Today’s post-workout lunch. Pan seared salmon with a cajun remoulade sauce over fresh greens and sundried tomatoes.
Today’s post-workout lunch. Pan seared salmon with a cajun remoulade sauce over fresh greens and sundried tomatoes.
Earlier this morning, UConn’s study abroad office asked if I would be willing to share my adventures abroad with prospective travelers and their families. I am humbled at this opportunity, and welcome all of my new readers! You may have to sift through some post-study abroad essays, but a majority of this website contains pictures and words from my four months in Europe. You have no idea what you’re in for.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I’ll help you out if I can, but hey, figuring it out on your own is all part of the adventure.
Great afternoon with Noah and Dad. The Cambridge House’s flight of Kolsch, IPA, Porter, Lime Rock Red, and Alt 45 brews. Awesome.
This is one of my favorite pieces of music journalism, ever. Once or twice a year, usually while I’m procrastinating from my own writing, I find myself rereading this incredible account of the wisdom, excess, and barely believable life of Ricky Rozay.
Over the past ten days, seventeen adults, teenagers, and young children have died from gun violence in Detroit. Atlanta and Washington DC have higher rates of firearm homicides than South Africa and Brazil, respectively. Policymic.com reports that if New Orleans was its own country, it would have the second highest death-by-gun ratio in the world. But this isn’t just a local problem; the effects of these statistics aren’t confined to inner city neighborhoods and minority populations. The United States government spends 100 billion dollars a year in the fight against guns, and a formerly random list of unassuming towns and cities has become a testament to the mayhem and destruction caused by an American citizen with a gun: Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook.
Despite the government’s efforts, gun violence has continued to terrorize our country. Pro-gun lobbyists have prioritized money and their own agendas over the well-being of our society. In doing so, these groups have undercut the government’s ability to effect change and turned a straightforward issue into a tortuous mess of bureaucracy and political bargaining. All the while, and only a few city blocks from Capitol Hill, violent crimes continue to plague neighborhoods like Washington DC’s Southeast.
The United States needs to change its approach to gun violence, and fast. Instead of relying on the government, activists and concerned citizens should turn their focus to the buildings blocks of our nation: families. If families are educated on the dangers of picking up a firearm, they will learn to see beyond our nation’s culture of violence and its ubiquity in the American media. If parents and local communities can rally around this issue, the demand for illegal, unregistered guns will decline. After school programs, increased mental health resources, and volunteer support can get teens involved in their communities and deter them from a life of crime. Family love and support can outpace gang affiliation, but only if families are educated and made aware of the epidemic sweeping our nation.
Families can also join the fight to end mass shootings and the horrifyingly common occurrence of weapons falling into the hands of the mentally ill. Gun owners need to swallow their pride and ensure that firearms are locked up and safe, even from their own children. As a society, we need to remove the stigma from mental health disorders and provide support to the mentally ill and their families. If these families own guns, the time has come for them to reconsider their purchases; guns have killed too many people over the past year to remain in high-risk homes. If our society can support these ideas, we can diagnose and treat psychological patients before they get their hands on loaded weapons.
Even pro-gun groups like the NRA, whose representatives have repeatedly labeled background checks as ineffective, would stand behind a family and community-oriented approach to ending gun violence. In April 2013, the NRA called for “a serious and meaningful solution” that addressed our nation’s “mental health deficiencies” without stigmatizing “law-abiding gun owners.” A family-based approach would do just this. The ideas described above would raise awareness of gun violence and mental health issues without burdening responsible owners with additional background checks or certifications. If the NRA is satisfied with the direction of a family-based program, lobbyists may back out of legislative debates and pave the way for future reform. This is a tremendous benefit that mustn’t be overlooked.
As families begin to consider their involvement in ending gun violence in America, they only need to ask themselves one question: what sort of country do I want to leave for my children? Every day, parents are faced with endless opportunities to instill values and beliefs in their children. Communities and neighborhoods are burdened with a similar task. It is time to make use of this influence. In doing so, we can repair communities that have been torn apart by shootings and homicides. We can promote safety and mental health awareness in gun owners. We can save lives. By adopting a family-based approach to gun violence and reducing the stigma toward mental health, we can create a better present and future for our entire country.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece on November 10, 2013 for a college class on public policy and the family. All content is original and my own!
The first time I listened to Ryan Adams, I was sad. I was listening to an online radio station in the throes of a pretty serious breakup (which is never a good idea), and, like a sign from God, “Come Pick Me Up” came on with a harmonica solo and a lazy drum fill. I remember looking down at the artist photo, a sad Ryan Adams lying down somewhere, looking very forlorn and depressed, joint hanging out of his mouth and eyes closed in reflective solitude. When I read the title of his first solo album, Heartbreaker (recorded in 2000 after several years with the group Whiskeytown), I almost started to laugh. Shit. Adams was one spiteful dude.
Heartbreaker opens with a thirty second clip of an argument between Adams and Dave Rawlings, a pretty talented folk/rock musician in his own. In what seems like an effort to be “cool, normal guys,” the two argue about a Morrissey single before launching into “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High,” an angsty song about spending your teenage years gettin’ sad and gettin’ high. The contrast between such a high brow argument and a song like this is grimacing…. and perfect.
After its high-energy opening, Heartbreaker starts acting a little more like itself. For the next half of the album, every track bring a mellow folk sound infused with spite and drenched in alcohol. The songs verge on gimmicky, but Adams’ ear for melodies and composition keeps the teenage girl aspect of his personality in check. “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” “Damn Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains,” “Come Pick Me Up” (the classic), and “To Be The One” stand out as particularly excellent.
In the last quarter of the album, just as we’re getting used to Adams’ new solo sound and finishing the bottle of wine we opened when we sat down to listen, we’re transported to a southern “Shakedown On 9th Street,” complete with George Thorogood-esque guitars and lyrics about “gals,” “boots,” and something called a “kicking machine.” After the drama of the shakedown, we get “Don’t Ask For The Water,” a low-key and whiskey-soaked song advising listeners: “don’t ask her for the water/cause you’ll sink like a ship.” If there’s one thing Ryan Adams maintains throughout the album, it’s cliches like this.
I’m being critical of Heartbreaker, but I can’t avoid the unfortunate truth: it’s probably one of my most played albums. The songs are cheesy, but they’re excellent. A valid cross-media comparison would be Nicholas Cage movies. Nobody is saying he’s the best actor out there, but you’re crazy if you haven’t obsessively quoted Face/Off or plotted to steal important documents after watching National Treasure. These guys work in their roles, and we love them for it.
After listening to Heartbreaker, I moved through the rest of the Ryan Adams discography with understandably mixed feelings. His latest album, Ashes & Fire, is the Heartbreaker of the next decade. The music itself is, for the most part, pretty excellent (“Dirty Rain,” “Come Home,” “Lucky Now”) with no lack of cheesy Adams lyrics and themes. “Chains of Love” provides the most groan-worthy metaphor, with “Rocks” coming in as a close second (“I am not rocks/I am not rain/I’m just another shadow in the stream”). Adams has even cited burning phoenixes and hot days in California as cliched inspirations for the album’s title and main themes. Delicious.
One of the downsides (upsides?) to Ryan Adams’ penchant for the prolific is the extent of his recordings. Since Heartbreaker, Adams has released twelve albums, one of which is a double and two of which come in with over fifteen tracks. Amidst this explosion of material, most albums have one or two hits (Gold has “The Rescue Blues” and “When The Stars Go Blue,” Easy Tiger has “Halloweenhead,” Rock N Rollhas…), but mostly comically-titled songs that all sound the same. These titles read like a book of sappy, emotional poems splashed with occasional irony: “Sewers At The Bottom Of The Wishing Well,” “Death And Rats,” “Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.,” “This House Is Not For Sale,” “She Wants To Play Hearts,” “City Rain, City Streets,” and some of my favorites like “Note To Self: Don’t Die,” “Cry On Demand” (this one’s great), and “Jesus, Don’t Touch My Baby.” These songs are the made-for-TV releases of Nicholas Cage’s film career, the songs to listen to when nothing else is playing. Needless to say, I listen to them a lot more than I’m ready to admit.
A Google Images search of Ryan Adams yields pictures of a man that is impossible to categorize. In one photo, Ryan is smoking a cigarette with long hair and a beard that scream John Lennon. In a high-contrast black and white, he’s sitting on the floor and leaning against a closed door- the epitome of 21st century emo. In a third, he’s in Billie Joe Armstrong mode with spiked black hair and a matching suit. These images reflect an artist who works on his own accord and quite literally marches to the beat of his own drum. He releases what he wants, when he wants, regardless of critical opinions or how objectively “original” he appears to be. It’s ironic: in a world where artists are so obsessed with originality, Ryan Adams’ sappy cliches are almost refreshing.
This is probably why I love Ryan Adams. He exists in a creative sphere where anything goes, even the themes and metaphors that other artists are taught to avoid. From this, I get a strange sense of originality and freedom from Adams’ discography. It works, and it’s great. Whether you’re looking to commiserate, fall in love, or rock the fuck out, Ryan Adams and his music will always be there to come pick you up.
The first time I heard Lou Reed sing, I was probably ten or eleven years old. The song was “Walk on the Wild Side,” an expected entry point into one of my favorite discographies in music. My father, after explaining that “colored girls” wasn’t an appropriate phase to walk around singing, put the song onto my pre-iPod mp3 player, proud with his progress in the battle against my late elementary school fascination with Eminem and Limp Bizkit. It hasn’t left my music library since.
Fast forward to my hipster days in high school, when an album that involved a banana and some association with Andy Warhol ended up in my backpack courtesy of a friend named Andrew. “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “Heroin.” In the world of mellow, indie, psychedelic rock, it doesn’t get much better than that. I listened to it constantly, struggling a little bit to get into Nico but completely taken by Reed’s world of drugs and deviance. This wasn’t just another band to listen to. This was the band that lead to everything else I was listening to.
Several years later, on a bizarre car ride with an old girlfriend and her brother, Reed’s magic came back to my life. This time, it was Loaded, an album that has since entered my top ten (of all genres, all time) and won’t be leaving any time soon. We were listening to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” driving through rural, foggy Eastern Connecticut. It was my first time hearing the masterpiece, and it was pretty damn perfect. The build up. The solo. Lou Reed’s “aaaaw, lemme hear ya.” This was rock and roll.
After that car ride, my studying playlist slowly turned into Spotify’s Velvet Underground discography. Loaded, VU, White Light/White Heat, the twenty plus minute recording of “Sister Ray.” Every album brought changes in style and a slightly altered approach from the band. Chill enough to study to, prolific enough to blast in the car and rock out to. Mellow library music interspersed with compulsive air guitar playing.
When I read about Lou Reed’s death on this sunday morning, I immediately opened up VU’s discography and listened through the songs that have helped to define my life. From my first exposure to the wild side to numerous windows-down drives to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” Lou Reed has given me art, creativity, and energy. He was an incredible influence on rock and alternative music and deserves a few rockin’ minutes of your time; take a break from real life and reacquaint yourself with one of these classics.
Few musicians have affected me like Elliott Smith. Almost ten years ago, as per a camp counselor’s recommendation (why did I do anything back then?), I googled the artist’s name and clicked on the first video that showed up: the grainy, low-resolution video for Miss Misery, one of his biggest hits. From the video’s opening “Smog Cutter” image to Elliott’s depressed wanderings form parking meter to parking meter (and is he being followed?), Miss Misery draws you into a world that is dark in broad daylight. He’s resigned and sad, but carries himself through the video in, aside from that greasy hair, a strangely dapper way. Like the rest of his music suggests, Elliott Smith was a beautiful person living in a sad and strange world.
After I saw the video for Miss Misery, I built a small repertoire of Elliott Smith’s most popular songs into my prized iTunes library. “Pretty (Ugly Before),” “Between the Bars,” “Twilight,” and “Waltz, No. 2 (XO),” the big one in terms of mainstream popularity, were (and still are) great entrances into the mind of the genius singer-songwriter. Most of these songs appear on Kill Rock Stars’ An Introduction to Elliott Smith, which deserves a listen from any fan on today’s tenth anniversary. From here, “Needle in the Hay” and the bathroom scene in The Royal Tenenbaums were the next steps to understanding Smith’s life and music. I began to read about the circumstances surrounding the artist’s death, which piqued my interest in his psyche and sent me to Borders (remember Borders?) to purchase New Moon, a collection of b-sides and rare recordings.
For a 15 year old, Smith’s death is sad, stirring, and hard to comprehend. Such extreme behavior from a man who sang decibels above a whisper sent me back to lyrics websites and early albums with an intent to understand… but I couldn’t. Smith’s lyrics are direct expressions of addiction, depression, and sorrow, three things I couldn’t (and admittedly still cannot) fully identify with. When I tried to play his easier songs on my acoustic guitar, it didn’t feel right. Elliott Smith had one of the most unique perspectives and styles that I’d ever heard, and nobody could capture his experience quite like he could. He could express his sadness as directly as possible (“Everything Means Nothing to Me”), but dressed it up with arpeggios that almost convince you to sing along. He wore his sorrow on his sleeve, but created some of the most beautiful music of the past 20 years. It is this strange beauty and complexity that keeps the ghost of Elliott Smith alive.
Elliott was smart, and graduated form Hampshire College with a degree in philosophy and political science before returning to Portland to work odd jobs and, eventually, become a musician. By the mid-90s, he was signed to Kill Rock Stars and beginning to experience serious issues with depression, drugs, and alcohol. By 2000, Smith had signed to a larger label, DreamWorks, and released Figure 8, the last record he would create in his lifetime. He was addicted to heroin, severely depressed, and continuously botched live performances. After a year of attempted rehab and self-improvement, Smith finished recording From a Basement on the Hill. For the first time in a long time, things were looking up.
But, as seen in Elliott’s music, a facade of beauty can cover up a lifetime of sadness. His death shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, and the homicide controversy surrounding the role of his girlfriend may have prevented listeners and fans from acknowledging an important truth: all people need to be helped. Smith’s music was a cry for help from a cohort too down on themselves to realize their own self-worth. It teaches us the true power of a dark mind and the extent of human sadness. But, like Elliott Smith’s tender life, his music is beautiful.
Since Smith’s death, street memorials and tributes have popped up around the world: from the Sunset Boulevard studio where FIgure 8 was recorded to a plaque in his high school to numerous musical tributes and cover albums. Ben Folds captures the mood almost perfectly in “Late,” where lyrics about the two playing basketball conjure up an image of Smith just barely smiling after sinking a jump shot on some Pacific Northwest court. But the main theme of Folds’ song is exactly what I’m getting at: all people need to be helped, and the world was too late when it came to Elliott Smith.
But the world hasn’t left Elliott Smith behind; it never will. His timelessly beautiful music brought suicide and addiction to the forefront of the singer-songwriter genre, and he opened the door for increased awareness and discussion of mental health issues. To this day, Smith’s youtube videos are filled with thankful comments about the power of his gentle understanding of depression. People attribute their lives to Smith’s lyrics and tattoo them on their bodies as a reminder of the symbiotic existence of joy and despair, life and depression.
Smith was subtle yet bold, his music both meticulously composed and, psychologically, utterly disorganized. He lived with and understood depression and addiction, and his music will forever be a testament to his fragile life and these terrible conditions. But the music is beautiful too. Knowing what Elliott Smith has given us, his music can be as relaxing and comforting as an intimate conversation with a close friend. In today’s world, these moments are beginning to disappear, but Elliott Smith will always provide us with an opportunity to listen, think, and reflect. He is one of the greatest singer-songwriters in music, and he will never be forgotten.
And the abroad adventures continue. After suffering through seven months in the States, I’ll be stepping onto a plane for ten days in Israel this coming Decemeber. I’m pretty jazzed to be doing New Years over there, and traveling to a place that I’ve heard about for my entire life will be an incredible experience. Looks like its time to dust off the D40 and get back into travel mode.
Expect a longer post on my initial thoughts soon.