Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dreams of America

Seven years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in France when a familiar tune filled my ears.  The song was Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." I was all of sixteen years old, having a grand old time in Europe, enjoying myself far too much to remember I was five thousand miles from home.  All of a sudden though, perhaps drawn in contrast to the soothing voice of Paul Simon, the conversations around me grew markedly foreign.  I became painfully aware of how distant I was from those around me, in language, culture, even appearance.  A warm nostalgia crept over me like embracing arms, and I suddenly longed for the comforts of home and familiarity.  I yearned for America.

When I think back on this moment, I always wonder what it was about the song that evoked such sentimental feelings.  I didn't really miss America.  In fact, I never gave it a thought because France honestly seemed in all aspects so much greater than the country I was born in.  There was richer history and culture, older architecture, endless stretches of beautiful land where so many had tread before me.  Yet for a moment there, I was pulled away from my surroundings and made to recognize where I came from and where I would inevitably return to.  America was my home.

As I listen to the song today, pondering America on the Fourth of July, the song and the nostalgia it evoked achieves new meaning.  Beyond the poetry of their music, Simon and Garfunkel captured some aspect of the modern American mythos in their songs.  Not the unbridled hope and optimism of the elusive American Dream, so doubted in recent times, but a deep sense of uncertainty attached to our national ethos that abounds in troubled times. While searching for the meaning of America on the song 'America,' Simon stumbles, finding himself lost, "empty and aching," suddenly wary of those around him.  'The Sound of Silence' documents a growing collapse in communication across society as a whole, brought upon by events like Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam War, while 'The Dangling Conversation' reflects on failures to connect in personal life.  By the end of 'America' everything is in deeper doubt than it was in the beginning.  Despite all the despair, however, there's a glimmering sense of shared experience - the comfort of knowing that we're all struggling together as a nation in troubled times. 

In many ways, these songs embody the atmosphere of another definitively American artist: Edward Hopper.  They conjure uncertainty upon a backdrop of familiar sights and sounds just as Hopper's paintings portray anxiety and loneliness in the common features of American life, the gas stations, diners, local motels.  His scenes and landscapes depict isolation, resignation, and regret, creating a desolate view of America, more real than that sparkling notion of the American Dream upon which our nation was built.

Hopper's America along with that of Simon and Garfunkel and countless other artists and writers of the 20th century represent a view of our country that is perhaps not what we are known for.  America is supposed to be the country of boundless opportunity, of self-made men, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Where is this elusive American Dream today in a society rife with unemployment, economic inequality, and disappointment?  I'd challenge the notion that it existed at all.  What's more notable is that our country has a collective consciousness that honors struggle, individuality, and self-improvement and has seen real hardship and real victory throughout its history.  The American Dream still serves to motivate millions of Americans toward something of value.  It reinforces the beauty of the human experience in moments of both triumph and failure and reminds us of generations of Americans before us who have sought the meaning of America.  After all, America is all about the journey, about climbing our personal ladders to success and finding out for ourselves what the American dream is all about. 

There are many things about America that I am not satisfied with, but there are also certain moments when I am reminded of America's greatness, its unique culture, tradition, and symbols that transcend our daily experience.  When I hear Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," a piece of music simultaneously triumphant and mournful that could only characterize the sound of America.  Or when I drive across expanses of land that never seem to end, that simply proclaim the vastness of America, that smell of adventure and sweat, that remind me of the many journeys that await me in this great country.

I'm proud of America and all it stands for.  Happy Fourth of July.

Flag (1954-55), Jasper Johns.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

post-grad update one

Since my last post, I've graduated from college, started working in a public high school, and now spend my Saturday nights in bed listening to Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! podcasts on the speakers once used to blast dance music. Somehow, just months after graduating, I seem to have left behind all semblance of a young life. No more parties, no late nights out, no spontaneous midnight trips to 24 hour diners.

Part of it is the fact that I now live at home in Houston, a half hour drive from most friends and most things worth doing in the city. Part of it is the fact that I'm no longer living with roommates. Part of it is the simple fact that I'm no longer a college student living in a college town.

However, a significant part is due to my job. Working in a public school is very isolating, especially for a young person. I share a workspace with one other person 3 decades my senior, I spend my time with students all day rather than peers, and I work within the maddening bureaucracy of the public education system. Every day I see the young faces of broken homes, illegal immigration, and poverty, who were never shown the liberating power of education. Every day I confront unacceptably low achievement levels throughout the district. I watch seniors read at a 5th grade level and struggle with multiplication tables and I constantly wonder how we got our kids here. Somehow there's never an answer, not within the school, not within the district, not even within education policy.

Public education is not the fun, glamorous work environment most people seek upon graduating. There's no built-in social structure of co-workers and friends. I'm in bed by 11 each night in order to wake up at 6 and be a responsible adult and role model for the children whose lives I affect every day. I watch the lives of friends who are grad students, freelance writers, consultants, managers at up-and-coming companies in big cities and I am constantly struck my how much a job can shape your everyday life. Maybe next year I'll be a student again or living in a new city or starting a different job. But for now I have to keep reminding myself that I am only 22 years old, that I can still fill my life with youthful pursuits, and that I can still have an exciting future.

Monday, November 1, 2010

hello breakfast.

Nothing like cinnamon toast, fresh coffee, and honey crisps to start off a new autumn day.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Suburbs (2010)

This past weekend I packed up my summer apartment and headed home to the suburbs of Houston. Following a busy summer spent in Austin and an entire semester before that spent in Copenhagen, I found myself immediately resenting the suffocating uniformity and ennui of life in the suburbs while also enjoying the comforting sense of familiarity found in my childhood bed and memories of idle summers as a kid growing up in a suburban landscape.

While summer in Austin was acquainted with an adult version of me - waking up at 7 every morning, dressing up for work, drinking cup after cup of coffee to stay alert in the midst of monotony - being back in the suburbs has found me reliving the joys of childhood summers: evening bike rides around the neighborhood, reading novels for pleasure, sleeping until noon every day. However, this enjoyment of doing nothing has come with a newfound guilt characteristic of adulthood - a harsh, unsettling sense that I have outgrown this place. I will no longer be welcome here as a child anymore - after this year, I am to be a fully grown adult with my own sense of purpose and my own career, my own living, my own future. This suburban life will remain here, but I will never return the same.

And with that, coming home to the suburbs has ignited a sort of nostalgia, not only for childhood in suburbia, but a nostalgia for being in the right place, being right where you are supposed to be. As a kid, the suburb was the place for me. I brought home good grades, I shot hoops in the driveway after dinner, I caught frogs with neighbors after dusk. I was right where I was supposed to be. As we get older, we come into a stark adult world marked by terrifying uncertainty. Even the traditional structures - an assured job, a steady marriage, a cohesive family - no longer hold the coveted sense of certainty that we want and need as we get older. In the midst of this precarious grown-up world where neither happiness nor success is secure, we find comfort in a past world where everything seemed to be in its right place.

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)

Somewhere out there, the same dreamy nostalgia for the lost days of suburban life hit Win Butler, who also happened to grow up in the suburbs of Houston. The result is a collection of memories cemented in Arcade Fire's third album, The Suburbs.

While Funeral captured the imaginative hope of a precocious child and Neon Bible showcased the rebellious spirit of young adulthood, The Suburbs reveals the resignation and longing found in maturity, painting subdued memories of a lost past from the perspective of one who's lived it all once before.

Throughout the album, there is a sense of longing for the purity and certainty once found in suburban life, a nostalgic remembrance fueled by a bleak adult world marked by disillusionment and desperation. However, at the same time, they know fully well that this elusive dream of idyllic suburbia is marred by reality - the stifling conformity, the repressive boredom, the mask of certainty worn by uniformly pleasant houses, each hiding a family on the verge of collapse - in effect, the very neighborhoods that the kids escaped from in Funeral. Thus, in the midst of an imperfect world, Arcade Fire retreat to the comfort of shared human experience, evoking the same nostalgia within us for a world that never existed, strengthening the universal thread that connects us all and carries us through this life.

The sense of nostalgia spreads throughout the musical sound of the album as well, drawing on influences from the past moreso than in their previous albums. The songs manage to pay homage to earlier artists in a way that goes beyond mimicry to truly create a new musical experience built on sounds of the past. Instead of merely evoking the vocals and synthpop of Blondie, 'Sprawl II' transports you through a hazy dream to a 1979 bedroom where a newly released 'Heart of Glass' plays on a record player, flooding you with wistful reminiscence for a lost time.

And in this way, Arcade Fire manages to continue doing what they do so well: encapsulating poignant truths of the human condition in powerful songs unrivaled by other bands today.

The Suburbs is out in stores this week; Malory Lee is in the suburbs of Houston until August 22.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

One Day (2009)

I picked up the novel One Day on a whim while waiting for a train in Germany last month. Having finished it now, I am so glad I decided to buy it. It's been a long time since I've connected to a fictional story in such a way (also a while since I've finished a book for leisure, I suppose). I read a large part of the book immediately after purchasing it, devoting every train ride while traveling to the story of Em and Dex. I was nearly finished by the end of my travels in Russia, but I stored it away as school got busy again, having almost lost interest as it seemed to have reached a pleasantly stagnant conclusion. It rested on my bookshelf until today, when perhaps out of a desperate attempt to avoid my daunting assignments, I decided to see how the story officially ended. After finishing, I'm convinced the critics who acclaimed it simply as a great romantic comedy must have also thought they had reached the end when I did and failed to finish the novel. The last few chapters of the book, in fact, offer the most poignant, affecting, human portrayals of life and love only alluded to in earlier parts of the story. Three hours after finishing, I still feel the weight of the story on me, a sense of loss coming over me upon the characters' departure from my life.

Between his characters Dexter and Emma, David Nicholls paints a universal story of human longing, nostalgia for a lost past, and, above all, the constant uncertainty of life, love, and happiness. At times unbearably sad, at times remarkably hopeful, Nicholls brilliantly captures the experience of loss as well as the power of human resilience and finding beauty within tragedy.

Some readers claimed that the novel failed because the characters were unlikeable, which I found astounding. Em and Dex emerge vividly from Nicholls' striking talent for crafting genuine characters, so real and flawed and human in every way that you're drawn in almost immediately. We may like people because of their good qualities, but we love our closest friends and family in spite of their deepest faults. Are fictional characters any different? We come to know Em and Dex in an intimate way, sensing their vulnerabilities, disappointed at their failures but ultimately rooting for their success. They irritate from time to time when we first meet them, but after 20 years (or 435 pages) spent together, it is impossible not to love and feel for them as if they were our own friends.

Apart from the brilliant characterization and subtle depiction of human emotion, the story portrays the profound trajectory life can take over 20 years. I currently stand just at the outset of the story, connecting with the post-graduation anxiety of facing the real world, with both Dexter's hedonistic desire to explore the world and Emma's insecurities that prevent her from success and happiness. The beauty of Nicholls' narrative lies in this fact that people in all different stages of their lives will connect to the story in different ways. It's a story I'll be able to return to throughout my life, a companion to the triumphs and losses along the way.