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11 December 13

Song #1 // Frontier Ruckus, “Black Holes” [Eternity of Dimming]


Just because you can nostalgically list everything from your childhood in metro Detroit doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Not unless you have a good story, anyway.

Absent that, I give you something more national in scope. And something far more mysterious.

The story begins (and seemingly ends) in San Francisco.

Specifically, this story begins with an object free of context or backstory. The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library has a permanent store in Fort Mason. It’s a hidden gem with a great little cafe right on the water; used CDs, DVDS, and books for sale; places to sit and read; and a few bins of interesting images that they’ve pulled from old books.

In the past I’ve bought prints from old books on fruits and vegetables, figures on academic attire, and maps from water-damaged atlases that they can’t sell anymore. By the time they reach the bin, no one seems clear on where the original images came from, which is exactly how I came across the artifact in question.

About five years ago I found and bought a very odd handwritten document, seen below:


It’s hard to describe the intimacy you feel when holding this document (which I bought for $2.) The author of this note—a mother, Isabella Williamson—filled out this pre-printed form for her son, William Williamson, who was just shy of 14 at the time, 1892.

The paper is still crisp, but slightly torn where it has been folded in deep, worn creases. The paper is just barely yellowed at the edges, but not much for a document that is over 120 years old; it was probably held between pages in a book or other dossier to protect it. It doesn’t smell musty so you get the feeling that it’s still new in some way despite its obvious age.

When viewing it in person, you can feel the mother’s care and protection not only in her perfect penmanship (written apparently in a very light black ink) but also in her description of her “fair” complexioned, “dark brown” haired son who stood at 5’1”. The document was signed by a C. L. Hunt of Clinton Massachusetts, apparently the superintendent of schools where young William was born and raised.

The document itself, titled “Form 3: Age and School Certificate - Law of 1888,” as much as I can tell, was a form printed out and required for a child under the age of 14 to be able to work. Judging by the date it was signed (May 3 1892) and when it expired (September 8 1892), we might assume that this was filled out so that William could work during his summer break.

This is as much as we know with any certainty. Everything else I provide below is conjecture, and based in a motivated interest in solving the mystery behind this innocuous document.

The search has led me to desperately answer the following questions:

  • Who was/is Isabella and William Williamson? What happened to them? How did this paper come to be preserved and transported between Clinton, Mass. and San Francisco, CA?

To try to answer these questions, I tracked down, and provide for you here, the following information.

1. Who was/is Isabella and William Williamson?

Unfortunately the Williamson surname is so common that it’s hard to answer this main question with any certainty. We know, based on the information on the form, that William was born in Clinton, Massachusetts, and so we can assume that he and Isabella lived there for some time, and perhaps died (and were buried) there, too.

View Larger Map

There is one major cemetery in Clinton, MA, Woodlawn Cemetery, and an Internet search doesn’t reveal an Isabella or William Williamson buried there (though admittedly my search has been hasty and incomplete, so relevant information might still be out there.)

This photo shows the cemetery, and is contained within an excellent portfolio of shots of the place in question:


An Internet search for “William Williamson” reveals either too many links to count, or none that seem directly relevant. Interestingly, though, there does appear to be a William Williamson still living in Clinton, Massachusetts; he’s in his 60s and his phone number is easily available.

Likewise a search for “Isabella Williamson” returns a lot of hits, many of which seem to point to similar names coming not from Massachusetts, but from England and Scotland. One such return brought me to an Isabella Duxbury Williamson from Padiham, England. As will be explained in the section below, this discovery may provided some insights not found on American soil.

However, Duxbury (like Williamson in America) was a popular surname in 19th century England, and there were no less than three girls named Isabella Duxbury born in Lancashire in 1847, which is the year that she may have been born.

If she was indeed born in 1847, that would make her 31 when she gave birth to William, admittedly older than the norm of the time, but not impossible.

Guessing at Isabella’s maiden name and origin changes the search completely, and so I hold off on going too far down the rabbit hole without more information. The Isabella Duxbury Williamson in question, however, was married to a William Williamson (father to our young William?) but without further information we can’t guess with any reasonable conviction beyond that.

2. What happened to them?

Without further information about their lives and deaths, we don’t know what happened to the two people at the heart of this search. However, there are some interesting clues to the people around them if we’re willing to make some small leaps in circumstantial evidence.

The most compelling of such evidence comes from searching the available graves in Woodlawn Cemetery online. Though I wasn’t able to locate an Isabella or William Williamson, I was able to find an Alice Isabella Williamson Maybury buried in Clinton, MA.

In addition to the two names—Isabella and Williamson—being placed on the same tombstone in a relevant cemetery where “Form 3” originated being particularly interesting, the full inscription on the stone leads to an exciting possible discovery. Beneath Alice’s name and birth/death dates (1884, making her six years older than William; and 1954) are the names of her parents:

William Williamson and Isabella Duxbury

Is this the Isabella Duxbury born in 1847 Padiham and her husband, whose name was passed onto a young boy looking for summer work in 1892?

In addition to her parents, her information also reveals the husband’s name (George Atkinson Mayberry) and one son, Donald Williamson Mayberry (1912-1998.) This would make Donald Isabella’s grandson and William’s nephew.

And this is where things start getting particularly interesting.

A search for Donald Williamson Mayberry eventually leads us to the Rev. Dr. Donald Williamson Mayberry (likewise born in 1912), a product of Hobart College and the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA. He went on to run several churches, be a chaplain in the Navy during WWII, and be the rector at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House in Washington D.C.

A further search leads us to a Princeton Alumni Weekly announcement from 1948 that a Dr. Donald Williamson Mayberry married an Amoret Chapman Bissell. The two were wed on August 14, 1948 (see under announcement 4 below.)

Searches for Amoret Chapman Bissell (who later became Amoret Bissell Mayberry) reveal that she graduated from Bryn Mawr in the same year she wed Williamson Mayberry, 1948. I’ve tracked down her senior portrait from the yearbook:


A page from her senior yearbook reveals her original address, 214 E. 72nd St. New York City, and what can still be seen today as a stately house in the Upper East Side (the brown one below):

View Larger Map

We know that Amoret was still alive as late as 1999, as a New York Times obituary lists her a surviving sister to Tallman Bissell who died that year. Another search reveals that she may have later died in 2002.

3. How did this paper come to be preserved and transported between Clinton, MA and San Francisco, CA?

Rev. Donald Williamson Mayberry died in San Francisco in 1998, and is buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery located a few miles south of the city in San Bruno (all but one of the city’s cemeteries were relocated following the 1906 earthquake.)

According to one of the books cited above, he moved to San Francisco around 1966 to be a rector at St. Peter’s until 1978 (though I’m still unclear on which church this refers to in SF.)

According to the information provided on on Find-A-Grave, Mayberry remarried in 1969 to a woman named Natalie Dolores Hubbert. Quick searches for her turn up a possible match for a woman born in Alameda, CA (directly across the Bay from SF), and the presence of a Natalie Dolores Hubbert in a 1956 yearbook for Lowell High School in San Francisco (which would make her no less than 36 years younger than Donald.)

Does this mean that Donald and Amoret divorced, but that she kept his name? Does this mean that Donald married a much younger woman after he moved to San Francisco?

There appears to be at least one woman named “Natalie H. Mayberry” who has lived in San Francisco and Healdsburg, CA. Some searches show that she’s still alive, age 84 (which means she would have been born in 1929; closer in age to Donald, but an impossible age to still be in high school, unless—of course—she worked there), and living in the city. One result even shows that this same Natalie H. Mayberry was married to Donald W. Mayberry, which seems more than coincidental.

Online searches also show that this 84 year old woman has several children with easily searchable names. However, at some point this search becomes too personal and probing, and I don’t plan to bother them lest one of my aforementioned cookie crumbs crumble.

This does, though, lead us to our final set of questions that remain unanswered at this point:

  • How did my possession of this century-old form move from family artifact to found art for sale?
  • How was it kept in such pristine condition for so long?
  • How did it make its way from Massachusetts to California and end up for sale?
  • If Donald Williamson Mayberry is the grandson/nephew, why did he have this obscure document in his possession? And why did he hold on to it throughout his travels through the East Coast, WWII, and California?

And, ultimately, after this long search we’re still back to the very basic, but very essential, question: Who were Isabella and William Williamson, and what happened to them after this very mundane application for a summer job in 1890s Massachusetts?

I end the mystery here as all good mysteries should: open-ended. I’d love to know more, and invite whoever is reading this to help me in the search.

It doesn’t seem fair to even tack on a review of Frontier Ruckus after this exposition and invitation, so I’ll simply say that I love this band and this album despite the fact that they too have a tendency to list every nostalgic thing about their childhoods even when the music behind the lyrics is so capable and so compelling that it almost doesn’t need words at all.

But who knows? Maybe they’re just sowing the seeds for future Internet sleuths like me, interested in some future everyday occurrence that time has passed over and made exceptional just by its very endurance. In that case, god bless the references to highways, box stores, and grandparents that (like it or not) come to define us all.

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Posted: 3:20 AM

2013 Year in Review

Indeed, it’s that time of year again where I list the songs that played as I continued to live for another year. This year it was 2013, and there were about two dozen or so songs that seemed to really resonate with me (resonate enough, that is, to make me buy them and/or write about them here.)

I began making Year in Review lists as far back as 2005, and starting writing blog posts for each song in the list back in 2009.

The lists were originally simply track listings of CDs that I’d make and give to my sister as Christmas gifts. Since then I’ve been able to reflect on important times in my life (e.g. finding out I was going to be a dad) or seemingly meaningless times (e.g. walking home alone after a movie) while also reviewing songs that mattered most to me the year before.

This list, like the ones prior, isn’t necessarily a list of my “best of” songs so much as it’s songs that like it or not played as the soundtrack to my life.

The theme you’ll see in most of the songs this year is that I tended to gravitate toward ones that started at some point, Point A, and ended up somewhere completely different, like Point X or Point @.

I hope you enjoy this year’s list.

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20 May 13

Song #20 // Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks” [My Head Is An Animal]

May Reflection:
You’ll have to trust me that the notes for this post were building toward something. Needless to say, however, they only covered about 30 seconds of dialogue (that was very close to verbatim) inside an SFO-bound taxi.

January Original:

“Do you have children,” he asked while looking straight ahead.

“Yeah, actually, we’re expecting our first.”

“Oh, wonderful. Wonderful.”

It had just cracked the 4a.m. hour. We were nearly alone on the highway and I was making my mind up to savor the relative peace or officially give myself up to the outside world, to people like him.

After several minutes, I asked, “And you? Do you have children?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Four boys.”

“Oh good for you. That’s great,” I tried. “Do they all get along?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your boys. Do they get along? Do they fight?”

“Oh, fight. Yes, they fight. The only time they don’t fight is when they sleep.”

We both laughed at his attempt at a joke.

“They are good boys, though.”

“How old are they?”

“The oldest is 16. He is on leave in Japan. He plays football and has a 4.0.”

“Wow, nice work.”

“Yes, and the 13 year old is just like his brother. He’s a very very good boy. He’s very into sport, but he also has a 4.2 or 4.1.”

“Ahh, OK. Well that’s really great. You must have done something right,” I said, encouraging him or me (I’m not sure which) to go on.

Little Talks by Of Monsters And Men on Grooveshark

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Posted: 2:06 AM

Song #23// The Tallest Man on Earth, “1904” [There’s No Leaving Now]

May Reflection:
What comes below is something that I wrote in a west Philadelphia hotel room in late January of this year. As I do my “Year in Review” posts I often jot down notes or (in this case) really rough drafts that I intend to revise before I publish. For a variety of reasons, this one never made the cut, until now.

It’s very difficult for me to read this one. It came as I was doing a campus visit for a school that I was the runner-up at for two years in a row (I didn’t get the gig this time either.) After applying to some 120 jobs in two years, I went on several such visits where my nerves and lack of sleep always prevented me from enjoying any part of the trip. Whether or not that factored into never getting an offer this year remains uncertain.

What is certain, though, is that even through this unedited and meandering draft, you can feel a sense of optimism. I’d like to say it was, and still is, sincere. I’d love even more to think that this is my true self here: unguarded and comfortable with a voice only intended for my ear.

But time passes, and there’s no reason not to let it out. Something wonderful just may take its place.

January Original:

I’d like to write and say that I don’t believe in watershed moments. Or maybe I’d like to say that I don’t believe in pedestrian revelations, or moments where it seemingly all comes together the way a sudden sunburst from behind a low-hanging cloud, without blushing, does. Without feeling self-conscious that New Years excitement and resolutions are forced in ways that the unexpected grace of everyday realizations aren’t.

But I do.

My flight had all but just landed before I was whisked through a city that I had seen through car windows several times before. Dropped off at my hotel I exchanged my cards for theirs in what would be the entryway to my temporary stay. A night. Don’t get too comfortable (as if I had a choice.)

I was back interviewing for a job that wasn’t too much unlike the job I was interviewing for last year at this time. Except last year was nerves and uncertainty. I’m sure my desperation showed. And, of course, I didn’t get it, resigned to the idea that my last trip here would be looked back on as false hope and not too uncertain defeat.

But I’d changed my perspective in a year. I would never call it confidence (I wouldn’t know it if I met it on an empty street), but a different kind of resignation. I’d show my cards, strip down, bring up the stories of my abnormalities. I’d explain who I was and what I thought I had to offer. If they liked it, great. If they didn’t, I’d explore a new city and spend time with friends and family all across the country.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t nervous, or that I didn’t take it seriously. I did. I do. In fact I’m writing this right now in one of those hotels in one of those cities, and the future is more uncertain than ever as all of the work that will decide my fate has yet to commence.

But in that hotel room—in this hotel room—I decided to iron my poor woolen suit that had been good enough to get married in, but mine enough to get balled up in a carry-on every time I went on one of these treks. In mid-afternoon in mid-winter I stood and ironed that suit in a comfortable silence that was only accompanied by a tinny speaker leaking out The Tallest Man on Earth’s There’s No Leaving Now. And maybe I shouldn’t call it a revelation. Or a watershed.

But it was.

It was all going to be OK. Maybe this was my life. Meaningless. But maybe, right as the sun broke free from a dark cloud portending bitter snow, this was my life. Glorious. Or at least wondrous in how you can wake up in a new city and feel like yourself and beside yourself with absolutely no vision of what the day will bring. Sometimes we open ourselves up to those moments. Sometimes, though, they open us up and jingle-jangle us through a kiddie ride of delight and optimism.

Anyway, that’s how I felt. That’s how I feel. The words to the song are inconsequential when your ears close up from smiling.

1904 by The Tallest Man On Earth on Grooveshark

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13 March 13

On baseball, my Dad, and Detroit…

From my journal, written Wednesday October 25 2006:

…I remember once going to my grandparents’ house in Detroit. When they were still alive. It was small and dark and we went there on important holidays. At such a young age I could feel the force and the conflict. There was a slanted cellar door in the back that scared me and I didn’t know why. Inside smelled like cigarette smoke and trapped sunlight.

But this was a sunny day, I’d like to say in summer but it could have been spring. It was warm and probably a Sunday—the only day my Dad had close to off. We drove there and parked around the corner—why am I writing this? and why are tears welling up in my eyes?—we walked down the broken sidewalk strewn with gravel and broken glass. I noticed the grass was more coarse and wild with weeds where it hadn’t been mowed. The fences weren’t coated in green plastic, but a thick brown rust that felt pebbly to the touch and never fully revealed the silver underneath.

My memory involves my Dad and me but no one else. They were there, my grandparents, and maybe my aunts. We were on our way to Tiger Stadium for an afternoon game—an annual treat repeated every couple of weeks. Someone had bought me a whiffle ball set and perhaps to appease them, my Dad took me out back to the small yard bordered by the gravel alley which was partially obstructed and mysterious and foreign.

My Dad threw me the ball and I may have missed several times, even though it was an oversized red plastic barrel, made for children much younger than me. Finally it connected with the underarm throw from my Dad, and the hollow and perforated ball went sailing through the afternoon Detroit air until futility and gravity met.

As everyone who was there—who’s not here now—clapped and cheered I looked confusedly at my Dad and then started to run, slowly around the small yard, imagining and trying to emulate the shape of a diamond.

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21 January 13

5 More Songs to Go

For those playing along at home, there are 5 more songs, 24 in total, to go in the 2012 Year In Review.

True, I won’t finish until late January, but at least I’ll finish. I’ll get us there. Promise.

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Posted: 8:10 PM

Song #19 // Cloud Nothings, “Stay Useless” [Attack on Memory]

Cloud Nothings

At some point I realized I wasn’t such a big deal. Literally. Though I’d been wearing oversized suits or size L (or, regrettably, XL—what was I thinking? growth spurt at age 20?) shirts and pants that I’d snagged from thrift stores or clearance racks for years, I finally came to the point that I realized, painfully, some things about myself: I’m a size M in most shirts, S in vanity sizes (I also learned what vanity sizing was at this point); I’m a 30 length in jeans, not 32 (and apparently rolling jeans isn’t allowed into your 30s); and I’m 5’9”, not 5’10” (though this one is still in contention.)

The fact that these realizations coincide with the dates of me getting married and moving in with my wife, I’m told, is pure coincidence.

The point, of course, is not how I’m measured, but in how I view myself. For as long as I can remember I’ve thought of myself as bigger than I am, in all respects. In fact, one ex-girlfriend even described me as a big dog in a little dog’s body. For whatever reason, I took it as a compliment at the time.

But otherwise it’s been both a blessing and a curse, allowing me to do things that I shouldn’t have been able to do while also placing a boulder-sized chip on my shoulder when I felt like I wasn’t getting the respect or recognition I deserved. Pride lives in the crack between stature and introspection the way a troll lives under a darkened bridge. It’s best not to provoke him.

To do so is, indeed, an attack on memory.

There are moments in our lives, though, where we can feel liberated by feeling bigger than ourselves. There are times where we don’t realize how short we are, how goofy we look, or how poorly we dance. We can graciously overlook how little work we put into a day or how many people at a party actually want to get corned by us (of course, it’s always us being cornered by them, isn’t it?)

This song is that feeling, encapsulated in a punchy 3min song on a punchy 34min EP. The fact that both feel much longer and complete is no coincidence. This is music that makes you stand up straighter, hit the gas harder, and feel better about yourself than you probably deserve to feel.

Analyze how you will the fact that people like us can only parse such feelings out in such small doses. I don’t have time for such criticisms.

Stay Useless by Cloud Nothings on Grooveshark

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Posted: 6:20 PM

Song #18 // The xx, “Angels” [Coexist]

the xx

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to note that I decided to teach college students because I love the feeling of a campus on Friday afternoons, right as the sun is dipping down and the excitement of the evening is still hours away. I can remember as far back as when I was a college student, walking around the old Ann Arbor HS, which by that time was known as the Frieze Building, and which was—quite visibly—falling apart.

Years later it would be torn down, but when I walked the halls as the Friday sun streamed through dusty windows, it looked golden and well-worn as the light bounced off the muffled, cracked tiles underfoot and swept up the hallway lockers that were well beyond their overpainted use.

Years later I’d walk around Notre Dame the night before a football game. Instead of walking down South Quad where people threw footballs and pre-gamed their pre-games, I’d walk through O’Shaugnessy where custodial staff would be leisurely mopping the floors before their weekends off. The smooth-tiled walls were a shade of sickly yellow, the way I remember elementary schools or mid-century churches. There was a solemnity to them, as if the silence and temporarily deadened echos still gave off an energy that smelled like school lunches and pencil shavings.

At Stanford (I still do this) I’d walk through classroom buildings that I didn’t even teach in. Instead, I’d look at the bulletin boards for foreign language courses and trips abroad pinned next to faculty office doorways that I’ll never walk through. Every now and then a stray grad student (because, of course, who would still be in a classroom building at 6pm on a Friday as a gorgeous sunset burned over the horizon) would pass me, averting her eyes as out of some kind of shame.

But I never felt that way. To me it was these quiet times where the university seemed most full of promise—so many smart, interesting people co-inhabiting a space where there are clean carpets and bathrooms that you can have all to yourself if you know where and when to look.

And at Michigan—back where I started my whole obsession, and where I later spent the most formative years of my career—I had what could be considered a Friday routine, which was just as thrilling to me on game weekends as it was in the bitter heart of winter.

Each Friday afternoon I’d trudge through rain and snow across campus to a little cafe with cement walls overlooking the School of Education. After several hours of studying and burnt coffee I’d walk across the streets and into the halls of the building that used to be an elementary school. From there it was through the gothic Law Quad and into the Michigan Union, usually just beginning to buzz as student groups, parents, and visitors were going over plans for their nights and their weekends. I walked each tiled floor, disappointed if I was interrupted in my public solitude. Once I was done with that, I’d reluctantly plot a course home through the Diag, Angell Hall, or at the local record store before going home, sometimes not to emerge again until Sunday afternoon.

Fridays are bestowed by Janus’s gift of looking both backward and forward. There’s an exhalation of relief and an inhalation of anticipation. For most of my adult life I’ve gone on trips each Friday: acting as a tourist in a foreign land that is just the same very very familiar to me. I consider myself lucky to live on or around campuses that can allow me to fade from view so easily.

I suppose anyone working at any job can feel the same thing in these twilight hours, but as a teacher, it’s wonderful to know that the same hallways I use for my job are alive with discovery well after I head home. It’s nice to know that where I leave off is where others just start.

This song by The xx is all of these things: a mid-beat opener that has all the finality of a late night, but all the possibility of a long trip. The lyrics “Being/ as in love with you as I am” is just a mantra to this kind of meditative dichotomy. They’re just the repetition to a feeling, a sense, of wonder and accomplishment in knowing that the work is never over. The work is who we are. The being.

Angels by The xx on Grooveshark

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Posted: 2:39 AM

Song #17 // Sharon Van Etten, “Give Out” [Tramp]

Sharon Van Etten

A few weeks ago a friend and I hiked atop San Bruno Mountain, which is neither in San Bruno nor a mountain. Nonetheless, after some meandering wooded paths, we came out to a clearing that featured a perfectly formed rock jutting from the pebbly hillside. As we sat down, collectively we eased into a silence the way you ease into a bath that has cooled down just enough: hot, but oddly comforting. We could see the peninsula to our south, Berkeley and the East Bay, downtown San Francisco and lip of Marin to the north, and to the west, the entirety of the Pacific laying out before us, reaching all the way to a horizon that featured the caps of the distant Farallon Islands.

To say it was awe-inspiring is an understatement.

But what was most profound that day (for us, at least) was that this vista was available just south of the city that we’ve called home for over and almost a decade, respectively. We both knew this spot existed, but had no idea. It was a revelation to jointly find something so familiar, but yet so surprisingly foreign in our backyard.

It fit in perfectly with an ongoing conversation we had that day about how new the city of San Francisco felt when we first moved there, at different times for different reasons. And yet our experiences were eerily similar. Everything from the smells (eucalyptus in the Panhandle for me) to the sounds (the nightly din of the Mission for him) spoke of promise and arrival. Not even arrival, but the night before arrival. The precursor to the cursor.

Of course it’s a widely told tale now that I moved to San Francisco for the worst of reasons: a girl. And two years later I moved away from the city ostensibly for a grad degree, but less explicitly for the same reason: a girl. Chasing her in the former, escaping her in the latter. It’s so cliche that I’m to the point of feeling comfortable sharing it here (and various other places too, I should note.)

Which is what makes Sharon Van Etten’s song—and entire LP—all the more achingly beautiful. This reads like a diary that she has begun reciting out of a final act of desperation. She has nothing left to lose, perhaps the most important of which is pride. She sings things I could never say, and whether you think of her in this album as a secret sister or a navel gazer, there’s no doubt, at least, that she’s masterful in her delivery.

Though this song, in particular, is a droning, hypnotic confession, it’s also the excitement of promise (of arrival) and the weariness of caution, or defeat. They’re all there in the lines, “I loosen my grip from my palm/ and put it on your knee/In my way, I say/ You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/You’re the reason why I’ll need to leave.” For herself, but for us, she wants to believe. She wants to smell those smells and feel that hope. But there’s a collective memory. There’s hurt in hope.

After having lived any place for long enough, we learn to live alongside the ghosts of our former lives. We pass by parks where we first held hands, and we look away from cafes where we learned it was over. We see the glorious sun that blinded us when we felt lowest. And then sometimes, on some random Saturday with a friend who’s stuck it out, even when it sucked, we climb some new peak that was always there, and we’re allowed to see it all anew. We’re allowed to be silent in an echoing landscape.

Give Out by Sharon Van Etten on Grooveshark

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15 January 13

Song #16 // Aimee Mann, “Labrador” [Charmer]

Aimee Mann

Let me start by saying that I know I have no right to complain. For more than a decade I’ve taught some of the brightest and most interesting students this country can produce, and I’ve done it in a career that I freely chose and was blessed to enter into so quickly and easily. And though it’s the teacher’s #1 cliched, self-defeating mantra, within the past two weeks I’ve received a long email from a student I had in class 3yrs ago and a gift from a student from just last year that both made my job completely worthwhile.

I know, then, that I have no right to complain. None.

But for those of you who aren’t teachers, let me try to explain this. For those of you who are teachers, well, none of this is new.

Imagine the last time you tried to explain something—anything—to someone you barely knew. Maybe you were explaining a computer application to a co-worker at the end of the day. Maybe you were relaying a recipe to a spouse over the phone while one of you was in the grocery store. Maybe you were giving directions to a tourist. Whatever the case, imagine that you put all of your effort into it, despite any circumstances that made it immediately difficult, or annoying. Imagine that you all but put your life on hold so that this person could take your abstract knowledge and magically make it their own.

Now imagine that you failed even after all of this effort.

Imagine walking away and feeling the disappointment and frustration that no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t transfer your ideas so that they made sense to someone else. Imagine taking it incredibly personally, blaming yourself for this lack of connection.

Imagine that happened to you several, if not dozens, of times a day. Imagine it was your job.

I could go on, of course: imagine low wages, 60hr+ work weeks as the norm, no contracts, living through jokes about summers “off,” reading scathing teacher evals from teenagers who barely showed up to class, 2hrs each way commuting, etc.

At some point it becomes the din all of us have heard before. But it’s true. Most of it. For at least part of the time. Especially the 4hrs/day commuting.

But, yes, there are great days, too. Days where you know you nailed it. Days where students amaze you and surprise you. Days where students from years earlier come back to say a simple “thanks” that means nothing to them, but everything to you. Those days happen, too. And, again, it’s sad but true that they all but eclipse the bad days when you’re struggling to find meaning.

But most days you’re mostly just tired. You leave home before first light, get home after final light, make dinner, grade papers, answer emails, and get ready to do it again the next day. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just reality for what I could guess are the majority of teachers. Whether they love it or hate it, their days are a variation of this overtaxing existence. And yet if a student were to even speak half a question the next day, most teachers would finish it with a helpful answer.

But sometimes such existence just gets to you, as it did to me this last fall when I was—for lack of a better word—slipping back into a malaise that is colored a light shade of depression when it all seems meaningless. When the frustrations are high and the recognition is low. It was at this point that I discovered the new Aimee Mann CD, and while I wish I were writing this to explain how it saved my life, perhaps it’s enough to just say that I’m here writing it at all. And writing to say that it was worth it. It’s always worth it.

This is the first Aimee Mann disc I’ve bought since her masterful soundtrack to Magnolia, which remains—for me—all but the perfect film. I used to know entire hours of dialogue front to back, to say nothing of the words to all of the bittersweet songs that laced the high gravity plot line.

In the end I have no idea whether or not teachers have it any harder (or any different, really) than nurses, firefighters, or servicepeople of any stripe. But as a teacher, I can attest to what it feels like to care too much. What it feels like to get so invested in people that you’ll never see again that you can only take it out on yourself when the class or the semester is over and you’re left to wonder how the next class will be any different. It’s moments like these (and, of course, there are a lot of them) where a good student or a good song can make everything worthwhile.

That, I guess, and a box of chocolate-covered cherries from an ex-student every 5yrs or so. That makes it pretty good, too.

Labrador by Aimee Mann on Grooveshark

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14 January 13

Song #15 // The Tragically Hip, “We Want to Be It” [Now For Plan A]

The Hip

Though no one seems to have noticed, 2012 marked the 200-yr anniversary of the War of 1812, an actual bloody, official war against Britain that largely found us fighting against Canada and American Indians. The fact that we let this anniversary go by with barely a ceremony is not only a shame, it’s surprising. Consider this, the War of 1812 involved:

  • An officially declared war by the US government
  • No change in territory but over 2yrs of fighting
  • Britain wanting to make the state of Michigan an official American-Indian/First Nation buffer state between Canada and the US
  • The city of Detroit being surrendered
  • The creation of the US Navy as we know it today
  • Andrew Jackson battling in New Orleans long after the war is over
  • The iconic phrase, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours”
  • The penning of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

And, oh yeah, the burning of Washington D.C., our nation’s capital. Yeah, another country came over, burnt down the Capitol and the White House, but 200yrs later we didn’t, you know, really feel like remembering that.

It’s wild.

And fortunately my hometown is historically right in the mix of it. In the weeks before I finally left Michigan for California I visited two forts at the heart of the conflict. In Detroit, I walked sight unseen into the dilapidated Fort Wayne. The place was an awful mess of overgrown weeds and broken windows. I walked in catacombs in exact blackness, defined by their absolute lack of sunlight. The fort, positioned on the banks of the Detroit River, almost literally a stone’s throw from the Canadian side, is majestic and beautiful. Or at least it used to be. Now it’s an eyesore and a footnote in history: not only the site of confrontation in 1812, but also a staging area for WWII and where members of my Dad’s generation went to enlist for Vietnam.

In a lot of ways the current condition of Fort Wayne in Detroit mirrors the American condition of amnesia (or apathy) toward the history of the War of 1812, where the US was largely seen as the aggressor yet no visible gains were left after the fighting ceased. We never won nor lost; we gained respect, built a navy, and kept Britain out of our backyard.

Which is almost the exact opposite story I received on the other side of the border, at Fort Malden in Amherstburg. This historic site is in a park-like setting just to the east of the old Boblo Island on the Canadian side. It’s geographically south of the United States border crossing. Though half the footprint of Fort Wayne, it showcases a cluster of 19th century buildings, complete with actors in period dress, demonstrations, and what could be considered a much more nuanced (read: honest) appraisal of the American effort in the 200-yr-old war.

Upon visiting last August I was treated to the first view of the Americans as land-grabbers, anxious to keep the American Indians from gaining control of the Northwest (then Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.) If we happened to push them out and take over some of Canada on the way, so be it. And though Tecumseh is written about as a noble leader of his people stateside, in Canada I read descriptions (both in English and in French, of course) of his leveled approach to diplomacy and war when needed. I read about his loyalty to the British who promised to fight for his people. And the disappointment and betrayal he felt when the British decided enough was enough, essentially offering up Tecumseh and his nation as a spoil of an unwinnable war.

As the British retreated further and further into Canada (choosing to not attack the Americans on their own turf, and in turn, all but ceding Indian homeland to the aggressors) Tecumseh delivered a passionate speech to those in command that he refused to retreat, but could only feasibly fight with the help of the British. They demurred and were defeated. Tecumseh was killed, and the rock upon which he delivered his final emotional speech stands in the exhibit hall of Fort Malden, where people like me can rightly marvel at the courage and humanity that it represents.

That experience, which stretched into the evening hours when they locked the fort up for another day, was the last time I set foot in Canada before driving west. It was, I guess, a fitting goodbye to a land that I never before saw as a border between my country and another. The river was a separator only as much as a main street through a small town. And while I understand that history is complex, and that I may not even be here writing this now if events hadn’t happened the way they did, I can still do little less than sympathize with the First Nation peoples who were given the unenviable choice of being pushed off of their lands and forced to either fight back or passively await a much worse, uncertain fate. I can only hope that I would have been on the right side of that battle, regardless on which shore of the Detroit River it fell.

This song, of course, is none of these things. But it’s a grand return for Canada’s best rock band, which may very well be one of the best rock bands in the world. Already risking such hyperbole, I’ll only add that this song slowly builds like the “drip drip drip” of the proto-chorus, until it finally lashes out in a cathartic volley of sonics that—while not war-like—is definitely a needed kicking of dust in these otherwise stagnant times of historical appreciation.

PS—For more on the War of 1812, check out this GREAT podcast from the History Guys at Backstory.

We Want to Be It by The Tragically Hip on Grooveshark

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Posted: 2:02 AM

Song #14 // Rodriguez, “Crucify Your Mind” [Cold Fact]


What an odd fate to only know your city through your parents’ eyes. Through a memory that’s not even your own. Sure, I can relay stories of Tiger Stadium, Boblo, Belle Isle, and Clark Park stretching as far back as I can remember. But I never rode the street cars. Sat in Michigan Central to watch the floods of people coming and going. I never shopped at Hudsons or got a beer at Stroh’s.

Detroit is a memory for someone else. The city that I know, or think I know, is a pastiche of cobbled stories and glimpses from my family and from my childhood where I didn’t know the difference between a city and a suburb, rich and poor, or black and white. I remember broken glass and crumbled concrete. But I also remember running down alleyways and across empty lots. It was all a playground then. The Detroit I experienced as a boy was mine in a way that has slowly escaped my grasp as each year has trailed away.

And what should be done about such a thing? Should it be considered tragic? Like some ancient Greek curse: a hero fated to remember a time and a place only through others’ fond, vivid memories?

Or should it be considered a gift? A beneficent base upon which nearly any resurrection story can be built and stalwartly believed in. A starting point that gives you everything you need for your journey.

Admittedly I had never heard of Rodriguez until this year. I was raised on a steady diet of Motown when I was a child. My Dad, among many others, claims to have met some of the biggest stars before they were world-wide celebrities (his tale about meeting Little Stevie Wonder in the Fox Theatre elevator deserves its own post at some point.) But at no point had I ever heard of the little-known Mexican-American folk singer until I caughtSearching For Sugar Manat a late night showing in San Francisco this year.

That night, on a foggy September evening when I just wanted to get out of the house for a bit, there were two lights in the theatre: one from the projector and one from my beaming face. From start to finish I was thoroughly impressed with the harsh but fair treatment that Detroit got in the music documentary. The city looked cold in all senses of the word. But it also hinted at a golden time, even while race (and other) relations were simmering and boiling over, there was a culture that was so rich it’s only now—some 40+ yrs later—being mined for gold.

More than anything, though, it promised resurrection. It promised that nothing so valuable, nothing so gifted, and nothing so wonderfully full of love and talent can ever be buried completely. Eventually even the smallest fingernail will scratch the surface to reveal the beauty underneath.

Released in 1970 it may be silly to include on a best-of list in 2012 (and, ahem, now into 2013) but it was new to me, and a whole lot of other people, too. In fact, after seeing the movie I practically ran home and bought the LP for my new record player. Since then,Cold Facthas been in heavy rotation, and this song, in particular, has deeper grooves than the rest. It’s a perfectly poetic little song, full of wordplay, rhyme, and that odd mix of not-quite-resentment and redemption; as if the song itself were saying:

We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes.

Crucify Your Mind by Rodriguez on Grooveshark

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Posted: 1:34 AM

Song #13 // Whitehorse “Devil’s Got A Gun” [The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss]


There’s a certain feeling going into September and knowing that your team is out of it. I can remember fondly many late August nights driving from my final summer visit to my parents’ place and listening to the hopscotch local broadcasts of Tigers games going in and out of range. By that time in the year it’s just as easy to ride a bandwagon as it is to begin thinking ahead to next April.

In this way the Detroit Tigers are my birthright, my identity, and in no small way the main link between my Dad and me. It’s no small exaggeration to say that he and I spoke much less (even about baseball) before 2006 when the team surprised us all and made it to the World Series in Jim Leyland’s first year. Suddenly I was calling him nearly every night and reciting the starting rotation like a mantra. I was in California, so though there were no late summer runs down I-75, there was an unexpected trip back to Detroit in late October.

I didn’t even get tickets to the big show. For me it was just enough to stand outside the stadium for a few hours. To feel the excitement. To call my Dad after.

It’s difficult to explain, this fandom. I like Nick Hornby’s description best. Though I’m paraphrasing (badly), he explains that members of a team we care deeply about are like representatives in our elected government: we root for them because they are, in effect, an extension of us. They are doing work on our behalf. When they rise and fall, it’s (conversely) as if we do, too.

The connection to fathers, and to a city that needs defending, is just gravy after that.

This song, like air in early September, crackles and booms. It’s a dry log that hisses out its final hidden moisture before popping in a flurry of autumnal sparks that are as sweetly pungent as moist fallen leaves on the edge of the yard. I’m not sure it will ever make it into my normal—nearly sacred—late summer/early autumn rotation (consisting, mainly of Pearl Jam’s No Codeand The Tragically Hip’s “Morning Moon”), but it’s closely huddled right on the outskirts, the way a team lies just below the cut-off point of the postseason, which is itself such a richly evocative term.

However, even as playoff chances dwindle there’s a sweet recognition in a certain closure. The ability to choose when and where you’ll say goodbye. The sense of an ending. At least for a little while.

Devil’s Got A Gun by Whitehorse on Grooveshark

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29 December 12

Song #12 // The Avett Brothers, “The Once and Future Carpenter” [The Carpenter]

Avett Bros

Sometime last year my camera broke. It was one of those single-shot Canon ones; the kind that have increasingly gotten cheaper, and hence increasingly been abused by their owners. Mine was bought as a birthday gift for myself on my 26th birthday. It took a lot of photos, and for a time I didn’t leave home without out, stuffing one back pocket with it, and the other with my phone. It broke, and though I don’t have an iPhone (and never will), I decided not to replace it.

The only hitch to this plan was that this summer I undertook my farewell tour to my favorite spots around Ann Arbor and Detroit. I even went to Canada. In the past I would have taken my camera to shoot photos of everything I was seeing perhaps for the final time. This year I obviously didn’t have that as an option. So I did the next logical thing: I recorded the sounds of all of my favorite places.

When I was younger I used a handheld recorder to record me strumming on a guitar or reciting poetry I had written in my bedroom. Nothing ever came of those recordings, but around the same time I stumbled upon an idea I’m still proud of: I began placing the recorder, microphone out, on my windowsill at night, recording sounds outside of my bedroom window for about the first two hours after I fell asleep.

As a result, I have analog tape recordings of night sounds outside of my parents’ old house. I can still hear crickets, the rustling of the crab apple trees, the click of the air conditioner going on, and even cars streaking by on the other side of the block. I can still, to this day, close my eyes and listen to those recordings to be transported back to when I slept in a tiny room just beside my parents.

So this summer I did the same thing. I took my recorder everywhere. Sometimes I narrated it, introduced where I was and what it was like, and others I just let the natural sounds paint the scene for me. I recorded the landscapers in the distance at my grandparents’ gravesites, BBQers on Belle Isle in Detroit, the gurgling of the fountain in Young Patriot’s Park in Riverview, and the lapping of Lake Erie at Pt. Pelee in Canada.

In some ways these sound recorders are more precious, and more evocative than any photo I could have taken. Those pictures, while valuable, would have been my attempt to capture a reality and place it away so that I could look upon it at some point in the future. But I never would. Or I would, but it could only do so much.

But these recordings are still alive. They still pop and hiss both because of the fading tape, but also because of the wind and the people around me at the time of each recording. They aren’t an expression of reality the way photos are, they are reality, the way we used to capture butterflies or lightning bugs when we were kids, and then trap them in mason jars. This is my trapped memory, my artificial control over something that is, was, and will always be.

In some ways this song is much the same. Of course I’m drawn to the lyric, “I don’t come from Detroit/ But her diesel motors pull me” but it’s more than that. There’s a peaceful resignation that is a theme in all of the songs I’ve chosen this year. It’s not optimism, but instead a clarity in singing aloud, “If I live the life I’m given/ I won’t be scared to die” to an upbeat harmony that strides confidently forward even as it’s fully aware of what’s been left behind. This recording, too, will always be alive. Years and lives away from here.

The Once and Future Carpenter by The Avett Brothers on Grooveshark

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Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh