Have I really not written one of these since 2012? If I have, I don’t remember; but you can read the last one I remember doing by clicking here and from there you can link back to see all of them.

I only stumbled on this album recently. I first heard of this record reading Jessica Hopper’s wonderful “First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” in which she includes an essay she published following Bazan and his break from faith when on tour with a Christian rock festival. I had heard some of Bazan’s work with his “Pedro the Lion” band years ago but none of it had ever really clicked with me as even then I wasn’t much for “Christian rock”. I did however notice how outside of the box  Bazan was in that he wasn’t the typical Christian rocker in terms of lyrical content or language.

“Curse Your Branches” was first released in 2009 and it is phenomenal and heartbreaking. It’s really a break-up album but not in the “divorce album” tradition–no, this a portrait of a man breaking up with God, or rather breaking up with his belief in God. Bazan spent his life in religious circles, presumably evangelical ones and faith was deeply ingrained in everything he did and was. It seems he married a devout like-minded Christain, was raising Christian children and performing in a Christian band when he had a crisis of faith and ultimately stopped believing in God. This in turn led to deep and excessive levels of drinking and deep soul-searching. “Curse Your Branches” is his Psalms. It is his struggle when the core of his identity is stripped bare. I don’t think the average person with a casual relationship with religion can understand the level of heartbreak that can manifest when one who lives, studies, practices and intertwines  religion into their very being and all of their everyday experiences suddenly finds that faith and religion stripped from them. Suddenly the very community they were a part of and the identity they thought they had is gone. The hopes they had for this life and the next are gone. What was home is no longer home. To really believe then to question then to not believe is more often painful than liberating.

Bazan purges all of that in the songs here. It’s beautiful and tragic. Whether he’s drunkenly looking over his infant child in the wee hours (“Bless This Mess” hoping she won’t soon “hate the smell of booze” on his breath “like her mother”), wondering how to answer the big questions those children have (“In Stitches” , ” “Bearing Witness”)or laying blame on a creator for mankind’s faults (asking did You push us “When we Fell”) Bazan is boldly seeking answers in his fear and hope. He details the struggle his crisis may have on others, fearing his mother’s tears when she learns of his disbelief (“When We Fell”) and that his doubt will spread like “original sin” to his “kids and devout wife” (“Harmless Sparks”). Bazan traces us through his graduation and distancing from his family (“Hard to Be”) and envisions a future when his children may make the same mistakes (“Please Baby Please”). He rages against the indifference of the world for not letting us call our own shots (“Curse Your Branches”) and closes everything out with his most heartbreaking song, “In Stitches” where he hears the voice of the long dead captain in a ship left out at sea. Its certainly not all sad and even in its sadness it’s defiant and comfortingly human. “Bearing Witness” takes back the language of his childhood to reconfigure it as solid advice for his own children  and there are hints of possibility in even the saddest corners here. Bazan’s voice and acoustic guitar may not be ground-breaking or exceedingly “excellent” but they are more than serviceable and their imperfections really make these words come to life even more.

A great record that deserves a wider audience. I’m sure many of Pedro’s fans grew into their own crisis of faith and if so they could have worse guides struggling through to make sense of what comes after faith than Bazan. You can find “Curse Your Branches” currently on Apple Music (but not Spotify) and I’m sure it was pressed as CD–not sure about vinyl though I’ll keep my eyes open for it if so in the future.


Bacon or a Marbloro?

October 26, 2015

So it seems the Guardian, NPR, CNN, Yahoo and every other purveyor of news is reporting the WHO classification of processed meat (bacon, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, cold cuts) as revelatory and/or “breaking” new. And perhaps it is now that bacon is being classifed by the WHO on the same level as cigarettes.

But, as far as I can tell, this has been in the medical literature and reported for many years, maybe more than a decade or two. I was just having this conversation with my wife last week, and I know back when I adapted (with a slip weekend or two) my diet to exclude most red meat, processed meat and high sodium food–for BP and heart, but I was aware of the colorectal cancer issues as that’s what my father died of) that most meta-analysis shows processed meats as comparable to cigarettes.

Of course, the question is correlation as well as consumption level. As it is so hard to crunch numbers to  prove direct correlation, you enter the guesswork field the very minute you try to establish a universal law. Person A may smoke 2 packs a day for 60 years and die of natural causes while person B might develop lung cancer after 10 years and a cessation of 10. Genetics, environmental factors and sheer luck play more of a role in most health issues than we would like to admit. But, if one is to speak in stark lines the best estimate I have read equates the effect of 6 cigarettes as roughly equal to 1 strip of bacon in terms of how it affects one’s overall heart and colorectal cancer health, particularly past a certain age.

But look…processed meat and most red meat are just not good for you. We’ve known this for many years and I’ve read this in many a medical study long before today’s WHO news extravaganza. It’s really a matter of trade-offs. I’ve never seen social media or news comment threads spark off in defense of an alleged perpetrator like they do over bacon…not with alcohol or tobacco, certainly not with drugs (okay maybe pot). People seem to love their bacon in an irrational over the top way–maybe because, as long as they’re Christian (not Muslim, Jewish or Hindus) their scriptures don’t condemn it. I’m not sure if this started as an ironic kind of stance or what, but people meme bacon like it is Jesus. If you love it that much, eat it. I can honestly take it or leave it. It’s good occasionally but I can empathize with you because I dissect every alcohol or tobacco story for the specific details because I love scotch and cigars in moderation. But I’ll leave my bacon at the store unless the recipe just demands it because I can find hundreds of other foods worth eating that are good for me and I’ll leave that trade-off in favor when possible.

Really though….my question is, will a surgeon’s general warning now go on cold cuts, Subway sandwiches and bacon? It’s important that the public has the facts so they can make educated decisions on what they eat, drink, smoke, etc. But how much of an effect do those facts have, particulalry when so many conflicting stories emerge? I think the case with processed and red meats is pretty airtight though–it may not cause cancer in everyone but over a minimal limit it has bad health effects in most folks. It won’t get you high, curb your stress or chill you out but it may give you peace as a comfort food (and give you the meat sweats) but if eating bacon improves your life that much you make that choice.

I can only assume those who don’t believe there’s a student loan crisis don’t have student loans. I’ve seen it written off as merely the result of students not discerning a proper major—and I’ll get to that—and I’ve been surprised to hear the shock and awe of those without student loans or recent experience in higher education at the amount of time most of us will take to pay off our loan notes. Incredulous is the reaction I see quite often on blog comments or in general conversation—the “surely you must be exaggerating” style of comment. 

I’ll affirm it—there is a student loan crisis in America. There are many factors for this and these factors feed off of each other and exacerbate the situation as a whole. The reason many in my generation delay (or forego) purchasing their first home, having children, starting businesses or new careers or putting down roots in a community is because they have a large amount of debt hanging over their heads that guarantees a not-insignificant portion of every pay check they earn for the next 30-odd years goes to Sallie Mae or her cohorts.

 Those that think we (e.g. the upcoming, my own, and the previous generations, those 18-40) brought this on ourselves through faulty planning, poor educational choices or “partying too hard” in our twenties ignore multiple factors, some which we had a part in but many we did not. First—the cost of a college education has multiplied at an astonishing rate since the 1970s (rocketing up more than 1100 %). At one point you could actually work in the summer and save enough money to actually pay for semesters out of pocket. Today you would have to be working on Wall Street or Congress to do so. Secondly, lending grew more predatory and reached its evil nadir in the 2000s. Whereas the function of a student loan once was simply to help young people go to school and thus carried little to nothing in the way of interest fees, by 2008 student loans were being assessed far more interest than home or car loans. Additionally, the bodies granting loans were free to sell or trade the loan without the loanee’s permission assessing additional fees in the process. Outrageously, it is rarely possible to discharge student loans even by filing for bankruptcy—so someone like Fiorina or Trump can bankrupt a company and ruin the careers of thousands, escaping personally unscathed and owing nothing while the average State U student with a Business Degree and $100,000 in student loans working at Burger King cannot escape those loans in the same manner.  

Also, consider these details—as recently as 2010 the terms of the average student loan were not typically explained to students who entered the financial aid office to accept them. Students were rarely (if ever) informed of how much their payment after college would be or how long they would have to make payments. Remember, we are also talking about young people right out of high-school. Studies have shown the last part of the brain to develop is that which comprehends risk and consequence. Your average 18 year old college student in 2000-2010 also grew up believing the ticket to success must first include a college degree—entire generations were told that to succeed and become middle class a 4 year degree was largely enough. The thing is—it was! For many, many years. A funny (in a bitter way) meme a few years ago detailed “Steve and the economy” vs. “Steve’s Dad and Steve’s Dad’s economy”—poking fun at the generation of middle class 50-somethings who were able to simply “show up” at college and earn a middle class position not comprehending today’s “lazy young people.” At one point going to college was enough. Everyone heard this and a drastically larger number of people went to college, graduated—and found a crashed economy on the other side, competing with everyone else who went to college unable to find work.

One comment I often hear is that young people should just “get a degree in a field that matters.” While I will acknowledge not every possible degree is functional—there are areas of specialized knowledge that excelling in only benefits you if the knowledge is in and of itself worthwhile to you and/or you plan to work as an academic in that field—I think such comments deride entire fields of knowledge that are valuable and worthwhile. Sure a proficiency in English Literature, Philosophy or Russian History may not qualify someone for a job as a Dentist but is it really wise to completely deride the existence of these areas of knowledge? Are they not worth preserving or expanding? Do unexpected developments in the arts, culture, and even science not sometimes spring from the unlikeliest of places where deep intelligent discussion is fostered? Should we let all humanities fall by the wayside so only “practical” knowledge is developed? Besides, a serious education in any such fields should (and traditionally has) first immersed the student in a rigid basic coursework and the skills honed even in specialized fields spill over to strengthen widely applicable skills like writing, editing, research, creativity, public speaking, debate, organization, teaching and leadership. Referring to the previous point, such majors used to be enough for the graduate to find work in the business or professional world even if the area of specialized knowledge wasn’t in itself applied.

So to recap: For generations a college degree ensured entry into the middle class. Parents raising children thus taught their kids to go to college by any means necessary so they could become successful—some of these parents never made it to school themselves and wanted better for their children, others did graduate from college and saw how it worked for them and also encouraged their children to follow suit. The price of college skyrocketed. Students whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for their education went to the admissions office of the school they were accepted to and were presented with a letter detailing pre-approved loans for them. These students most often had never taken a loan of any kind and had no credit but were nonetheless pre-approved for $20-200,000 loans and were not informed of the details regarding the loan. Of course they knew it would have to be paid back but they usually didn’t realize it would include interest which could one day double the loan amount. And most probably did their math as naively as I did at 18 (“Well, I’ll make $50 or $100,000 a year as a college graduate and pay it all back in a couple of years”—disclaimer: I’ve never made anywhere close to 100,000 in a year). Then, said student graduated into an economy that had suffered through what many economists define as the worst financial crisis in US history (the fact that we didn’t have Depression era breadlines should provoke you to reassess how our leaders handled the situation). The student then found themselves in competition with the largest degree-holding group of new job-seekers in history. These job-seekers were also in competition with the two older generations who were living longer and deferring retirement later than any previous generation.

 In many ways I have been extremely lucky in comparison to so many of the horror stories of student loan debt. I have never gone hungry or been evicted and I didn’t have to move back home and crash with my mother. I was lucky to have a long-suffering hard-working significant other to help cover the bills and we collectively were lucky to always make it work and we’ve done okay for ourselves in spite of several career non-starts and a pile of student debt. I also take every advantage of deferment as able which my significant other is not always as keen on—while I agree with her on most bills (get rid of it as quickly as possible when able) on student loans I am happy to kick them on down the road as far as possible as often as possible. This is because I have paid them off and on for more than 10 years now (granted I did go on to grad school and a bit beyond, glutton for punishment and sucker for knowledge that I am) and I have yet to make a dent in them. So when out of work, when making less in a year than previously, when moving, etc.—when possible I reduce or defer and pay as little as possible. We’ve worked hard, we’ve invested as wisely as we can, and we’ve been lucky financially at times we most needed it where others I know have not been so lucky. But these student loans just seem like facts that will always be there and they were certainly a factor that let to our long wait to shift from renting to owning houses and they have been a not insignificant factor in our decision to defer (and contemplate foregoing) children. I can name you a few dozen others from personal experience alone and point you toward a slew of new stories and statistics of even more who have done similar.  

So when you hear that people in their thirties just can’t get started like their parents, remember—that’s a symptom of the college debt crisis.   Think of all the money and creativity that would go into the economy if we fixed it.

The internet has coarsened discourse, reduced comprehension and exacerbated dangerous and false views.
I know this sounds hyperbolic and reactionary. I will also acknowledge the internet has spread knowledge and opened up opportunities while connecting people and creating databases of knowledge that in years past would have been relegated to a select few ( in some cases ) or none (in others). But along with the good has come the bad. 
While I don’t discount the increase in potential knowledge the digital age has fostered I do however think the anonymity, distance and personal soapbox aspects of online communication have allowed everyone with an ignorant or prejudiced view to grandstand with a digital bullhorn. Since any person can comment on any article about any issue for the world to see with little to no filter or editorial screening has resulted in a fever-pitch spread of ignorance. Everyone thinks their opinion matters and that the world should hear it–even when that opinion is devoid of fact, logic, ethics or compassion and the subject is one completely misunderstood by the speaker.
The scariest potential of this internet commenting discourse was evident in the recent Oregon shooting tragedy. Of all that I have ever read perhaps one of the most disturbing things I read was the archived message board linked to the shooter. This board was linked by a few reports as possibly being the message board the shooter posted to the night before the crime. Upon that news breaking, apparently the FBI considered it worth considering– though the murky 4chan origins of the anonymous board makes pinpointing and verifying the information nearly impossible. Regardless, if this was indeed the killer’s last online conversations it is highly disturbing to say the least. Warning his fellow message boarders to watch the news on the north-west coast the following day this poster was egged on by people posting memes of past mass shooters, suggestions on who to target and how, and a general disrespect for life or value of any kind. 

Sickening as that board was, perhaps as scary to me was how similar it was to general comments on things as benign as a Yahoo news story about the President or a public Facebook page comment thread. Certainly it was more extreme–but in some cases just barely. Glance at the comments on a new story from any source and you’ll find genuine blanket hatred for entire groups of people or individual public persons. Message boards and comment threads have helped foment and foster hate speech that should have long ago been relegated to the fringes (or eradicated completely)–race supremacy, holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, etc. You’ll find “the Jews” and “Obama” listed as the root “cause” of anything if you read the comments to any internet story long enough. 

We most certainly have the right to speak freely and this includes in the digital world–I just question if people have developed as quickly as technology.

Anarchists are alive and well, they just don’t know it.

“The government isn’t good at anything. It’s never fixed anything. It’s not the government’s job to do anything, you have to do for yourself.”
How many similar comments have you heard in mainstream discourse since the “rise” of the Tea Party and their (unfortunate) influence on the GOP? If we are to take the likes of Cruz and so many Facebooking “pulled myself up by my bootstrap” tea-partiers seriously then the government has never and should never do anything. So why vote for candidates who think their job is to do nothing? I suppose so they can influence their coworkers to also do nothing. Such is the dream of the modern right–but there’s a better word for “no government” –anarchy.

You know, I certainly believe criticizing the government is a right and a responsibility for conscientious citizens–protesting our nations involvement in Vietnam or Iraq, for example (of course at that time such protest was done by the “unpatriotic”). But I also believe our government has “done things”, sometimes quite well, and I also believe that when they fail to do something we should work to reform (through votes and activism) the government so that it functions better–not so that it just ceases to function. How did the idea that “the government does nothing” grow so ubiquitous? Do people not drive on public highways, have fire departments, disaster relief, libraries, etc? Sure there are flaws in every system and we can debate how we are taxed and how that money is spent but to deny the need or use of the federal government is mind boggling. I’ve heard it stated how the states most filled with those who decry “big government” are the ones which would suffer most were they to be refused federal funds. 

Facts don’t matter–people don’t care.

Tying into my previous point as an example to introduce this one– People don’t think government does anything because they like the story they tell themselves in which they through their own sheer hard work and skill accomplished everything they have solely through their own drive. Conversely, people cling to the hope that through their hard work they will accomplish their goals and get out of their current situation. To accept that outside forces play a role in all of this can be disheartening. 

People mostly do not care what stats point to or what facts detail, they like the stories they tell themselves. People only care about news and “facts” that reinforce what they already believe.
It is frustrating to debate issues like gun control, immigration, the relationship between church and state in America, women’s access to health care, the needs of the middle class or any other pressing issue facing us in the US today because studies, facts and even concrete examples do little to sway many people’s opinion. 
Here’s the thing–facts should lead us to the truth even if that truth is painful. That which is true is so regardless of how we may feel about it and we can’t resolve any important issue without being open to the idea that what we are predisposition to believe may in fact be wrong. The internet, with all of its potential and wealth of knowledge cannot increase genuine knowledge in an individual or affect positive change if we all personally curate our “news” to fit our already held beliefs.