Some Stories are Meant to be Told

It’s back! Chicago’s premiere storytelling event: Do Not Submit has started up again, virtually for the time being. I’ve signed up to tell a story on Thursday, April 29th. You can reserve a space to either be part of the audience (or tell a story) here. I’m still deciding what story to tell . . .

Do Not Submit (DNS) is a series of free, open mic events around Chicago where anyone can come tell a story. I love DNS because it is low key, fun and no expectations of perfection, I’ve met some really great people and storytellers at these events. Len Joy, a fellow BQB author, storyteller and triathlete introduced me to DNS some years ago. Whenever my travel schedule allowed, I would hit up the Andersonville session at Hopleaf Bar.

Last time I attended DNS, I told a 7-minute version of the story All in the Family, a story of mine featured in Science magazine about my summer studying Baboons and being visited by my cousin. You can read that original story here (if you have a subscription to Science), or a variation of it on my blog here.

Copyright 2013 AAAS Owen is always watching

4Runner: A little nostalgia on a big road trip

Rostam’s lyrical ode to relationships, road-trips, and facing the unknown broke into the Alt Nation’s Alt18 this weekend. 4Runner is bound to become the summer’s song of reminiscence and nostalgia, at least for me.

4Runner: From the forthcoming Changephobia album

I’ve been rocking out to it the past two weeks as I worked—first on a news piece for Neuron and then on edits and (final?) revisions for Calm Undone. Whenever 4Runner starts on my playlist, I instantly have feelings of nostalgia.

The opening bars with its acoustic guitar and brushed drums—a relentless beat that drives the song from beginning to end—remind me of Peter Gabriel. I’m back in college, hanging out with my friends, young and carefree. So many stories I could tell . . .

As Rostam starts to sing, the lush harmonies build and I’m suddenly longing for …. something, but I’m not quite sure what. Or when. The summer road trip that hasn’t happened yet? The days I wondered Capitol Hill in Seattle with my friends looking for a night of fun? An ungodly, early morning in San Diego, when I picked up my friends to drive all day to a triathlon? Or something that maybe hasn’t happened yet . . . but whatever it is, I think I’m getting closer.

I should confess, I am a hardcore Vampire Weekend fan, where Rostam got his start, at least professionally. And his first Grammy nod. So it isn’t surprising that I’m digging his latest tune.

But yeah, 4Runner, by Rostam. That’s what is wasting my time right now.

To All the Books I Loved Before

As I am debating and discussing final edits to Calm Undone with my (always helpful) editors, I find myself revisiting favorite characters and books. I truly believe that if you want to become a good writer, you will first have to become a good reader. When I struggle with things like pacing, character development, or how to get the right balance of telling a story without getting lost in minutiae, I pick up books I have strewn about my house that I think did all of that well. As I take a little break this evening from revising (and revising and revising again), I want to share my thoughts on two books (and the authors) that I remembering thinking, Yes, I want to create something like this.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews, 2012). What I love about this book is the narrative voice. Andrews’ protagonist is Greg Gaines, a snarky, witty and self-conscious teenager who just wants to hide in mediocrity. Except when he doesn’t: he wants the attention of the popular girl; he wants the cool nonchalance of his best friend; he wants to move on from high school, but is so scared of being less than mediocre he won’t apply to any colleges. And above all, he wants neat, happy endings to the worse life dishes out, knowing full well it doesn’t happen. Which makes him your typical teenager. Andrews balances self-introspection and stream-of-consciousness story telling with enough dialog and straightforward exposition to keep the story moving forward. It is a space I struggle to occupy comfortably with my characters and plot.

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton, 1967). I envy Hinton, I truly do. I’m still in awe of how she captures the internal voice of a teenage boy. I doubt I could ever write a female character as strongly as she wrote Pony Boy. What brings me back to this book over and over again, however, is the sense of yearning she creates in Pony Boy (Let’s face it – she does it with Johnny, and Soda Pop, and Cherry, and . . . well, she does it). Pony Boy constantly observes that he plays the role society gave him: Being a greaser. But all he wants is to know that if he wanted, he could be something else. It’s not that he thinks being a greaser is bad, it’s that if he wanted to NOT be a one, he could. Without being fake. Without betraying his brothers. Without someone telling him he can’t. Because he can – if someone just gave him the chance. That yearning to have a choice is a theme I want evident in Calm Undone, but it is hard to achieve. Well, not for Hinton, from what I can tell.

A Good Cover

At the behest of my editors, I’m cranking on revisions for Calm Undone, spending hours at my new local haunt, buried under noise-canceling headphones. Since the 12-months of lock down have me missing live music, I stream Alt-Nation’s Virtual Advancement Placement. Listening has been extra fun because I love a good cover, and both Dayglow (@dayglowband) and Gus Dapperton (@GusDapperton) give children of the eighties like me lots of ear candy.

In a different life, I would be lead in a band called “Cover Me,” and we would essentially play covers (in fact, our first and probably only album would be the semi-eponymously entitled ‘Cover Me — I’m Going In’). This is because I don’t have a creative bone in my body, musically speaking. But there is an art to covering someone else’s song well. You can’t just play it like the original, hoping it sounds the same. You have to make it your own, build upon it. A good cover brings something new: A different mood; A funky change in tempo or key. I imagine it isn’t easy to do, so I’m no expert in telling anyone how to do it. But I can tell you when I think someone nails a cover. So I’ve put together a YouTube playlist of some kick-ass covers. Here’s the list, and a brief explanation of why I included each:

  1. Ben Howard’s cover of Call Me Maybe: The original is a cute story of a crush and the awkwardness of trying to get the object of your affection’s attention. But Howard and crew succeed in flipping this silly teenage song into what feels like an obsessive’s confession.
  2. Jose Gonzales’ cover of Heartbeats: Gonzales’ gentle acoustic guitar version brings out the longing, love-struck nature of The Knife’s EMD hit.
  3. Glass Animals’ cover of Crazy: Glass Animals keeps Gnarls Barkley’s pop-sensibility while giving it geek-cool props.
  4. Wolf Alice’s cover of Boys: Charli XCX’s sugar-pop song was a feminist criticism of women’s depiction in music videos, but Wolf Alice’s mash-up with the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry is kind of genius.
  5. Five Second’s of Summer’s cover of Roots: Alice Merton’s original was a staple on my Sonos alt-rock playlist for most of 2018. That same year, the boy-band Five Seconds of Summer grew up and gave us a harmonically taught, stripped down version worth checking out.
  6. Our Last Night’s cover of Wrecking Ball: I had no interest (none) in the Miley Cyrus original, but I decided to take a chance on this cover. There are tons of other covers to sample, but Our Last Night’s cover was the one that made clear to me the song is not a power-anthem, but a heart-felt, emotional admission of defeat.
  7. Sinead O’Connor’s cover of Nothing Compares 2 U: Despite how I was obsessed with Sinead while in college, I didn’t know her iconic ballad was a Prince original until after reading her 1991 Rolling Stone’s interview. Once you know that fact, his imprint can’t be ignored, despite the stripped down, soul baring, symphonic treatment Sinead delivers.
  8. Silversun Pickups’ cover of Cry Littler Sister: Stick with me as I setup the background here, but trust me I will get there. Growing up in MTv-deprived rural Ohio, my only exposure to music videos was through a local-access show where you would call-in to request videos. Occasionally, callers won prizes, and mine was a vinyl edition of The Lost Boys soundtrack. Despite the strong collection of what were alt-acts of the time (including an Echo and the Bunnymen’s cover of the Doors’ People are Strange), Cry Little Sister was the only song that resonated with me. Even then I thought it merely ‘meh.’ Then Silversun Pickups (whom I think can do no wrong) raised it from the dead and I’m seriously hooked.
  9. Billie Eilish’s cover of Bad: Eilish gives MJ’s pop-classic her trade-mark sotto voce treatment that makes it a classic (albeit this time an alt one) all over again.

It is a short list, and heavily biased. That’s okay, because it is mine. So what it is yours? What would be your short-list of must-hear covers?

Coming in October . . .

So, I wrote a book. It took some time – about 10+ years. I mean, to be honest, in that time I finished graduate school; moved across the country; got a faculty position at Northwestern; spent seven years working as an Associate Executive Director… not to mention lots of other things. But I always had this (and literally hundreds of other) stories in the back of my head.

So in the midst of a year-long lockdown and nearing 50, I finally submitted my manuscript to a little publishing house a friend of mine had used. And here we are!

You can learn all about it at my new author website: garthafowler.com

You can also purchase pre-sale copies on Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Nobles (for nook), Rakuten, and Indie Bound.

King VS Burwell: Or the attack on Obamacare round 2

So, my brother sent me the following email yesterday:

So, the Supreme Court is ruling (or might be ruling) that the States are NOT the executers of the Obamacare plan.  Federal “market exchanges” can be used instead of the States being responsible for setting up and running the program.

Hmmm….think this is a violation of the responsibility and authority of the States?

And here was my response:

Well, it is not that simple.  First, the law governs individual behavior, not a State’s behavior (i.e., the individual is required to purchase health insurance, not the State required to provide it).  However, the law allows for states to act either as executors or not act as executors.  ACA allows for a State to act as executors by establishing exchanges so that its residents are not forced to violate the law (i.e., they must purchase insurance).  If a State ‘opts out’ of executorship, then ACA requires the Federal gov’t to establish an exchange, which means the Federal Gov’t now acts as executor.  So the law, as written, both support state executor rights, and supersedes them.

So to answer your question: Yes, I believe that, originally, ACA removed the state responsibility of regulating health insurance when they made it an individual requirement. That horse it out of the barn, to speak colloquially.  It then placed executorship of that responsibility both at the Federal and State level. It allows for a State to either opt to be the executor of how individuals execute their responsibility; but by opting out, the State forces the Federal gov’t to be the executor of health insurance.

The King vs Burwell case (being heard) is a little more nuanced, and not a challenge to executorship per se; ACA states that, in order to help make insurance affordable, the Federal gov’t will provide subsidies to individuals enrolled in an insurance program “through an Exchange established by the State.”  Some are interpreting this literally; meaning you can only receive the subsidy if you are enrolled in an exchange set up by a State.  If your State did not set up an exchange, and you enrolled through the Federal one (as required by law) AND received subsidies, then King (the plaintiff) asserts that you violated federal law by accepting the subsidies illegally.  The money was only suppose to be available to those enrolled in State exchanges.

The direct question before the Courts is not specifically whether or not states still have the responsibility and executor rights of insurance, but the intent of the law when a state “opted” out of setting up the exchange.  Should people who use the Federal exchange (since their State opted not to set one up) be eligible for the subsidies, even though the letter of the law says “established by the State?”  If the Supreme Court says the letter of the law is legal, then the cost of using the Exchanges are so high, it will fail; eventually someone will successful demonstrate undue burden by the Federal Gov’t requiring such a costly thing as health insurance.

By striking down King’s claim, the Supreme Court allows the ‘intent’ of ACA to cover all the citizens, not just those resident in states with Exchanges.

YO! Marriage doesn’t Equal Parenting

The Brooking Institute released a new report today entitled “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.”  It’s a deep dive into the economics of marriage, family, and children.  I usually think the Brooking’s Institute does a good job of independently-guided research on social issues and driving toward practical solutions based upon what is and is not working today.  So I was shocked when the Brooking’s Cafeteria Broadcast used the headline “Why Marriage Is the Best Environment for Kids.”  If you listen to the podcast, you’ll realize the evidence does not necessarily state marriage, but a conscious commitment to parenting and a stable environment.  In fact, at the 17-minute stage of the interview, Isabel Sawhill, the report’s author, states couples should not have children unless “you and your partner want and are willing to be a parent.”  It is such a central part of the thesis, that it is captured in the report’s subtitle:  Drifting into parenthood.

Sadly, that doesn’t always mean marriage, nor should it. Marriage is a legal status – and always has been.  It is a recognition by governments (state, federal, and/or city) of an agreement between to individuals (spouses).  In most cultures, it is celebrated by a ceremony (wedding), usually a religious one (although that trend is changing).  If marriage was the mechanism for parenting, then you wouldn’t need a marriage license until pregnancy. But it fails as a the litmus test for love, commitment, an the ability and want to be a parent.  It may carry with it the expectation of those things, but it doesn’t guarantee them.  I’m not sure it ever did (just spend some time reading how royalty and the churches used marriages as agreements between countries and to establish monarchies and political affiliations. And no, I’m not just speaking of the Tudors, but in all cultures and continents).  I am not trying to tear down marriage.  But I am a realist:  Giving something a label doesn’t necessarily mean it carries any particular attributes.

I think what really shocked me (and somewhat angered me, I’ll admit), was the way the Brookings Institute promoted the article: The title tacitly infers that with marriage comes the attributes that lead to great parenting.  Some might say I’m just arguing semantics; and to that I will say, sure.  That is exactly what I am arguing, and trying to clarify.  The difference between parenting and marriage.  And this concept is confused by the litany of studies showing the disadvantages and challenges children face when coming from single-parent families compared to marriages.  Not necessarily two-parent families, which is the best comparison group.  I’m not saying those challenges aren’t real, but I’m am saying that those challenges can and often do exist in married families.  Listening to the podcast, you realize that Sawhill’s believes that too.  At one point she states that gay couples – who until recently couldn’t achieve the legal status of marriage in any state – have the capacity to provide family stability and strong parenting.  But she also states, obviously, that there is no data on gay marriages yet to compare to other marriages.

And this made me realize there is another piece of data that is missing from the conversation about marriage, family, and children.  The cost of being raised in a marriage that fails to provide stability and family focus, but stayed intact because of the belief that it is better for the child to have two married parents. I’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle to keep a marriage together, when happiness was not going to be achieved.  We all know people who will attest that in hindsight their parents should probably have been divorced.   The stories tell of unpredictability and instability in their home life; of parents not focusing necessarily on what’s best for the child, but on the broken spousal relationship.  At worst, these children becomes pawns in marriage. I’ve never seen a study comparing children in troubled marriages to children with single-parents.  What challenges await children raised in a family with parents that constantly argue and fight, that don’t have trust for one another, but are committed to the marriage and do love their children?

At the end of this rant, I liked the interview, and the evidence that Brookings provides.  But the researcher and educator in me is disappointed that they failed to communicate what they really learned:  Stable Environments and Strong Parenting are Best for Kids.

Yes Dorothy, You Should Go To College

Despite 1.2 trillion dollars held in collective student debt, the overall answer to attending college is still yes.  The Hamilton Project has a fun online widget that allows you compare your annual income by degree and major (I’m trying not to be envious of my engineering and chemistry friends).  Check it out here.

Earning Advantage for bachelor's degree

Earning Advantage for bachelor’s degree

But college today is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and because of that we need to think differently about why individuals go to college, when they go, and what they should expect.  Thirty years ago, going to school (be it elementary, high school, or under graduate) was the best source of information.  This is particularly true  at the undergraduate level, and what most people think of when they talk about ‘going to college.’  Aside from the nearest public library, there were few resources for me to learn what a neuron was and how it functioned (and for anyone that has ever been to Wooster, Ohio, where I grew up, even getting that information from the public library was a far shot).  College provided access to advanced information.

But today information is ubiquitous – and can be obtained almost anywhere for free:  Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, and yes from colleges and universities that are developing MOOCS (massive, open, online courses).  So today going to school to get information is not worth the value, per se.  I’ve taught literally hundreds of students physiology each year, and at times I myself used free resources and movies online that are of high-quality and do a great job explaining how the kidney works, or how gas laws govern lung function.

Getting my students to use this new information was different – and something they could not achieve by reading the book or just attending my lecture.  It was in lab sections or in small discussion groups where we read case studies of individuals with kidney malfunction and discussed how understanding gas law would provide a pathway for treatment that students learned how to apply this information.

When you have massive amounts of information at your disposal, you have a new challenge:  Organizing, analyzing, and interpreting that information in a useful and meaningful way.  This is perhaps the hallmark of what colleges and universities can still provide to students.  And despite what we may want to believe, understanding how to interpret information in our world is not easy and native.  Spend time with a two year old who believes that all four-legged creatures are dogs, and you’ll realize that knowing how to organize and categorize information is not easy.  Nor is teaching it.  It takes time, and experience.

College today isn’t so much about facts, but learning what to do with those facts.  College is where students develop and perfect their research and analytical skills – no matter what their major is (If you think English and writing don’t require those skills, simply read John Irving’s Until I Find You, and realize he did extensive research on tattoos, and had to integrate it meaningfully and entertainingly in order to write his book).  Going to college today doesn’t necessarily give you a job, but instead gives you the skills to do many jobs, no matter what you studied.

I’d Let You Watch

Leave it to the 1980s to spawn a world wide hit that comes from a rock-musical about two chess Grandmasters playing in the Thai capital of Bangkok, written by ABBA and Tim Rice (famous for being Elton John’s and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lyricist).  But “One Night in Bangkok,” is both catchy, exotic, and very witty (if not at time offensive).

One Night In Bangkok

There is really little to say about this song: It is the musical scene were an American TV analyst (played by Murray Head, a successful British stage and television actor whose brother is also well known for play Giles on the Joss Whedon series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), discusses his love for the intellectual purity of chess, and his disdain for the exotic, Asian capital.  Thailand is the wrong place for the cerebral pursuits he is here to observe, and nothing sums this up better than the line “I’d let you watch/ I would invite you/ but the Queens we use would not excite you.”  Playful, insulting, and a not-so-tongue-in-cheek sexual reference to gay-male prostitutes, he is basically saying what thrills you is but the opposite of what thrills him.

This song makes the list simply because, as a junior high kid, I knew every word, but understand maybe half of what it said or implied. It was not until I was in college that I even knew the song came from a musical, and I really didn’t bother to learn more than that.  I love playing it now to friends my age, and pointing out it is about the game of chess, and a put-down to Thai culture. Ultimately the Thailand Mass Communication Organization banned the song, saying it perpetuated a misunderstanding about Thailand and disrespected Buddhism.

The video for the song is a horrible 1980s video: And of course it would be.

 

I’ve been Waiting

The next song on our ‘Best of Lyrics’ comes from Silversun Pickups, an LA band that got its start playing clubs in the Silver Lake neighborhood.  A friend of mine from graduate school lived in the Los Feliz neighborhood, which is just north of Silver Lake, and we would haunt the clubs and restaurants of Silver Lake looking for fun.  One of my favorite stories about the Silversun Pickups is the one that they got their name from post-show runs to the Silversun Liquor store, which is believable since they often played the Silver Lake Lounge, right across from Silversun Liquors (and I myself have made a Silversun pickup after a late night).

Carnavas

Silversun Pickups’ first, full length album was Carnavas, and the song that got the most attention was “Lazy Eye,” which generated airplay on The O.C., and as the promo song for major sporting events such as the MLB All-Star Game, the World Series, and the NHL Stanley Cup Finals.

I could wax philosophically about the meaning of the lyrics, especially with it’s catchy phrase “I’ve been waiting/ I’ve been for this moment,” (which has various endings throughout the song  that include “all my life,” “all night long,” and “but its just not right), and the title Lazy Eye – a medical condition about an eye that wanders and tends to look in a slightly different direction than the other ‘dominant’ eye. Indubiously, it is about infidelity, or the return to the relationship thereafter.  But like many songs in the shoegaze genre, I find it best to just enjoy the tireless wall of sound built by the catchy singing, droning riffs, and distortion that is simultaneously soothing and pleasantly agitating.

Here is the official video for the song – a mere 4:20 longs.  The Carnavas version is 6 minutes, and if you are dedicated enough you might find on the interwebs the UK version that clocks in at over 7 minutes.