the loss of the common denominator

If you've ever seen American Graffiti. If you've ever seen Mr. Holland's Opus. Or Animal House, Dave, Down Periscope or Wayne's World.

If you've ever played in a high school pep band. If you've ever been involved in a drunken sing-along. If you had any variation of an American childhood.

Then, you would know.

But the people in my masters program haven't done many of these things. Except perhaps the drunken sing-alongs.

Regardless, the following is a true excerpt from a conversation had today in my contemporary performance class:

Me: "...so it's a musical program that charts the evolution of American popular music censorship, from about the Revolutionary War to present day. And some of the things that have been censored, you just wouldn't believe. Like, for example, you know 'Louie, Louie' right?"

(Blank stares.)

Me: "'Louie, Louie'? Like, Loooouie, loooouie, ooooh, oooh? It's just like three chords the whole time. Dun dun dun. You know?"

(Heads shaking, more blank stares.)

Professor: "Why don't you sing some of it for us?"

Me: "Dun dun dun, duh dun, dun dun dun, duh dun. Louie, Louie! Oooh, oooh, said, we gotta go. Ay, ay, ay ay. ...You know the song, right?"

(More blank stares, furrowed eyebrows and general confusion.)

I went on to explain the censorship the song had undergone following its initial release and also how odd it was to me that they'd never heard it. Later in the lesson, the professor was describing a particular work by a composer that apparently is extremely well known in England.
Prof.: "It'd be like your 'Louie' song, then!"

My Louie song. Though it is completely mind-boggling to me that someone could not know one of the most recognized tunes in the history of American popular music, I also see it as a challenge, for me to be better able to articulate and discuss these important songs, artists and movements because for the first time in my life I am being greeted by an utterly blank canvas. To be able to introduce someone at the age of 25 or 30 to "Louie, Louie"? To Bob Dylan, to Led Zeppelin, to soul, to MoTown, to rock'n'roll in general?

What an amazing privilege.

HRH e. cawein



So I've taken the plunge, and joined National Blog Posting Month, more affectionately known as NaBloPoMo. This means I've committed to posting once a day for the entire month of November, along with thousands of other bloggers who've accepted the challenge, as well.

My hope is that this will push me toward taking more pictures, because on days when I don't feel like writing I'll have the option (in my own self-imposed rules for my participation) of posting a recent photo.

If I can make it successfully through the first few days of November, which will be spent in Berlin, then I have faith in my ability to last all 30 days.

So here's to NaBloPoMo! May the blogs be entertaining enough to read once a day, and the days be entertaining enough to blog about.

HRH e. cawein

girls will be boys

Today in Music and Text we discussed gender and sexuality in music, based on our readings of Foucault's History of Sexuality and McClary's Feminine Endings. The Foucault text is less a history of sexuality and more a history of the discourse of sexuality, and the McClary work was highly informed by Foucault as it examined changing gender roles, specifically in opera.

McClary focused on Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Apparently the sexual and social tides changed so much simply in the course of Monteverdi's work on the piece that the male character he created at the outset had become effeminate and emasculated by the newer acceptable norms of gender behavior by the time the opera was complete.

As with all of our musicological discussions, my mind immediately turned to begin applying these gender concepts to popular music; in the case of this topic it's even more appropriate, because it is at the core of my master's dissertation. Almost immediately I noted a significant difference in the treatment of expected gender traits in Monteverdi's works and era, and the treatment of those traits today -- or rather our reactions to the expected vs. the unexpected.

Monteverdi ended up re-writing the close of L'Orfeo because the buyer who commissioned the work was unhappy with it; the masculine hero had fallen, and sang the lament, which was now seen as feminine. Audiences have been trained by cultural and social constructs of gender to expect certain things from males and certain things from females. And apparently we're confused when we don't get things as they should be.

Or at least that was so in Monteverdi's time.

I submit that conversely, in modern popular music, the musicians about which we are most fanatical actually challenge traditional gender behaviors. At first I thought this about female figures, particularly -- women who exude power, command attention, write their own lyrics/music, control the fate of their own careers, these are the ones we like best. Hell, even a woman with a guitar is pushing slightly against instrumental gender expectations. The examples are endless: Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Pat Benetar, Annie Lennox, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, et al.

But then I realized that the reversal also had implications for male musicians, though perhaps not as vast. Gender-bending was the name of the game in '80s pop, with Boy George, Freddie Mercury, the Cure and the shaggy-haired, doe-eyed boys of Duran Duran and the like. But I think you could also argue that some of the traits that earned notable musical sex icons their place in the canon of masturbatory fantasy are innately effeminate. Robert Plant's long curly locks and skin-tight pants. Mick Jagger's on-stage gyrations and snug, spandex wardrobe. The act of seduction, the role of seducer -- these things belong to the feminine.

So with this apparent role reversal, the question I find myself asking is, do gender roles in expression and the arts differ from gender roles in daily life? Is it that this is a reversal, or simply that we assume separate personas when taking the stage or picking up an instrument or pen? I don't know that I believe the answer to that question is affirmative, but it leads me to a need for defining current expectations of sexuality.

So that's where you come in. Post a comment, and list for me as many traits of each gender as you can think of. I'd rather you didn't spend an incredible amount of time pondering this, but instead just rapidly jot down the characteristics that come to mind immediately. Who are we as men and women? Or rather, what do we expect ourselves (and each other) to be?

HRH e. cawein


rainy days and thursdays

Today felt like a classically London winter day: cold, overcast and spitting rain. On the train on the way home from campus at about 3 in the afternoon, the streetlights were already coming on and I felt like putting some words down. This is still very raw, a work in progress, so friendly critique is welcomed.


so that the confused streetlamps have flickered on
at just past three in the afternoon,
and dabbles of muted yellow light
catch at the tips of rust-colored oak leaves,
in tiny drops of rainwater
hanging precariously in wait of the next breeze.
so that the once-whitewashed stucco houses
seem to fade into an indeterminable horizon,
their battered black-shingle roofs
perhaps mistaken for tiny dark clouds
when passing quickly by a rain-specked train window.
so that the city resembles a polka-dot dress,
satiny blue-grey bodice, the thames flowing down
to a modestly flirtatious hemline,
and the dots themselves:
the endless dance of people, each head hidden
beneath an umbrella;
reds, blues, purples, greens.
so that one must always wonder
if it is the dress that swings in time,
or the dots themselves.

HRH e. cawein


why i still read my horoscope, part II

I haven't blogged much about my job -- aside from the sheer joy of being hired and knowing pounds were on the horizon -- but things have been particularly good at old Pell and Bales lately; little did I know it was astrologically destined to be so.

I have to admit first that the connection I'm about to share with you is doubly humorous because of a running joke between a co-worker and me about the whole frivolity of horoscopes, that any one for any sign on a given day could apply to anyone and they are written with an almost absurd lack of specificity so as to make that eminently possible.

Today, however, I happened to get to my horoscope at the end of the day, and what I found made me laugh out loud.

I worked the evening shift and had a particularly great run; I managed to secure six monthly donations in just three hours, which is quite an accomplishment -- the best shift I've had yet, I do believe. I was on fire.

So when I came home, had my tea and opened up this on astrology.com, you can imagine why I was so amused:

"Put social obligations and romantic endeavors on hold for a little while. They aren't going anywhere any time soon! Today, your brain is wired for wheeling and dealing! With this magical combination of charm and intelligence that's come over you, you could sell anything to anyone -- and get them to pay you double. Of course, taking advantage of people isn't your style ... but there's nothing wrong with utilizing your gift to help make decisions that could pay off big time."

HRH e. cawein


crash (landing) course

Think shuffleboard -- but take away the beaches of Boca and replace them with the Lochs of Ness. Take away the pina coladas and replace them with hearty pints of beer. And most importantly, take away the pavement, and replace it with ice.

It's called curling, and though it's been an Olympic sport since 1924, up until this weekend my only knowledge of curling was that it did, indeed, exist. So when I set out for Kent on Saturday I was ready to learn, and also prepared to engage in a sport at which I am semi-professional: spectating.

My cousin Aaron and his wife Melanie were in Kent with their curling club, based in New Jersey, to compete in a bonspiel (curling tournament). Kent is a gorgeous 45-minute trainride from central London and the bonspiel itself took place at Fenton's Rink -- the only curling rink in the whole of England, surprisingly enough -- which was out a good bit from the town centre, down a windy, narrow road, on Dundale Farm.

I got to the rink at about 2:30 in the afternoon, just in time to get the quick-and-dirty on what I was seeing on the rink and then watch Aaron and Melanie's team play at around 3. By the end of their game I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things, but I'd also had about two-and-a-half beers by then and feel certain that my amount of understanding was increasing exponentially in relation to the amount of hops and barley entering my system.

So here goes my attempt to explain a little bit about the game. The good thing for you is, lamen's terms are the only terms I got, so this should be pretty simple.

Okay, first things first. This is a view of one end of the rink. The other end looks exactly the same. So at a given time, six teams are actually competing, two on each sheet. They each have eight stones to throw in a given end (think inning). The goal is to get your team's stones as close to the center of the circle (or the house) as possible; whichever team has the closest stone at the close of an end gets points for every stone they have that is closer than the closest stone of the opposing team.

So in order to get your stones into the opposite circle and score, you have to throw them. So the person on the far right here takes the stone in one hand, and often braces the other with a broom, as you see here. They push off with the stone and eventually release it, at which time they are in a position that can best be described as resembling extreme ice bowling.

Check out the far left. See what I mean? Okay. So once the stone is released, the sweepers come in. The sweepers' job is to help control the speed and the distance of the stone by sweeping the ice in front of it to smooth it out, thus making the stone travel faster and farther.

It's a little Double Dubberley sweeping action.

But of course I didn't just sit on the sidelines and drink beer during my time at Fenton's Rink. I'll be honest, I did quite a bit of that. But I also got out on the rink for a very brief curling lesson. This is where the title of this blog becomes a bit more apropos. After the games were done for the day, Aaron got me in some curling shoes and we headed out onto the ice.

When I go pro in curling and write a memoir about my experiences, this will perhaps be the first chapter, and may be called something like, "Stepping Onto the Ice for the First Time: A Cautionary Tale of Love at First Wipe-Out." I do love a good subtitle. But since that book won't be published any time soon, I'll give you the cautionary tale now. That whole walking-on-ice thing? With the curling shoes on? That have the little slippery discs on the bottom? That thing? It can only be described with a famous Cawein saying that goes a little something like this.

Hard to doooooo.

I think I wiped out completely about three or four times, but in a very responsible manner -- only on my ass, never on my head. I promised Aaron that I wouldn't die on the rink and I did hold up my end of the bargain very beautifully. But in the course of the 15 minutes or so we were on the ice (when I wasn't on my ass) I managed to make it from one end of the rink to the other and to shoot a few stones with decent success. And despite the falls, it's definitely something I'd like to try again.

Saturday evening there was a pig roast and a barn dance -- yes, I am still in England -- at which we partook in a little Scottish line dancing and of course, some roasted pig. We didn't stay there terribly long, because it was in an open barn, in Kent, in October (translation: frigid), so we headed to a pub up the road from the New Jersey curlers' cottages called The Boar's Head Inn, and then back to their cottages for beer, cider and conversation. In all it was a fabulously enjoyable afternoon and evening, and I began to realize that one of the best things about the sport of curling is perhaps not even the game itself, but the people you get to drink beer with once you're done.

They also know how to travel off the beaten path, a quality I much appreciate, and decided to forgo the comforts of the local Ramada Inn in favor of waking up to this view every morning.

So, to the Margarita Shanghai/New Jersey curlers, I extend my sincere thanks -- for sharing your sport, your brew and your bonspiel with me. It was without a doubt the most memorable weekend I've had since arriving in England, and now I, too, can say with confidence: I've never met a curler I didn't like.

HRH e. cawein


context clues

Why do you like the music you like? Do you "like" it because of some tangible musical qualities, like tone or chord progressions, specific notes or phrases, good sounds? Or is the truth instead that you don't actually "like" anything; you just identify with it because it is familiar to you?

It's a question that was thrown at me last week in my Music and Text class, and it's one I've been trying to answer since then. Could it be that what I believe to be my musical taste is only a context of musical references that have been created in my life since I first began to hear recorded sound? And that each supposedly new sound is in fact just a loose recreation or reminder of some other sound, or other time in my life?

The theory seems to lend itself well to the idea of acquired tastes. One of my biggest musical acquired tastes in recent years was Bright Eyes, also known as Conor Oberst. When I first listened to his music, I don't know that I did particularly like it. But the more I listened to it, the more it grew on me -- but is that actually because it was just becoming more familiar to me, and also attaching itself to situations and periods in my mind so that, when I listen to the music, I think of those times instead of the music itself?

Now of course, the purist in me would love to argue this into the ground, to say that each of us can and does have a specific sensibility of musical taste, things we "like" or "don't like." But I can't argue that context has an incredible influence on that; certainly the things we hear once and love, we search for again in other music. This could be a particular instrument -- the piano, for me -- or it could be a style of songwriting, or even an intangible thing that takes you back to a different time in your life.

The relationship between situational context and music is inarguable; the question more appropriately in that vast arena is, what is the direction of influence? Does music influence how we feel about the situation? Or does the situation influence how we feel about music?

Today I pressed play on a Bright Eyes song I hadn't listened to in probably a year, and let it continue through the next several tracks on the album. The album is called "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," and I listened to it, along with "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" (also Oberst) endlessly while here in London two summers ago. I listened to a fair amount of Led Zeppelin and Dave Matthews, as well, but it is only the Bright Eyes that sticks in my mind specifically with my summer here. Of course, I had pre-established contexts through which I heard the music of Zep and DMB long prior to my trip overseas; I'd been listening to the music for years. But Bright Eyes was a relatively new discovery -- maybe a year to six months old. So it stuck to the city in my mind like no other sensory element.

Now some of the songs on the album seem almost too potent for me to enjoy, at least without removing myself mentally from them, as I'm doing now by blogging. If I allow myself to become involved in the song again, I am essentially removed from the present and taken back to every worry, concern, anxiety but also joy and happiness of that summer, and its inevitable end. And this is not any kind of earth-shattering discovery; we all have these songs, these albums, and I'd venture to guess most of us have many of them.

Jason Mraz's "Waiting for my Rocket to Come" -- freshman year of college, rooming with LeeAnna. Gavin Degraw's "Chariot" -- same thing. Something Corporate's "North" or "Leaving Through the Window" -- sophomore year, fall. Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" -- cold nights in the coffee shop, senior year. Death Cab's "Plans" -- my first truly distressing break-up.

So what are your most vivid musical associations? It could be just one song, or a whole album. Tell me what it makes you think of, and when you listened to it most.

HRH e. cawein



tube savvy, no. 1

If you're planning to live, work or just travel in London -- whether your level of concern for sporting events is fanatic or non-existent -- I recommend becoming well-versed with the match schedules for local teams, as well as the locations of the stadiums and the lines fans may use to reach those particular destinations.

Otherwise, you may experience what I got stuck in today. And when I say got stuck, I actually mean that quite literally. From Baker Street to Wembley Park on the Metropolitan line, I got to know very personally several people I had never met, including a whole slew of unruly England fans, many of them actively drinking and a few of them already drunk and leading sing-alongs.

At several points during the painfully long ride I actually had to crane my neck up to get fresh, breathable air. It was that bad.

Lesson learned: Be tube savvy. Know what's going on in the city and you can avoid crowded lines whenever possible.

HRH e. cawein


why i still read my horoscope

Tuesday, October 9

"Something needs to be put behind you now. A past disappointment or hurt has been nurtured long enough. That was then; this is now. Lessons learned previously might not be apparent now, but they're not as important as recognising a need to look forward to something with renewed optimism, not pessimism."

HRH e. cawein


Month One

I remember the first time I ever saw the London skyline across the Thames. It was one of my first days here back in the summer of 2005, and my first time to head into the city from Sydenham. I was confused by the National Rail and ended up taking a train that wasn't really necessary from London Bridge to Charing Cross. On any day after that date, I would've just gone underground at London Bridge and taken the tube into town. But I'm glad I made that mistake, because the train from LB to Charing Cross is above ground, and it was a gorgeously sunny summer morning.

The woman next to me probably thought I was crazy; it was still morning rush hour and I'm willing to bet I was the only person on the train not dressed smart casual and ready for a chat around the water cooler. I know I emitted an audible gasp when the skyline first came into view; my whole body tensed. It was finally real.

In the past month, my brushes with reality have been a little different, though no less potent. A few weeks ago, as Kate and I were parting ways on the Southbank -- she and Ben to head back to their car, me off to Waterloo to catch a train home -- she said something about calling if I needed anything, and started to ask me if I'd be okay getting home on my own. She stopped herself. "That's silly, nevermind! I guess you've moved halfway across the world you can probably manage the tube!" She laughed, and I did, too.

I turned away to continue walking down the bank, stared down the river at the houses of Parliament and sort of shook my head. There I was, just having lunched with a family I adored but wondered if I'd ever see again after I got back to the states, walking down the Thames with no obligations but my own. I spent months, years after I left that summer trying to figure out how I was going to get back, imagining that meeting with Kate and Phil, imagining my Bridget Jones-esque existence walking over the Waterloo bridge. I imagined it all, and now -- now, it's real.

Autumn in London. The colors are just starting to change, though it's felt like my definition of fall for a few weeks now. I think a lot about what the city will feel like when its oranges and reds are on full display, and also how I will feel when I walk through my first London snow.

In many ways, this first month was devoid of the type of adventure I plan to seek regularly as a Londoner; its adventures instead were in personal change and growth that just cannot be charted in an orthodox manner. Of course, there was my initial arrival into the UK on September 4. The city seemed to slip back around me like an old winter glove, away for a season in a high closet shelf, but whose nuances and curves were still so familiar to me. It had shades of a homecoming; I didn't miss a beat.

About a week and half later, I'd found my flat. The first few nights felt like the uneasy transition from cradle to big-girl bed; it was as if I were playing house. Since then I've become fully accustomed to the creaks and groans of the house, the ring of the telephone, the sound of the neighborhood kids outside my kitchen window.

Then came fresher's week, and one of the shortest job hunts on record. Now, after four weeks, I've finally attended all my classes once each and have my first major assignment for one of them, aside from the standard weekly readings. Monday begins my regular work schedule and marks my first time on the call centre floor with no training strings attached.

And in the midst of all that, I've been figuring out how exactly it is you're supposed to transition from talking to your parents every other day or so to speaking to them for just 15 minutes once each week. How you go from weekly phone dates with your best friends to weekly instant messenger dates. How you manage to use Facebook without allowing it to make you incredibly homesick.

(Okay, I'm definitely still working on that one.)

September 2007 was certainly a month of incredible change for me. I moved to another country. I began living on my own and paying rent for the first time in my life. I became a master's student, and a student of music, no less. I came out battered and scarred, but still breathing, from a serious relationship.

Occasionally I have had it said to me, and have had the urge myself to think, "I am so lucky to be here." And while I am incredibly thankful for every second I have in this gorgeous city, with these people and on this earth, for that matter, I'm not willing to fork over any of the credit to luck. I've worked my ass off to get here, and it is for that reason that I will truly drink it in; I have put in two years' worth of research and planning to make it back to this amazing country, and I'll be thousands of dollars in debt from student loans when it's over. But when I sign the checks to the loan company each month, I will think of it as a thank you note to myself, for not allowing anything or anyone to keep me from this moment, right here, now.Here's to October: May it be even better than the last.

HRH e. cawein

oh, and P.S.: This one's for you mom. Please note Joey Tribiani on the right-hand side. I tried to appear as though I was taking a picture of the opposite bank of the river, but I think I failed miserably. At least I did resist the urge to run up to him and yell, "London, BABY!"


coming soon to a travel blog near you

Coming tomorrow: photography, and the several-days-overdue one-month review.

HRH e. cawein


life lessons

Yesterday at work, I taught a co-worker how to use a microwave.

The funny thing about that is that my job is actually at a call center raising funds for charities, not in fact with underprivileged kids from developing countries who are trying to acclimate themselves to life in the developed world.

Yesterday was a double shift, and on our dinner break a few of us went next door to Somerfield's to get some grub. I picked up a generic microwaveable pasta dinner because I wanted something hot. My co-worker saw my dinner choice and decided she wanted something hot, too, on that miserably cold day.

We walk back next door and up to the kitchen, where we realize we've forgotten to get forks. No worries, though, as I locate two metal spoons in a drawer. We can't use those to prick the plastic covering, though, so I just peel back two corners of mine.

At this point she seems confused, but I'm not terribly fazed by it. I show her what I'm doing, and I look over a second later to see that she's completely pulled the plastic off. I tell her that she was just supposed to vent it, so she should put that back on top, and she immediately begins babbling in a panic. I reassure her three or possibly four times that everything is in fact okay and her meal has not been ruined.

There are two microwaves side-by-side in the Pell and Bales kitchen, so she and I are putting our dinners in at the same time. The time is two-and-a-half minutes. I punch in my time, and press start. I look to my right.

She's struggling.

I reach over and punch in the 2:30 myself and press start. It is during this waiting period that she reveals to me that she's never really used a microwave before. Ever. I momentarily flash back to the four years of my life when I lived on microwavable foods. It was called college. God love a Lean Cuisine.


We pull our pasta out after the timer goes off, and I have to instruct her that now she is supposed to stir and remember to recover.

She again struggles with the time-setting function. I again assist.

This time she asks me a series of questions that make it clear that she is unaware that one can purchase virtually ANY meal or dish in a microwavable tray such as the ones we're using.

But perhaps the best moment was when, after stirring her meal before putting it back in for another two minutes, she put the spoon in her mouth end-first, leaving the cheese and sauce covered end dangling momentarily over the counter as she repositioned her meal in the microwave. She then asked me, is it safe to eat what's on the spoon?

Is it safe? It's tomato sauce and cheese, first of all. But I didn't say this. What I did say was, well, since the meal is fully cooked prior to you heating it, I'd say yeah, it's very safe.

It is? She asks.

"How do you think you get fully cooked pasta with no water involved in just four minutes?" I asked.

"Well, I guess it did seem a little weird."

HRH e. cawein