Lighting Up My Cerebrum Like An Arcade Game: Thanks Music

I’m prone to musical obsessions. I own it; and I publicly apologize to those close to me who’ve been forced to endure through them. The most forceful obsessions are always the ones that take the longest to justify. When my partner asked me why I was so attached to my current obsession, it took time. One short answer is that I’m often captivated by love songs that aren’t about people. The cover version is the first one I heard, and I have a strong fondness for strings over keyboard, but the original is the original.

The original

The original has an eerie weirdness to it. The strange keyboard effects and reverberating vocals give it an almost surreal quality.

A cover by the Punch Brothers

I personally like the intimacy and immediacy of the strings, and small room vocals of the cover better, and the dramatic pauses are very dramatic, but the writer of those lyrics has my undying admiration.

The most potent element is the lyrics. I like narrative songs, especially ones about voyaging. This story, in first person narration, tells of an explorer, completely absorbed by his ship and the quest. The ambitious rhyme scheme is made even more compelling by the force and momentum of the story. This is a man passionately in love, but not with a person. His love for his ship, The Annabel Lee, is embodied and ardent. The sole survivor during an Arctic expedition, he isn’t alone, but rather, held in the loving embrace of his Annabel Lee. He’s rescued, but like Poe, can make no life for himself without his Annabel Lee. Returned by his would-be rescuers to “the old world,” a broken man, he dreams of his love in a world beyond this one, and his only happiness is knowing that she, at least, still explores.

It’s a kind of insanity; the kind of insanity that fires the intrepid, the adventurous, the discoverers, the foolhardy. He’s a charismatic visionary, driven, not quite at home in the mundane world of human attachments. He has no doubts, and he can embrace a vast and awesome solitude. This is kind of the polar opposite of me, which is maybe why it draws me in so thoroughly.

And the music is worthy. Changeable in rhythm and tempo, sometimes meditative sometimes driving, it communicates the emotional content without words. The virtuosity in the cover version speaks for itself. I especially like the way base and treble strings are used to communicate menace and ecstasy.

It’s not a simple song, which doesn’t by any means automatically constitute obsession material. The use of words is, in places, deliberately playful: “And the waves that once lifted us sifted instead into drifts against Annabel’s sides.” This may not look like much in print, but try singing it. It puts me in mind of the poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, Recited here by Johnny Cash

and put pleasantly to music here

by someone on YouTube named Jamoof, with it’s rigorous rhyme and harrowing narrative.

The reaction of our brains to music is complex and dazzling. Check out this article for some of its incredible effects. I’d love to see an MRI of my brain while listening to Another New World; I imagine the whole thing lighting up like a Christmas tree. I wonder if all musical obsessions would have that effect: probably not. This is a rare conjunction of musical and linguistic complexity. It uses metaphorical and alliterative language to tell a story that engages emotion. My cerebrum must look like an arcade game. Oh, thank you music!

Manners: What I Learned From Vulcans

There’s a moment from a Star Trek original series episode that caused me to have an epiphany about why manners matter. The Enterprise had reached Vulcan, and Spock was exchanging ritualized polite phrases with Vulcan command over the view screen. I puzzled and puzzed till my puzzler was sore, trying to figure out why a race which chooses to suppress emotion, needs manners. Manners don’t seem practical on the surface. Still, even Vulcans employ them. It clarified for me that manners are a barrier of neutrality we deliberately erect around ourselves. Manners give us privacy, allow us to hide things, and make a smooth surface for social interactions. When manners are omitted, someone usually ends up knowing something about someone else that they’d rather not know.

I’m not going to make any hippy statements about how we need to break down the barriers that keep us apart; I happen to think those ones are a really good idea. That said, I like to think about how manners and compassion relate.

A friend told me a story about being at the YMCA gym. A man was lifting weights with a kind of ferocity and aggression that was making people around him uncomfortable. A young staff person approached and said, “Hey, are you OK?” Apart from being a brilliant example of effective communication, what struck me about this approach was that, if we act from compassion, we’ll achieve the best possible outcome. Instead of feeling targeted or confronted, weight-lifting man can feel that people around him care about his well-being.

Young staff guy could have exhibited entire good manners while saying, “Excuse me sir, but your aggressive style is making people around you uncomfortable. Could you please calm down?” By adding tact and compassion, even if it’s only pretend compassion, the staff guy perfectly defused an awkward situation. If weight-lifting guy had freaked out, it would have been because of his own volatility, not because he had lost face.

When I’m confronted with an aggressive or unfriendly stranger, I do my best to get even more polite. This gives me a wall behind which to disguise my contempt, offers the satisfaction of having maintained the moral high ground, and sometimes affords the gratification of seeing rude person get even more upset because I’ve highlighted their bad manners in comparison to my good ones. This is a challenging course, but the rewards are worth it. If things escalate, you can even slip in some sincere concern for their blood pressure.

When did our ancestors develop manners? If a stronger person offered food to a weaker one, when and why did it shift from being an act of compassion to an act done for social reasons? I think manners must have developed right around the time people started living in communities. Manners seem like something we employ as a sign of kindness. In fact, their value is that they protect us from the negative reactions of others and ourselves.

We may find good manners hard to define, but we know them when we see them. As a blind person, I’m often offered help by strangers, and sometimes have it thrust upon me without my consent. When someone says, “Can I give you a hand on to the bus?” They’re exercising compassion and good manners. When someone grabs my arm in a death grip and tries to propel me on to the bus, they may, in some form, be offering compassion, but with a complete absence of good manners. I guess the difference is tact. Lacking tact, we can, like the Vulcans, default to formality. Making the subtle distinction between formal good manners, tact and compassion is a useful skill, both when trying to figure out why we like or dislike someone, and deciding how to react in an awkward social situation.

Some People Just Blow Out Candles On Their Birthday, I Hosted an Insect Potluck, and Ate Bugs

Chris holding a meal worm, photo by Leehe Lev
I have a vivid memory of the second before being pushed off a bridge as part of the King Swing attraction in Nanaimo BC. Some instants of anticipation are burned into our memories with a clarity that the experience itself sometimes lacks. I had such a moment at my birthday party this year. It was the instant where I held a worm in my hand, and knew I was about to put it into my mouth. By the time I’d got to the cricket, (about half a strong drink later) it wasn’t quite as traumatic.

Each year on my birthday, I like to do something I haven’t done before: meditating in a floatation tank, or attending the funeral of someone I didn’t know. This year, I wanted to eat bugs.

If you’re still reading, consider that, in many parts of the world, insects are a nutritionally rich staple, requiring relatively little labour; it’s dense protein that doesn’t promote deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. The practical reasons for having insects as part of one’s regular diet speak for themselves. The yuck factor is undeniable. So if you’re not still reading, I totally get it.

At the risk of using an inappropriate metaphor, I planted the seeds of this idea almost a year ago with a friend who’s passionate about food security and the environment. It was a lot to ask of a friend, and she came through brilliantly with fried mealworms and caramelized crickets. It was definitely one of those experiences where thinking about it was a lot worse than doing it, especially if I hadn’t known what I was eating. Tastewise, the dominant flavours were fried oil, and sugar respectively, and how could that be bad? I’d had nearly a year to get used to the idea, which helped. Still, I downed my first drink pretty fast while trying to work up my courage.

I eat meat, but it’s always part of an animal. A large part of the gag reflex for me was knowing I was about to eat an entire organism: somehow cheese and yogurt just don’t count. Luckily for me though, I didn’t have to confront the reality of their death, an aspect of carnivorism we’re also usually spared. I’d expected my friend to order a bag of insect flour on line and make fritters or something. That’s what I would have done, but she showed me my own cowardice. She went to a reptile store and bought live things, arranged their death, washed their dead, segmented little bodies, then worked with them in a context where the sight of an insect is normally a cause for alarm at the least.

Was it gross? Yes. Did it taste gross? No. Did it make me think, “Yum, I gotta get me some more of these!”? No. Was it less revolting than the smell of the snails being eaten on the other side of the kitchen? Yes. Would I do it again willingly? Only after the apocalypse.

Phrases You Just Don’t Hear Every Day, But That Came Up At My Birthday Party

  • “Do you want to try the mealworm or the cricket first?”
  • “This piece has the entire insect embedded in the caramel; this one just has a leg.”
  • “Wanna down a draft of Raid first?”
  • “Is there nothing you wouldn’t do?”