Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder [1976; Motown Records]
“There’s songs to make you smile,
There’s songs to make you sad,
But with a happy song to sing
It never seems so bad.”
You can view my Stevie Wonder listening stats here.
My 5 Favorite Tracks:
- “Isn’t She Lovely”
- “Knocks Me off My Feet”
- “Summer Soft”
- “Have a Talk with God”
- “Love’s in Need of Love Today”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)
I was talking with a friend the other day when he posed to me the following question:
“What’s a good mood, anyway?”
This made me think: we often characterize our emotions in a very reductive and arbitrary manner. When we say we are in a good mood, what does this really mean? Are we happy? If so, are we merely happy? To what extent are we happy? In what manner are we happy? From what source comes our happiness? Are we constantly happy?
Truthfully, I find moments of happiness in the small pleasures of life: a child’s laughter, a sunny day, a beautiful view, a moving song—but, it would be wrong to say, “I am happy.” I’m not just happy; I’m sad that I have lost certain people in my life whom I care about dearly and regretful that I have become distant from others; I’m angry at the injustice and indifference in the world; I’m grateful that—at least—there are some compassionate people in the world; I wistfully lament the simpler times of the past; I’m excited for the future. With happiness comes a vast array of other emotions that lie on the periphery.
Stevie Wonder does not cowardly hide from the complexity of human emotions with Songs in the Key of Life; lyrically and sonically, he seems to encapsulate the totality of our emotional existence in just 21 songs. He’ll knock you down with the harsh realities of the world that we live in with tracks like “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and get you right back up on your feet moments later with tracks like “Have a Talk with God”. The way Stevie accurately and economically represents human emotion astounds me, but furthermore, he superbly represents emotional volatility using the power of lyric and sound to create harmonious continuity and unity within this album.
Gently plays her rhythms on your window pane
Giving you no clue of when she plans to change
To bring rain or sunshine.”
In music, emotion is characterized in an abstract manner. When teaching young, budding musicians about the differences between major and minor keys, a technical explanation can be rather difficult for a student to immediately grasp; as a young child, I was taught that a composition is in a major key when it sounds “happy” and in a minor key when it sounds “sad.” As abstract as emotion in music is, it is surprisingly easy to comprehend. The songs on this album are not always in a major key; they’re not always in a minor key; they’re in the key of life, something much more vague: a beautifully complicated thing that you can never begin to truly comprehend until you listen to this album!
Stevie has been through pleasure, pain and everything in between just as we all have (and he is proof that you do not have to be able to see the world in order to form some understanding of it, a common misconception). He’s not contriving anything; he’s not sugarcoating any sort of package that will appeal to a certain demographic and sell; he’s just telling it how it was, for life can be a simultaneously beautiful and ugly thing. As indicated by the album’s cover, Stevie was just in the middle of it all: the light and the darkness of rippling, reverberating, concentrically circular heartbeats of ocher—the good, the bad, and everything else. Life will bare its teeth at you and rip your heart out, growling and foaming at the mouth like a rabid wolf, but sometimes you can’t help but admire its sharp fangs and shrill howl; that’s what life presents you with when you try to live: beauty in ugliness, newfound wisdom in times of turbulence—something more than meets the eye. Like the catastrophic Challenger crash or the 9/11 attacks, life can be truly horrendous, but we can’t help but acknowledge the existence of this horror and remember it. Life has happened and is happening; it’s a history that is continually writing (and rewriting) itself, the magnum opus of some other-worldly Shakespeare. We must recognize the totality of our lives—the joys, the pleasures, the trivialities, the travesties, and everything else—before we can move forward, and we cannot hide from the realities of our lives; documenting our experiences, like Stevie did, aids us in this process.
November 23rd, 2016
Charlotte Kim Hilton,
I was finally able to meet you, and I sit here in the airport now waiting for my flight to return home. I’ve just said goodbye to your father who dropped me off here. I had an amazing time here in Provo with you and your parents, who very hospitably housed and fed me just so we could meet, and a flurry of emotions overwhelms me as I prepare to leave and say goodbye to you for now. It was especially difficult to say goodbye to your mother, but a beautiful thing happened as I was walking out of your apartment door: it began to snow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the snow fall before, Charlotte. Nighttime has fallen, and the falling snow and whatever remnants of lightning from the thunderstorm that has just passed create a peculiar luster in the obsidian of the night sky. Before I left your apartment, your parents told me that this was your first thunderstorm. I wish that I could hold you just one last time before I leave so we could enjoy this unique moment together. I don’t mean to be melodramatic or saccharine, my little star, nor do I mean to use you as a vehicle for my writing—you are my niece, first and foremost—but these words come quickly and fade even faster; I must capture this moment in some way, for my own sake, and writing is the only way I really know how to do so. Forgive me. It is vain, but it helps me feel better. I cannot allow these thoughts to escape me.
Your well-meaning Grandpa Paul told me that I should save my money instead of buying a plane ticket to go and see you because you and your parents would be coming to visit us in California in just a few short weeks, but I couldn’t wait that long, my love. You see, what made me buy this plane ticket so suddenly was the fact that after some recurring and sharp pains in my abdomen, I feared for my life, Charlotte; the very meager possibility that I could have dropped dead at any moment without seeing you existed (but do not worry, my darling, after buying the plane ticket, I went to see the doctor, and after a close examination, she thinks that these are just gas pains which can be easily rectified by some dietary and lifestyle changes. I hope that we will laugh together at my irrational anxieties when you are able to read this). I am fortunate that, at the age of 21, I can say that I have lived a good life; I was raised by a loving family, I’ve had the privilege of studying at an accomplished university, I’ve fallen in love, and I’ve been able to pursue my dreams with some semblance of meaning and drive instilled within me—but you see, my niece, with my seemingly impending doom looming over me, I couldn’t die in peace knowing that you existed in this world and that I would never be able to see you. Even if I didn’t drop dead unexpectedly, you wouldn’t be this small forever, Charlotte. I couldn’t wait any longer; my insides felt as if they were torn up. I had to come see you.
So, I asked your mother if it would be okay if I came and saw you, and when she said that it would be okay, I rushed to buy my ticket. A couple of days later (that Saturday), I drove up to San Francisco from San Luis Obispo. I would be flying to Provo from Oakland early the next morning. I began driving, and when I reached the highway, a very strange sensation took over me; rather than merely being carried along with my car in a state of inertia as I accelerated, I felt as if I was being actively propelled within the dividing lines of the lanes on the road at breakneck speed, being plunged into darkness and swallowed by the esophageal lane into the abysmal and bottomless belly of the beast that is life (or as opposed to “is,” let’s say “can be,” Charlotte; that is the difference). As I drove on the highway past the farms and fields along the Central Coast, the air smelt like fertilizer and wet earth. A hard rain was falling and there was not a single patch of blue in the sky; but, a ray of sunlight managed to impale the grayness of the clouds. Your Grandma Kumsoon used to sing me a certain song to lull me to sleep as a young child, and some of the lyrics from that song came to mind:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please, don’t take my sunshine away.”
That’s when I thought of you, Charlotte, for you are my sunshine. I know that’s a total cliché, my niece, and your cynical uncle hates clichés—you deserve so much more than your uncle’s banality and sentimentality—but I find so much truth in this association of mine because, as far as my own life is concerned, you are the happy brightness of the sun pervading through the sad grayness of the clouds, giving new life to a world of stale air, stagnant water, and withering vegetation. Despite the somber and oppressive torrent of rain, you, that ray of sunlight transfixing the gloomy clouds, would work with the rainfall to bring new life to the slowly decaying earth—and, my dear, isn’t that much like life itself, taking sadness with happiness and creating something new and beautiful out of it? I began to wonder why I deserved someone as special as you in my life.
My little ray of sunshine, it is so sadly and painfully difficult to explain to some people why your life is so important to me and why it is I am so delighted that you are finally here with us in this world. “It’s not like she’s your daughter or anything,” some said of my excitement when you were born, or “Oh, well that’s cool, I guess.” Perhaps I understand them a little—only a little, Charlotte—because they speak from an impersonal perspective, though I do detest sentiments like these with all of my heart—I really do—but be as happy as I am to know that these people make up the vast minority of those who know of your existence and that everyone else was absolutely delighted to hear of your birth; you had managed to brighten up their lives just as you had brightened up mine, my sunshine. Your mother’s side of the family has always been small; it was always just your Grandma Kumsoon, your Grandpa Paul, your Uncle Bryan, and your Aunt Nicole when your mother and I were growing up together. Only we will ever understand the hardships your mother’s side of the family has faced, especially in the past couple of years (your mother and father will decide when it’s the right time to tell you more about our side of the family), but in a way, these hardships have brought us even closer together. The marriage of your mother to your father made our small family seem so much larger, and you were the cherry on the top of the wedding cake, so to speak. With you as a new addition to the family, my princess (Grandpa Paul has called your mother “princess” for as long as I can remember), our family became infinitely larger. When you were born, you brought sunlight into all of our lives, not just mine; the meaning you imbued within us upon your birth revitalized us all, especially your grandparents.
I remember when I first saw a photograph taken of you on the day you were born. I showed this photograph to one of my best friends who very endearingly and humorously called you a “little grape.” Yes, my little grape (by the way, I am so glad that you do not have your Uncle Joe’s big rock candy mountain of a head; did you know that for years, your Grandma Kumsoon had to hold my hand when I would walk because the weight of my head would make me lose my balance?), you were less than a day old when this photograph was taken, and I remember so vividly the fairness of your purplish-pink skin, your full head of chestnut-colored hair, and your serene eyes. I instantly saw so much of your mother in you which delighted me in a strange way, perhaps because I was reminded so much of the happier days of my childhood and the good times that I had had with your mother. I really miss those days; your mother is my best friend. When I fell out of a window when I was only three years old, your mother was the one who found me and told your Grandma Kumsoon that I was hurt. When we were even younger, your mother broke her first bone trying to give me a piggyback ride. I’ll never forget, of course, walking with her to and from school nearly every day, watching Saturday morning cartoons with her every weekend for the majority of our early childhood, frequently eating at the pizza joint near our childhood home with her and your Aunt Nicole, and going to countless Giants and Warriors games with her and your Uncle Bryan as we tried to collect as many bobbleheads as we possibly could. I’ll especially never forget her constant support, which, by the way, she still gives to me and to everyone else in her life. Forgive me for being this kind of uncle, but you are so lucky to have your mother and father in your life, even if as you grow up there may be—naturally—times where you do not believe that this is so.
Alors, mon petit champignon (will you ever take French classes like your mother and I did? This is one of many things about your bright future that makes me wonder), what I mean to say is that in seeing so much of your mother in you, it’s almost as if I’m reliving my childhood vicariously through you but from the perspective of an adult with much more advice to give. Believe me, buddy, if there’s anything I hate more than clichés, it’s the corny and overly moralistic adult trying to tell people how to live their lives. Your uncle is still learning how to take care of himself, but I feel as if this is the point in this exposition where it becomes necessary for me to impart some wisdom—sure, let’s call it wisdom—to you.
First of all, do not be afraid to feel. Your uncle is still learning how to feel in the right way. You should strive toward happiness, my love, but inevitably, some things in this world will make you very anxious, scared, sad, or angry; these feelings, at least, will help you learn more about how you perceive the world that we live in because they force you to consider the possibilities and circumstances of every situation. Feeling is how we learn compassion. Compassion is how we understand others better. In understanding others better, we become more fit to help those around us. Be as aware of your own feelings as you are aware of the feelings of others, and I know that you will make a positive difference in the lives of those around you; however, you must also use your head when you feel, Charlotte. Do not confuse compassion with passion; you cannot be overzealous in your feelings. Do your best not to hold grudges, especially without good reason. They eat away at the heart, tear at the flesh, and grind bone into dust until all that remains of the self is a gelatinous and insupportable mess. Take it from my own experience; grudges and hatred damage the soul. You must not forget that the head is inextricably bound to the heart.
Secondly, know that the world can be a very terrifying and confusing place. It will pose many questions to you, and I won’t pretend to know the answers to those questions. But, you are surrounded by people who are willing to talk to you and help you through these scary times; that is a privilege many children are not fortunate enough to have. There are plenty of people in this world who will act in accord with their own interests before they take yours into consideration, and that is a sad and ineluctable fact of life, my little flower; people will do terrible things that will hurt you greatly. It’s not the selfishness of the world that bothers me the most, but its painful indifference. Despite this, know that your parents would sacrifice their entire lives for you (they already have, in a way, by deciding to have you) and that you are surrounded by loving people who are here to help you. I assure you, my niece, we are on your side, and we always will be!
Lastly, do your best to define happiness and success on your own terms. So often in this life, we tend to compare our successes and failures to those of the people around us, which can be both aggrandizing and deprecating, but wrongfully so, in my opinion. We are conditioned by our competitive society to believe that certain things definitively equate to success and failure, but this is not the case. Inevitably, you will make mistakes, but you must know that you can set right your accounts. To me, to be successful is to be happy on your own terms. They say if you have the choice between a healthy body or a healthy mind, choose one and you have a good chance at the other. Find something you love that’s good for you, do a whole lot of it, and I think you’ll do just fine in this life, kiddo—but make sure you do it for the sake of your own approval, not for the approval of others! What you’ve taught me—without even speaking a single word, Charlotte, and this is what amazes me—is that the best way to live life is to live for as long as you can, as happily as you can, and as best as you can, for both yourself and for those people whom you care about, and you’re one of those people for whom I live; you add so much meaning to my life. I wish I could be more specific, my dear, but the key to your own happiness and success is something that you will have to discover and define for yourself as you grow up—again, on your own terms!
My heart is heavy now upon leaving you but that is because you have made it full. When I first held you, I felt the weight of your body, light as a feather, in my arms. You fell asleep while I was holding you, and as I was trying to count your eyelashes, I lost count because I was distracted by your tranquil expression; I couldn’t help but admire how calm you looked in a world of widespread turmoil and strife. You’re truly an inspiration, little buddy, I hope you know that! I’ve never felt as at peace as I did when I was holding your sleeping body against mine. I became lost in your face, and I began to wonder what you were dreaming about and who you’d become, but know that no matter who you are or who you become, you will forever have the undying love and unwavering support of your
Clifford, the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell
“I’m Emily Elizabeth, and I have a dog. My dog is a big red dog.”
Joe’s Rating: 0.5/5 (Excrement)
Generally, veterinarians say that dogs typically live for anywhere from 8 to 16 years, with larger dogs usually living shorter lives than smaller dogs. Over 50 years since his conception, Clifford, our beloved big red dog, is somehow still around gracing us with his presence, and he has defied all of the odds imposed upon him by Mother Nature—transcended all possibilities of life for dogs everywhere, even.
How exactly has Clifford done this? The anthropomorphized dog, whose longevity may serve as a source of inspiration for the actual dog, is an absolute sell-out and seems to be little more than a figurehead for an underlying, profit-seeking, money-oriented operation. Allow me to elaborate a little.
It is one thing for a writer sincerely dedicated to the production of their own art to write a series of books for children with the hope that their stories and the characters within them will go on to inspire, excite, entertain and enlighten children with the publication and reading of each subsequent book (cf. the Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia series, et al.). However, much like the equally damnable and detestable Berenstain Bears series of children’s books, the Clifford books being written and published today are not even being produced by their original creators! As the authors of these books passed away, they entrusted others to continue their series for them, but what respectable author would allow their original brainchild of a series containing prolific characters to be taken over by some shmuck that they believed they could trust upon their death? Moreover, to what end? How is it that another person could even pretend to know that they had the slightest idea of what Bridwell or the Berenstain couple had envisioned for their series, regardless of how close the new author’s relationship was toward the original author? I believe that the natural attachment of the artist to their work is one reason they would allow another to (hopefully) help it survive in perpetuity, and the extreme financial success as well as the immense fame surrounding both of these series attest to two very clear reasons why a new author would readily agree to continue these series on behalf of their predecessors.
Upon a quick Google search, since the publication of the first Clifford book in 1963, 79 others have been defecated into existence mass-produced published by Bridwell. Okay, whatever, I can live with that. Not surprisingly, Clifford’s likeness has also been fashioned into a variety of stuffed animals (as of 8/29/16 you can purchase a 30 inch long Clifford the Big Red Dog cuddle plush toy online for the convenient price of $156.00). In addition, more items for sale include apparel and accessories, arts and crafts supplies—sure, that’s all fine—but come on, home and garden supplies?! Clifford, the Big Red Dog, as many millennials like myself know, was also made into a short-lived animated television series (might I add that Clifford, along with Caillou, is one of the biggest numbskulls of a character to ever grace the PBS station? Let’s save a discussion of the dunce Caillou’s idiocy for another time, though). A Clifford live-action film was even announced, and fortunately, it hasn’t hit theaters yet.
I believe that Bridwell knew exactly what he was doing when selecting a dog to function as the title character of his series. Assuming that one isn’t allergic to dogs, has no irrational fear of them, and hasn’t been intimidated or attacked by them, the chances of a person having had a negative experience with them are infinitesimal. Dogs are delightful animals, and trust me, if I ever saw Emily Elizabeth walking Clifford, I’d probably give him a treat, rub his belly, and call him a “good boy.” The late Bridwell was well-versed in the Aristotelian modes of persuasion and/or passed his middle school English class, as he understood quite well that many of us, especially young children, are suckers for cute dogs like Clifford, and this is one of the reasons why the series is still prevalent today: cute dogs sell like nothing else. Let me digress though, as other children’s series such as the aforementioned Harry Potter series and Chronicles of Narnia series, though MUCH more likable, have sold out in their own right, and it would be in ill taste and futile to speculate about the intentions of Mr. Bridwell; let us discuss the text itself.
“We have fun together. We play games. I throw a stick, and he brings it back to me.”
Clifford, the Big Red Dog reads like a can of flat soda—no, like the noneffervescent and insipid dregs of a can of Natty Ice leftover from the huge house party two nights ago. While drinking diesel fuel may be a more enjoyable task than reading the book, it is certainly not as laughable of an endeavor; I could not stop guffawing and scratching my head at how exactly it was that this piece of tripe could be published.
“We play hide-and-seek. I’m a good hide-and-seek player. I can find Clifford, no matter where he hides.”
Get it? It’s because he’s a big red dog! The forms of humor implemented within this children’s book are more heavy-handed than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing, with much less finesse and far less enjoyment involved.
One could argue that the illustrations of the book are what do it justice, but if not complemented by fine writing, how could we ever call this book anything more than pablum? I usually find a lot of beauty in simplicity, but the excessive simplicity of the prose in Clifford, the Big Red Dog is utterly and unbearably dull.
“It’s not easy to keep Clifford. He eats and drinks a lot.”
See Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for his marvelous and famous concept of a “willing suspension of disbelief” in regard to literature, but how about just this once we willingly suspend our belief? The idea of keeping a dog like Clifford is absolutely asinine. If Clifford is the size of your typical house—let us assume 20 feet or so—how many bags of dog chow is this dog likely to consume in a day, let alone in a meal? If Clifford was living in California in 2016, during the worst drought period in this area in roughly a half of a millenium, how much water would Clifford consume in a day? How much would it cost to have Clifford’s enormous doghouse constructed? Don’t get me started on the unfathomable cost of the Super Duper Pooper Scooper required to clean up after Clifford, as well as on the cost of the machinery required to lift said Super Duper Pooper Scooper containing Clifford’s gigantic poop; I commend the human who could single-handedly curb Clifford’s enormous turds and carry them to the nearest trash receptacle. Having the ability to keep Clifford in your possession is certainly a privilege afforded only by the elite. Given the illustrations of the book, Clifford is also quite clumsy and dim-witted, fetching a police officer and his baton instead of the stick Emily Elizabeth had thrown to him, chewing on a giant replica shoe adorning the façade of a shoe store, and more. Let alone the monetary and environmental burden of keeping Clifford in your home, his actions and blatant disregard for the law continually take him a step closer toward the pound and euthanasia, and it’s about time that the ever-patient, never-strict Emily Elizabeth and her family saddle up and take the necessary measures to ensure Clifford’s freedom and peaceful coexistence with those living in his neighborhood before all of the time and money spent on maintaining and loving Clifford go to waste. Clifford’s family cannot neglect the astronomical costs of hiring a good dog lawyer nowadays. Let’s hope that over the course of the next 79 Clifford books he straightens up his act.
“I don’t care. You can keep all your small dogs. You can keep all your black, white, brown, and spotted dogs. I’ll keep Clifford….Wouldn’t you?”
Granted, I read this book for the first time as an adult. If I had read this as a young child, would I have liked it? Possibly, but if I had read it again as an adult, I speculate that the only thing I would have gotten out of it would have been nostalgic pleasure and nothing more. I speak from the perspective of an adult, but I think the idea of loving something—a big red dog, for instance—despite its imperfections is a totally rudimentary idea that should be inculcated within a child at a very young age, BEFORE they read Clifford, the Big Red Dog—that’s just me, though; we still do encounter many adults in this world who don’t realize that imperfection is ubiquitous, and as a result they can’t take pleasure in many things. I think for a child just beginning to read, Clifford, the Big Red Dog is not the worst book you could choose for your child. I’m sure it could arouse a good laugh out of your children and help bring your family together for an evening, even if I would have to feign laughter or a smile for the sake of my own children’s merriment; that is something to appreciate in itself. If I ever have children, I’ll let them decide for themselves whether or not they like the book before I throw it out of their bedroom window without hesitation. Plus, Clifford is pretty darn cute; I can see the appeal. There’s a reason why he’s the mascot and posterchild of Scholastic: cute dogs sell like nothing else.
But the worst part about this book, you might ask, dear reader? This book could very well be the best in the series, which like many other series probably suffers heavily from sequel syndrome, although it does have 79 more opportunities to redeem itself, and admittedly, Clifford Goes to Washington does seem somewhat promising. I’ll have to suspend any definitive judgment of my own regarding the rest of the series until I read the other 79 books, which I may (or may not) get to in due time.
Perhaps I’m somewhat biased toward my own dog, as well.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
“’I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete—that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theatre Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of splash.’”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.)
The stories “Franny” (1955) and “Zooey” (1957) originally appeared separately in The New Yorker, and they weren’t published together as Franny and Zooey until 1961. J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite writers ever, hits the nail on the head with this work as far as my own life is concerned. His text affects me on more than just a literary level, but on a personal and visceral one.
I’ll spare you the spoilers, but Franny, one of the precocious children in the Glass Family who appear throughout Salinger’s other works, goes through an ego-related crisis, and her sagacious and loving brother Zooey guides her toward resolution in an absolutely heartwarming exchange upon the end of “Zooey”.
“’All I know is I’m losing my mind,’ Franny said. ‘I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting—it is, it is. I don’t care what anybody says.’”
This book resonates with me so much because everything we do is—to some degree, whether we realize it or not—a projection of our egos (when I say ego, I do mean it in the more general, egotistical and self-conscious sense and not so much in the Freudian context), and I’ve gotten to the point where it becomes hard to bear. I’ve wasted hours of time trying to convince myself otherwise but to no avail. Egotism is everywhere and in everything we do, and everything that I do is starting to become pretty pointless to me.
Introduce me to the egoless human, and I will be his or her unabashed servant and student until the end of time.
“It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so—I don’t know—not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much only in a different way.”
I wake up in the morning because I think that I can go out in the world and do something for myself or for others, and by doing something for others, I’m doing something for myself by satisfying this selfish desire of mine to do something for others, rather than helping people for the sake of helping people. Does that make sense? I also have a selfish desire to always make sense because I believe that when I make sense I’m actually doing some good for people, which is rather egotistical in itself, no? Why do you think I’m writing this to you now, dear reader? Helping others makes me feel like I’m worth something, but why I can’t I be worth something for merely existing in the first place?
I brush my teeth because I want to be recognized for having clean teeth. I style my hair a certain way because I want to be recognized for having a decent hairdo. I dress a certain way because I want to be recognized for being fashionable. I eat because I don’t want to be hungry, and sometimes I don’t eat because I’d rather sleep. I work, ultimately, because I need money. I go on dates because I don’t want to be lonely. I make friends because deep down I know that I can get something out of them, whether it’s moral support, comfort, or a new way of viewing the world. I do my best to maintain relationships with people because the thought of never seeing anybody that I really like ever again greatly, greatly disturbs me, and I don’t like to feel that way. EVERYTHING we do is self-serving and self-centered to an extent, even in the most minute ways, and I get so frustrated because there are people—including myself—who are completely unaware of how utterly selfish they really are.
A friend once told me I had a fragile ego. I was broken because it was true.
Which brings me to the things that I’m most passionate about: reading and writing. I read because I want knowledge that’s going to benefit me in some way, and I write things for other people to read because I want—no, I need—to be recognized and remembered. When you realize the important things in your life that keep you going are perhaps just as superficially based as the rest of the things that you do, that really messes with your head. Without recognition for doing the things I’m passionate about, what’d be the point of it all? I try to be satisfied with my writing on my own terms and take ephemeral pleasure in the task, but that’s just the thing; my writing is ephemeral unless other people recognize it, pass it on and allow it to survive in perpetuity, and what have I published other than some meaningless blog posts? I will die some day just as my writing will. If I’m not remembered, I’m nothing, and if I’m not remembered during my lifetime, well, I’d have to go somewhere far away from everybody just so I could forget about all of you people. I wouldn’t be able to live if I weren’t remembered, and that’s how awfully egotistical I am; I truly disgust myself sometimes.
“Sometimes I see me dead in the rain.”
I see it in the hyper-competitive nature of the academic system, among both professors and students alike; I see it in the workplace, where workers are always trying to make themselves look competent to others; I see it at parties, where people are trying to make themselves look attractive to others; I see it all over social media—many convince themselves that they’re of the utmost importance to everyone that they know (you know, the ‘I’m so popular that I can’t make any time for myself and especially you’ kind of people, I know that you’ve encountered them), and all of this for what?
“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
Organizations hold philanthropy events so that they can help others, but their representatives do so while hoping that their public image isn’t tarnished if the event goes badly. Politicians are concerned about their campaigns—in the end—for the sake of their image so that they can win the election, even if they do genuinely want to help people.
“I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect….”
That’s the thing: collectively or individually, we go through the motions of our lives hoping that our actual selves will come to represent the ideal selves that we long to be. This desire to better yourself and receive praise for the things that you do is absolutely egotistical, even if it is necessary for your survival and happiness. I know the concerns of others should hardly be a concern of mine, but it’s tough living when you know deep in your heart that you are just as much of an egomaniac as the people that you criticize. I know I shouldn’t criticize you, my dear reader, but I need to address the egotism of the human being. My conscience won’t rest until I do so honestly.
“’But don’t go screaming about egos in general. In my opinion, if you really want to know, half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren’t using their true egos.’”
We (it’d be less malicious to say ‘I’ rather than “we” here, but to say ‘I’ would just obfuscate the meaning of my message for the sake of maintaining a positive self-image) subscribe so heavily to this notion of maintaining a positive self-image that we often forget how myopic our own perceptions of ourselves are and how meaningless our own existences are. I’m just one person out of approximately seven billion people on this planet, and just like many others, I get so caught up in my own thoughts and feelings that I forget this and delude myself into thinking I actually matter in the grand scheme of things—that because the people in my life seem to like me and want to be with me I therefore matter, but I really don’t. Please, don’t try to convince me otherwise. Love matters. Friendship matters. Compassion matters. Kindness matters. There are plenty of people who can provide these things for you. I don’t matter. People will continue to thrive with or without me. I’m aware that people out there care about me; I’m aware my family loves me to pieces; I’m aware that I make a difference to those around me, but please don’t try to convince me that everyone is going to be absolutely distraught when I’m gone. They won’t—that’s the sad fact of it all, and the world isn’t going to stop revolving when you’re gone either. People will find a way to move on as long as they exist.
“’Can’t you see how unclearly, how sloppily, you’re looking at things? My God, there’s absolutely nothing tenth-rate about you, and yet you’re up to your neck at this minute in tenth-rate thinking.’”
And they always do move on. I hate it. I hope you hate it too. I absolutely detest you people sometimes—you people make me sick to my stomach sometimes—because I love you people, perhaps a little too much, and I hate it when you move on. It makes my blood boil and my body sweat; my muscles tighten and I grow nauseous. I hate knowing that I’m replaceable and disposable, but that’s just the nature of human relationships. Proximity brings us together, distance tears us apart, and what is forced seems to usually dissipate and disappear into thin air. You’ll meet other friends, other lovers, other people with whom you can revel in the pleasures of life; you’ll go your way, I’ll go mine, and that’s that.
“’God damn it,’ he said, ‘there are nice things in the world—and I mean nice things. We’re all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos.’”
However, it’d be utterly foolish and self-centered of me to say that you have never done anything for me. You have, and I’m grateful for what I have. Sure, I hate a lot of things, even myself at times, but maybe a lot of people just hate me. I can deal with that possibility.
“The next thing that bothers me,” he said, “isn’t pretty, either. But I’m almost finished, so hang on a second if you can. What I don’t like at all is this little hair-shirty private life of a martyr you’re living back at college—this little snotty crusade you think you’re leading against everybody. And I don’t mean what you may think I mean, so try not to interrupt for a second. I take it that mostly you’re gunning against the system of higher education. Don’t spring at me, now— for the most part, I agree with you. But I hate the kind of blanket attack you’re making on it. I agree with you about ninety-eight per cent on the issue. But the other two per cent scares me half to death. I had one professor when I was in college—just one, I’ll grant you, but he was a big, big one—who just doesn’t fit in with anything you’ve been talking about. He wasn’t Epictetus. But he was no egomaniac, he was no faculty charm boy. He was a great and modest scholar. And what’s more, I don’t think I ever heard him say anything, either in or out of a classroom, that didn’t seem to me to have a little bit of real wisdom in it—and sometimes a lot of it. What’ll happen to him when you start your revolution?’”
While the seeming ubiquity of egotism greatly bothers me, I find comfort in the fact that it is not absolute in our actions. I don’t believe our actions operate upon this binary of egotism and non-egotism; our actions are indeed a mixture of the two. We want to look good to others, but most of us want to help each other be happy too. Don’t you ever try to argue that you are a completely selfless human being though, because you’d be dead and you’d have nothing for yourself if this were truly the case. Here, I stand against those who deny that they are selfish, not those who are selfish.
“Here Zooey, still looking at the ceiling, simultaneously grimaced and shook his head. ‘But what I don’t like —and what I don’t think either Seymour or Buddy would like, either, as a matter of fact— is the way you talk about all these people. I mean you don’t just despise what they represent —you despise them. It’s too damn personal, Franny. I mean it. You get a real little homicidal glint in your eye when you talk about this Tupper, for instance. All this business about his going into the men’s room to muss his hair before he comes in to class. All that. He probably does—it goes with everything else you’ve told me about him. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But it’s none of your business, buddy, what he does with his hair. It would be all right, in a way, if you thought his personal affectations were sort of funny. Or if you felt a tiny bit sorry for him for being insecure enough to give himself a little pathetic goddam glamour. But when you tell me about it—and I’m not fooling, now—you tell me about it as though his hair was a goddam personal enemy of yours. That is not right—and you know it. If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl—because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.’”
By the way, what you decide to do in your life is none of my business, even if it bothers me, and I can live with that—I really can. You don’t owe me a thing. I should be more concerned about my own life. Something is missing. I’m trying to find it. I have my own demons that I’m fighting. All in all, I’d be nothing without you. I need you.
“In the first place, you’re way off when you start railing at things and people instead of at yourself.”
So, be happy. Be well. Because…
“You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.”
To Those Who Like to Just Sit Quietly and Smell the Flowers: Combatting Hypermasculine Tradition with PacifismPosted: May 16, 2016
The Story of Ferdinand (1936) by Munro Leaf
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
“All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers.”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)
I was first introduced to this marvelous and indispensable children’s book by Elliott Smith in a 1998 MTV interview with Carson Daly. Daly asks a clearly uninterested Smith about his tattoo, who succinctly summarizes the short book, saying: “It’s a children’s story. It’s called ‘Ferdinand.’ It’s like a bull who doesn’t want to go to the bullfight, but he does.”
When I was three years old, my family and I travelled to Seoul to go visit some relatives on my mother’s side of the family.
To preface the following story, I would like to reiterate that I was only three years old at the time, and most people don’t remember a thing from ages three and below, so I am going to function as the unreliable narrator here, à la Chief Bromden: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
I cannot recall much from my trip to Seoul, other than the weird-tasting corn dog that I had eaten, the delicious grape slushie that I had enjoyed, the buttery birthday cake that my aunt had made (we celebrated my sister Helen’s fifth birthday at her house) and the extremely fun time that I had had at Lotte World, which is, in a way, like the Disneyland of South Korea. I also remember the locals asking my parents if they could take pictures with me and my sister, which I later learned was because they had never seen half-Asian and half-white kids before—though all of this, while remotely comical, is beside the point.
One of my relatives, Dong, worked at a school, so I had the opportunity to visit it and meet some of the schoolchildren. What I especially remember is that it was a sunny day. I was in the schoolyard. All of the schoolchildren were wrestling each other, and now it was my turn to fight. I remember looking up at the behemoth of a five year old towering over me with a mischievous grin on his face stretching from cheek to cheek, the sun burning my eyes.
“’Why don’t you run and play with the other bulls and skip and butt your head?’ she would say. But Ferdinand would shake his head. ‘I like it better here where I can sit quietly and smell the flowers.’”
And then I remember him grabbing me and pushing me to the ground. Everyone was laughing, and I was crying. I didn’t want to fight. I was scared. Why would I wrestle this kid in the first place? I just could not see the point.
Granted, when I got older, I practiced kung fu for about five years when I was in elementary and middle school, and I wrestled for four years (I was no Abe Lincoln or John Irving, but I was okay), so I cannot say that I am beyond fighting for sport. I love watching mixed martial arts fights whenever I get the chance, and in addition, I do take guilty pleasure in watching dugout-clearing brawls, fiery scuffles between NFL players, and heated altercations between NBA players—I’ve watched the video of “The Malice at the Palace” how many times now?
But I think all of what I have just written about goes to show how deeply engrained hypermasculinity and violence is, not only within Western society, but within Eastern society as well and presumably in many places all over the world.
For example, see Madrid, where The Story of Ferdinand takes place. It is no secret that bullfighting is a prominent tradition in Spanish culture, although banned in some areas of Spain now, and matadors have been participating in bullfights for centuries now. The pleasure in bullfighting arises from the fact that humankind—I’d say man here, but that’d be unfair and inaccurate as there are female matadores who exhibit hypermasculine qualities too—has prevailed over what it perceives as being a beast, that the supposedly superior species has exhibited physical dominance over the supposedly inferior species.
Which brings me back to my initial question: why would I fight this kid in the first place?
“What they wanted most of all was to be picked to fight at the bull fights in Madrid.”
People fight to defend themselves, but in this case, I would hardly say that I was defending myself, because I had agreed—even though I was scared—to wrestle this kid. I had become an active agent in this fight; I wasn’t merely being attacked against my will, I had agreed to be attacked.
I wanted to win. Deep down, I wanted to prove that I was stronger than him, but I wasn’t, so that made me cry. The primordial nature of fighting and how rooted in our biology it is fascinates me to this day. Our evolutionary ancestors, the hominids, had been fighting since their conception for survival and dominance.
Today, many men still place a great emphasis on dominance in the form of physicality and sexuality in assessing their own self-worth. I know men who work out either so that they can really hurt someone in a fight or so that they can impress their romantic interests, which is rather ridiculous in my opinion, because I think the most obvious reason that people should exercise is so that they can lead healthy lives—hence the nonsense surrounding hypermasculinity.
“All the other bulls who had grown up with him in the same pasture would fight each other all day. They would butt each other and stick each other with their horns.”
But we no longer live in a primitive world that requires this of human beings. So, why do we fight each other and how exactly do we survive?
We survive and thrive by forming meaningful relationships with others, by offering them help when they need it, by bringing some sunlight into the lives of those immersed in the vast darkness of the world. Of course, there are times where we have to physically defend ourselves, but there is a fine difference between initiating violence and responding to it. You can respond with action or by running away, and running away is not a sign of cowardice—it is a sign of intelligence. That is why in the United States assault and battery are crimes, whereas self-defense or running away from dangerous situations are not crimes.
“Ferdinand ran to the middle of the ring and everyone shouted and clapped because they thought he was going to fight fiercely and butt and snort and stick his horns around. But not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring he saw flowers in all the lovely ladies’ hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled.”
Which is why I love The Story of Ferdinand, because Ferdinand’s refusal to fight is an absolute rejection of anyone who subscribes to the idea of organizing fights for the sake of fallaciously and egotistically extolling the glory of humankind. More importantly, it teaches children—as well as adults—the values of pacifism and how closely it is associated with honor.
“He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadors were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off his cape and sword.”
Why fight when inaction and words are in fact our most powerful weapons? Any history class could teach you of the successes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi through their respective practices of pacifism and uses of well-grounded reason. To quote the Midnight Marauders Tour Guide (from A Tribe Called Quest’s amazing album Midnight Marauders): “You’re not any less of a man if you don’t pull the trigger. You’re not necessarily a man if you do.”
So that is why I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who like to just sit quietly and smell the flowers.
“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”
“Or will I pass her by
And never even know
That she was my ideal?”
You can view my Chet Baker listening stats here.
My 5 Favorite Tracks:
- “It’s Always You”
- “Like Someone in Love”
- “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”
- “My Buddy”
- “That Old Feeling”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)
Have you ever wanted to tell someone you loved them, or at least, in the case of people like myself who are always hesitant when declaring feelings as strong as love, that you thought they were absolutely exquisite?
“Whenever it’s early twilight,
I watch till the stars break through.
Funny it’s not a star I see,
It’s always you.”
You see someone across the room, and your gaze catches theirs. The irises of their eyes shine like gemstones. It seems as if an ethereal aura emanates from their body. You hear them speak for the first time, and their voice emits substance, intelligence and beauty. You fall in love with all of their features and idiosyncrasies—their kind and warm smile, their delicate hands, the way they tilt their head to the side when they concentrate on the things happening around them—and you convince yourself that they are too good for this world and too good for you. How does one muster up the courage to speak to this person?
“I’ve never been in love before, now all at once it’s you, it’s you forevermore.”
That is where Chet Baker comes in. His mellifluous and androgynous vocals produce those seemingly simple words that we had intended to speak but could not articulate. When he finishes singing, he subsequently picks up his trumpet and begins to play, and the brassy instrument, in all of its wonder, begins to speak about love in a way that no language could ever express.
“I may dream a million dreams,
But how can they come true,
If there will never ever be another you?”
Chet Baker Sings, his debut vocal album, contains an abundant amount of love and passion imbued within it, one that covers the good times of love in addition to the bad: songs of unrequited love, songs of unwavering love, songs of undying love, songs of distant love, songs of newly discovered love, and more. Baker, in the album’s mere 44 minute duration, seems to concisely convey love in all of its complexity and manages to relate his experiences to all of our own, and approximately 60 years later, his love songs resonate with his audience as strongly as ever.
With the album featuring the Chet Baker marquee, the stylings of versatile jazz pianist Russ Freeman are often overlooked, but Freeman plays with light-hearted pep in some instances and with a somberly beautiful languor in others. Freeman’s talent is put on display on Chet Baker Sings, and the cool sounds of his piano wonderfully complement Baker as well as the other members of this septet: James Bond, Peter Littman, Lawrence Marable, Carson Smith, and Bob Neel.
Although love is a prominent theme of this album, it is not a sappy album packed with banal love diddlies. It is one of raw authenticity and beautiful simplicity that helped to launch the illustrious career of one of the most talented trumpeters to ever grace the American jazz scene, one who is regarded by critics and fans alike as being right up there with the likes of Miles Davis as one of the best jazz musicians EVER, one whose life was tragically ended by substance abuse and whose career was ultimately ended by a fight that left many of his teeth shattered and his embouchure irreparable. Baker attempted a comeback, but he was never as successful as he had once been in his heyday during the 50s and 60s.
I am sure that I am one of many people who wonder how much more the incredibly talented Baker would have accomplished in his career had he not been a victim of his circumstances and had his life not come to a premature end at the age of 58.
“Nights are long since you went away
I think about you all through the day
My buddy, my buddy
Nobody, quite so true.”
“Once there was a tree…. and she loved a little boy. And everyday the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree…. very much. And the tree was happy.”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)
The Giving Tree is as inextricably bound to the modern American’s childhood and early education as moths are to the light, and within its economically written lines are ideas that speak volumes. In this short picture book, Silverstein depicts altruism pervading and prevailing in a world of selfishness, teaching us the intrinsic values and rewards of unconditional generosity and compassion. He does this while evoking images of the halcyon days of childhood juxtaposed by a mortifying portrait of the eventuality of old age and decrepitude. It is a harrowing reminder of the eventual loss of those material things around us as much as it is a tonic for those who have ever given to others continuously only for their generosity to go unacknowledged. For many of us who enjoyed this bittersweet book as children, it is also a source of warm and pleasant feelings of nostalgia.
A young boy grows up spending countless days playing with the Giving Tree, adorning himself with crowns made from her leaves, swinging from her branches like a free-spirited simian, subsisting on her apples, basking in the shade she creates and loving her. As he grows older, the boy unabashedly requests the assistance of the ever-reliable Giving Tree time and time again. He bobs in and out of this tree’s life, returning only when in need of something, which deeply saddens the tree, his old friend who wants to return to the idyllic days of their past. In one sense, the boy is self-centered, but at the same time he is going through the motions of life, acting out of impulse and necessity just like many of us are; he is growing up. The Giving Tree allows her apples to be ripped from her limbs for the sake of the boy’s hedonistic self-indulgence, but at the same time the boy is naturally experiencing a lust for life at this stage in his life, seeking thrill, excitement and adventure. She offers her branches to be chopped off for the boy’s own personal and selfish use, but it is so he can eventually use them for unselfish purposes; he is merely trying to build a house in which he can eventually raise a family. She permits her trunk to be hewn so it can be fashioned into a boat for the boy’s personal exploration and excursion, but the boy is really just looking for an escape from a world he discovers to be filled with despondency. Eventually, all that remains of the Giving Tree is her stump. When the boy grows old, becoming nothing but a shadow of his former self, she offers it to the boy despite it being all that she has left, and it is at this point in the story and his life that he realizes he does not need much. She gives him a place to rest his weary body at the conclusion of the story and his arduous journey of a life, and they are finally happy.
The tale poses to me the following question: in a world of transience that often lacks generosity, sensitivity and an awareness of the extent to which people are willing to bend over backwards for us, one where we prioritize action for personal gain and are all going to die and rot away only to be eventually forgotten, what do we have to offer its inhabitants?
We, like the Giving Tree, are often not immediately recognized (if at all) for the good deeds that we do, making many of us feel worthless—and even repulsive—to those who surround us, but the reality is that we are remembered by those whom we helped and make some shred of material difference to them in various ways; just because our deeds are not always readily noticed by those around us does not necessarily mean that our lives are devoid of success or value.
Determining one’s self-worth seems to boil down to self-efficacy, the feeling that you have the ability to create a desired outcome for yourself. It is an empowering quality to possess in a world where its forces are acting inexorably upon your being, making you feel completely out of control at times. The world often seems to lack a moral compass; sadness often seems to afflict the most generous of people, while happiness often seems to afflict the most selfish of people, but helping others instills within us a sense of control and significance in this hectic and colossal world. Giving to others gives us a feeling of accomplishment; it makes us feel like we are working to rectify the damage done to people and change their lives for the better. Knowing that you were able to make a positive difference in somebody’s life at some point makes you feel helpful; it gives you substance and buoyancy—it makes you feel alive, much like the personified tree who is the namesake of this story.
We are all reservoirs of untapped resources and potential. We all possess something that others do not possess, and we all know things that others do not know. At the end of the day, you have the people who love and care about you, and if those people are all gone, you will always have every skill you have developed up to this point in your life and others with whom to share those skills. What do you have to offer the world: friendship, kindness, compassion, knowledge, a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, or something else? And how could we ever forget those who have helped, nurtured and loved us?
I read this book for the umpteenth time tonight, but this time around, I cried to myself. Then, when all of my tears dried up, I went to my mother, gave her a big hug and a kiss, told her how much I loved her and thanked her for everything she has ever done for me, because as riled up as I get about all of the selfish people in the world and the terrible things that they do, I am—in reality—just as self-centered as anybody else; I often become so engrossed in my own life that I forget about all of the generous things that great people, like my parents, have done for me just so that I could be happy.
“’Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.’ And the boy did. And the tree was happy.”
You can view a touching animation of The Giving Tree narrated by Shel Silverstein below: