Love On Top

I have applied to so many things–jobs, graduate schools, gated communities, exclusive banjo-centered cocktail parties–in the past three years that they are no longer distinct in my mind.  I have to focus hard on each e-mail I send to make sure it is addressed to the correct person and that I am not grafting the CV of one graduate professor onto the name of another.  I often forget the things I have applied to because there are so many and all of them seem equally unlikely to bear fruit.

One thing that is common to every application I have completed, every pitch I have sent, every inquiry and follow-up inquiry when the first inevitably goes unanswered: I have never felt like any of them has accurately represented me.  I am not upset about this–that is the nature of a job application.  The editorial board at a magazine does not particularly care about what sort of music I listen to.  That makes sense.  But as time has passed I have thought more and more about how difficult it is to show a prospective employer or professor whom I’ve never met and whose entire identity I have to judge based on a dated CV or a cursory search through the archives who I really am.  I don’t mean I want to show them “who I really am” even though that’s what I just wrote.  I mean relevant and useful aspects of my personality are often eclipsed in the process of applying for something.

For instance, based on my applications no one would know that I listen to music constantly.  It’s very hard to talk about what music means to you without sounding like an idiot.  People always say things like, “I love music.”  What does that mean?  But it is true.  I love music.  I am interested in it and I wish my job had something to do with music, or rather that I were skilled enough to be able to spend my professional life with music.  I tend to get obsessive when I like a certain song or artist.  I’ll listen to the same tracks on repeat over and over, trying to understand what it is about them that makes my hair stand on end.  That’s not an exaggeration.  Music can give me a visceral reaction: sweaty palms, colors behind my closed eyelids, a mild levity in the soles of my feet.

For a while I was obsessed with modulation.  This is when a song changes key.  In popular music, this usually sounds like the song suddenly going up a step.  My favorite recent example of this is Beyoncé’s “Love On Top,” which after the first verse becomes a series of escalating modulations (that correspond with outfit changes).

Modulation is also prominent in traditional music.  Irish reels, for instance, are based around the alternation between minor and major keys.  A great example is the song that is at the top of my previous post.  Or watch this video of Norman Blake.  Notice how it seems to go back and forth between sounding happy and sad?

I also got heavy into suspensions for a long time.  These are everywhere.  They are part of what makes music interesting to listen to.  But some songs focus on suspensions and resolutions more prominently.  Church music played on an organ tends to sustain massive dissonant chords for a long time just so it can resolve them at the end.

I think Mumford & Sons make some really cheesy music, but a couple of things make their songs interesting if you listen for them.  The first is the interesting texture of the banjo.  Critics make fun of this, but that instrument is what elevates their songs from generic pop music into the realm of something that sounds unique.  And Mumford & Sons love a suspension.  “Below My Feet” is predicated on the suspension.

I want to talk more about this but I am overcome with the feeling that I don’t know what I am talking about, so maybe now is a good time to stop writing.  Often when I read I wish novels or stories or articles had attendant playlists that would accompany different pages or chapters like the music in videogames.  That’s another thing– I love video game music.  In closing, I’ll leave you with Anamanaguchi’s “(T-T)b”, which has everything I like: suspensions, 8-bit textures, volume, a dramatic voiceover, and nonsense pseudophilosophy.  I wanted to discuss some articles I had published in the past two weeks (my review of Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, the next few parts of my MOOC article, and my review of Yannick Murphy’s This Is the Water), but I am sick of self-promotion.


Black Stars

A fast, tumultuous several weeks.  I have been busy with a mess of un- or barely-paid assignments, but this, as the man sitting next to me at a bar last night said, is what cutting your teeth feels like.  And it’s not exactly unpleasant.  I spoke this morning with my friend Corey about all of this.  We lived together at Amherst and he has been teaching English in Korea for the last year.  In the three years since we graduated, we have both experienced the strange, destabilizing mixture of malaise and dissatisfaction, a lurking sensation that the other people you know seem to be doing quite well for themselves, but that you have somehow managed to screw it up and miss the opportunity to achieve the same heavily retweeted acceptances and awards and sundrenched brunches.  My friend Dave, who was also in our class at Amherst, told me that though he is employed in a position that is challenging and rewarding, and which is related to his career, he often feels unfulfilled, as if he is on a track that is doing more to obscure happiness in his life than to lead him to it.  Something about all of this makes me want to address the claim that this is vain somehow– that it is selfish to be preoccupied with your own lot in life and whether or not it meets your expectations.  I understand that.  Often this conversation leads to an obsession with feeling jilted or ripped off, as if someone promised you something and the world has not delivered on that promise and now you’d like to take it up with the manager.  But I also cannot pretend that there is not value in discussing an experience that I think many people across the social spectrum are enduring and will continue to endure.

I am applying again to graduate schools, a project that I face with conflicting feelings of dread and hope.  I have applied twice before; first in the fall of 2011 to eight MFA programs and then in the fall of 2012 to eight English PhD programs.  Neither year bore fruit.  This was demoralizing and frustrating, especially because the admissions committees that rejected my applications were never very forthcoming with their reasoning.  In the absence of a concrete explanation (e.g. “We found your score on the GRE silly and lame.”), I obsessed for a long time over why, exactly, I had not been allowed to reenter the arcane world in which people demand to read what you write.  I still don’t know the answer, though one faculty member who saw my application told me his committee did not like the fact that my writing sample had mentioned Dostoevsky, who of course only wrote in Russian and therefore apparently has no bearing on the work done in an English department.  But this year I am applying to SUNY Buffalo, which is so strong in psychoanalysis that I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t apply there two years ago.  These past three years have been full of truly impressive moments of ignorance and oversight like that.  For instance, it simply didn’t occur to me that I could file for unemployment insurance until three months after I was laid off.

My memory, too, has been getting weird.  I feel like I forget things often.  Corey mentioned the incredible wealth of detail in Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, a series of six autobiographical novels.  I wondered what I could remember about my youth, or about the last year, or about yesterday.  I forget events I said I’d attend, letters I said I’d write, creative impulses so strong that they made my hair stand on end.  I wonder what else has been preoccupying me.  I can tell you that I have had several dreams lately, the most recent of which concerned me teaching a class full of middle schoolers who all refused to stop smoking electronic cigarettes.  I went in the dream to the bathroom to gather my thoughts about why they were being so obstinate and when I looked in the mirror I saw that my hair was grey and I was wearing a bathrobe.

I am also not sure that I am actually forgetful.  I remember lots of things, I just only ever realize I have forgotten the things I have forgotten.  I don’t quietly give thanks for all of the things I have remembered because remembering things rarely has consequences as severe as forgetting things.  And anyway this is probably related to the dream (in which I have suddenly gotten old, and in which I have apparently forgotten that I, too, used an electronic cigarette for years) and its portrait of my anxieties about growing up, and to the feelings of isolation and exceptionality (i.e. “No one is experiencing this except me; everyone else is doing great all the time.”) that seem to accompany the years after graduation.

I finally found a part for a watch that I had been seeking for the last three years.  That was a satisfying feeling.  I searched for it on the internet, at yard sales, at flea markets, everywhere, for three straight years and last week, I stumbled upon an old post by a man in California who was selling this part.  I put it on my watch using the lid of a tin of Carmex, which just happened to be exactly the right circumference so that I could apply force equally on all sides at once.  This is the part.


This Friday, the newest issue of Block Club comes out, which has in it my feature on the Canadian Rust Belt.  Buffalo is about as close to Canada as you can get without crossing the border (it would take me no longer than thirty minutes to walk from where I am right now to the Peace Bridge) and yet much of the conversation about the situation in Western New York and the Rust Belt omits any mention of Canada, which, it turns out, experiences the same sorts of things but deals with them quite differently.  The project was fun and interesting to research and I hope the essay is successful at conveying that.  Within the next two weeks, my review of Yannick Murphy’s tiring, frustrating novel This Is the Water will be up at The Rumpus and my investigation of the MOOC will be in the Massachusetts Review.  For now, though, I am reading Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark in order to review it for The Rumpus.  I also just got a review copy of The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt in the mail.  The thing weighs maybe six pounds.  I can’t wait.

Kaboom, Kaboom, Kaboom

My time subbing in the middle school is over as of two days ago.  Those seven days, like the two years I spent working in the upper school, were an overwhelming whirlwind.  I looked often at the other teachers and wondered how they could do this job, do it well, for weeks and weeks, for years, many of them for decades.  The exhaustion is quiet and cunning.  It first appears as an inability to turn the key in the ignition as you sit in your car in the school parking lot at 3:30PM.  Later, it manifests as a refusal to focus, dry mouth, and an acute impatience with the people and things that have the misfortune of being near you.  It is finally amnesia, right before bed and right after three glasses of wine, and then panicked somnolent visions of crises, running children, disappointed parents.  Decades.

I am collecting unemployment now, which has been both demoralizing and a pain in the ass.  I had to meet with a woman at the Department of Labor yesterday morning in order to continue receiving benefits.  When I sat down, she said, “So, Mr. Brown, for your list of skills I have ‘typing’ and ‘word processing.’  Anything else?”  I left frustrated and wanting to never enter that building again, which maybe will help me get a job more than anything else has so far.  But that is joke.  I haven’t been voluntarily unemployed.  This meeting just made me more aware of how involuntary the last four months have been.

The following song was in an episode of The Sopranos that I watched last night.  I think The Sopranos is the greatest television show ever made.  It paved the way for the post-soap era of longform TV drama that we enjoy now, with Mad Men, The Wire, etc.  This song, which, like every song used in the series, was chosen by the show’s creator David Chase, was on a mixtape my dad made when he was in college.  After my parents got divorced, my brothers and I spent a lot of time driving back and forth between houses in my dad’s car.  My dad would always play his tapes during those drives.

My review of David Mitchell’s puzzling, kind of annoying novel The Bone Clocks was in The Rumpus a couple of weeks ago.  The book could have been so good.  I have been craving a return to genre fiction, to something that is unafraid to talk about mysteries or spaceships or magic.  Maybe that is a reaction to unemployment.  But The Bone Clocks ended up lame in a taxing sort of way.  I felt like I had spent a lot of time reading the book and trying to remember everything about all of the characters and the reward was an ending that completely exploded the self-consistency of the immense web of bullshit that Mitchell had been weaving for 600 pages.  I also felt like my review was disappointing, like I was never quite able to say what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it.  But it got picked up, and that is a victory.  The editor of The Rumpus also agreed to run my upcoming reviews of This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy, Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, and Man v. Nature by Diane Cook.  I am really excited about that.  All three should run in the coming two or three weeks.

And this morning, my review of Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s stunning debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published in Artvoice.  This is a really incredible book.  It sort of reminds me of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel Panopticon, not because the books themselves are similar, but because they are both extraordinary debuts.  But Akhtiorskaya’s prose is exceptional.  Ten pages in I knew I had never read writing like this.  Polished, unique, masterful.  I am not sure if my review is very successful– it is difficult to write about something that speaks so well for itself.  My review would probably have been better if I had simply written, “Read this book.”  You should read it.  More soon.


Hilariously, with the sort of timing that would be implausible in a story, the private school that laid me off in June contacted me at 3PM this past Sunday to ask if I could substitute for an English teacher in the middle school.  Unable to look a gift job in the mouth, I accepted, despite my girlfriend Molly’s lack of usable feet and my guilt at the prospect of being unable to care for her.  (She endured an almost comically brutal-sounding three hour session of anesthetized bone-breaking a week ago and since then has been mostly confined to the couch, with the exception of periodic teeth-shatteringly painful five square foot trips.)  I had spent all summer preparing myself for the reality that I would not be returning to work at this school, with its brilliant students and requisite idyllic green spaces, only to return on the first day of the year, freshly razor-burned, as if nothing had changed except my salary and my confidence.

I have next to no experience teaching middle schoolers, least of all fifth graders, who to the unfamiliar eye appear no different from dexterous, bespectacled toddlers.  Eighth graders are a unique blend of childish enthusiasm, acne, and an adolescent predilection for savagery and meanness.  It was sort of fun, mostly exhausting work.  I felt sad a lot for the younger students.  They are so earnest and sweet, so concerned with not dropping anything and with finding their little meandering ways around the unfamiliar campus, that I felt a bit like crying whenever I looked at any of them.  I have this thing about kids eating at cafeteria tables, too.  When I see a table of little kids eating lunch, each with his or her own preferences and private thoughts, thinking thankfully of whomever made them the meal, occasionally pushing too-large glasses back up their noses with tiny, applesauced index fingers, I want to lock myself in a room and weep shamelessly at how adorable they are.  I suppose it’s good I don’t work in a middle school full-time if simply opening my eyes is such a moving experience.

I left and voted for Zephyr Teachout, which I had looked forward to doing for weeks.  More on the Moreland Commission later, after she loses.

I was thinking earlier about the Apple Watch, which was announced today.  A friend asked me what I thought about it, given my interest in watches.  I can’t say I’m that amazed by it– not because it’s not a cool object, but because it isn’t really a watch.

There is a reason wearable technology has not really taken off, and there is a reason the Apple Watch will probably sell pretty well for a couple of months and then fade away.  Flashy technology, rounded edges, and reflective surfaces may be appropriate for cellphones, which are functional objects that we keep in our pockets, but once you tape the sexy cellphone to your wrist, it may suddenly seem out of place, like it doesn’t match or fit with what you’re wearing or how you’d like to look.  Not everyone wants to wear khakis or a sundress with a little gold square that looks like something out of I, Robot.

The functionality of the Apple Watch seems appropriate, with all of the anticipated GPS and heart monitor bullshit (should I ask how many of us, excepting the ill, were clamoring to be apprised constantly of our pulse rate?).  That will please everyone who wondered if Apple could duplicate an iPhone on a wristband (which the iPod nano already did).  But I have a nagging feeling that the only reason the Apple Watch is striking anyone as really cool and futuristic is because the idea that a watch could be a walkie-talkie etc. was implanted in the fantasies of the consuming public by James Bond movies made fifty years ago.

The price ($350) is a bit high.  A watch with a quartz movement (battery-powered) should need a new battery every four or five years.  A mechanical watch (powered by a spring that winds on its own or that the wearer winds manually) that is serviced every five or ten years will tell time indefinitely.  I own a pocket watch that is more than 100 years old that keeps near-perfect time (+/- five seconds a day).  The battery in the Apple Watch, on the other hand, if it is anything like the batteries in iPhones and iPods, will degrade by 50% in a year’s time.  Because Apple purposely builds all of its products so that a typical person, or even a person with a special set of tools, cannot really do any maintenance or repairs on his own, you will need to either sit idly by as your Apple Watch commits harakiri or pay a levitating neckbeard at a Genius Bar money to replace the battery for you.

People think about electronic devices very differently from the way they think about analog devices, which in turn are very different from nonfunctioning jewelry. The ageless, heirloom aspect of a watch, which is always somewhere in the owner’s mind for a watch of significant value (and often for cheap watches, too), is totally absent from something like a cellphone or the Apple Watch. You can see that Apple is aware of this: that is why they granted the plebes the option of buying the watch in stainless steel or 18 karat gold. That is an attempt to lend the totally replaceable, non-unique object an aura of preciousness, of value that is conspicuous and inarguable.

Consider the peculiar status that gold has in our world.  Money has a fluid, changing value: one day $350 may buy an Apple Watch and twenty years later it may be a reasonable tip for a nice meal for two.  Gold, however, guarantees that though the value of a given amount of money may fluctuate, it will always have a value.  The gold standard, even thought it was abolished decades ago, cements our financial system and all of its mercurial transactions in an unquestionably natural place, somewhere deep underground, as if the value of gold is irrefutable and God-given.  We no longer pay for things with gold because gold now stands outside the symbolic order.  It is a nodal object that grants value to the “meaningless pieces of paper” that we use to buy things.

Several years ago, in an impressively philosophical, insane maneuver, Glenn Beck advocated a return to the gold standard.  This is the most perfect realization of the fantasy that justifies the far-right conservatism we have in the United States.  Things, Beck would have us believe, have gotten completely out of control, the President is asleep at the wheel, and numbers are going up and down like crazy.  The only solution is to reinstall the all-powerful, God-given leader, the unquestionable source of authority and law, our hubristic deposition of whom precipitated our fall from grace.  We need to remind ourselves and the world of the One True Judge, who is omnipotent and unquestionable, our lack of faith in whom is a terrible, punishable sin.  This is the fantasy that gold really does contain intrinsic value that does not derive from its use value.  It is a religious fantasy, and it does not matter whether you spell it “God” or “Gold.”

Two Things

It is a rainy, cool morning in Buffalo.  We had a big storm last night ahead of the cold front from Canada that tore through the Great Lakes.  The weather is a welcome respite from yesterday’s wet, lethargic ninety degrees.  More brown leaves steeped in rain stain the sidewalks.  Time passes, etc.  August, the worst month, is mercifully ended.  Something about August drives me insane.  Watching everyone prepare to go back to school, either to work or to learn, and knowing that I would not be joining them made this year especially difficult.

I fell asleep last night listening to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World.  It is an all-time favorite of mine.  Friends, especially friends from college, tended to think the New World Symphony was overplayed, which is certainly true.  I have a predilection for immensely popular classical music like this, though.  There is a reason everyone enjoys listening to it.  It is a perfect realization of Dvořák’s harmonics and aesthetics.  The prominence of the pentatonic scale, which Dvořák noted was common to the “the music of the negroes and of the Indians,” produces strong, memorable melodies that give the entire symphony a satisfying, comforting, lyrical character.  This is the main strength that I appreciate in his music: the melodic line.  The melody is similarly prominent in most Romantic music, but there is something ineffable and different about Dvořák’s work.  “Heart-rending” comes to mind.

I have had sitting in a tab in my web browser the following photograph for a couple of months now.  The minute I saw it I was completely taken aback.

Armor of the Dauphin Henri, the future King Henry II, Musee de l'Armee, Paris

Armor of the Dauphin Henri, the future King Henry II, Musee de l’Armee, Paris

The detail is extraordinary, especially when you consider the age of the suit of armor.  Something also about the biohazard symbol on the right shoulder.  It is actually a triquetra, a Norse/Celtic religious symbol that was later used in Christianity to represent the trinity.  But it gives the suit a sort of ancient/modern character that makes it seem anachronistic in any time period.  Something also about a helmet with no eyes visible behind the visor.  More soon.

Water, Water, Everywhere

It is I think impressive how stressful unemployment can be.  In an effort to make up for the lack of on-paper job-related responsibilities, or maybe simply to punish myself for getting laid off, the voice in my head that tells me I am not writing enough, or reading enough, or doing anything enough, has been yelling more loudly than it has in years.  That’s not true– it has basically been this way since I graduated from college in 2011.  I think that is probably what happens to most college graduates who do not immediately enroll in graduate school.  Something about reinforcing a structure that the receipt of a diploma abolishes.

I have started this blog (it amazes me that “blog” is widely used) to keep anyone who reads it informed about my published work and to have a space in which I can explore the ideas and subjects that inspire my writing.  I have gotten mostly my book reviews published, though in the next couple of months several new pieces in different formats will be released.  I still consider myself primarily a fiction writer, though I have to date gotten only a single story out in a magazine.  “Sillyhead” was a finalist for the DIAGRAM 2012 Innovative Fiction Award and was published in issue 12.3.  That story was also the reason I was interviewed on The Eggshell Parade, a student-run literary radio program on WHRW in Binghamton.  If you haven’t listened to the interview, you should.  Skip to 21:42 (everything before that is a recording of me reading the story) to hear a pained, sometimes awkward conversation.  Also, right at the end the interviewer makes a joke about my name, which made me want to kill him.

I have been trying to get my novel, Jump Ship!, published for three years now.  I wrote the first draft of it as my undergraduate thesis and since then, I have made major edits and written let’s say maybe 30 query letters to agents and editors and publishers.  After the most recent rejection, I decided to stop working on it and start something new, sections of which I will be posting on this blog.

You may also see some posts about watches.  I take apart and fix wristwatches in my spare time, which, as you might have guessed, I have a lot of.  It is a meditative, challenging activity that keeps me from going insane when I find myself staring down feelings of inadequacy, etc.

For now, I’d like to point you to my most recent review.  I wrote about Haruki Murakami’s deeply flawed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage for The Millions.  It only occurred to me after the review was published that the “years of pilgrimage” in the title are from Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, a set of three suites, the first of which comes up occasionally in the novel.  Here, listen to the aloof, quiet dissonance for yourself.

This Monday, 9/8, my review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will be in The Rumpus.  A couple of weeks after that, a big feature I wrote about Southwestern Ontario and the Canada-U.S. border will be published in Block Club, a local magazine.  Around that time, a massive article that I spent months researching will be serialized in The Massachusetts Review.  The piece is a thorough investigation of massive open online courses [MOOCs].  I discuss the history of online education and my own experience with a MOOC that I took last year.  I wanted to see if I could still pass the course if I 1. did none of the reading and 2. wrote an error into every sentence in every essay I wrote for the class.  I passed the course and the reasons why were illuminating to say the least.

For now, here is a beautiful music video for a beautiful song.  More soon, and thanks for reading.