Get Out the Map

What is American is one of those things that is so hard to determine that at this point, it’s almost like a philosophical dilemma rather than a physical entity.  Many have tried to define or capture it; in fact, it seems that the right wing has sought to trademark it for the last couple of decades.  But pinning the answer to that question to one definition is never successful, and it seems that the journey to find that answer is just as if not more important.  Such is the case with Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn’s Anthem: An American Road Story.

In the summer of 1995, the two women, fed up with their jobs, decided to interview as many people as they possibly could under the auspices of looking for the definition of our country, of American heroes, and of the American Dream.  The result was a chronicle of that trip told through both a book and a film.

I am not sure if either the film or book were very popular upon their release, as I came in after the fact, getting the book as swag in the summer of 1998 when I interned for its publisher, Avon Books.  I was quite possibly the worst intern in the history of publishing because aside from free books and the ability to fix a five-way copier jam in under a minute, I took nothing away from my experience except for the desire to not work in publishing and to not spend my life commuting into Manhattan via the Long Island Rail Road.

But my ultimately unrewarding experience aside (which, by the way, is compounded by the fact that I turned down an interview for an unpaid internship with a major comics publisher because this internship was paid and I didn’t want my parents to be upset that I was working for no money), I got some very good reads out of it and Anthem was one of them.  During my time in editorial, the book’s editor, Jennifer Hershey, had a large poster of the cover to the paperback edition (Gabel and Hahn standing in a road holding their recording equipment) on the wall of her office and a huge stack of the hardcover edition by her door.  I either asked for a copy or swiped one (probably the former) because the concept of two people taking a road trip to interview people intrigued me, as it was a huge risk for someone to take with her life and I was one of the most risk-averse people in the world (still am to an extent).

I read Anthem on the train, taking it in kind of passively.  I don’t think that’s the type of reaction that the authors were looking for from a reader, but it’s not their fault; at that time I had the perspective of an overprivileged white college student who really knew nothing about the world beyond beers on Saturday.  Oh sure, I had service learning in classes that had me volunteering in sketchy areas of Baltimore and there was a professor or two that required a subscription to The New York Times, but the atmosphere at Loyola was very insulating; I went to college for four years and really didn’t take the time to look very much beyond myself or my own shit.  So really, it’s not their fault. (more…)

The tale of a continuing voyage on the sea of no cares

Love stories are hard to tell.

Oh sure, I can point to an endless number of works of literature, film, and song that suggest otherwise, but for the most part they’re either complete garbage or don’t tell the whole story.  Or perhaps they attempt to tell the whole story but they’re just way too broad, so they skip over a lot of the details.

Then again, isn’t pre-packaged love with a nice soundtrack what we have all been conditioned to look for, anyway?  It’s certainly less complicated than being in a relationship or being married, and our modern world certainly allows ourselves to encapsulate first glance to last kiss in a narrative.  I certainly am guilty of polluting my girlfriends’ lives with mix tapes that were sometimes so awful that I am shocked that I wasn’t broken up with after the first listen.  But for as much as my musical taste has been questionable throughout my life, I know that at least a few time I found a gem among what Sir Paul once called “silly love songs.”  In fact, it’s happened several times, including when I first heard Great Big Sea perform “Sea of No Cares.”

Great Big Sea is a band I stumbled upon in the summer of 1999 when Amanda and I were house-sitting for a friend.   While we spent a good amount of time exploring the greater Arlington/Alexandria area and seeing every movie that was in theaters at the time, I spent much of my days hanging out while she went to the internship she’d started after graduation.  Most of that time, I was working on a novel and the various 1980s mixes in my car were wearing thin, so I went diving into her friend’s CD collection and found Rant and Roar.  I’d heard of the band because I’d seen a video or two on MuchMusic, but wasn’t that familiar with them.

They didn’t need to do much to make me a fan, to be honest.  The band was from Newfoundland, which is where my grandmother hailed from, and they had a boisterous sound that was what I was looking for after spending most of the last four years trapped in my roommates’ Grateful Dead/Phish/Jimmy Buffett death spiral.  A year or so later, they played the Birchmere is Alexandria to support Turn.  It was a great gig and I knew I wanted to see them again, so when my sister heard that they were playing the Maritime Festival in West Sayville on July 13, 2001, I was on the phone the minute tickets went on sale.  I mean, when you come from a town that’s as obscure as mine, you definitely jump at the chance to see one of your favorite bands play there.

So we went, and in the hot July afternoon right next to the Great South Bay, the band started with “Donkey Riding,” which had become somewhat of a staple as far as opening numbers were concerned.  The next couple of songs were from a few albums back and then, the band decided to play “Sea of No Cares,” which was going to be the title track to the new album.  Amanda was standing next to me and humored me by letting me hold her even though by that point we were both sweaty and gross, and Alan Doyle began: “When you’re in love, there’s no time and no space/There’s a permanent smile on your face/Your friends all complain that you’re goin’ insane/But the truth is they’re just afraid/Hey, hey, hey somewhere/You threw your fear in the sea of no cares …”

Almost immediately, I found myself struck by the lyrics, as if they were some sort of revelation.  Or, at least, I flashed back to an earlier point in our relationship where those first few lyrics rang true.


If I could just hold you again

When it comes to nostalgia, there are those things that are true memories and those which are false memories.  No decade has more of this going for it than the 1980s.  Eighties nostalgia is a juggernaut that began when I was in high school back in the early 1990s and really hasn’t stopped since, especially since I’ve had students who say they’re nostalgic for the 1980s, something I find hilarious considering they weren’t really old enough to remember it (And no, they don’t, because that would be like me saying I remember the 1970s when I was born in 1977 and my only memory of anything world events before 1981 is seeing Jimmy Carter on a television screen.  That might be a 1970s memory but it doesn’t exactly put me inside Studio 54).

If you are truly a Child of the Eighties, you are fully aware of these two sides of nostalgia because for every movie, television show, compilation album, or Glee medley that says, “Remember Eighties?  Here it is!  No, don’t think about anything that really happened.  This is Eighties.  Enjoy these memories.”  You’re not supposed to remember that Wang Chung had three good songs, only that they recorded “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and made a seizure-inducing video to go along with it.  You’re not supposed to remember Fresh Horses, the piece-of-crap other Molly Ringwald/Andrew McCarthy flick, just Pretty In Pink.  And you’re not supposed to remember the Cloris Leachman years of The Facts of Life.

Okay, sorry about that last one.

Anyway, I’m one of those people who will listen to a flashback station on Sirius and be happy that Alan Hunter has decided to play “Stone in Love” instead of “Don’t Stop Believin'” for the hour’s dose of Journey.  Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgia dork, or maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much Eighties nostalgia for the past two decades that I need more than something that scratches the surface.  I think that everyone reaches that point in his life, where he wants more than just another playing of “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and usually there is one work that serves as a trigger for the true memories that lie beneath the VH-1-produced surface.  For me, it was “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters.


Domesticated Animals

The front page of, where you can get all of our essentials for going to college.

I think I have lost count of the number of times my wife and I have been walking around Target, looked at all of the “dorm gear” that’s on sale and said, “I wish they would have had this when we went to college.”  I mean, every single time, without fail, as we wheel the cart past the school supplies or toward the granola bars and spot a mini-fridge or stackable storage containers or three-pack of Old Spice body wash, we scrunch our noses and remark how good kids these days have it.

Too bad the economy is so fucked that they won’t have jobs when they graduate.  BWAH-HA-HA!!!

Okay, that was rude and probably uncalled for.  But I have to admit that I’m kinda jealous that everything the kids in my area who are attending college need (and then some) can be found at Target of all places.  I didn’t have the convenience of a Target when I was heading off to Loyola back in the summer of 1995; instead, Sayville had a K-Mart that was so hectic and disorganized that I once nearly had a panic attack when I stepped inside.  And I’m not the type who is prone to panic attacks.

I don’t know, I just find it kind of both genius and funny that Target and other stores like it have latched on to going away to college and turned it into a shopping season of sorts, the kind of thing that you throw in to the back-to-school sales on July 5 and take down the day after Labor Day because the Halloween candy needs to be shelved.  If they did this fifteen years ago, I completely missed it, as I had to deal with schlepping out to Linens and Things on Sunrise Highway in Patchogue about a week and a half before I headed to Baltimore.  They could have been running a sale, but I was completely oblivious to it and I don’t remember seeing commercials about outfitting me with a laptop and all sorts of wireless wonder so that my life was complete in the dorm.

Then again, it was 1995 and my graduation present was a Packard Bell desktop PC with a 2400 baud modem and HP Laser Jet 4L printer, which took up half of my parents’ car and my friends were all carrying beepers around in their pockets.  So … yeah.