Tuesday, February 23, 2010

If Kurt Cobain Were Still Alive, Would He Be Selling Body Spray?

I WROTE THIS essay for Wonka Vision magazine's online site. Thought I'd share it here as well.

Sometimes I think about Kurt Cobain and I thank him for never selling out. His early, self-imposed exit ensured that it would be his body of work that would stand for him, not his most recent releases, which would most certainly pale in comparison.

We’ve never had to suffer through a Nirvana reunion tour, experiments with 100-piece orchestras in the background, leaked phone messages of a strung-out Cobain barking at his children, tabloid images of Cobain with his arm draped around some teenaged starlet from Gossip Girl, or whatever. We don’t have to live with him preaching like Bono, writing self-righteous columns in the New York Times while hawking BlackBerrys on the side.

In my mind, Cobain will always be the shaggy guy in the fuzzy sweater, passionately belting out painfully personal lyrics. He will always be that principled artist, the one who scrawled “Corporate magazines still suck” on his t-shirt before being photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone.

I can’t imagine him being 43, which he would have been on February 20 if not for his suicide in 1994.

When Nirvana was huge, I was in college and invincible. I could drink all night, run through walls, jump off buildings, say anything to anyone, and never feel the repercussions. Homework? Bah. All I wanted to do was enjoy life, to savor every second. I appreciated what Cobain stood for and I vowed to never do anything just for money.

Ah, the arrogance of youth. I think back and cringe a little. I did some stupid stuff back then, even put myself in danger a few too many times. I didn’t think I’d live to see 40, and I most certainly could not imagine myself being an adult.

I’m 38 years old now. I’m no longer reckless and arrogant (at least, I try not to be arrogant). I’ve actually come to realize that I know nothing about anything, that facts are malleable and everything can be interpreted in different ways. There is not one clear path for all.

Many of my old friends now commute to real jobs, wear suits to work, and then return home late to their suburban expanses where they watch television with their children until bedtime. It’s amazing how easily the principles give way to reality.

With 40 fast approaching, I’m haunted by the notion that the end is near. It’s a silly, arbitrary fear lingering from nearly two decades ago. But it remains.

Death doesn’t scare me though, especially in comparison to leading a bland, sellout life. I’d hate to waste one single second doing bullshit.

My greatest desire in life isn’t money. It’s time. I need more hours in the day – to hang with friends, listen to music, read books, walk my dog, to smell the bacon emanating from the breakfast joint across the street from my house.

What would Kurt Cobain be doing now? What about the others we lost young, like Tupac, Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin or Bob Marley? Would they still be shaking things up? Would they be changing the world?

Or would they be Botox-ed and artificially baked, residing in generic, fenced-in mansions far from reality? Would they be sitting on Jay Leno’s couch pimping greatest hits albums and making cameo appearances in movie remakes?

I look to my grandparents as inspiration. They were born into this world with nothing and they struggled to make ends meet constantly. Life wasn’t always grand but it was real, visceral and invigorating. My grandfather drove backhoes and bulldozers. My grandmother packaged sausage, then drove a school bus in later years.

They never received proper educations but they built a wealth of knowledge because they lived life.

A few weeks ago, they told me that they made arrangements at a funeral home and cemetery so that when they pass, no one will have to endure those hassles during the most difficult of times. I realized that they were doing it for each other – at 86, one is more likely to go first rather than both at the same time. Their rational actions are as much for them as for anyone else.

Their presence proves there is a way to go through life with honor and integrity. Who knows what was going on in Cobain’s mind when he committed suicide – he had a history of depression and drug abuse. In his suicide note, he wrote that his daughter’s life would be so much happier without him.

It’s too bad that she never had the opportunity to appreciate him – and vice versa. But she can be proud of what he did when he was alive. I hope people will say the same about me some day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sometimes Nothin' Can Be a Real Cool Hand.

WHEN I WATCH Paul Newman repeatedly knocked down by George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke, I love that Newman never quits. Sparring on the prison grounds, the larger Kennedy stomps Newman to the ground. But the dazed Newman keeps getting up, refusing to concede victory.

I've always admired Newman's character in the film, and the principles he maintained. He would never give in to the authorities simply because they are the authorities. If someone said he couldn't do something, he scoffed. Fifty eggs? Ha! He won't quit until he proves them wrong.

Funny thing about quitting: it's socially stigmatized. A quitter is good for nothing, the logic goes. Quitting is a sign of weakness. But why is that so universally accepted?

I thought of this as I considered dropping the class I was taking this semester. I'm letting them win if I drop, I thought. I can beat them.

Then I realized: who cares?

I'm taking classes now for the love of learning. I have no further aspirations as an academic (beyond teaching, that is). I'm in class just for fun. If I'm not enjoying myself, why do it?

What is it about society that forces us to think ill of those who quit? What happened in our collective past that created that ethos? I have no idea. But I have two quitting stories and they are among my favorite tales to tell.

First, my high school baseball coach did not mention me when he spoke to the local newspaper writer about our upcoming season during my senior year. When I read the paper and saw that the coach did not think enough of me, a starting pitcher, to include me among the important factors of the season, I quit. That day, I placed my neatly folded uniform on his office desk and never said another word to the man.

For two years in college, I mailed him the newspaper clippings about my pitching at the collegiate level.

A few years later, I quit my first full-time job, as a staff photographer for the York Dispatch. I had only been there six months and I was miserable. The town smelled funny, the paper was visually bad and the stories were rather dreadful. I had nothing lined up in terms of work.

When the managing editor asked me what I was going to do, I answered, "I don't know. Maybe drive to Florida and watch spring training baseball."

She replied, "Well that's awfully immature."

And I said, "I'm 22. I'm allowed to be immature."

Things worked out. I maintained my principles, primarily that I never wanted to work just for the money. If I ever found myself in a situation where I was only doing stuff to get paid, I would leave.

After much thought, I ultimately decided to drop the class I was taking this semester. I'm a quitter. I accept that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reaganomics, and the Downfall of Urban Areas.

THERE WERE ONCE more than 700 manufacturing plants in the city of Philadelphia, and they employed around 250,000 people.

Now, there are countless old factories in various states of decay, not to mention numerous old industrial structures that have been re-purposed as condos, offices, artist studios, stores and businesses of various sorts. Only 40,000 manufacturing jobs remain in the city and many of those employees now reside outside the city limits.

In Landscapes of Power, Sharon Zukin argues that market forces pushed industry out of the city, and ultimately out of the country. She writes that we are now a society of consumers, not producers. That's not exactly controversial. Then she says that the consumers are better off than the producers. Now I'm confused.

Her primary argument is that capitalism and public policy created the landscapes of America. Culture has the ability to draw people - and thus money - but Zukin speaks of culture less in terms of art and more in terms of commerce.

It's hard not to think of this work as a relic from the Reagan era, when money ruled the world and designer clothes were a sign of success.

We were a divided country back then as we are now, but the divisions seem wider now. The Baby Boomers have hit retirement age and their portfolios have plummeted in recent years. States are strapped for cash. Unemployment is the highest since Reagan ran the country. The national debt is ginormous and showing no signs of ever coming down to Earth.

In the age of telecommuting, can market forces continue to determine where we live? Aren't we beyond the garish display of wealth? Have we learned nothing from the recent economic crisis?

I found Zukin to be interesting and even poetic at times. I also found her research to be lacking concrete evidence, sometimes relying upon hers or other people's opinions and observations.

As a person interested in the fate of cities, and specifically this rust belt town that I live in, I wanted more from her than just saying that urban spaces are liminal areas that merge commerce with culture, space with time, and public with private. No kidding.

We need, she says, to create public value. We need to think about social return on investment to citizens rather than shareholders' financial return. Really? Good luck convincing Wall Street on that one.

Zukin's examinations of past experiences are interesting but what do we do with them? How do we apply those lessons? Where are the answers?