You got any change?

He was young, and his expression was less like a man and more like an old beached ship-worn by waves and salt, yet refusing to just simply slip back out into the sea and disappear. He gave me a big smile and said “brotha, where ya goin t’day? I’m just headin’ over to ma sistahs and I run outta gas. You got some change?”

And this was the part that made me stop. I did have some change. I had exactly two dollars and fifty cents that I’d counted out in dimes and quarters and put into my pocket this morning. And that’s all the money I had. I knew I would come to this coffee shop after I was done with the lunch shift. So I’d counted it out before I left. Two fifty.

I typically drink two cups of coffee a day. In the morning it’s not really worth noting the expense, since I roast my own beans and thirty dollars in quality, green coffee can last me four or five months. But a cup of coffee from this particular shop-the one I’m going to as I’m stopped by the man with a fuel deficiency-costs two dollars. And then I tip at least fifty cents, because I’ve been that guy behind the counter.

And it’s not just any cup of coffee. The beans are fresh-no more than a few days from the point of roasting. The roaster is a master of the art, far greater than I can hope to be with my amateur equipment. After being ground the beans are mixed with steaming water in a French press and brewed no longer than three minutes before sliding into my cup.

And this is what I pay two fifty for every afternoon. The thing is that my wife and I are running pretty tight on money. She just started a new semester of school and I’m still waiting tables. I come here, sip a damn good cup of coffee and mooch the wifi for the next three hours, sending off my resume to the offices of all the lawyers and business execs I wait on every day. I ask them if they’d like a cup of soup with their salad, when I’d really like to ask them how it feels to provide health insurance for their wives.

But this morning we looked at our available funds and our regular expenses and notice a two dollar cup of coffee every day can add up. So rather than cutting the cost out all together, I reasoned that paying in change would be a proper solution. Because apparently change is not money, but don’t tell that to the guy approaching me on the street.

So now I’m faced with a dilemma. This guy asks if I have change. And I do. And normally the people like me that he approaches carry the same belief regarding change that I used this morning with my wife: change is not money. And it usually holds true with me. Getting hit up for change is a simple fact of life in this part of the city. And occasionally I comply. I pull out any change in my pocket followed by a variety of responses. “Thanks”. “I said I needed a dolla, not sixty cents”. “Fuck you”. That sort of thing.

But right now, in this instance, these six quarters and ten dimes are the only thing that can provide that thing I’ve been waiting for all day.

But this is not what needs to be going on in my head at this moment. This guy doesn’t need an essay, he needs a response. Do I give it to him and go home? Do I keep it and defy the very logic I used with my wife to justify coming here this afternoon?

“I’ve got enough for a cup of coffee and that’s it.”

He looks at the shop’s sign. “It’s cool man,” he says with a suspicious look as he walks away. He probably thought I was lying. And in truth I’ve lied about this to guys before, so it’s not out of the question.

And now I can’t get this interaction out of my head. I wasn’t heading to a movie. I wasn’t going out to dinner as I’ve been before in this instance. I was walking into the coffee shop with exactly the amount of money I needed for one cup of coffee. I picked that change from the bottom of my dresser drawer.

And in that instant I’m in the same situation as this guy walking away from me, and at the same time very far away. I’m on the edge, scraping for what I can to make rent in two weeks. Yet I’m one good interview away from health, dental, 401K and a steady check. It’s a strange life we sometimes live.

The Calico Rebellion

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A Mainstream Counterculture?

I read an article in the newest issue of Adbusters entitled “Hipster: the dead end of western civilization.” The article ironically used gritty hipsteresque photos of American Apparel-clad twenty-somethings as well as deft observations: “ten years ago a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless cliches…”

It’s an interesting and keenly observant article. However, the conclusion alluded to in the title is misguided. The writer portrays the Hipster movement as if it is the most recent heir in a rich tradition of countercultures which ends the line of succession by absorbing the mainstream, rather than rejecting it, and eventually exploding… or maybe imploding. I’m not sure. The “exploding/imploding” metaphor is mine, not his. Regardless, he says the movement ends, taking Western civilization with it.

This is where he goes wrong. Not by failing to use my metaphor or suggesting an abrupt end to Western civilization, but by suggesting that the movements of the past were right and this new one is wrong because it’s become too trendy.

In modern American history we truly have had a string of counter-cultural movements in the post-WWII era. There were the beats, the hippies, punk, hip-hop, grunge… and all of the variations and offshoots in-between. And all of them became commercialized and mainstream in some capacity. It is the end result of every compelling modern movement.

But this article forgot to mention the true countercultural movement of today. The social justice movement. It’s movement of young people all over America, and the rest of the developed world, informing themselves of the global plight of humanity.

Those of us born after 1980 are the first generation that has grown up with the internet, allowing us to not only learn about remote regions of the world, but to communicate with those regions in real-time. And then, in a matter of seconds, we can just as easily purchase a plane ticket for a visit .

The movements of the 1960s did great things, but the majority of the changes produced affected primarily Americans, rather than the rest of the world. I’m aware that Kennedy started the Peace Corps in the 1960s and that many of the revolutionary events involved the Vietnam war in some way, but there can be no comparing the global understanding of that age and ours.

Unfortunately the marketing world has become too observant to let this movement develop untainted. GAP has its Red campaign selling clothes that benefit HIV/AIDS relief in Africa. And we also have Tom’s shoes. Toms is the company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair you buy. They now sell $120 boots that look like an Ace bandage wrapped around your calf. It’s a good idea for a socially conscious company. It’s just funny to see a pair of Toms as an accessory to an outfit that includes a pair of $300 sunglasses. [full disclosure: I’m wearing Tom’s as I write this. And tight-fitting jeans. Yes, apparently I’m a hipster too, damnit.]

However, even with this mainstream aspect, the social justice movement is still counter-cultural. What’s more counter to American culture than a movement rejecting political boundaries, and striving for just treatment for everyone, regardless of which side of an arbitrary line a human was born? Obviously we can be sedated by the ads into thinking this is just a fad.

But I believe there’s too much information being communicated out there for this to be the case for everyone. And we as a generation have experienced too much of this first-hand. If I had enough fingers and toes, I could count for days the number of people I know who’ve been to or even lived in a third-world country.

This is why the isolationist approach of the past does not take hold on our generation. This is why we don’t give in to blind patriotism. This is why we don’t want to just bomb the hell out of our “enemies”. We’ve looked into their eyes, and can see from their perspective. We want reconciliation. We want to talk.

No, the aimless, self-involved hipsters are not the counterculture of our generation. It’s the global revolutionaries.

The Calico Rebellion

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The Romance of the Suffering Artist

Tonight we went to see Bill Mallonee play-by far one of my favorite song writers. Paste magazine listed him as #51 or something on their list of 100 greatest living songwriters. I’d put him at about three or four.

The first time I saw him, about seven or eight years ago, he was with a band called the Vigilantes of Love. But for the last few years he’s toured with his wife Mariah, putting together shoe-string-budget tours that snake all across the country.

For me, Bill is tough to describe. In fact, I think he’s just one of those people you must see in order to understand. He’s got the dry southern wit of Mark Twain, the restless spirit of Woody Guthrie, the terse, loaded storytelling of Hemingway and the leathered, hollow-cheeked look of Tom Joad. He’s an Americana hero who’s frustratingly unknown.

He’s pretty well-known among folk circles, but most in the music industry view him as a has-been who never quite was. This is a man who didn’t learn to play guitar until he was thirty, but has released around 25 albums over the last twenty years. And now he tours a couple times a year playing house shows while barely scraping by. It’s tough to see, but in a strange way it also seems to make sense.

It’s kind of romantic, really. It’s the starving, tortured artist that he sings about in his song “Skin”, which is from the perspective of Theodore Van Gogh describing his struggling brother Vincent who eventually took his own life-having never sold a painting. I don’t exactly know about Bill, but this is the sort of thing that seems to drive artists to produce great work, whilst also drive them to the point of desperation in the process.

I once taught a survey of American Literature course. I gave a quick bio for every writer we covered and my students were quick to note that many, if not most, struggled with depression and addiction; this is something I also took notice of while studying literature in college, and it’s pretty remarkable to see that most of the writers that have produced great works struggle in this way. I told my students that I believe one must be very sensitive in order to create something great, because great art is something that speaks to the very heart of the human condition. And guess what? That human condition really sucks sometimes. For some, it sucks a lot of the time.

If we’re sensitive to the truth of this world, it means we see a lot of pain. And that kind of exposure can take its toll. It leaves those artists worn out and tired and tender. But it hopefully leaves them astute enough to describe the lay of the land (the “sad terrain” as Bill says) to all of us brave enough to take heed and traverse this dangerous world.

And this is life. And I’ll live it til the last glug of the jug says “I’m empty”.

The Calico Rebellion

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Anarchism to Ecclesiastes

So I’ve spent the last 7 days in Seattle on my honeymoon. Understandably, many things are swirling and mixing around in my heart and mind. For one, I’M MARRIED, and this takes more time to transition than I thought it would. But it is good. I’m also on the hunt for a job. I’ve been waiting tables for the past month or two (something I never thought I’d do again, but something I’m really enjoying) and interviewing for teaching positions among other pursuits. I’ve been offered a couple things, but have yet to accept anything. And, I’m fairly confused.

A FATEFUL BOOKSTORE:
While in Seattle my lovely new bride and I ventured into a radical little bookstore by Pikes Market called Left Bank Books. I’m not using the word “radical” as some of you may wish I would-which would be the Ninja Turtles sense of the word. I actually mean it in the sense that it’s far from a mainstream book store. From what I’ve gathered, it’s actually a collective co-op, rather than a business, mainly distributing counter-cultural material ranging from obscure zines to works by widely acclaimed academics.

As pragmatic a person as I am, I usually have a tendency toward and affinity for radical thought. So I was naturally drawn to the Anarchism section. (funny side note: they had a few signs above that pointed out the obvious contradiction of selling literature that more or less denounces our current system of trading currency for products. The sign noted the distinction between this collectively owned co-op and large chains (the Borders down the street), saying “If you must steal books, steal from a richly stock’d corporate book store”)

I ended up buying an interesting little glossy book titled “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Anarchism But Were Afraid to Ask” which apparently has no author. It’s actually not very well written or thought out. There are a good amount of mistakes in the author’s reasoning as well as his/her spelling and word usage. But it’s still a fun little treat. I also bought “A Peoples History of America” by Howard Zinn and “Chomsky on Anarchism”, which is a collection of essays and interviews from Noam Chomsky regarding Anarchism. And, to round out the revolutionary literature, my wife bought Che Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries” which are his own diaries in his own words from that fateful trip around South America.

Interestingly, my basic political views (which are still in flux) tend to align themselves with pieces of anarchism, in the sense that I believe government is inherently evil (I believe many of our founding documents imply this truth, and I also see much evidence of this in scripture). But I differ in that I tend believe government is a necessary evil, because some form of government will always form. I also believe in scripture’s view of authority, such as in Romans 13. I think democracy just happens to be the lesser of all the other evils we’ve come up with-due to it’s check of the people. But of course, this is just in theory.

There’s a t-shirt that has an American flag with a sheep where the stars should be and below reads “The United Sheep of America”. And it’s this fact that kind of erodes the idea of democracy for me. Instead of a system that places the best representatives in power, we’ve got one that tends to put the best manipulators with the richest backers in power-a system that reproduces other so-called democracies and then destroys them or allows them to be destroyed when our system disagrees with the way they vote.

So much for the check of the people…

A LONG-DEAD WISE MAN:
So after swirling in this for a few days, I turned to Ecclesiastes, my solace. In it King Solomon describes nearly everything as useless, and “a chasing after wind”. He says we have a hunger which will never be quenched; we seek to acquire wealth, of which there will never be enough; we seek wisdom which only causes more and more vexation; it is a great and heavy burden God has placed on man, therefore the only thing we can do is enjoy our toil. The fruits of our toil can never be enjoyed, because there will never be an end to acquiring them, and then some day we will die-turning to dust just like the animals. So we must enjoy our work, our food, our drink-enjoy the lot which God has given us. We are but dust, but God is God.

And there comes Hope, my old friend I don’t visit often enough.

So I will continue to ask hard questions, and pray for the strength to receive hard answers. And I will seek to continually depend on the Lord, because I can’t trust in Uncle Sam, nor in my own confounded mind-this I realize more and more each day. In the words of Mr Stephen Colbert: I am America: And so can you!

Comments requested.

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We Gotta Pay the Bills Somehow

There’s a joke about English majors. The way you get the attention of an English major is to hold up your hand and yell “waiter”. \

And… well, I have a new job. No more cubicle. Instead, a restaurant full of hungry people. This is a return to a familiar world.

Two-and-a-half years ago I quit working at an upscale Japanese steakhouse to move abroad. I thought I would never wait tables again, and that was fine with me. And for a while I avoided it. But, now I find myself here again, working in an upscale BBQ restaurant (the concept seems to work somehow. Apparently rich people like barbecue too, only they like a $45 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to go with their brisket).

And yet it’s strangely comfortable-the ragged, worn-out pants you put on after wearing a suit and tie all day. Slipping obscure literary references into inane banter with customers is always exciting-especially if catches it. And it’s a bit empowering for someone to ask what the hell you’re doing waiting tables with a college degree. I makes me feel like an idealist again, which is maybe just a bit self-indulgent.

It almost feels as if everyone I work with now is more real than before, sharing some sort of adventure. You know: wait tables by day and write a groundbreaking novel at night-the characters based loosely on a cast of regular customers. But the truth is, I don’t know of anyone doing that. All they do is come in the next morning saying “I really don’t want to be here right now… I can’t believe I had that many drinks last night. I was so f***ed up”

So much for the struggling artist.

So there’s just this real tension between romantic-bohemian-starving-artist existence and I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-else-to-do-other-than-get-drunk experience. Definitely different than my last job, but enjoyable enough.

At least my mornings are free.

The Calico Rebellion

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Why I blog.

Nearly two months ago I quit  my job. This was a job I’d worked at for a year-and-a-half, which made it the longest job I’d ever held for a continuous amount of time. In one sense this was a really good job: it paid well; I worked with talented, kind people; I had a great amount of respect for the management; and it paid well. However, in another sense it was a bad job: I worked in a cubicle in the suburbs…

You see, to a certain category of man that last part strikes them as merely a simple, expected byproduct of life. It’s the occasional cracked egg in every few dozen that’s just thrown into the trash without a second thought. But to others that last part is not just a byproduct of life, but an important symptom of some deadly, epidemic disease ravaging our collective American psyche. It’s the occasional cracked egg that’s the catalyst for one of these individuals to lay awake all night thinking about that egg, jump in the car at six AM, still clad in slippers and sleep-wear, and drive down to the supermarket in order to walk through the doors the minute they’re unlocked and refuse to talk to anyone but the manager-not based upon any particular value of the egg, but based solely upon one principle that this man is responsible for selling a bad egg.

In many situations I believe I would fall in the category of the pragmatist who weighs the actual importance of the principal against the perceived outcome and decides the most the super market manager (who probably couldn’t care less about one broken egg) could give is a replacement egg, a hollow apology and a forced smile. And why would one waste the gas money for that?

But apparently in respect to the “suburban cubicle question” I fall in the category of man who is aware of the level of hatred he has for cracked eggs, and knows he should just leave the egg-cooking up to someone else entirely. But instead he goes to the market and buys a carton of eggs he hasn’t even pre-checked. Then he puts on some sort of angst-ridden music and thinks about the possibility of finding a cracked egg for a few minutes before he checks the carton. But the truly strange piece is that upon finding that scraggly, hair-thin line on that oval orb the man just goes to bed and dwells on it for a year-and-a-half.

Maybe some day we can get into why I think this sort of job can be such a debilitating part of one’s life, but for now I’ll just let you know that it bothers me. If you work one of these jobs, or wish to work one of these jobs I do not want you to feel any judgment. Some people work well in this kind of environment, and sometimes it is a necessity-regardless. And anyway, I can only speak to my own feelings and experiences. And I don’t want the focus to be on the wrong issues: is the suburban cubicle healthy or unhealthy? is it better to work in a suburban cubicle or an urban one? which level of white noise being pumped through tiny speakers overhead is the best-level three or level six? etc…

The important issues are: 1) I entered into a situation that I had rejected, upon principle, for several years 2) I stuck it out for a year-and-a-half to find… I was right

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m thankful for all I learned in that suburban cattle stall, which was a lot. Seriously, it was. And I also developed skills I’ll use throughout my life. But in the past month-and-a-half I’ve learned just  how depressed I’d become, and how my aquifers of creativity were all but dry. This is a tough situation for me to face, but I trust in my God and my soon-to-be wife to help me recover.

So I see this blog as my therapy. And I know there is so much “art” nowadays that acts merely as a forum for venting frustrations (i.e. Emo music and open mic poetry sessions). However, anyone who thinks very personal art equals bad art should read some of the “Confessional poets” (Robert lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton to name a few… in fact, read the poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke” by Lowell to see both an example of confessional poetry (it’s nearly 100% factual) and a seminal work in the journey toward my view of suburban cubicles (but you must get a copy that includes commentary, because the context of the author’s life greatly enhances the poem))

Anyway, I will attempt to keep my pragmatic tendency in view in order to keep this blog from being merely a bitch-session. This is because there are two sides to the Gospel. One side reminds me that we live in a fallen world full of fallen people-of which I’m the worst. And the other side reminds me of the hope that Christ will redeem it all-“every crooked thing straight, every rough road smooth” (to steal from my friend Mr. Hall… who probably just stole it from some book anyway).

This is why I blog.

The Calico Rebellion

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