tokyo.

Most people will tell you this is a story about "enjoying the moment", or how one can find beauty even in the most dire circumstances. 20 years ago, I would have said "yes, clearly, that is what the story is about."

I spent the day in meetings, with colleagues old and new, catching up, working on plans, celebrating, griping. The things one does in business meetings.

Interspersed were visits to a conference room reserved as a workspace for my group. But I was the only one there, and in the hot, electrical office air, I gazed at the plastic chairs, cables, whiteboards and marveled in a jet-lag trance at the blankness and emptiness of it all, as my fingers clicked away on my laptop.

Last night, returning to the hotel after a delicious ramen dinner, our female cabdriver concluded transit by handing each of us a small berry-shaped candy as she thanked us for riding with her. A perfectly kawaii detail.

As I pocketed the candy and entered the hotel, I thought of the parable again.

A wise Zen writer argues the parable is about the opposite of what you think. It is, rather than being a celebration of "pleasure in the moment", a cautionary tale. "The moment's pleasure certainly dooms the monk through distraction. What an idiot [the monk is]." Life is danger and suffering, and forgetting that for a few moments of bliss is not a good or enlightened thing to do.

I think of the news. Whether at the public or personal scales, tragedy abounds. The world burns, and the air is choked with its ashes. And if it is not our homes burning, the smoke from others' gives us migraines. Death takes shots at the people we know. It misses some, grazes others, and takes the rest down.

I consider the conversation I had with a colleague over lunch, about how their attitudes about what "success" at their job meant had been changing. I indicated that mine had, too. As we talked, I wondered if I was just getting very good at justifying my own actions, or if I was actually learning something.

The rain pours down in Shinagawa. I step carefully across the wet gray stones of the plaza, trying not to slip.

Perhaps great ambition is a luxury afforded to those without fear, or those without knowledge of what they have to lose. Or those who think their actions will matter, in the grand scheme of things. Because they haven't yet met the tiger, or aren't yet hanging from the vine.

The fortune pinned to my board at work reads "Just to be alive is a grand thing."

I rub the sore spot on my face. Probably just a stone in my salivary gland. Getting older, I see the value of the things I have and the things I have lost. Everything about our lives is so fragile, so temporary. So imperfect. So perfect.

Tokyo is beautiful in the rain, and unseasonably cold.

In my jacket pocket, the berry candy rolls around in its plastic wrapper, uneaten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Los Angeles, Like You

You remember this place. Los Angeles. You wonder if it remembers you. Cities should be able to do that, right? Seems fair. After all, you lived here for a lifetime. Paid taxes. Loved its streets and skies and parking spaces. Ate in its restaurants. Cried in its parks. Studied its outlines in the Thomas Brothers guide. Even played a few shows in its clubs.

Most of those clubs are gone now, and the rest practically museums. Your car drives you past the bleached bones of what was once the Coconut Teaszer [sic], en route to a meeting with a media-related agency doing business in the echoing carcass of the Directors Guild of America building. "Drive West on Sunset...". You think of Walter Becker's recent passing.

You look around. You've been up and down this part of town many times. It's hard to recognize now, with new construction, new facades, new tenants. Strangers replacing the buildings and businesses you knew, and the ghosts of their memories vanishing in the perfect fall gloom.

Your hotel didn't even exist 3 months ago, let alone 20 years ago. It's down the street from an old, storied Hollywood building. You used to go to that building for singing lessons, where David Gabriel gave you a voice and confidence. Long ago, too late. But you've still got that. You wonder where he is these days. You'd like to thank him.

The windows are dark. Maybe it's being redeveloped or re-sold. So many other places are. The Opium Den? Gone. You walk by its now-anonymous door, thinking of how many times you've found great parking here, waited in line, seen bands and met friends and went home buzzed and reeking of cigarette smoke. There was a time people could smoke in bars, until suddenly, overnight, that stopped.

Nearby Sunset still has some of the old landmarks, even if they've been rebranded for ridiculous dot-coms, news networks, or some kind of modern coffee/yogurt/spin class/boutique you can't quite figure out. A far cry from the all-but-endless strip malls. Everything used to look like an off-brand 7-11, and now it all looks like a cross between Virgin America and Starbucks, tasteful purple lighting and wood.

You wonder why coming back here makes you feel so melancholy, as you glance north towards the Hollywood Hills and Beachwood Canyon. You had some good times here, when the weather was just like this, the nights perfect for walking, laughing, getting one more drink, driving across town to see your friends play somewhere. Maybe it's just a reminder of how much older you are, and reinforces how fragile life is. You think of Tom Petty, gone too soon.

"Oh baby, don't it feel like heaven right now?
Don't it feel like something from a dream?
Yeah, I've never known nothing quite like this
Don't it feel like tonight might never be again?
We know better than to try and pretend..."

You sing to yourself.

It's funny. It's barely 10:30 pm. You notice as you're walking through the upgraded and renovated streets that most of the hip-looking bars, restaurants, and clubs are all but empty and/or closing. They all look nice -- much more expensive and richer than when you lived here, and yet, they're all turning in, closing for the night. Like you.

Is it that they have given up on the possibilities of the evening? Or that they just know better, because it's Wednesday night and everyone's got work in the morning and the weekend seems far away? Or is that just how they roll now, all early to bed and responsible and iron discipline and safety? Like you?

Hollywood Boulevard is still sketchy, between its higher-dollar outposts. You keep an eye out as you stroll on, stumbling over the cracks in the Walk of Fame. Your phone plays one of the last songs you wrote here. You think "this sounds better than I remember".

After dinner you found the CEO and told him that even though you hadn't worked closely together, you appreciated his efforts and thanked him. Surprisingly, he stood up, looked right into your eyes, and gave you a real, non-show-biz hug. Looking back at him, you had a brief flash that he, too, was evaluating his life here in L.A. as he considered his second act.

You pass the banks and the bars and closed clothing shops and loop around. Not really looking for anything, just enjoying being here for the moment. It's quiet and as beautiful as Sunset and Hollywood get between the day's heat and the relentless pummeling of the night's music. There were reasons you stayed here for as long as you did. And reasons you left.

No regrets. If anything, the opposite. But still.

You stand amidst the tangled, looping paths that make up the city's grid and consider how they took you where you wanted to go if you could figure them out, or got you lost, or left you fuming in traffic. Or brought you home. All those streets and vectors don't just outline the city, you think. Those roads, those choices, those outcomes, they are the city.

Thank you, Los Angeles, and good night.