June 28, 2007

I’ve got some David Bowie CDs, but I’m no David Bowie

Filed under: Music — tomemos @ 10:20 pm

I was listening to the radio today, and the Killers’s no-longer-new song “When You Were Young” came on. It’s a pretty good song, probably my fourth-favorite song by them (after the three hits from their first album, which are the only songs of theirs I know). But I realized today that it’s also an important song, for the following legally binding reason (here’s a paragraph break so you know I’m serious):

Once you admit that you like this song, you can never hate on Meat Loaf again, ever. You can make fun of him, sure—how could you not?—just like you can make fun of “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier,” but you can no longer talk about how bad Meat Loaf is or how much you hate his lyrics and his over-the-top delivery. If you do that you must admit, in a notarized document, that “When You Were Young” by the Killers is a bad song for all the reasons you just laid out.

Leaving aside a comparison of the sound (and they sound exactly the same), here’s a side-by-side comparison of the lyrics of this song and Meat Loaf’s 1977 classic “Bat Out of Hell.” If you can convince me that Brandon Flowers’s lyrics are more respectable than Meat Loaf’s, I will tell you that you are wrong and that I am not convinced.

The scene is set:

You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now … here he comes!

Meat Loaf:
The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling
Way down in the valley tonight
Theres’ a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye
And a blade shining oh so bright
There’s evil in the air and there’s thunder in the sky
And a killer’s on the bloodshot streets
And down in the tunnel where the deadly are rising
Oh I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter
He was starting to foam in the heat

The passionate chorus:

He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined when you were young
(not that ridiculous until you factor in the way he sings “Jeee-zus”)

Meat Loaf:
Like a bat out of hell
I’ll be gone when the morning comes
When the night is over
Like a bat out of hell I’ll be gone, gone, gone

A dramatic view of the uncertain future:

Can we climb this mountain
I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy

Meat Loaf:
I’m gonna hit the highway like a battering ram
On a silver black phantom bike
When the metal is hot and the engine is hungry
And we’re all about to see the light

The freedom and danger of the road:

We’re burning up the highway skyline
On the back of a hurricane that started turning
When you were young

Meat Loaf:
I can see myself
Tearing up the road
Faster than any other boy has ever gone

A sudden interruption: a soft bridge, backed by keyboards:

They say the devil’s water, it ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Meat Loaf:
Then I’m dying on the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike
And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell
And the last thing I see is my heart
Still beating
Breaking out of my body
And flying away
Like a bat out of hell

And close with: the chorus! But louder!

He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

Meat Loaf:
Like a bat out of hell
Like a bat out of hell
Like a bat out of hell
Like a bat out of hell
Like a bat out of hell
Like a bat out of hell

And yes, it’s true that Meat Loaf’s songs are nine to eleven minutes long while the Killers’s songs are only three to five. That’s because Meat Loaf has the balls to be Meat Loaf, whereas the Killers still want to be played on Indie 103.1. The temptation must be excruciating; you know that somewhere there’s a 9:35 version of “All the Things That I’ve Done,” contractually forbidden to ever see the light of day. Every night, Brandon Flowers plays it and lets it lull him to sleep, as he lies under his dim blacklight wearing his sheer silver pajamas.

It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves

Filed under: General Me — tomemos @ 5:48 pm

Sorry for the blogging delay—I’ve been recuperating from the exams (poor baby), and a little bit busy with a number of things. For instance, we’ve just found an apartment in Long Beach. I like my current place reasonably well, but Julie’s been living out of a suitcase, and while we could move into our own two-bedroom on campus, Irvine is basically a company town—if you’re not associated with the university, as Julie isn’t, there really isn’t anything to do.  Of course, I am associated with it, but when you’re ABD “associated” is a relative term.  So we found a nice roomy place, close to the beach, which we like a lot.  The carpet is ugly but we can work with that.

Our apartment hunt was a standard apartment hunt, with the standard apartment hunt jitters (what can we afford, is it big enough, do we make enough to apply, etc.). There was one specific jitter that came up, though, which I felt I should write about, cringe though I may, because it’s a pretty good example of the anxious non-problems that (reasonably) privileged and aware white people afflict themselves with:

We saw a Craigslist ad (no longer online, unfortunately) for a great apartment—beautiful, spacious, recently remodeled, affordable (two bedroom, $1200—$150 less than the next cheapest option)—in, as it happened, a working-class, mostly black neighborhood. The landlord addressed our presumed anxieties on this score by saying that there had been some problems with crime, but that the area was improving: “The city is moving them all north.” I suppose he might have meant “criminals,” but our feeling that he meant “black people” was reinforced when he appeared to snub a black mother and her daughter who came to see the place while we were there. (The uneasy feeling was also reinforced by the circumstances: most definitions of “gentrification” involve rebuilding run-down areas to rent to more upscale tenants.) Plus, we were a little unsure about renting in a place which, according to the landlord, suffered from crime. So rather than putting our fears to rest, he had given us two, somewhat paradoxical anxieties:

1. By moving into this apartment, would we be encouraging gentrification and discrimination? Would moving in make us bad people?

2. Is it possible that the neighborhood may be unsafe? Are we bad people for wondering?

We went back and forth (and back, and forth) about this: we looked at online message boards for Long Beach residents, many of whom said the area was unsafe (but maybe those people were racists?), and we walked around there one night and felt pretty safe (but maybe we were trying to feel that way?). Bottom line is, we spent an absurd amount of time trying to gather data about this place, and speaking at least for myself I can say that this had less to do with wanting to find the best possible apartment than it did with assuaging my guilt and anxiety about race. After all, we didn’t do this with the place that we ended up settling on—we didn’t even know what laundry facilities it had before we paid the deposit.

The question was settled when we visited the apartment downstairs from the one we were looking at and one of the women who live there (a young, mixed-race, gay couple, as it happens) said, in so many words, “Don’t move in.  It’s not very safe.  We’re moving out next month.” This is for the best, clearly, since we had tied our brains into knots trying to figure out how to feel about this other place. Lesson: white liberals are fucked up.

“White liberal” is another one of those terms, discussed in a previous entry, that drive me crazy except when they’re dead-on accurate (“politically correct” is another example). Obviously, as a white person who considers himself a liberal (or a progressive, but that’s an indigo/violet distinction), I was perplexed the first time I heard it used pejoratively, and I do genuinely believe that it is often used to discourage white people from contributing to racially progressive causes, or at least to remind them of their guilt and inadequacy as they contribute. Which, I mean, don’t cry for us or anything, but it’s just not that productive. The term is also sometimes used by white armchair radicals to denigrate those who actually get out and do something about racism and inequality, rather than sitting back and talking about how they don’t have the right to do anything about racism and inequality. So it’s something I usually resent being grouped into.

At the same time, what is a white liberal? It’s someone who feels their racism as guilt and anxiety and hopes that that makes them a better person than the hatred kind of racist. And when the chips are down, that’s me all over. What did I do when I got home from seeing the apartment, worried that moving in would make us complicit in gentrification? I sought advice from Randy Cohen, who writes “The Ethicist” at the New York Times. You couldn’t make that up.

On a more serious note, I’m glad that we didn’t end up taking part in the questionable circumstances surrounding the apartment, even if we took the coward’s way out; we shouldn’t have considered it as long as we did. (In our defense, a rent differential of $150 a month is nothing to sneeze at when you’re a grad student and a writer. And the hardwood floors!) It makes sense that this experience made me think about white liberalism, because gentrification essentially exists to serve white liberals—those who want to be close to the Diverse Urban Experience, but not too close. Gentrification is basically white people saying to a landlord, “Do my discrimination for me,” and the more tempting that is the more one should resist it.

June 9, 2007

All-but-Dissertation Tucker Dummychuck

Filed under: General Me, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 1:31 pm

(Before I forget: a lot of people were confounded by the title of my last entry, so I want to clear up this one: It’s #40 of John Hodgman’s 700 Hobo Names. The last title was from A Fish Called Wanda. Okay, on with the show.)

I was catching up with an old friend on the phone the other day, and, as often happens when I catch up with old friends, she asked me if I was about to finish my program. It’s a reasonable question—I’m finishing up my fourth year now, which is our standard “done with school” interval in this country—but I explained that, no, I wasn’t even close; I was about to take my qualifying exams, which would mean I was cleared to write the dissertation. That would take a couple years at least, and then I’d have the Ph.D.

“Well,” she said, “when you get your Ph.D., will you want people to start calling you ‘Doctor Tom’?”

“Maybe at first,” I said. “But eventually I’ll be more casual about it. People can call me ‘Doc Tom.'” Julie, overhearing this, had a stroke of pure inspiration and wrote in her notebook, “” When we got off the phone, we checked; unfortunately, though, “” is the website of a (now-deceased) doctor and advocate of self-care.

Maybe, once I get my Ph.D., I’ll check to see if that website is still being kept up, or maybe I’ll register “,” though I think the pause of the underscore may break up the phonetic effect. (My suggestion that we look into “” was met only with contempt.) Or maybe, most likely of all, I’ll let the idea float out of my head and do nothing at all. I’m actually only using this as a transparent segue to what I really want to talk about: I’m now one step closer to Doc Tom-dom (or, as I’ve passed my qualifying examinations.

They basically went fine. They caused me a lot of stress in the days leading up to them, of course; I’m used to the stress of having to do a lot of reading in a short span of time, but I honestly don’t know if I’ve felt fear like that since I took the GRE in Literature. (On the first question of that test, I completely forgot who Icarus was for about 75 seconds.) The fear was similar in both cases, since the goal of both tests was to prove my basic competence in my chosen field, but the stakes are obviously higher on the quals, not least because it is possible (though rare) to not only fail but also to be told, in essence, to abandon your academic career. As I got closer and closer to finishing my preparation, I entered an odd bipolar state where I alternated between feeling serene and confident about the exam, and feeling sick with anxiety, waking up at six in the morning gasping, etc.

The way it works in our department is, you have two days of written exams at four hours each, and then, if you pass those, you take a two-hour oral exam the following week. Initially, I was more nervous about the written section than about the oral section, because I talk a good game but feared putting something down on paper, where people could ponder my stupidity at their leisure. After I passed the writtens, though (they never actually told me that I passed, only that I should assume I passed), I became more scared of the orals, because on the writtens I could write about whatever books I wanted, whereas during the orals my examiners could ask me about the books they wanted me to talk about. Both of them were basically fine once I started, though; the salutary effect of these exams is to make you ask yourself, “Can I actually do this?” and then remind you, “Oh, right, I can.”

It helped that a few of my department friends (like this one and this one) were taking their exam around the same time, since we could sweat together and celebrate together. (Everybody passed.) In fact, as I talked with past exam-takers, looked through previous years of exam questions, and so forth, I got the feeling of being part of a long history of exam-takers. This feeling was reinforced by taking the writtens in the same office that a number of other people had taken theirs: their answers were saved on the computer and everything, just as mine are now. When I first went into the office, the department secretary gave me a Post-It note with her phone number on it, so I could call her during the exam if I needed to. When I reached the desk, I saw about six other identical Post-Its, from previous examinees, and was reminded of the scene in Silence of the Lambs, when Catherine Martin finds the fingernail in the wall of her prison and realizes … someone’s been here before. (On my last day I drew a “Kilroy was here” on one of them.)

On the second day of my writtens, Korean Campus Ministries was selling Korean barbecue for $5 down at street level. I know, because there were like six different people yelling “Korean barbecue!! Five dollars!!” right under the window of my exam. I fantasized about harming them.

Since I wrote my writtens on a computer with internet access and no supervision, I had to sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t use online material in preparing my exam. This led to some moral uncertainty when I wasn’t sure about the adjective form of “aporia.” I thought “aporic”; Word didn’t like it, but then it doesn’t like “aporia,” either. I wanted to look it up on, but I signed a paper swearing that I wouldn’t use online material in my exam, so maybe that would be against the rules. (NB: Turns out it’s “aporetic.” Oh well.)

Enough memories; it’s over, and it feels great that it’s over. I’m free to read whatever I want again, to return about thirty books to the library, and to not jump when I see one of my committee members in the halls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation to write. (He does not move.)

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