Sunday, September 7, 2008

Birthday Movies

My birthday has come and gone. Feeling older, got stuck in thoughts about nearing 30 and wondering if I'm doing what I should be. The quarter life crisis has happened to me too many times I don't even want to think about it.

With observations done and the sem winding down there's time for writing. I'm also looking forward to some serious DVD viewing. I've been making an effort to buy those discounted original DVDs as of late. But then after going shopping this weekend I was made well aware of the severe limitations in title selection offered by chains like Astrovision and Odyssey. I was able to pick up a number of titles. I had no plans of buying any of them, I mean to say I never went around looking for them at stores and the like, but once the chance to buy them came up, I could not resist and got whatever could fit my meager budget. Here's to not eating out because I overspent on DVDs. Toast! and the flicks:

1. Nosferatu
2. Infernal Affairs
3. The Omega Man
4. Touch of Evil
5. Soylent Green
6. Some Like It Hot
7. Tarkovsky's Solaris
8. Yojimbo
9. Cape Fear (Original)
10. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask
11. Zelig

Friday, September 5, 2008

What Is Music? A playlist and a disaster

The past two weeks have been rather difficult. Leading up to my birthday, they have had me questioning what I'm doing, where I am at this point. It didn't help that I've had doubts about teaching thanks to the observations that have been conducted these last two weeks.

In the hopes of amending some mistakes in a past meeting and starting a provocative discussion, I decided to make a playlist based on the essay I am discussing, an excerpt of the chapter "What is Music" from Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music.

I spent the night picking through my iPod for the ideal tracks to include based on the paragraphs I would discuss, checking different resources to make sure I was picking songs from appropriate periods, etc, and then downloading something from West Side Story because it's on the list.

The following morning I packed up my big old speakers and lugged them to UP so that I would have a good sound system that would help the students hear and appreciate the music, in all its variety and richness.

I went to the room early to set up the speakers and make sure everything went well. I couldn't find an electrical socket. Then, in one corner, there was this plastic thing that resembled an outlet. I plugged in, and nothing. Nothing.

I spent the first quarter of the class time running around trying to find an extension cord so I could hook up to another classroom. The one time I try to utilize some AV materials, my own, and there was nothing. Playlist, speakers, all of it a waste. And there was I, sweating and distraught, the lesson as I envisioned dissipating as this panicked situation set in. I didn't know how to start, how to fix it. The connections between discussions was so clear in my head that not I had no way to transition. And worst of all were the senior teachers sitting there waiting for me to start. I was still trying to catch my breath.

needless to say, things did not go well.

in any case, I think that this playlist is very interesting, especially since it is asked within the context of what is music? how do we define music? I'll list the songs here:

First Levitin says that for some, "music" is the masters:

Track 1: Beethoven's Symphony Number 5
Track 2: Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" Allegro

For others it's Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, or Moby:
Track 3: Busta Rhymes' "Where's My Money?"
Track 4: Busta Rhymes "What's it Gonna Be!?"
Track 5: NWA "Fuck the Police"
Track 6: Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg "The Next Episode
Track 7: Moby "Go"

For others it's jazz
Track 8: Miles Davis"Seven Steps to Heaven"

In the 60s parents were afraid of the evil influence rock beats from the likes of the Monkees would have on children
Track 9: The Monkees "I'm a Believer"
Track 10: The Rolling Stones "Satisfaction"
Track 11: The Beach Boys "Good Vibrations"

Bob Dylan was booed for going electric
Track 12: The Times They Are A-changing
Track 13: Like a Rolling Stone

For a time the Catholic Church banned polyphony
Track 14: Handel "And the Glory" from Messiah
Track 15: Happy Mondays "24 Hour Party People"

The Church also banned tritones because they were found to evoke the devil and were called Diabolus in musica
Track 16: West Side Story "Maria"
Track 17: Mishka Adams "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
Track 18: The Simpsons Theme

If you take the time to listen, this is an immensely provocative list that asks us to question many of our beliefs about the parameters of music and the many ways that music has been judged in the past.

At least there's that list, and maybe I can pull off that lecture some other time, in some classroom where I can get it played.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lyrics and Noise

I've long been an advocate of the literariness of a song, that the lyrics and music should match but also that the lyrics should be very well written. While this is a topic of possibly endless debate, where I do find myself arguing with various of my own points, I do champion the importance of good lyricism, of good songwriting. So it's always interesting to find a jumble of words that, when written on the page, don't really make much sense, but fit perfectly with the music that they go with.

Case in point here is The Verve's carrier single from their new album, Forth, entitled "Love is Noise." While Richard Ashcroft has been hailed as one of the great songwriters (by Chris Martin, not sure by how many other people) he has a tendency to try to be metaphysical without really having a point. This isn't to say that I don't like the man's songs, far from it. The Verve are probably one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite from 90s britpop. Ashcroft has the gift for pretty lines, and also for finding a good line and repeating it in variations that give meaning when coupled with The Verve's music, particularly that airy guitar sound and the general feeling that you're someplace else when you're listening to them. And thus we have these lines from "Love is Noise" :

Will those feet in modern times
Walk on soles made in China?
Will those feet in modern times
See the bright prosaic malls?
Will those feet in modern times
Recognise the heavy burden
Will those feet in modern times
Pardon me for my sins
Love is noise
Come on

One might think that the song might be going somewhere. The rest of the lyrics are some variation on those in the lines listed above. And so, in trying to make sense of them, in any kind of literary way, one is left saying, "Huh?" And still, when you hear that chorus, "Love is noise/Love is Pain/ Love is these blues I'm singing again/" with that irresistible vocal hook and propulsive guitars, you can't help but be drawn by it, the head bopping to the dance/trance beat.

I've been trying to look for other examples. I think a good one is U2's "Bad". It sounds beautiful, the lush, warm melody that develops and really makes you swoon. Giving that song its rise is Bono's powerful delivery of some lines like:

If I could throw this
Lifeless lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

When Bono sings them one line at a time, these lines seem so powerful, so rich in meaning. And yet when we look at it on the page it doesn't really aspire to a level anywhere near poetry. And still it fits perfectly within the context of the song.

This then begs the question, how can I accept and love these songs, and yet despise "Umbrella" or anything by Soulja Boy and mock the undying absurdity of Akon? Is it the purpose? Is it in the expression? When I hear the song that goes "It's too late to apologize" it seems that it's just such a bare and unbearable outpour of emotion, unmitigated by any artistic sense, much like "I-e-I-I will always love you-hu-hu-hu". And still these songs do, in some way, adhere to the principles of music composition. So how then do we define, do we judge? On what are we to base our aesthetics?

Lyricism seems still crucial in terms of whether I like a song or not. I suppose that this calls for a constant repositioning in the demand that we make of a song. But how is it acceptable for me to like "Love is Noise" when, for much the same reasons people will cite other songs and say, "E gusto ko yung beat" even if they don't know what the songs mean? I could appeal to The Verve's shamanistic tendencies where they invoke a kind of trance with their music and have these weird lines floating above it all. Then that brings along more problems and questions of the demand which we make of music. That would then say, so as long as you're making this kind of music you have a right to write drivel?

How do we define drivel and nonsense verse from plain nonsense? What makes "Come Together" or "I am the Walrus," both of those songs playing on sound-driven (and I'm inclined to believe acid-driven) verse, different or superior to contemporary pop music, much of the lyrics of which are nonsensical? I'm still trying to find an answer to this.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 73

Here's a new short short I just wrote up, open for comments:

Day 73

They had run out of fresh food long ago. By their count is was Day 73 of the crisis; they could not remember the last day they had eaten anything crisp. At least they could warm their canned food with the LPG gas tanks they dragged from nearby homes when they made runs out during the daytime. As the days passed they started to feel some confidence in these excursions. For a time they had such confidence that they were generally safe within their quarantine area that they became lax with their security. That was the day Justin died.

They hadn't seen a zombie for almost a week and on that day Justin decided that he wanted to have a smoke out in the sunshine. He sat on a swing in the subdivision's clubhouse and lit up a cigarette. Some of the younger boys started a pick-up basketball game. For the first time in a long time their adrenaline was driven by the joy of exertion and the thrill of a game and not the fear that had hounded them like an unending nightmare. Caught up in the game, the sad circumstances of their situation were lost amidst the, “Ooohs!” after a blocked shot, the swish of the net, the tumble and dribble and the slaps of wrist on ball, the rustle of sneakers on asphalt.

Then there was a scream. Somehow a zombie had managed to get through their defenses. A moat and then a 10-foot tall fence guarded most of the subdivision's perimeter, and they had electrified the gates. They found later that the zombie corpses had piled up on one of the gates so that they served as a flesh ladder for a number of intruders. Among these intruders was the zombie, dressed in tattered polo-barong, who someone recognized as someone's driver, who had just bitten into Justin's neck, his jugular spurting blood all over the swing.

A single shot ran out from one of the rooftop perches, the bullet only curving slightly in trajectory so that instead of going right between the eyes where the shooter had aimed, it went through the intruder's right eye entering just below the socket and exiting at the base of the skull before coming to a halt in the asphalt. The boys playing basketball quickly remembered the outbreak, the deaths of their parents, their isolation in the subdivision, the garbled message that said to maintain a quarantine and that help would come soon, and the need to stop the disease's spread no matter what the cost.

Two of the boys held Justin down. He was writhing and gasping, one hand covering the bite as blood poured out, the other waving frantically imploring help. They stepped on his shoulders and stuck him to the asphalt. Another boy came with a shovel and held it above Justin's head, the blade poised at his neck. Justin waved his free hand, tried to slap the shovel away but one of the boys holding him down grabbed the hand and pulled it out of the way so that the shovel came down on his neck, severing the head clean from the body as well as cutting off the tips of his fingers that were pressed against his jugular.

Since that day there had been no sitting on the swing, no smokes in the sunshine, no pick-up basketball games. There had only been efficient runs to get supplies like food, batteries, and medicine from nearby houses, systematic shifts that ensured someone was keeping guard and patrolling at all times, and a constant hope that someday, soon, the radio would flicker on again and tell them how many more days they would have to wait.

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Kalabaw and Me

Sometime this I week I was supposed to be interviewed by some students from another university. I could not help myself with what happened, and so I think it's worth writing about.

Normally one would be flattered. I've been interviewed maybe once or twice before about my writing. It is something, if only one of those small acknowledgements that you are being read or you're making some dent in this large, momentous institution of literature. I'm always a little surprised that, with all the people that they can interview, literature students would pick up my stuff and like it enough to talk to me. And let's admit it, it feels nice, that little bit of positive reinforcement. On my end, I just like it that someone read my work. Their wanting to talk to me, then, is a great big bonus.

Which is why the interview turned out a great big bummer.

One student contacted me on a Saturday, asking if I could be interviewed for a project that they were doing for a literature class. I said, yeah great, and asked the kind of questions they would be asking. We set the interview for Wednesday, and they said they would be asking me about my writing and my bio. Ok fine.

The group shows up. There are six or seven of them. I open the door and they tumble into my office at the faculty center. We have a bit of trouble setting up the shot because of their number and the size of my room. Once I'm sitting I say, hey shouldn't you ask me some preliminary questions or anything before we start shooting? Being used to interviewing people, I value the interviewer establishing some rapport, if even just a little bit, before the actual interview starts. To answer me, they all look at each other, then start nodding their heads.

I ask, what about my writing am I gonna talk about? They look at each other. Then I ask, what have you read? They say that they haven't read anything that I've written. Then I ask, have you read anything about me? Negative to that too. So I say, You haven't read anything I've written, and you haven't bothered to research about me? That's right? You have absolutely no idea who I am or what i do? To this they nod in the affirmative.

I could have been more pissed and thrown them out. It's just plain damn sloppy to interview someone and not do any research. I asked, Why are you interviewing me then? The beautiful, glorious answer, the answer to all the academic work and the initiative behind it these days, "SIR REQUIRED E."

I take the time to set a meeting and talk with these kids, they can't take the time to friggin' google my name (see previous post, My Secret Vanity).

They ask me about my life, tell them my biography. To this the chance for fun overwhelms me.

"Lumaki ako sa bukid. Hindi ako nakapagaral nung bata ako dahil pinagtatrabaho ako sa farm. Lagi akong nasa fields kasama ko si Manny, yung kalabaw ko. Best friend ko si Manny. Tapos namatay siya hindi ko alam kung bakit. Nung namatay si Manny, that's when I realized that I wanted to be a writer."

Then some senseless questions :

Sir, have you won any awards or gotten any kind of acclaim?
Would you like to talk about them?

Could you tell us the titles of your works?
Yes I could.
What are they?
Well, you could google them can't you?

Did you ever think you would be famous because of your writing?
(Now what kind of question is that?) No

Can you say something inspiring for those who would want to be writers?
No. No one would be inspired by anything I have to say. (Who am I Kris Aquino?)

What would you like to tell people then?
READ. It's important for people to read. Really.

And thus went the interview. I kept apologizing because I felt I was being too crabby or difficult, but it could not be helped really. I only wonder if the story of my kalabaw will live on as a piece of academic work.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Truth about Rain and DSL

"Nababasa ang poste," the repair guy said. He explained to me in a tone that was meant to make me feel like an idiot. After having complained about the performance of my DSL I was visited by repair guy on a Saturday morning and told, "Baka naman mali lang settings mo kaya nagkakaproblema."

How do you respond to this kind of behavior? Not sure if it's the normal thing for the repairmen to assume that their customers are idiots. I turned on my computer and assured the guy that my settings were just fine. He sat at the Mac and connected to the net. "Ok naman a, nakakaconnect naman."

"Yeah, ngayon kasi umaga, maaraw. Ang problema ko, 7-11 weekdays, at pag umuulan laging napuputol."

"Ah ganun talaga."

"Ganun talaga?" What do you mean by that?"

"E kasi pag ganung oras, wala nang nagbabantay sa opisina kaya napuputol." Which makes one think, so how come no one's making sure the net's working? You mean to tell me when it's closing time for offices no one's monitoring my internet service? This may explain why no one's answering the customer service line. So either this guy is telling me shit, or there's really no one monitoring the quality of net service after office hours. I'm not sure which is preferable. I would like to think that my provider cares enough about its customers to assure service, even if repair guy lacks any customer relations skills.

"E yung ulan?"

"Nababasa ang poste."


"Pag nababasa ang poste, mawawala internet mo." The logic, to him, seemed flawless. Wet posts equals no internet, why are you still asking questions? But I couldn't resist.

"E yung phone, lights, poste din naman yun. Bakit yun hindi nawawala pag umuulan."

"Ibang poste yun e."

Now I don't know, but that really made me feel dumb. What an idiot I am, it's a different post. Of course!

"So pag umulan, expect ko dapat na mapuputol ang internet ko?'


And that, dear friends, straight from the horses' mouth, is the truth about my internet rants. What can you say?

Monday, August 4, 2008

English Proficiency Questions

Having been checking papers the last couple of days, I've been wondering about where it is best to effect change in our English teaching curriculum. While we accept that there are evolutions of English, such as Chinglish and Singlish, there is still also the demand for students to be proficient in writing formal English, at least academically. That's where I supposedly come in, teaching students how to write at the college level. However, sadly, that is not really the case. What is happening is that I am trying to correct, or get students to unlearn things that they learned. Not only is there the barrier of students who fear the subject, or who think it's pointless (and this is a pretty formidable barrier) but there is the problem of students walking into college classrooms unprepared for the rigors of university writing because they lack the preparation.

To be clear though, there are a number of students who display impressive skills in writing. But they are far outnumbered by those that need much work, and that work is a minefield of different areas, such as grammar in its simplest aspects like subject verb agreement, to the way that they use, or misuse, the language, to word selection and the list goes on and on.

I am more than willing to accept that not everyone is supposed to be in a creative writing class. but being in a university, I would hope that people would develop a mental framework that would cause them to think that they would be writing as academics, at least for the next four or five years that they will be studying at the university level.

I have to ask myself how students get to the tertiary level without having a proper background in their English and writing skills. I suppose that math teachers are asking themselves similar questions. But being someone who has taught at the lower levels, I feel the need to really question this.

There were many things wrong with the English program that I was teaching at the high school level. I tried to fix those things. Now while that program had its deficiencies, the problem also was that students arrived at the high school level already having problems and having learned the wrong things. (Case in point is that up to the point that they became my students, some of them were taught that even though was written as eventhough, and as if was asif)

So do high school teachers have to correct these things? Should they leave them to the college professors to correct? But for someone like me teaching at the college level i assume and expect that these people are ready for college work. Why should we have to move backwards? So then were does this start?

They are deficient when they get to high school? What are the grade school teachers teaching them? Must there be a massive reassessment of the level at which we are teaching? I believe so. In a society following the American public school system, which was largely based on industry and factory systems, we have not stopped to think about how education should be structured in a knowledge-based economy.

We are training students to pass the UPCAT and ACET and all those others, to get good scores on proficiency exams, but are we training students to be innovative? Are we training them for the information-age jobs that they will soon have to take? Seeing as to how technology is leveling the global playing field, the ability to communicate will be essential. They may have access to the tech, but what happens when they cannot communicate effectively. Add to this the problematic structure of our public high school system that, like most things in this country, is forever lacking funding. Come to think of it, the only things that don't lack funding when it comes to public works are those things that have to do directly with the bigwigs. But classrooms? Teacher training? Budget for paying public school teachers?

I pull back further. Is it a problem of grade school? Or of those formative years when children who are rich are exposed to speaking yaya english, or their parents aren't great english speakers, and thus speak in transliterated forms?

Further, when do these different forms and levels of English , which I would allow to be used in common conversation, be automatically excluded from paper-writing? When will students make the distinction of the level of language expected, without them having to be told?