The Indubitable Dweeb
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» Posts from June, 2010

June 26, 2010

The Emasculation of Aaron Starmer, Part I

It’s true. I took some time off from the blogging and I hid in the Grand Canyon for a spell. Seven days rafting on the Colorado with the fine folks at Wilderness River Adventures. If you don’t believe me, check out this video of what it looks like to hit a rapid from the perspective of a life-jacket. Absolutely stirring stuff:

It was a fantastic time, and I consider myself blessed to have seen 100 miles of stunning wilderness that the majority of the world will never lay eyes upon. The National Park service only allows 150 people on the river each day, and for good reason. We don’t want to turn the place into Pigeon Forge after all. I have but one misgiving about the trip. I only wish it didn’t make me feel like less of a man.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. I’m a hairy-backed burly fellow who can throw a football and pound a beer and sing along with the chorus to not only one, but two, RATT songs. How on Earth could my masculinity be in question? Well, it’s all a matter of survival.

I’m no Les Stroud, but my fire building skills are more than adequate, I can purify water, and I know not to rub poison ivy on my special bits and roll around in a pile of fire ants. I could make do in the wilderness for a couple days if things got all Cormac McCarthy out there. What I can’t do is pilot a boat through Class V rapids. This never bothered me when I went on rafting day trips in West Virginia. Yet, in the Grand Canyon, as I faded off to sleep with the woosh of the mighty Colorado as my lullaby, I couldn’t help but amend my nightly prayers.

“God Bless Mama, and Dadda, and all the people who have never eaten a banh mi sandwich, because damn those are some really good sandwiches and everyone should try one, and God, especially bless these river guides, without whom I’d probably end up looking like Ronny Cox in Deliverance, which is to say nothing bad of Deliverance, because for all the hillbilly jokes it’s spawned, it’s still a great American movie, adapted from perhaps one of the greatest books of the last fifty years, but in it Ronny Cox gets his bicep all wrapped around his neck and his body gets crushed up against some rocks and that sure would be a crappy way to go, so God bless these river guides who haven’t let that happen to me, and God, make sure they don’t let that happen tomorrow either.”

That’s what it all comes down to. For seven days and six nights some fit young men and women took turns rowing me and my floral swimming trunks down 100 miles of river while I bounced on my rubber seat and got splashed with freezing water and giggled like the Snuggle Bear. Sure, I hiked down to the river on an exceedingly hot day (in the 110 F range), and I know I could have hiked back out (on a trail, of course) in an emergency, but if called upon to guide a boat to Lake Mead, well, I might as well have dispatched a homing pigeon to the Daily Sun with the four word message: “There were no survivors.” Heck, for the short moment during the trip when I was handed the oars on a piece of flat-water, I was all wonky and out of rhythm, hardly ready for a Class I, let alone the fabled Lava Falls.

I realize that rafting the Grand Canyon isn’t akin to climbing K2 or running the Badwater Ultramarathon or some such insanity, but it takes a good bit of skill, a fair amount of endurance and a healthy set of…(what’s the English word for cojones?). It also takes tolerance and good spirits. You have to deal with folks like me, who ask a lot of strange questions, who eat more than their share of pickles and potato chips at lunch, and who act all Louisa May Alcott when danger lurks: “Please ma’am, would you see to it that I am not volleyed from this vessel resulting in spinal fracture, as my spine is what I use for bipedalism. And bipedalism is ever so nice.”

So hats off to those river guides, who effortlessly jump from boat to shore in flip-flops and buttoned poplin shirts, while the rest of us stumble around all Teva’ed and dry-wicked. You’re a good combination of smart and talented and friendly ski-bums and adrenhelin junkies and nature lovers and slightly grizzled hermits, and you have accomplished something that my ex-girlfriends have not. You have made me feel needy and weak. It’s about time.

June 5, 2010


TV shows do it. And so must I. I will be off the air for the next couple weeks. As far away from computers as I’ve been in a long time. There will be no posts to peruse for a while. I don’t doubt your heart is broken.

I could have had some posts on deck and spooled them out using WordPress magic, but that’s not my style. Recharging is a good thing, and I plan to come back refreshed with musings on Kiwis, kamikazee chipmunks, dead bodies in hotel mattresses, tips on writing childrens’ books, and other silliness. See you then!

June 3, 2010

Requiem for a Cassette Tape

I have a friend who was a holdout for the cassette tape. Up until seven or eight years ago, he would only buy new music in cassette tape form. Absurd, I know, and as you could guess, I teased him mercilessly about it. When the music industry finally did away with the archaic format, he threw up his hands and joined the rest of the world. He accepted CDs into his life.

His reasons for sticking with the cassette ranged from his suspicion of format fads (CDs might go the way of the laser disc or DAT, he argued) to his thriftiness (why buy new equipment, when his “decks” worked just fine?). My friend came of age in the 80s, so nostalgia may have played a big part too, and honestly, I can’t begrudge him that.

Admittedly, there’s nothing cool about being nostalgic for cassettes. I’ve never been a vinyl guy, but I respect the people who scour the flea market tables and garage sale boxes, examining the grooves of old 78’s and confidently tucking their salvage under their arms. There’s purpose and a little bit of poetry in that. Vinyl has history, beauty, and acoustic integrity. Cassettes have none of the above.

But still, I am nostalgic for cassettes. I didn’t realize it until recently. Another friend, who is prone to bouts of pop philosophy when beer is on hand, can be blamed for my ill-advised wistfulness.  He proposed that when the CD stabbed the cassette in the heart, and the CD-R and MP3 twisted the knife, not only did the cassette die. The album died too. I had to agree.

Consider this. The album as a concept was only fully realized during the short age of cassettes. The vinyl and digital ages are highlighted by ease of choice. Not digging a particular Hendrix solo? Just lift the arm and drop the needle on another groove and relax into the familiarity of “Purple Haze.” Not sure which Vampire Weekend song you heard on the latest Gossip Girl. Scan a few tracks until you hear that distinctive keyboard chords. Why bother with an entire album when you can simply spin the hits?

The cassette’s limitations were also its virtues. Fast-forward and rewind were labor-intensive operations, so listeners were forced to actually suffer through an artist’s indulgences. Spinning the hits on cassette just wasn’t a convenient option. By listening to an album front to back, tastes were acquired and grander ambitions bubbled to the surface. One came to appreciate an album as a whole, not as just a collection of songs.

As a teenager, sitting in the dark listening to my sister’s Pink Floyd tapes, I experienced something akin to an Almost Famous moment. I discovered that “Wish You Were Here” only had full resonance when sandwiched between the various parts of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” I gradually fell in love with “Southhampton Dock” while waiting for “The Final Cut” to kick in. This was not the first music that seduced me (that honor goes to the Muppet Movie soundtrack), but it was the first time I was seduced by the organization of music, the noble concept of the album.

That might not have happened with a record or a CD. It certainly wouldn’t have happened with MP3s. I would have logged onto ITunes, made my Pink Floyd greatest hits playlist and called it a day. I would have paired “Money” with “Another Brick in the Wall” and finished it off with “Learning to Fly.” Somewhere in England, Roger Waters would have felt a shiver go down his spine and absolutely no one would have been the better for it.

I still try to listen to albums front to back, no matter what the format. I hardly ever hit shuffle. But I must admit I’ve hit skip more than one time on Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices. I shouldn’t necessarily be ashamed of that, but as a fan of both bands, I have a responsibility to trust them a little more. Relationships with musicians are like relationships with anybody. You must let eccentricities sink in, be willing to grant forgiveness, and endure patches of annoying feedback.

The same could also be said for mix-tapes. I used to have a box full of old mix-tapes under my bed. Mix-tapes are like time capsules—monuments to tastes, to the evolution of music collections, and to the efforts once expended in the name of puppy-love and friends-forever idealism. I will not step on Nick Hornby’s toes and write a mix-tape manifesto, but I will say that the mix-CD and ITunes playlist pale in comparison to the glorious mix-tape.

For the mix-tape requires genuine effort. From the scouring of shelves of music, to the pause-play-record-pause-play-record dexterity required of dubbing, to the handwritten liner notes, the elements of a mix-tape speak of dedication and romance. There’s no dedication involved in dropping a bunch of files from one computer folder to another, hitting burn, and loading up the ink-jet with jewel-case-sized sheets of paper. There’s absolutely nothing romantic about ITunes. And what’s to say the person you’ve presented with a mix-CD isn’t going to hit skip when that Califone tune doesn’t grab them right away? What’s to say they aren’t going to dump the file of Nina Simone covering “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” into the trash because they’re sick of you trying to sneak a little Bob Dylan past them.

In some ways, cassette tapes are also like letters. Remember letters? They were like emails with souls. Cassette tapes have souls too. And like letters, they’re messy and imperfect and personal. Forgive me some “things were better in my day” indulgence, but the hiss of a 5th-generation dubbed copy of Straight Outta Compton will always mean more to me than the crisp playback of the latest Drake joint. And sitting in a friend’s basement with a tiny screwdriver, trying to flip the reels on a Led Zeppelin cassette around so we could listen to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards feels a hell of a lot more subversive than exchanging torrents. Cassettes are tangible objects with tangible stories and sadly they have been relegated to the trash-heap and forgotten.

My cassette-dedicated friend has an IPod now. As do I. The IPod’s size and shape are vaguely reminiscent of a cassette. Only they hold more music—a whole lot of music. I am certainly thankful for that. Yet IPods will eventually be replaced too and IPod nostalgia will be deemed quaint and silly. There’s nothing quaint and silly about championing the experience of music, though. Format is tied into that experience. So let me mourn the death of the cassette tape, because it provided me, and many others, with genuine experiences. It shaped the way I listen. It exposed me to more music. It made me a curious and tolerant fan. Its sound wasn’t so great, maybe, but its sound will be missed.