Sitting in a lounge of an Atlantic City casino, I think, “I would love to come into easy money.” I have spent enough money to know that the big payoff isn’t going to happen this weekend. After finding a game that I liked, a game that I could understand, I devoted myself to it. I realized sometime later that the big money comes from the tables, but I didn’t want to learn how to operate them. The interactions between me and the dealer, between me and the other people hoping for big money - I don’t want to have to practice my social skills. So I stayed away. I have decided to end my time at the casino and now I’m sitting, waiting for my friends.
To be given a sum of bills north of four figures is to be told, “You don’t need to worry about things for a while.” Bills and other expenses we’re responsible for - they cease to be a yoke pulling us down a path we would have otherwise ignored. The freedom that comes with a large bank account is one that I assume others want as well. If only I had more money, we tell ourselves, I could do the things that I really wanted to. But are those possibilities suddenly within reach once we have greater resources? I don’t think that’s true.
Consider a person with a job and friends in her town. Is it suddenly easier for her to abandon things that have been reinforced as responsibilities? No. I don’t think so. Those things still demand her focus. Many things swirl in the mental to-do lists we have.
But maybe you’re not like this. Maybe you really do live free of constraints. Maybe you view everything that others view as burdens as opportunities. Or maybe you refuse to do anything that doesn’t jive with who you are.
But I’m not like that. I feel pulled in many directions: the need to make money, the desire to make music, helping out with the alumni board, posting something to The Compass, reading all those books I have, meeting up with friends, finding interesting things to do in the city. All of these things and more swirl around. Still I hope to catch a big break. Because the promise of a future time when things are magically easier is tantalyzing. It’s the magic that I crave, the comfort of knowing that I didn’t have to work that hard to get what I wanted.
But what kind of life is that? Just waiting for things to turn themselves around while I lie back and float? Why should I allow myself to be a passive figure, a background character in my own story? “I’d rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery,” as Conor Oberst once sang. Not because we need to just put our heads down and work with no dreams. But because waiting means you’re missing something. Waiting takes away your agency. With so many things demanding you do something, why give in?
Just about every week, I send out an e-mail to friends and family across the world. The e-mails started about three years ago when I was out of school and serving with City Year as a way to keep in touch with the people I care about. The number of people who get this e-mail has grown, as has the scope and design of the words I send out. I’d like to share an essay taken from this week’s e-mail. It has a few sections removed from the original text, as well as some new, clarifying sentences. It is political in nature and while I certainly endorse one particular candidate, I must make it clear that this is not an endorsement by The Compass. I think that it would be a good idea to do that one day, we are just not at the level or the consensus to do so today.
Additionally, this page is in no way affiliated with City Year or AmeriCorps.
I have been thinking a lot of the past lately. Where am I now and is that where the Paul Riley of the past wanted to be? How did everything that came before today lead me here? What could I have done better then? What mistakes can I avoid in the future? I am constantly drawn into nostalgia and memory. The halcyon days of youth, the times made greater in retrospect. The past seems so much easier to analyze than the present. I have a chance to reflect; extemporaneous speech is not my strength. Rarely do words flow effortlessly and eloquently from my mouth in any kind of sensible way. Words come out like Tetris blocks in later levels - too quickly and in all of the wrong orientation until they pile up into disaster. Writing allows me greater control.
All of this talk of the art of storytelling and conversation comes because I am thinking a lot about my own artistic endeavors, especially in the context of others’. I went to the Medford Library recently - how I love libraries and the people who work in them - and found a biography of Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s. I thought it would be worth reading, especially to garner some tips on how to survive in an vapid and financially-obsessed climate. There looms before us a return to the ideals of the ’80s, when the greatest thing one could do is become rich. I don’t want that, nor do I think I can handle it alone. Bruce’s words are helping me learn how to deal.
I also recently re-listened to the podcasts released in 2007 to promote the 30th anniversary edition of Born To Run. They included interview clips of the various people involved in creating the album. A constant point made was the intention behind the album, the desire to do something powerfully and well. Then, on Saturday, James and I flew to Louisville, Kentucky to see Bruce in concert. We were there with Anthony, our Anthony - the Compass’ Anthony - a man to whom I dedicated part of my City Year red jacket because he once told me that I’ll be “bigger than Springsteen.” Was it just joyful complements from a friend? Perhaps. But maybe Anthony really does believe that - and it’s that faith in friends that is the reason he is linked to that red bomber I wore for two years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. I’ve been thinking a lot in general, I guess - it seems to be my recreational activity of choice.
Kurt Vonnegut was a name I first heard in childhood. I knew he was a writer, but I wasn’t reading his books. I was a kid, not ready to encounter the lamentations and joys they contained. All I knew was the name on the cover of Timequake. I never opened the book, never attempted to discover what made some faraway man so important to my parents. I was content to satisfy my urge to read with the Goosebumps series and stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
But soon I would outgrow those books. As a high school freshman, nothing could be as simple as the works of R. L. Stine would have me believe. Remembering my locker combination, learning how to conjugate basic French verbs and changing mid-day into a different uniform for gym added new complexities to my life. Dwelling in the futures imagined by second-hand storytellers would no longer be enough. In the fall of 2001, I was reunited with Mr. Vonnegut when my Freshman Literature teacher handed out photocopied packets of “Harrison Bergeron,” one of Vonnegut’s short stories. It’s a story about equality taken to bizarre extremes. It was the first work that dealt with issues important to me as a nascent idealist, and one that presented them in brilliant Technicolor. Should people be made to be as equal as we claim they are? Is equality a cause worth championing? I remember not knowing if Vonnegut wanted me to believe that equality is foolish, and feared that such an opinion may be right. It would not be the last time that Vonnegut’s words caused me to reevaluate my worldview.
For the rest of high school, Vonnegut remained a name - like Fitzgerald, Blake and Hardy - on a list of writers that I had been introduced to but did not really know. It wasn’t until five years later that I would have the chance to know why Vonnegut mattered to so many. I took an American Literature class with Dr. Michael Kiskis, source of inspiration for us at The Compass, who had us read Slaughterhouse-Five. It fucked me up. It arrived at a time of great questioning in my life. I was studying the Holocaust, learning about mutability from texts in Old English and trying to understand why there exists a god who cares more for praise than free will. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, becomes “unstuck in time”. That concept took over my mind, and attempted to build a reality out of fragments confused and lonesome. It was a rough time to be Paul Riley. Still, I don’t think I would have been able to make sense of existence at that point without that book.
In the cafeteria of a company where I did some temp work this past winter, I began reading “And So It Goes,” a biography on Kurt Vonnegut by Charles J. Shields. Upon finishing it a few weeks ago, it made me want to burst out and create. Kurt Vonnegut had quit his job to make an attempt to be a writer. The biography details how hard it was to do so - the lack of money, the stress, the lack of success for years. I knew then that my own attempts to make a living at this, at sharing my thoughts to help others make sense of the world, would have to take control of the direction of my life, regardless of the uncertainties of such a life.
But the book also reminded me of an idea that I’ve been wrestling with recently: that people who create are driven to do so because they want to make a world that they can’t be in. It’s an idea that I first heard put into words by Brian Wilson - “I just wasn’t made for these times” - and explained by Ira Glass in an episode of This American Life. Glass tells stories for a living preciously because he’s incapable of doing so at parties. A man who can’t make small talk has no choice but to elevate the stories of others to artistic levels. For Vonnegut, the man who wrote, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” his world had too little kindness. The biography shows that much of the reason why is Kurt himself. He was rotten to his wife Jane. After quitting his job, he found space for himself to hide away from his responsibilities as a father of seven children (four of which came from his sister’s marriage, after she and her husband died on the same day). He cheated on her too.
Kurt Vonnegut’s books are full of lessons on how to be a better human being. But I believe his most important lesson comes not from Vonnegut the writer, but from Vonnegut the man. It is not important to change the lives of the people we’ll never meet or those who remain at arm’s length. We must care for those closest to us. It’s not enough to create an ideal world for others to play in. We must play there too.
Recently I was hired to work at a bookstore thinking it would be awesome and I’d learn a lot and great things would pursue. I was wrong. It is boring and I don’t like it. I just shelve things and answer the phone. That’s it. So I went today to get a job at an awesome multi-story junk store and I think I got it! I’ll find out soon. I’d rather work with things and people that have stories and care about what they are doing rather than just make money and go home. So if, in the near future, you find yourself needing a mounted fish, coffins, gas masks, old bowling pins, or a box of prosthetic parts, just hit me up. You know how to reach me.
Anyway, here are some recommendations!
Recommended Album: America
Recommended Reading: The Mote in God’s Eye
Recommended Love Guru: GWAR
Recommended Mollusk: Glaucus atlanticus
Recommended Radiohead Cover: The Darkness (you read that right)
Recommended Beer: Brother Thelonious
Recommended Tweeter: @jamie_deen
Recommended Attitude Towards Work: this one.
Death is a fearful thing to many. Our recent posts on the shooting in Aurora, Colorado reflect that fact. What makes death so terrifying is its suddenness, its arrival without warning. When people say, “He was too young,” they really mean that death has laid asunder another’s plans for the coming years. I think that, in these moments, we’re attempting to provide ourselves some comfort instead of simply bearing witness to the pain. We personify death as a malicious figure to dismiss it, to pretend it is some aberration of nature that is robbing us of precious time or of the people we love and admire.
But death need not be thought of this way. Death has also been characterized as a more understanding figure. In the book Death Be Not Proud, a memoir written by the father of a 17 year old boy who died of a brain tumor, there is much rumination on death. But I think the most important part comes at the end, in an afterward by the boy’s mother. She, in thinking back to the last summer with her son, shares what she would write in her journal: “Look Death in the face. To look Death in the face, and not be afraid. To be friendly to Death as to Life. Death as a part of Life, like Birth. Not the final part. I have no sense of finality about Death. Only the final scene in a single act of a play that goes on forever. Look Death in the face: it’s a friendly face, a kindly face, sad, reluctant, knowing it is not welcome but having to play its part when its cue is called, perhaps trying to say, ‘Come, it won’t be too bad, don’t be afraid, I understand how you feel, but come - there may be other miracles!’”
All things must pass and so must we. Death is a part of the cycle of life, but is also hard to accept. I think that it would be an easier transition with some sort of ceremony or observance; this is why Catholics have the sacraments of Last Rites. Of course, this is assuming that death comes slowly and not in a sudden event. For the sake of this post, let’s think of death as coming in this way.
I think of the song “In A Little While” by U2, a song about another silly guy dealing with the after-effects of a late night out. But once I heard a quote from Bono regarding this song, it changed how I hear it. When Joey Ramone was in the hospital, his brother played him the song. It was the final song that he heard before he died. Bono later said, “Joey turned this song about a hangover into a gospel song.” Hearing the song now, I think of how peaceful it would be to hear that kind of song before I died, to have such a sonic guide into the next great adventure.
This comment gets me thinking - what are the songs that I’d like to hear before I die? Here’s the context that I created for this exercise: I know I’m going to die at a certain time. My final hour will be devoted to whatever I’d like: conversations, activities or meditation. The hour before that, my penultimate hour, would be time for me to listen to an hour-long playlist of the final songs that I’d like to hear. (I know that there could be a lot of qualifications for this, but please accept it as is.) Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing my hour long playlist with some sort of commentary, and I’m inviting both my fellow contributors and readers of The Compass to share theirs. (You can submit them using the “Submit!” button above or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Until then, stay safe.
P.S. I acknowledge that some of the statements made in this post may strike you hard, that they may be too dismissive of how you react to death. I hope that this is not the case but if it is, I am sorry. I’d appreciate you sharing any reactions you have in a comment.
(Edited 8/6/12 8:01 AM): I changed the title of this post to “The Gospel Songs of Dying”. The original title seemed much too stark, even with the context of the actual post.
Today’s guest post comes from an old friend of mine, Liana. Liana does a pretty good job of introducing herself below, so I won’t attempt to add anything. I will say that if you are ever interested in contributing something to The Compass, we would love to post it! Click the “submit” tab at the top of the page or send an e-mail to email@example.com. I hope you enjoy today’s post. - Paul
I’m a teacher in Baltimore City. Well, a teacher, a counselor, an advocate… in short, a wearer of the multiple hats I must be to achieve success with my students. I haven’t completed many written works in the past two years outside of the dozens of songs, poems, raps, skits, and stories created for the classroom. I have missed my personal creative side terribly.
Today, encouraged by two brilliant men in my life – one from the past, the other very much from the present – I felt that part of myself awaken again. I was driving along North Avenue when the first two lines came to me. This man from the present had used the phrase “lost in translation” three times within a twelve hour period. I had never given it much thought, shockingly as I consider myself a rather analytical polyglot. Yet, it wouldn’t leave my mind. By the time I had pulled into the parking lot of my school, my mind was racing and my fingers burning to hold a pencil – the way they used to. There was an issue of translation I knew I had to capture before the wave of creativity settled into foam.
When conversing, my students and I do not speak different languages, although sometimes it feels that way to both of us. What I have learned though, through my relationships with many amazing young people over my first three years in urban education, is that often the simplest student-generated conversation comes from a deeper place within my students: a place yearning for, at the absolute minimum, connection with humanity and stability. Many of my students have hung around, talking to me about their versions of what we adults refer to as “the weather.” Many of those many have hung around long enough to tell me what is really on their mind.
In this poem, each two part stanza is written about a different student – a real, flesh-and-blood person you are entirely able to bump into during the course of your life. The first part, comprised of four lines, tells their story – the reason they hung around to talk to me about “the weather.” If you read it and it makes you uneasy, you are reading it correctly. If you read it and it makes you angry, you are reading it correctly. If you read it and it makes you contemplate life – yours, ours, or theirs – a little bit more deeply, you are reading it correctly.
The second, two-line part of each stanza is what the students say. For this poem I have chosen to remain on one topic – that of a student borrowing a book. At first, there was little significance to this; today, when I wrote it, I was simply distributing free books from my classroom library to any interested student at the close of the school year. What I realized as I wrote was that each line the students say aloud can connect metaphorically to what they are thinking – be it in terms of length, beauty, sound, and more. If you can’t see it, try again. If you still can’t, drop me a line and we’ll set up a coach class.
The last thing I want to mention in this introduction is the “vernacular” as the man from the present puts it. As a lover of language and languages, I have paid attention to my students and their natural, free-flowing speech for years. While I thought of writing this in standard English, I realized I would be doing them such a disservice. The subject would no longer be they and the readers, whatever small number they may be, would never know my students for who they really are. So, I have given my best attempt to express these ideas and this conversation to you as my students have done to me.
Oh yes, one truly final note: I am Ms. C.
Going off of what Paul was talking about:
I spent the majority of my thursday inside the movie theater. The local theater held a Dark Knight marathon where they showed all three movies right in a row, the newest one starting at midnight. What happened could have happened at any theater. Any one of us could have been in that theater.
I received a call from a friend today saying that her father was killed in a car wreck a few days ago. Everything seemed so fragile today. I’ve never been good at dealing with that feeling, the feeling that death is possibly minutes or seconds away. We just don’t know.
The feeling is paralyzing but what else can we do but finish out the day, lay in bed, and then get up and move on. We can’t let our mutability stop us from living. We can’t. Everything seems strange for a couple of days but our minds and our way of life has a way of distracting us from the deadly truth. We are not immortal. One day it will all end and you probably won’t see it coming. That is the truth. The only truth. You will die.
But you still have choice. Live in crippling paranoia or walk onward with courage. Things happen. Really shitty things. Let them ruin your day but don’t let them ruin your life. Mourn and cry and look inward, but smile and talk and laugh. Feel and grow. And if you can breathe, be happy for that and go from there. Things will always get better.
Here are recommendations to start you in that direction. Be careful out there. For me.
Recommended Book: Miracle in the Andes
Recommended Album: Channel Orange
Recommended Evening: Klosterman Sees Nickelback and Creed in One Night
Recommended Sealab: Aquarius Reef Base
Recommended Candy: Hi-Chew
Recommended Topical Pug Video: Fuckin’ This One
Recommended Beer: Moose Drool
Recommended Tweeter: @IronMaiden
Recommended Alternate Version: Transformer by Gnarls Barkley
Hi everyone! Happy Fourth of July!
My name is Anthony and I am still alive. I’m just an asshole. Sorry I was gone. Sorry I ignored you. I am back. I have tons of new things to share with you. I have changed. But not a lot. Most importantly, I missed you.
Today is a holiday. You are probably going to read and hear a whole bunch of stuff about America today so I figured instead of posting something patriotic, I will instead feed into your downtime and share with you some recommendations for things in case you need them. They have no theme. They are just links of things that you may want to investigate further. Because I love you.
Expect new posts soon. And expect more recommendations; this will be a regular thing. Until then, enjoy your day! Relax! You’ve earned it! See you soon. Don’t blow off your hands today.
Recommended Book: Ender’s Game
Recommended Album: The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
Recommended Particle: The God Particle
Recommended Drive: Interstate 26
Recommended Tweeter: Merle Haggard
Recommended Beer: Art of Darkness
Recommended Anthony: Anthony Sabourin
Recommended Reason for Seeing Magic Mike: Nonexistent
Recommended Pizza Roll: Totino’s Pizza Rolls
Recommended Radio Station: KEXP
You’ve seen it before, I’m sure. A car covered in bumper stickers. It’s a joke, right? It strikes us as silly, as garish. Visually, it’s unappealing. The multiple colors and various fonts scream at us to pay attention, and we can’t settle on a particular sticker to focus on. Neither do we see the back of that car as a mosaic. Too many ideas are trying to tell us some truth and what the driver believes. But real Truth can’t be captured in a pithy statement.
That’s why I appreciate literature. The books that I love come from the minds of artists trying to make sense of the world. I assume that the creators of bumper stickers are also concerned with making sense of the world. The difference is that writers understand that every thought can’t be contained in a single book. Instead, they work to make sure that every character, every setting, every word is used to break down the complexity of existence into digestible parts. Readers should not be told what to think or how to feel. They are simply guided to different places where the writer makes an observation, then leaves us to make of the text what we will.
The Sound and the Fury makes no claims that its readers will be handed an interpretation of the world. Readers aren’t even given a sensible narrative - I was lost before the end of the first paragraph. Faulkner is grappling with something big, something that warrants a complex writing style. It’s a major change in American identity: the decline of southern aristocracy. He chooses one family - the Compsons - that has fallen from once-great heights to serve as a representation of this much larger change. Each of the book’s four sections centers on one member of the family. Benjy, the son who narrates the first section, is mentally handicapped. The rambling prose of his section reflects his inability to differentiate between past and present. He is thirty years old but must be led around by the family’s black servants, observant all the while but unable to piece it together, let alone express it, in a meaningful way. Quentin’s obsession with time and purity drive him mad in the second section. The one child able to get away to make himself as an Ivy League student, Quentin is continuously drawn back to his hometown, with his memories taking control of his present consciousness. The third section, from their brother Jason’s point of view, shows the meanness that can come when you feel like everyone else got theirs, and you’re just a sucker. His anger lashes out like solar flares, wreaking havoc on all those around him - family and strangers. The final section is written with a more objective narrator. Dilsey, the black servant, drives most of what occurs at the close of the book. Hers is the only voice of hope of possibility found in the entire narrative.
While the sons control most of the narrative, it’s their sister Caddy who is depicted as controlling them. Her brothers don’t know how to accept her actions and independence. Their inability to adapt to change - whether it’s a break in routine or an altering of gender dynamics - dooms them and their family. Benjy relies on Caddy to sooth his jangled nerves when anything interrupts his rigid sense of order. After discovering that Caddy has borne a child out of wedlock, Quentin is unable to process what this means and his foundation is shattered. Jason makes her a scapegoat for the failings of his life, falsely attributing to her the reason why he’s just a store clerk. For being relegated mostly to memory - in fact, those references to the past may be the only times that she appears in the story - she has a powerful influence.
I hear a lot of talk about feminism, white male privilege and race relations from my socially-conscious friends. To me, they’re buzzwords hinting at some larger, more complex system or problem. Those words are bumper stickers - they say nothing nearly as interesting as the intricacies of The Sound and the Fury. Caddy could be made to be either victim or whore, but she’s not. Dilsey could have been portrayed as wise voodoo sage, but she’s not. There’s something much more interesting going on, and I encourage you to read this book and find out what it is.
It seems as though every few years, a new book series is published that becomes The Next Big Thing. I first encountered this phenomenon as a young child with R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps. This series was replaced by Animorphs, which told the story of a group of teens who develop the ability to change into animals. Fifteen years ago, Harry Potter arrived, adding the use of films in its cultural domination. This model was adopted by Twilight, and The Hunger Games appears to be next in line.