Haim is Contributing to the Greater Good

I lent my iPod to Alison once.

She ended up sharing its contents with my sissy who got a big kick out of my fondness for female artists of a folky/pop/R&B persuasion. I’m secure enough in my maleness to say I dig me some Karen Carpenter, Jill Scott, Abigail Washburn, Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, Tracy Chapman, Sade. I pity the faux-macho who are too insecure to embrace the beauty of female voices.

Which brings us to Haim, who I just learned about as a result of this lengthy review of their second album, Something to Tell You. Learning of my discovery on her visit home last week, Alison has been helping me catch up. Their voices are excellent, but I’m even more enamored by their stage presence.

Carl Wilson, Slate’s music reviewer, follows the music scene much, much more closely than me. As a result, I had to read Wilson’s review a couple of times to make sense of it. From the odd opening reference to Haim as “the smart set’s favorite white pop band”, I alternately really liked and disliked his analysis.

I liked his description of their newest vid.

“This emphasis on musicianship rebukes the stubborn stereotype of the “girl band” as an artificially assembled group of sexy singers. Haim (pronounced “Hi-um”)* doesn’t have to dress up and do choreographed dance routines. The sisters are not ornaments—they’re the music makers. (Of course, it’s the music business, so they’re still conventionally attractive. Though that also reinforces that they’re making a choice.) So, in the video, they move only when they feel the music, sing only when it seems expressive. Got it.”

I disliked his thesis.

“Every pop moment is embedded in history, and history is embedded in every pop moment. Thinking through Something to Tell You, I’m puzzled by how Haim has gotten better but seems worse than in 2013–14. The reason has to be that in the late Obama era, when pop-chart populism still seemed democratizing and progress was on the upswing, Haim’s sisterhood variation on the theme felt liberating. That populism now feels double-edged, so the songs don’t quite stick. At the tail of the “Want You Back” video, the dance routine falls apart, and the trio wanders off laughing as the camera pulls away. The cathartic feeling dwindles back to mere charm, a shrugging amiability. It works as a reclamation of the band’s autonomy from pop imperatives, but it’s also like what happened here didn’t matter. It’s just another perfect day in carefree, privileged L.A.”

Mere charm, a shrugging amiability, what happened here didn’t matter, it’s just another perfect day in carefree, privileged L.A. That last phrase strikes me as especially odd. What makes L.A. carefree and privileged, the fact that they closed Van Nuys Boulevard for the shoot? And why is Haim responsible for, or even complicit in, L.A.’s supposed carefree, privilege?

Maybe Wilson is too deep for me, but the way I interpret his “mere charm, a shrugging amiability, what happened here didn’t matter” sentence is that art must be political today. Meaning Haim has to take some sort of a stand on pressing issues of the day. I beg to differ because I interact regularly with a lot of young women who are extremely self conscious, sometimes to the point of being intensely anxious and/or clinically depressed.

When I watch the “Want You Back” vid and this one,

the Haim sisters come across as joyfully unencumbered. Carefree is absolutely right. Given some young women’s mental health challenges today, that is gift enough.

Every one of us struggles, to varying degrees, with being self-conscious. The less self conscious among us inspire us to be more authentic, to make art, to dress, to write, to live, however we feel.

I’ll take more unencumbered joy with my art than policy pronouncements any day.

* I LOVE hate it when I am right and Alison is wrong. DIG the hypen Al, two syllables!** Let your friends down easily.

** Exclamation point = Millennial flourish.

Brief Insanity, Compliments of Alaska Airlines

Previously I’ve written about one of my favorite reads of 2011—William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine has a sub-section titled, “Anger—on overcoming anti-joy”. Here are my notes from that sub-section, mostly excerpts I wanted to remember:

Anger is another negative emotion that can destroy our tranquility. Seneca referred to it as “brief insanity” and said, “No plague has cost the human race more. A waste of precious time.” Punishment should be “an expression not of anger but of caution.” Calm correction; not retribution, but instruction (160). Need to fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and to overreact to little things. The more we eschew comfort and harden ourselves, the more likely we are to not get angry (161-2). Best counter is humor, choosing to think of the bad things that happen to us as being funny rather than outrageous (162).

We should contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.  When angered by something we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Also, remember our behavior also angers others. Seneca, “We must agree to go easy on one another. We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking, then our anger will have dissipated.” (163). When unsuccessful at controlling our anger we should apologize, which has a calming effect on us and lessens the chance we’ll make the same mistake in the future (164). Seneca, “make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure.” (165).

This is the story of my recent epic failure at applying these insights. We were flying from Seattle to Santa Barbara to visit the in-laws for five days. My father-in-law was nice enough to drive an hour and a half to pick us up. Right before our Alaska Airlines plane was supposed to board we learned the gate had been changed. By the time we got to the new gate, discussed whether we needed to check in, and learned the “plane had been downsized,” we were what the airlines refer to as “shit-out-of-luck”. Our seats no longer existed and the flight was way overbooked. In years past airlines would offer more and more coin until enough people agreed to give up their seats. In the new economy, Alaska stops at 3 bills, and then says to their shit-out-of-luck flyers, “Sorry.”

Doesn’t matter that your father-in-law has already left to pick you up or that you paid Pujols-type money for the tickets. Agent, “We’ll fly you to L.A. and bus you to Santa Barbara.” To which Seneca would have said, “Wonderful, I love Los Angeles and the bus ride promises to be scenic.” But in a major setback to my pratice of Stoicism, I succumbed to “brief insanity” and said, “You’re kidding right?!!! You have to get more people off the plane!” “Sir, I can’t physically remove people.” “I’m not asking you to physically remove anyone, you have to offer them more incentives.” “We don’t do that.”

That initial exchange was first base in what turned into an inside-the-park anti-joy homerun. I didn’t swear, but got progressively more heated as I rounded second and was waved into third by the agent’s total lack of empathy. I told her I knew she wasn’t to blame for the last minute plane change, but her employer was and it was their policies that were so aggravating. Agent, “Sir, you’re not the only one ‘shit-out-of-luck’ (paraphrasing).” Turning to the twenty somethings behind me who were probably texting friends, “At Alaska gate. Out of a seat. Old dude has totally snapped, quite entertaining. LOL,” I said, “I can’t help it if I’m not as passive as everyone else.”

Finally, completely fed up with me, she said I should go to the Alaska customer service desk. Three hours later, four travel vouchers safely tucked away in the iPad case, we were on our way to Burbank. A high-speed “life flashing before your eyes” Supper Shuttle trip later, we were in Santa Barbara a mere five hours behind schedule.

In hindsight, given Alaska Airline’s short-sighted, bottom-line, customer-be-damned business practices, I don’t regret acting a fool. I do though regret two things. I regret my fellow customers rolled over probably assuring that Alaska will disrupt more travelers plans, and I regret I didn’t seek out the agent after returning from the customer service center. I would have apologized for taking my anger out on her instead of the spreadsheet reading Alaska Airlines execs who probably make ten to a hundred times more than her.

Most Effective Value-Added Fill-in the Blank

Convinced that greater teacher accountability is a panacea for improving schools, The Los Angeles Times uses K-12 students’ standardized test scores to assign teachers to one of five categories: 1) Most effective value-added teachers; 2) More effective than average value-added teachers; 3) Average value-added teachers; 4) Less effective than average value-added teachers; and 5) Least effective value-added teachers.

Then they publish the results. The hell with cooperation, teamwork, and a collective identity.

An idea this good should be applied more broadly. I’m picturing college sociology students canvassing our neighborhood interviewing the wives (in two parent, hetero homes) about their husbands.

This morning I fixed my wife’s computer and purchased her some things on-line. Last weekend I wrestled a couple of her dead bushes out of the ground, trimmed the live bushes, and basically kicked ass throughout the yard. And since she’s been injured for awhile, I’ve been going the extra mile in the kitchen. I’m almost always charming, watch romantic comedies, and make her chuckle. Dare I dream? Most effective value-added husband. Can’t wait to see the shame of my neighbor friends whose evaluations don’t turn out nearly as well.

On the other hand, apparently I teased my daughters too much about boys sometime in the past, and so now, when it comes to their love lives, they’ve completely frozen me out. The dreaded least effective value-added father. At least I’ll make other fathers feel better about themselves.

And since what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, what about a cubicle-by-cubicle assessment of each ed bureaucrat’s performance downtown at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction? I see, spend more time at Starbucks and playing hackysack in Sylvester Park than in classrooms. Continuously churn out undeveloped teacher and teacher education standards without ever consulting living breathing teachers? I anticipate the state’s ed bureaucrats filling up the least effective value-added column.

What about our members of Congress? Let’s see, they’ve lowered taxes, increased spending, grown the deficit, and failed to balance the budget. They refuse to work with anyone on the opposite side of the aisle, and for good measure, they tweet their junk (I’m anticipating the next scandal). While mathematically impossible, I’m thinking 538 least effective value-added politicians which of course means least effective value-added citizen designations for all of us.

Applying this framework to other contexts has convinced me that all we really need is a two-part, most and least effective value-added assessment.

When you forward this post to others, remember to say it’s from your favorite, most effective value-added blogger friend.