Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stars in ______

Jamey Johnson has always been one of my favorite country artists. He continuously redefines and revises the genre -- alluding to past giants while carefully blazing his original trail. He's smart, plain spoken, and bold in his challenging song design (thought he never truly breaks from the "standard" format, but place himself far enough away, as if you're experiencing something "new").

This song, "Stars in Alabama", off the nearly perfect album That Lonesome Song, is a particular favorite because: 

A. The story is crystal clear and the characters well defined. 
B. The specificity of the writing is engaging -- it's clear that Johnson is not only writing from the heart, but also knows how to dive into his heart and bring out complicated emotions in an extremely simple way. That's art.
C. The tone of the story is captured perfectly in the music. 
D. Substitute Alabama and Tennessee for whatever state you're in and where you're from. It's completely universal. 


I said, “Mama don’t you worry
I’m getting by just fine on the road
Yeah, tonight we played in Knoxville
And tomorrow night it’s back to Music Row

No, I don’t know when I’m comin’ home
Montgomery seems so very far away”
She said, “Boy it wouldn’t kill you now
To look out past the bright lights on that stage

‘Cause God put stars in Alabama
You just can’t find in Tennessee
The same ones are waiting on you
That taught you how to dream

I know there’s big names up in Nashville
And you’ll be one before too long
But God put stars in Alabama
To help you find your way back home”

I hung up the phone and I could feel
The emptiness at 80 miles an hour
And I listened close and I could hear
My heart beating louder than the tires

This old bus was headed west
But my mind was drifting
Somewhere towards the South
And I closed my eyes and I could see
The bright lights shining clearly through the clouds

‘Cause God put stars in Alabama
You just can’t find in Tennessee
The same ones are waiting on you
That taught you how to dream

She said, “There’s big names up in Nashville
And you’ll be one before too long
But God put stars in Alabama
To help you find your way back home

Yeah, there’s stars in Alabama
That just can’t wait ‘til you get home

By Teddy Gentry and Jamey Johnson
Performed by Jamey Johnson

Stay tuned for a post on the difference between The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons and what they each mean to us!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The following is a guest post I wrote for my friends over at Stuff BU Kids Like. I hope you enjoy it and do check out their site. It's absolutely hilarious. 

“To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will. People in cars on busy freeways call to each other Boycott Grapes, comfort each other Honk If You Love Jesus, joke with each other Be Kind to Animals – Kiss a Beaver. They identify, they summarize, they antagonize with statements of faith: I Have a Dream, Too – Law and Order; Jesus Saves at Chicago Fed; Rod McKuen For President.

n     Ordinary People by Judith Guest

For the past sixteen years – whether you know it or not – you’ve been laying the foundations of a house. This house will be you. And, on the Sunday morning of May 22nd, 2011 you will begin constructing your house the moment you open your eyes. The moment you make a choice either to sleep forever – completely ignoring the moving, changing, and confusing world outside – or to wake up and be someone.

The moment you wake up on this impending Sunday – hung over and potentially still drunk – everything you do from then on will be for you. No longer will you acquiesce to the desires of Professors, coaches, TAs, RAs, and Dorm Security Guards. There is no one left to impress – save for the people you want to. You have earned the power of choice. But, this choice and how you use it says multitudes of who you are and what you stand for.

So, I hope you’ve laid your foundation properly.

The key to not being overwhelmed – should you choose to participate in life – is to know why, exactly, you get out of bed in the first place. Why wake up? Why not just lie there and sleep – unable to be contacted, to disappoint, to shame, to be vulnerable. Why subject yourself to this cruel, unforgiving, and dispassionate world? Knowing what gets you out of bed, and knowing why these things get you out of bed, is paramount in understanding yourself.

Knowing who you are is like hiring the best architect or interior designer for the house you’re creating. Who else would know how to design the kitchen or where to place the master bedroom? Who else would know what off shoot of burgundy the dining room should be or what wood your dresser should be – cherry or oak? By understanding why you choose to live you understand what makes you … you. This is an incredibly powerful asset.

By understanding you, you are now invested with the power of change, with the power of editing and revising. We, like a great work of art, are beings of constant flux. We ebb and flow with the path that Life puts us on. It’s imperative, for our happiness and our prosperity, that we understand – truly understand – who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are heading. This can only come through the introspection that is necessary of analyzing why we get out of bed every morning.

So, when you’re two years into the “real world”, unemployed, and scratching for reasons to wake up – think about what’s gotten you up for the past twenty something years. Think about what keeps you up at night. What you day dreamed about while strutting down Comm. Ave on your way to class – looking good and feeling even better. Who are you at your best and what brought you there? Knowing yourself is not only a tool for improvement and understanding, but perseverance and strength.

The same can be said for when you’re two years into the “real world” and realizing that this job you were so excited for isn’t what it was supposed to be. You start to feel that horrible, sinking, feeling that creeps in at night when you begin to realize that your hopes and expectations are nowhere near being met. Knowing yourself gives you the power to make the change you need because of the faith it puts in yourself.

Because – sometimes – change is a choice, too.

So, lets say by now you know who you are – hypothetically – now what? You put it into action i.e. you get a fucking hobby.

We are creatures of creation – just look around. You are surrounded, everyday, by edifices we’ve constructed. Buildings, art, food, roads, cars – all manmade. We thrive on purpose and when that purpose and creation is involved in something we love – a passion – then that leads to internal happiness unparalleled by any other experience.

A happiness that can keep you up at night and out of bed in the morning, that grants you peace of mind and a foundation to stand on. A happiness that is contagious, inspiring, and separates you from everyone else.

I urge you all to be someone – at the very least. To be constructive with your cognitive energy and not spend your time on Facebook or Twitter. To not get sucked into the terrible toxin of reality TV – a unique phenomena that has, unfortunately, taught us Millennials that you do not have to be worthwhile to be “famous”. I urge you all to make yourself vulnerable, to get out of your comfort zone, to participate in the world that is outside your window. To make a difference, an impact, to embrace the pain.

I hope you all – in complete sincerity – fall flat on your face in failure then rise to be better than before. You are human – malleable, plastic, adaptable, and changeable.

You are not made out of glass.

We are given no purpose when we enter this world, we are given no set of instructions, and no path is opened for us. We are merely given a toolbox and ourselves and must make do with what we have, make the best of what God gave us.

Doing this successfully only comes from knowing why the Hell you got out of bed this morning.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's Going on at 808 Comm. Ave?

In complete honesty, I don't go to the 808 Commonwealth Avenue art gallery. Let's just say, I'm not their biggest fan. But, recently, they exhibited work that the costume, stage, and lighting design majors at Boston University's College of Fine Arts did -- for both undergrad and grad students.

And I was thoroughly impressed.

It was clear how much care had been put into displaying these costumes, scene sketches, and lighting outlines. They were presented in a way that was clean, organized, and stylishly informal. It was a welcoming and -- most importantly -- engaging presentation.

As I meandered through the wide, well-lit, gallery I started to notice that they were not only showing the final products of scenery paintings and intricate hand-made costumes but also the rough sketches, outlines, and drafts. They weren't just displaying the finished product -- but how the artist got to the finished product.

This I found very exciting.

Rarely do we get to see the creative process of such talented craftsmen -- we are presented with their final product and all our judgments -- everything we perceive -- is from this "final" draft. As a writer, I know that what the artist puts out to the world is only the tip of the iceberg.

Creating something -- anything, really -- is like finding a diamond. You can't put this diamond and it's awkward cut, dusty coat, and worn out edges on sale and expect people to shell out thousands. You have to edit it. You have to revise this diamond, dust it off, cut away the unnecessary aspects and smooth out the edges.

You have to turn it from a dirty diamond in the rough, to a fine piece of jewelry you've been dreaming about. It's how well you execute this revising -- this mending and bending -- that dictates how happy you are with the final product and how good you are at the craft.

Everybody starts out with a blank slate, and all our first drafts are atrocious -- true creation, true art, comes from the ability to revise, change, adapt. To edit. True art comes from a teleological process; a long march towards an end goal.

That being said I urge you all -- if the exhibit is still up -- to take a look at what these kids have produced and how hard they've worked along the way. From sketch book to final product, you'll learn that art isn't all grand muse and romance -- it's work, planning, and trial and error. Really, creating something is a testament of passion, desire, and work ethic -- just like being good at anything else out there.

Early designs and cloth ideas stapled to them.

Rough sketch to colored final.

The sketches themselves are worthy being framed.

Look closely to the one on the left. The artist didn't even erase the perspective lines. 
Close up of lighting outline. All those little boxes in the middle are lights ...
Wide of lighting outline. Almost overwhelming how much Light Designers have to keep track of.

Rough lighting and scene sketches. Beautiful in themselves.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What I Learned Underwater in Hanouma Bay

"I am challenged to estimate the esthetic value of, say, a drawer stuck into a canvas. But nothing I've ever seen can teach me how this is to be done. I am alone with this thing, and it is  up to me evaluate it in the absence of available standards. The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage. Here I can discover whether I am prepared to sustain the collision with a novel experience. Am I escaping it by being overly analytical? Have I been eavesdropping on conversations? Trying to formulate certain meanings seen this art -- are they designed to demonstrate something about myself or are they authentic experience?" 

--Art critic, Leo Steinberg via his essay "Contemporary art and the Plight of its Public".

Not long ago I was blessed with the opportunity of snorkeling in Hanouma Bay, the Hawaiian cove formed in the mouth of an underwater volcano and home to thousands of fish, turtles, eels, and a massive coral reef. It was beautiful and the activity itself a great source of pleasure -- like going to a zoo without the sinking feeling that the animals are actually imprisoned. But, this major tourist site turned out to be an extremely profound experience.

I was in Hawaii as  part of a training trip. A training trip, for those who don't know, is when a swim team goes somewhere tropical to train for a week. To swimmers, it usually means a week of adventures and beaches in between hard work outs. To non swimmers, it usually doesn't make any sense.

Either way, I was the only guy who opted to go snorkeling in Hanouma Bay. Just me and a van load of chicks. So, naturally, I already felt alienated. Granted, I was comfortable with this group, I've known most of them for the better of three years and got a long well with the assistant coach brining us. But, there was still the feeling of being on the outside looking in that every guy gets when stuck with a group of girls. Their constant chatter of things so irrelevant and petty to male lives, it's almost like being in a foreign country.

When we arrived at Hanouma Bay it was hot and sunny. We got shoved into this little waiting area that looks out over the bay where you wait for your instructional video to start screening. You must do this in order to paddle around in the bay below. We then get ushered into -- like cattle covered in beachwear and sun screen -- a tiny movie theatre and forced to watch the campiest and most stereotypically Hawaiian instructional video out there.

View from waiting area.
Between the opening montage of hula dancers, Iz, Hawaiian music, volcanoes exploding, and the Sesame Street gone Hawaiian jingle about not stepping on the coral, I started feeling assaulted with a pre-packaged, processed, and FDA approved Hawaiian snorkeling experience. And then, looking at all the sun burnt tourists I was huddled with, I got the awful feeling that I was just another part of the millions of people that paddle, pee and, probably, poop in this bay while taking in these beautiful fish and extremely rare forms of life. This did not make me happy.

But, as we all mooed and shuffled our way out of the theatre I put these thoughts on the shelf. I was determined. This experience will be mine, whatever it may end up being.

Once we successfully traversed the steep slope and set up shop on the beach (hey, sorry girls, but can someone rub lotion on my back?) we proceeded to wade into the bright blue Pacific. We paddled around, already equipped with our own snorkels, goggles, and fins and pointed at various fish as they darted beneath us, completely indifferent to our enamored presence. We were in their world and they knew it.

There's a lot going on under those waters.
I, being of large and lanky stature, started to feel bad about my fins. When snorkeling, one will be paddling around and suddenly come to a massive reef. To swim around would be impossible, one must go over. But the water is already shallow and this reef that has just thrust itself upon you only gives you six inches to swim over it. My fins were dragging everywhere and I felt awful about it after that beautiful jingle.

So, I went back and took my fins off.

I spotted my crew of female swimmers -- they're not hard to spot -- and paddled back out, much more comfortable and confident in traversing the reefs. But, I soon lost them, unable to keep up with their kicking abilities.

At first I was worried. The video informs us to always have a buddy, but I was a DI swimmer and only a hundred yards from a beach full of tourists and lifeguards. What's the worse that could happen?

So, I went solo.

Then, as I started paddling around, I started to feel more and more vulnerable.

Ever since I watched Jaws at an age much too young to comprehend -- and appreciate -- it, I've had a very deep fear of water that I can't see the bottom of -- especially if it's over my head. And, after watching a DateLine episode when I was -- again -- far too young, I've also been afraid of rip currents and being too far from shore. Naturally, in a world where it's just myself and my thoughts, these demons started working their way into my consciousness.

It wasn't long after climbing over coral for a while that I found myself in a ravine. Completely lost, alone, and vulnerable, I sunk down into this ravine, about six or seven feet underwater, and looked around.

I was surrounded by beautiful fish. Colored and shining in the sun. They chewed on the coral reef -- you could even hear them munching. But unlike the annoying guy you on the subway eating his Ritz Crackers obnoxiously loud, their eating noises were endearing.

Here I was, alone and in a world that I was not evolved to be in, utterly vulnerable and going against all of my deep seated phobias. At any moment these fish could gang up and attack me, killing me off in seconds. The spiky coral reefs could shoot their spikes out at me, or emit some kind of poison that only these prehistoric fish have adapted to and end me right here. For once in my life, I was not in control, completely vulnerable, and at the will of Mother Nature, Fate, and God.

Then, one fish -- big, shiny, and striped, about a foot away from me -- turned from his meal of coral and looked directly at me. For five seconds that seemed like thirty minutes, there was a moment where it acknowledged my entirety. He acknowledged my vulnerability, my loneliness, every single insecurity and ridiculous thought my imagination could muster. It was as if he said, "I know you're here, Matt. I know you're scared. And that's perfectly fine."

Then he turned back to his coral and continued munching.

This was as much as I could take.

I pushed off the bottom and booked it for land, longing for something familiar, something human, something terrestrial. I spent the rest of the day surrounded by sun bathing women. I went in a couple more times, but nothing as intense.

I was clearly shaken. What happened down there? What had I experienced? These questions had stuck with me for the rest of the trip and remained unanswered. They just collected dust in the back of my mind, waiting for an answer to bring them off the shelf.

When I read Leo Steinberg's essay, I was immediately struck with this memory once I hit the passage above. At no point in my life had I been prepared for the moment that I experienced six feet underwater in the middle of a coral reef. I had no idea how to handle that situation, how to be so far out of my comfort zone and so vulnerable and human. It was as if being in a place so foreign made me realize what I am. This was a collision with a novel experience that happens very rarely, especially in such an undesigned and unplanned forum. It's in these experiences that we realize more about who we are than in any other.

I had never been so human.

I urge you, wholeheartedly, to embrace these experiences. I'm not saying to seek being thrusted out of your comfort zone, but when the occasion arises -- to embrace it, accept it, and deal with it honestly. I was scared shitless that day in Hanouma Bay, but I'm glad I was able to be put into such a position. I believe art's best, and most important, function is to put us in these situations.

To challenge us.

It's how we react to these challenges that shows us more about who we are than about the art that we've been experiencing. Art (including film) -- at its highest -- charms us, disarms us, and then challenges us. It's in these challenges that we find who we are.