Archives for the month of: October, 2010

A simple organ chord opens a multi-layered journey of the self in Owen Pallett’s Heartland.  Hearthland investigates song-building and personal identity in an often strange narrative journey of a character named Lewis–it’s a journey as expansive as it is personal and told through music that is of the moment but  echoes the past.

“Midnight Directives,” begins the album with a simple organ chords, then adds slow, ascending “oohing” vocals, almost like a heavenly chorus.  Very quickly, these are taken over by the driving speed of the Pallett’s lyrics, and eventually, a frantic violin.  It’s a track that’s ambitious and energetic and matches the raw optimism of the Lewis speaker as he abandons farm and family to journey towards a different self, “a clerical life.”

Although the music in the first three tracks is interesting, “Red Sun No. 5” is an early standout. The steady beat of a synthesizer slowly paces this song, which is about a moment of personal discovery. The tone is tinged with melancholy, but also the hope of revelation. This moment of softness is later matched by the stirring “E is for Estranged,” which features mainly Pallett’s delicate vocals and whimpering violin.

These moments of pathos are balanced by the playful song-building of “Lewis Takes Action” and the poppy chorus of “Lewis Takes off His Shirt.” The former is something like a New Orleans funeral march, but bubbling over with a shimmering exuberance. Here he performs it live with full orchestration. When he performed this in Madison, he recorded a loop of each part and performed over the loops. It was impressive:

Although never directly spelled out in the lyrics, the speaker’s often anachronistic narrative feels entrenched in contemporary explorations of sexuality, gender roles and other identity struggles.  In “Red Sun No. 5”, Lewis leaves his wife for a “him” who offers “an ending” and “completion.” Later in “Tryst with Mephistopheles”, in a moment of sheer meta-self-destruction, the Lewis speaker gleefully sings about brutally murdering “Owen,” his creator, with a bouncy sing-song tone.  Hiding behind the irony of the lyric-music combination in “Mephistopheles” is a real question about the nature of creativity and what hiding behind another identity really means.

The contemporary and the past also overlap in Heartland’s music. Although the album is highly produced and layered, as with many contemporary albums (such as Arcade Fire–for whom Pallett often does string arrangements), certain songs seem built off musical styles from centuries ago. For instance in “Great Elsewhere,” Pallett begins with a few measures on the keyboard and from there he builds and sweeps. Yet, as far away as the “Great Elsewhere” appears to veer from its simple opening, underneath all is still the basic keyboard theme we first heard:

In here is a nod back to the fugue form, popular during the Baroque movement.  The key is to build different patterns off the same theme.  Bach was a true master of the form and it is often a thrill to try to track a theme underneath all of the layers he puts on top of it:

Here’s another famous fugue from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; try not to throw yourself into a pyre after this one–it’s depression for the ear:

What’s so significant about Heartland is that underneath all the layers of stuff: the unique musicality, the themes, the meta-narrative, the looping and the references–Heartland still feels incredibly personal and moving.  Pallett’s voice is flexible and clear in an age when everyone sounds manufactured.  Heartland is an album that respects the significance of the past, but looks to the future.


Today I cast an early vote for the November 2nd general election.  It was easy and fun in the way that voting is always fun.  Frankly, if you are American and have opinions you should freaking vote in all elections.  Even if I don’t agree with the way you will vote, I want you to vote.  How lucky are we that we get to vote in U.S. elections? I digress…to vote early, I just went to the city hall and gave the clerk my name (I’m registered already because I always vote). If you need to register, just remember to bring a piece of mail with your full name and address.  In Wisconsin that’s all you need.

Although you should enjoy voting in whatever way you feel best represents you, to my fellow Wisconsinites may I offer this humble consideration: rehire Senator Russ Feingold.  He’s a lone wolf.  Whether we like to admit it or not, I think we’ve all had our Feingold pride moments.

Remember how he votes independently regardless of external pressures (like the time he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act. He was also the only Democrat to vote against the motion to dismiss the Clinton impeachment because he thought the House of Representatives needed to have “every opportunity” to prove its case.) Remember how he visits every single Wisconsin county once every year?  72 counties every year.  And he listens to people, no matter how angry, old, frustrating and Republican they are:

Seriously, dude represents.  Even when it sucks and we are a-holes.  When I lived out of state people always told me how lucky I was to have a Senator with a backbone.  Those don’t exist in other states.  Every other states has spineless millionaires “representing” them, which we, too, might have after November 2nd.

Here are some classics Feingold ads.  To me, he is still this Senator:

Also, I love that he finally got to vote for some kind of health legislation.  Also, he is still against NAFTA:

Okay, I have to admit these campaign ads make me wonder why he hasn’t been running campaign ads like this during this election cycle. They are winners.  That being said, he is still all of these things, Wisconsin.  Yes, he’s higher profile, but he’s middle class and votes for things he thinks will help middle class Wisconsinites:

Please, please Wisconsin.  Campaign finance reform.  That was a great idea!  He did that one, too. Think of all the great ideas that will never come to be if we vote for another boring millionaire who regurgitates talking points and has no ideas of his own.

One of the duties of blogging appears to be acknowledging the sheer awesomeness of other blogs. Today, this lowly blog must acknowledge the unquestionable work of two far superior producers: the unsurpassed Feline Underground and Jack Shepherd at Buzz Feed for leading to and creating (respectively) 109 Cats in Sweaters.  For over 14 years (half my life!) the internet has unspooled for me its golden fleece, or thread of information, or whatever, but none of its contributions to date compare to 109 Cats in Sweaters.  How has all this time passed, internet, and I had never even imagined a cat in a sweater.  Yet here they were the whole time. All 109 of them. And they present some questions and observations.

1. How does one put a cat in a sweater?

Granted there are some incredibly docile cats out there–some that will allow you to sprawl them across your shoulders (as if a living stole!) and carry them around for several minutes until the novelty wears off.  But some of these sweaters are incredibly fitted–so fitted that it would be difficult for a human (with a much greater range of motion) to wrangle themselves into. It’s almost impossible to calculate the minutes someone spent slowly shimmying such sweaters up the front legs of a wary cat.  Do you put the head in first?  Explain:

2. Some of these sweaters are very high quality!

Although some of these cats are obviously wearing items for children (probably not handmade), another remarkable aspect of this collection of images is the variant and highly technical knitting skills displayed by the homemade sweaters.  These are  not sweaters culled from the leftovers of a screw-up piece.  Most of these are not starter-sweaters. Many of these sweaters are intricate and designed for their wearer.  For instance, the piece pictured just above (the cream cable knit sweater) would have involved measurements, stitch counting, swatches and, you  know,  math to develop a pattern.  In fact, the vast majority of these sweaters suggest the work of a highly experienced knitter who has exhausted all possible knitting projects for the humans in his or her life.

Although it’s hard to see exactly, I believe the above sweater contains seed stitching, ribbing, crochet techniques and some other advance shaping techniques.  Also whoever made this has genius eye for styling–the red certainly pops off the grey of the cat’s fur and the green in its eye.  And the feminine accent touches really do bring out the femininity of the cat.  This is probably a little too Santa-workshopish to transfer to a great sweater for an actual woman, though. Unless you worked in Santa’s workshop, that is.  Then it’s prima.

Here again, with the above example, we see a carefully measured pattern designed obviously for this cat to be its sole wearer.  There are stripes, ribs, fitted sleeves, and also what looks like some pretty detailed embroidery (with a little bling). Glad to see this cat seems to be enjoying its sweater because the maker but some heart into it!

I don’t know exactly what the technique is called that brings the color patterns to this sweater. Forgive master knitters, but is this a watered down version of fair isle knitting? Anyway, doing patterns like this is way more difficult than doing stripes of colors.  Beyond the unbearable cuteness of the cardigan-kitten combination, the cardigan is a smart idea as it makes the sweater easier to force a cat into.  The bow also is a time saver vs. a button and works in the overall package of the sweater.  Although the colors would never work for me, I could see wearing a human version of this (maybe in emerald-green and creme) while tooling around the apartment in winter.

3. What do these sweaters say about their makers?

It’s hard not to look at some of these sweaters and see, superimposed over the cat, the person who made the sweater.  For instance, the one below creates the image of a middle-aged woman with wide-brimmed glasses, a loose flowing skirt to below the knees, out on her lunch break wearing some super comfortable Mary Janes. She has a brisk pace and,I imagine, a great laugh.

Here’s another:

I feel like I’ve encountered the woman responsible for the above multiple times in my local yarn store.  She’s answers questions about yarn while still holding her knitting projects.  She pushes me towards expensive yarns and judges me about the quality of my preferred fibers.

For those of you in Madison, the Overture Center is offering a drawing to win $25 tickets to see Wicked.  You need to show up 2 1/2 hours before the show, then you put your name in for the drawing–you can request singles or pairs of tickets.  The drawing takes place 2 hours before the show and you must have cash on hand to pay for the tickets if your name is called.  My Wicked companion and I tried for the Saturday matinée, but no such luck (about 6 pairs were drawn, but there were about 100 people who put their names in).  But my Wicked companion was the second name called for the Saturday evening drawing (maybe about 50 people were there).

If you win, you get a neat pin that allows you to brag to everyone about how you won!  Also, we were in the front row!  Slightly off to the side, but in the front row! There was some occasional visual obstruction, but it’s the front row!  All the dancing globs I normally see were graceful humans leaping and twirling.  There were identifiable actions! Fingers! I saw fingers!

There are only a few more shows of Wicked left before the production leaves Madison. There will be a ticket lottery before each performance.  For more information, visit the Overture Center site.  If you haven’t seen it, Wicked is a great show–very entertaining with catchy music and a clever reworking of the Wizard of Oz storyline.  As someone who saw it from the first row (!), it was also engagingly acted.  Much weeping was had on my part. I’m a sucker for the friendship stories, though.  Sisterhood of the traveling uterus! (That’s a women’s studies joke, I think. Although it probably has to be funny to be a real joke.)

Here are my crappy phone pictures.  Enjoy!

It's just an orchestra pit that separates me from this curtain

This is what I saw when I looked down

This is the view when I turned my head. The little heads way up on top of the highest balcony...I'm normally one of those heads.

I hope Overture will continue this promotion for other bigger ticket events–it’s a nice way to give students and other downtown residents a way to see shows at a  more reasonable price, while also, you know, promoting the show–and Overture.

Through random surfing this weekend, I stumbled into a whole blog community related to MFA programs: blogs about getting in, blogs about programs, blogs about the idea of the MFA.  Perhaps the most interesting was Seth Abramson’s blog, which is mostly links to music videos, but he has some fabulous analysis and data on MFA programs that he uses to compile an annual MFA program rankings for Poets & Writers.  Abramson also has some great advise for writers considering MFAs.  I admire him for emphasizing the absolute importance of funding in MFA programs.  The best tip I ever received when I began to apply for schools was from a professor who told me that I should not pay for my MFA–my MFA program should pay me.

Now that I’m a few years out of my MFA program, I thought it might be nice to pass along that favor and some other thoughts I have about MFAs to other aspiring writers.  It should be noted, I am not in academia and have no desire to return.  My profession is currently more along the lines of PR.  That being said, I am very grateful for my MFA and I do think it has helped me in my professional life.  My MFA was funded and I also received a stipend for both years of my program (it was more than enough to live on).

Anyway, here are some tips for those interested:

1.  Do not pay for your MFA

An MFA is not a professional degree and as Seth Abramson and countless other people (including myself) will point out to you, an MFA is unlikely to advance you towards any career.  Leaving an MFA program with any sort of debt will put you in a bad spot financially and will limit your choices of what you can do after you graduate.  If you have a funded MFA, you will have less debt and will, therefore, be able to live on less income.  This can free you up to spend a few years working part-time and writing, or to go back to school for a professional degree, or to travel for a while, or to take a low-paying internship, or to be unemployed while you look for something.  Academic teaching jobs and writing fellowships are extremely competitive and difficult to get and you should not assume that you will have one lined up after you graduate.  You likely won’t.  There are many programs that fund MFAs candidates and you should not support programs that do not support you.

2. Have Goals

There are many different types of MFA programs. Although all MFA programs exist to support your writing, they are each different.  Having a sense of what you want out of the MFA will help ensure that it’s a meaningful experience. For instance, it would be a smart idea to consider programs that help you develop professional skills that might lead to a job you won’t hate.  Although many programs will help you learn to teach, you might also find programs that provide opportunities to edit journals and literary magazines, or feed into literary studies.  Are you interested in book making or print making? Would you like to take some journalism classes?  See if you can find an MFA that might open up doors to actual wage-earning opportunities.  This is a very mercenary way to look at it–but frankly, I’m glad I did, because I can afford to feed myself.  I like that.

3. Like the Atmosphere

If you have a chance, visit some of the campuses you’re considering applying to.  This is especially important if you haven’t had much experience in workshops.  See if you like the way the school approaches writing and if you just like the atmosphere.  I imagine that pretensions probably abound in all MFA programs, but see if the students in the program mesh with you.  Is there a nice variety of students and writing–or is everyone essentially working on writing the same poem the professor wrote ten years ago?  Is there a sense of collegiality between students and faculty?

Beyond the school–do you like the city?  Is the cost of living reasonable for your budget? Does it have enough of the right components to make you happy?

4. Look for Teaching Faculty

Although it can be swell to spend two years worshiping at the altar of your favorite living poet–if that poet can’t teach, you may not learn all that much.  Some teaching techniques just don’t work.  Some MFA professors clearly resent their students or have virtually no commitment to the teaching process.  I had a professor who, it was obvious, generally just glanced over the poems before workshop.  She rarely had notes on the poem before class, but would add them during discussion.  Much of the discussion was wasted on her trying to figure out what a poem was about.  Eventually she would have some reading of the poem and would start talking about technique.  This was often helpful, but would then be rushed because we had to move on to other people.  My other professor was better at discussing techniques, but he’s the one that told us to get off our meds because our writing sucked.  Also he hated when I wrote anything that seemed like it was staged in Wisconsin.  Although I had a very tenuous relationship with my professors–it wasn’t anything compared to what I had heard about on some other campuses…Drunk writers=drama city.

I can go on and on, but the main thing that’s important with MFAs is to make sure you get what you want out of the experience.  An MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s important to be honest about its limitations.  Yes it can help you claw your way up the ladder to teaching jobs (but be sure you actually want to teach if this is a goal you have–I hated teaching). MFAs from good schools can impress certain employers by suggesting you have academic skills and creativity.  You can also use an MFA to build towards a literary PhD or a PhD in creative writing–if you really like academia.  Also, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll meet some great people.  Just go into it with eyes open.

Below are the results of this week’s yarn bombing of my corner bus shelter.  The project, “Cozy Shelter”, was a collaborative effort by UW-Madison design students and Madison-area knitters.  Keep rockin’ it, you collaborators!  Enjoy!

There are many good reasons to join a local cooperative food market: they support local food producers and growers, they generally have a wide selection of organic and vegetarian products, there is a strong emphasis on customer service (because  customers are the owners!) and good co-ops generally foster community development, environmental stewardship and nutrition.

In Madison an additional perk of being a member of the Willy Street Co-op (or living with one, as is my case)  is reading the  customer comments section in the monthly co-op newsletter.  No small failure on the co-op’s part (or on the part of humanity as a whole) will be ignored! Below, I bring you the gems of October (to read the diplomatic responses from the co-op staff, you will just have  to become a co-op member so you can get this newsletter, or read it here:

1. Climate Change Deniers

I would like to request that climate change deniers, i.e., motorists, be asked to turn off their engines when standing in the parking lot waiting for a spot. Today I had to breathe the toxic waste of three motorists idling in the parking lot while I parked my bike.

2. Labyrinth of Dangerous Sharp Corners

The planters out front have sharp corners, which are really dangerous. Any toddler or young child could run their face right into those. They are a really unfriendly addition.  Can you get someone to round the corners? Anyone could also bump into them with their leg. I would prefer they be removed. They are very bad feng shui. Doesn’t WSC have legal counsel–no good lawyer could possibly advise anything but removal of the planters and the bongo drop box [Ed–this is a reference to a local video store drop box]. You guys have made two very bad decisions in these planters and drop box. Please remove and make the co-op safe and welcoming not a labyrinth of dangerous sharp corners!!

3. Heat and Glare

The outside western wall is painted a very light shade (white-off-white-lt. grey) and in sunlight radiates heat and glare to people walking to the co-op from the neighborhood. Have you considered repainting that wall a cooler grey? It would cut the heat and glare to those who use the sidewalk.

4. Weed seed poisoning

I appreciate your efforts with plants but I get weed seed poisoning from walking in tall grasses and think that another type of plant would be more appropriate by the walk in front.

This commenter just has grass pollen allergies, right?

It’s a beautiful world.