The value of a life

As I wrote a week and a half ago, my job at Western Washington University has me heavily involved with the annual grand ritual of opening the campus at the beginning of Fall Quarter. It is a massive undertaking for many of the staff on campus, and for me it involves working long hours for 12 straight days.

And yet, all the hard work is so deeply purposeful, and when the students start moving into the residence halls that one weekend every year, when you see this age-old tradition playing out, the belongings in boxes and the farewells exchanged by the students and their parents, you have this sense that you contributed to this momentous occasion, that your work helped make that experience as special as it was.

Well, it’s been a week and half since Dwight Clark (pictured here) moved on campus, one of the thousands of new WWU Freshmen, young people who have moved away from home for the first significant amount of time. We worked incredibly hard, all summer long, to make his arrival as welcoming and accommodating as can be, and then Dwight left a house party this past Saturday night and has not been seen or heard from since. As of this writing the police report absolutely no leads and are not able to determine if anything criminal happened.

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles east, at my alma mater, Rutgers University, another Freshman young man, Tyler Clementi, disappeared very early in Fall term, only his fate has been determined: he jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted a video of him on Facebook.

An odd thing happened when I was reading about Dwight Clark this morning. When I read that he was a very well-liked young man and that he was an Honors student in high school, a thought flashed through my mind very quickly, barely long enough for me to notice it. The thought was that somehow it’s sadder because he was so well thought of, so bright and with such a promising future ahead of him. Something bothered me tremendously about that thought, and so I momentarily discarded it, buried it away.

But then, as I read about the Rutgers student, how he too was well-liked, how he was a very bright and creative young man, especially gifted in music, a talent on the violin, the thought came back.

That I have these thoughts disturbs me, for they imply that the loss of some lives is sadder than the loss of some others, that some lives have more value than others. Even as I type this I feel uncomfortable with that view, I know that it isn’t really what I believe. I am a devout AnneFrankian who believes in the inherent goodness of all people, and I don’t care how pollyanna some might find that.

So, where does that come from? The only thing I can think of is that I’m as susceptible as anyone to the long-term effects of exposure to examples of human beings not acting on their inherent goodness. Whether it’s in the news, in the movies, or out in the street, hardly a day goes by without hearing about some repellent deed or another. It’s occasionally enough to make the most determined optimist despair.

I could write for hours on this well-worn topic, the question of whether people are good, evil, or both, but I am neither qualified or particularly interested.

What I will say is this: During all those weeks of preparation for the arrival of the student body each Fall, hundreds of people across campus work their asses off for ALL of the students who come to Western, not just the “good” students. While there might be programs in place to deal with students who cause trouble, ALL students are greeted here as having the potential to learn, grow, achieve, and contribute.

Try telling Western faculty and staff that they’re pollyanna!

Meanwhile, I mourn for Tyler and I hope that Dwight will somehow be found and can resume the new chapter of his life he had just started at Western.

Flaming Lips Finale

Ok, I know, I’ve been obsessing on The Flaming Lips here this past week, and I promise I’ll move on to different topics soon, but there’s just no way that I can not reflect on last night’s concert, a concert that was arguably the greatest show I’ve ever seen.

Saturday, as Bellinghamsters will recall, was an absolutely stunning bonus summer day, and the only reason I didn’t totally enjoy it was because there was rain in the forecast for Sunday, when I was due to attend the Lips show, outdoors in Vancouver’s Malkin Bowl Amphitheater. I’d been looking forward to the concert for months, and there I was on Saturday, in the midst of a gorgeous sunny day, trying to picture standing in a muddy field in the pouring rain.

And when I awoke on Sunday it seemed my worst fears had manifested. It rained non-stop all morning.

However, by noon the rain stopped, and while the skies didn’t clear, there were occasional, fleeting sunbreaks, and as my friends and I set out northward towards the border I was starting to be optimistic.

We stopped for food and drink at a restaurant right on the water near the convention center, dined outside, and the excitement of the impending show grew as we enjoyed a lovely meal in a lovely setting.

From the restaurant, we walked around the seawall for a few minutes before heading into the interior of Stanley Park towards the venue. I have to admit that I was disappointed when I first set eyes on Malkin Bowl. It seemed incredibly small and the field was muddy and it was hard to imagine the hugeness of a Flaming Lips show in such a small place. Most of the time I prefer a smaller, more intimate setting for live music, but the Lips just aren’t that kind of band.

Once we settled in at the pub adjacent to the amphitheater, I started to really enjoy the setting, nestled amongst towering firs and cedars and spruce, it was tremendously peaceful.

As for the show, words inevitably fail to capture the totality of the experience, and it seems like everything I think of is cliché. Yet, there’s a fine line between cliché and quintessence, and it seems to me that the Flaming Lips strive to create the quintessential psychedelic experience for the audience.

The concert was a lush audio and visual experience, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. The song selection was great, the band was in top form, and Wayne, in particular, was every bit the warm, wacky mad genius he’s known to be. He was characteristically talkative throughout the show, and when he’d say, “Come on, come on, come one, Vancouver!” you really had the sense that he really needs to know that the audience is having the best possible time they could have, and that if he sensed that they weren’t he couldn’t go on.

At the end of the show, as many were making their way towards the exit, a small, dedicated group of fans remained in front of the stage, hoping for one more encore. Suddenly, Wayne came out to address the crowd, pointing out that the venue prohibited music after 10pm, and he very sincerely apologized and expressed his hope that everyone could hold on to what they liked about the show and not let the understandable disappointment overshadow the rest of the evening.

It certainly didn’t overshadow anything for me!

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, there’s actually a handful of clips from last night’s show, and fortunately someone posted my favorite song of the evening:

Video Fridays: Lips Mania!

As mentioned Wednesday, I’m bound for Vancouver on Sunday to see the weird, the wonderful, the wacky Flaming Lips.

And so, to celebrate this auspicious occasion, to celebrate the weekend, and to celebrate the end of 12-straight days at work, at the risk of Lips overkill here at Fish & Bicycles, I really can’t think of anything more appropriate for Video Fridays than this:

I still don’t really know what this song means and why the fake blood is particularly important, but I love it! It’s glorious, operatic, and supremely freaky in all the right ways.

Happy weekend, everyone!

Drinking for art!

You can say what you want about the potential evils of drinking alcohol — obnoxious behavior, self-destructive addiction, abuse of others, turning automobiles into weapons of mass destruction — but then the artful structure you see here to the right wouldn’t exist if a lot of people hadn’t consumed a lot of beer.

From Inhabitat:

Using 33,000 everyday, ordinary yellow beer crates like giant Legos, Architects SHSH assembled this visually intoxicating pavilion to pay homage to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1958 Universal World Exhibition…

Why beer crates? “Understanding that the sense of the temporary can only be truly successful when it is free of waste, the pavilion is built using an unusual and ephemeral component which after the event returns to its normal daily use,” say SHSH on their site. One of the coolest things about the pavilion is that it isn’t a purely rectangular space – inside, the crates are stacked to form architectural features such as columns, arches and even domes.

While they don’t specify what type of beer was in those crates, this was built in Brussels, Belgium, and Belgians are known for their brewing…and their ambitions of world domination, which I wrote about in November 2009.


Lipward Bound!

Back in July, I sounded my barbaric yawp about having just purchased a ticket to see The Flaming Lips in Vancouver, B.C., the show is now just days away (Sunday), and I’m just about going out of mind with anticipation!

Right now, I’m working on a transportation plan, aiming to drive to the nearest Sky Train station, leave the car there, ride the train downtown, and then take a bus to Stanley Park. Woot!

Yes, it’s an outdoor show and there’s rain in the forecast, but my excitement is not diminished in the least! I will have full rain gear, layers, boots…heck!…I live in Bellingham for crying out loud!

And now, to keep the good Lips vibes going, and to share a little Flaming goodness with those who will not be able to make it to the show, I offer up this clip of what appears to be a new song (Update) a song from their latest album, Embryonic, a little taste of these weird Oklahomans.

Note:Nice to see Wayne stretching out on the guitar. It’s easy to forget that he has chops.

A Rock & Roll Elder’s Beginner’s Mind

Like most guys of my generation, I spent a considerable portion of my youth listening to Led Zeppelin. I didn’t really have a choice. I had an ear for music and I had testosterone.

Now, all these years later, I’m a 45-year old frustrated musician, harboring a dream to be in a performing band, having worked at the guitar for over 20 years, particularly over the past 5 years, and yet I can’t seem to find bandmates. My recent Craigslist ad, the language for which I crafted over several weeks, yielded not one response. For the first time in years, I walk past my guitar these days, sitting on its stand, and I don’t feel an intense magnetic pull. I’ve started to question whether or not I should even bother. Perhaps, I think to myself, I should just settle for the occasional jam session that I attend, or the occasional campfire that I strum and sing around.

But then, last night, I heard a delightful interview with Robert Plant on NPR, and I was particularly struck by this exchange (my emphasis in bold):

Melissa Block: Do you think that you started thinking of your voice, maybe, as an instrument, in the way that Jimmie Page’s guitar was an instrument in Zeppelin?

Robert Plant:Yeah, it was a thing to play off of, definitely. But, it’s a weird thing to do, because the voice doesn’t have that kind of flexibility. I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon. I just think that certain instruments have so much more chance of following the electric charges in your mind. When you’re listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you’ve got to work with syllables; you’ve got to work with themes and lyric. I’ve got to learn to play something soon.

Sure, a cynic could write this off as a kind of faux humility that comes with the privilege of being a superstar. Certainly, Plant doesn’t have to learn to play an instrument. He’s set for life.

But for some reason, his comment struck me as a genuine expression of Shoshin, the Zen Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind. As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

There’s a film I saw in 2002 titled Fierce Grace, a documentary about Ram Dass. The film is part biography and part exploration of Dass’ experience of a massive stroke he had suffered. Near the beginning of the film, Dass explains that when the stroke hit he was struck by how he — a world famous spiritual teacher, a former Harvard professor and devoted student of Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba — at a moment of being very close to death had no connection to spirit, had no spiritual thoughts whatsoever, that as he laid there all he noticed were the pipes on the ceiling above, and he thought to himself: I have some work to do. (You can see this very moving scene, as well as the entire film, split up into nine parts, on YouTube.)

And when I think about the writing of my Craigslist ad, I realize that it was written from an expert’s frame of mind. Of course I’m no true expert at anything, and yet, as I was writing the ad, I was thinking of my musicianship as having achieved a degree of expertise and that I required bandmates to have an equal degree of expertise or higher. While there’s a fairly thoughtful and practical motivation behind that approach – to filter out musicians who won’t be very compatible with me due to their lack of experience, thereby saving their time and mine – I can’t help wonder whether or not this expert mind energetically turned off potential bandmates.

Maybe, like Ram Dass, I have more work to do. Perhaps I should take some lessons, to finally learn all those alternate chord forms that I’ve coveted for so many years.

It could be fun to be a beginner again!

Move-In Day

It’s the biggest gig of the year and it’s here.

4,000+ students move into on-campus housing this weekend, 2/3 of which arrive today, and so all over campus you see the scene in the photo here. The clothing might be different and they might have packed differently, but they are all doing exactly the same thing.

While it might seem mundane to some, if you’re involved in making the event happen, like I am, you can’t help feel the intensity of the energy around here today. It took working all summer to get ready for this day, hours and hours of preparation, training of student staff, and doing 22 presentations to groups of parents at new student orientations in order to prepare them.

Apropos to my last post, it’s soggy today. And yet, as I sit here during my lunch break, the overall impression from having crisscrossed campus all morning is that folks are remarkably upbeat.

It can be challenging some times, working for a large public institution. Bureaucracy, is maddening, and sometimes it feels like your efforts just don’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.

On move-in day, however, I always feel proud to work here, proud of the part I play in this momentous day, I get swept up in the excitement, I feel the energy of these young lives around me, stepping across the threshold into a new chapter, one filled with self-exploration and self-discovery.

Remember: It’s just a state of mind!

Ok folks! Remember what I wrote on Monday? That bit about the certainty with which Autumn arrives in Bellingham and all the rain and how John Lennon insists that it’s all just a state of mind?

Well, this forecast is not playing around.

Everyone on campus at Western is talking about the rain, with many veterans, people who have worked their many, many years, insisting that they’ve never seen a forecast like this for opening weekend. I’ve been at the university for almost 10 years, and I can attest that we typically have a gloriously sunny beginning to Fall Quarter. Memories of the fountain in Red Square spraying amidst a sea of students clad in shorts and t-shirts are iconic.

So, let’s all exercise our minds. The rain doesn’t matter, does it? Life will go on. To quote that other Beatle, “Obla Di, Obla Da!”

Fish & Bicycles: Property of the State

I’m sorry to report that for the next week or so it’s likely to be awfully quiet around here.

You see, as I’ve mentioned before, I work for Western Washington University, in fact, my office is in the building you see highlighted in the photo here.

The first day of classes for Fall Quarter is September 22nd, but more important to me, 4,000+ students who will be living in on-campus housing move in this coming weekend, and I’m basically owned for the next week or so.

If this weren’t enough excitement, this past Sunday a main power switch on campus failed, sending 12,000 volts in an arc across a room, causing melting through plated steel, requiring replacement parts to be manufactured in Portland and hand delivered by the manufacturer. As a result, since Sunday there’s been a power outage in most of the buildings you see in the foreground of the photo, causing hundreds of WWU employees to have to find alternate workstations to do their…um…work.

I’m accustomed to being mobile, as my job has me regularly splitting my time between various buildings, using a laptop and a cell phone to get stuff done just about anywhere. For a lot of other folks that isn’t the case. And even though people are pulling together to help one another, as it happens so often in times of adversity, there is a palpable tension in the air, and the oft-repeated phrase “at least this didn’t happen next Monday” brings little solace.

So, who knows? I might be able to squeeze a little time in here and there to post something new to Fish & Bicycles, but I appreciate your patience and your checking back in later if that proves impossible.

Now, where did I put that flashlight?

It’s just a state of mind…

Autumn comes to Bellingham, every year without exception, with an indisputable certainty. Oh, we might still get some stunningly beautiful sunny days, days when we can pretend it’s still summer, but temperatures are decidedly cooler, rain is more frequent, and the deciduous trees burst into yellows, reds, and oranges with a suddenness that can be startling.

It could be argued that I’ve already written enough about the rain in Bellingham (posts 1, 2, 3…), but yesterday was the day when Autumn came to town, with an attitude, an attitude that seemed to say, “Listen people, put away those shorts and t-shirts, get out those sweaters and your rain gear, forget about staining your deck, it’s fall and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”

We’d all benefit from this sage advice right about now:

Can you hear me,
That when it rains and shines
It’s just a state of mind?

from “Rain” by John Lennon

It’s just a state of mind, and for some people more so than others. I just happened to come across a great interview with Elvis Costello, wherein he discusses his forthcoming new album, and which included this nugget:

OWH: There’s a lot of rain in this collection of songs. Is the storm brewing or abating?

EC: It rains a lot where I think.