Quadrophenia & “The Universal Adolescent Problem”

QuadropheniaWhen I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, I read an article in the school newspaper that mentioned an album that was very near and dear to my heart, The Who‘s 1973 masterpiece Quadrophenia.

And, because I was a serious music geek, obsessed with Rock & Roll on a scholarly level, and because I was majoring in English literature, writing papers on a nearly constant basis, I sat down at my typewriter and pounded out a letter-to-the-editor in response to the piece I’d read. Only, instead of the few column inches typical for this sort of thing, page after page after page spilled out, with at least a dozen quotes, transcribed from memory.

It was typical of me at the time. I put considerably more effort, my heart and soul really, into that letter than I did into the paper on Shakespeare or something that I should have been working on. It also took me a fraction of the time.

Well, much to my surprise, the letter was published in its entirety, as a full-on article, which was a terrific thrill and an enormous boost to my confidence as a writer. (So, I guess it was probably a good thing, after all, that I was procrastinating that Shakespeare paper.)

One of the reasons why that piece on Quadrophenia was so easy to write was because that album spoke to me and touched me so deeply. Though it was written all the way across the Atlantic, about people and events in a totally different culture, set right around the time I was born, its writer, Pete Townshend, had communicated the essence of what it’s like to grow up, how difficult and confusing and painful it can be, and, as it turns out, though 20 years and many cultural changes had come and gone since the fictional events depicted in Quadrophenia had taken place, so much of the coming-of-age experience had stayed the same, filled with all of the pressures to leave the innocence of childhood behind, to fit in, to get a job and keep it, and to find, if you’re lucky, sometimes against seemingly insurmountable odds, love.

In the video below, a documentary about the making of the album, The Who’s manager, Bill Curbishley, referred to this theme that Townshend had so accurately portrayed as “the universal adolescent problem”.

Anyway, as a father of a 15-year old son, I can see my boy wrestling with this universal problem just like I did, I can see him struggling mightily at times, and in some ways it’s more painful than when I went through it. Parents like me want so badly to protect our children from this kind of thing, and when we see it happening, regardless of our hopes and efforts, we not only feel the pain that our kids are feeling, we feel anger at the world for bringing it upon them, and sometimes anger at ourselves for having failed to protect them from it.

So, you might wonder, if this universal adolescent experience is so painful, why would we want to listen to an album on such a painful subject?

Thing is, we can become tremendously isolated at this time of our lives, born from a sense that we’re the only ones going through what we’re going through. We look around, everyone’s putting on their brave faces, posing their asses off, no one’s talking about their feelings and about how difficult it is to keep up this pretense.

When you hear Quadrophenia, then, it breaks through that isolation, letting you know that you aren’t alone, that you aren’t the only one to have experienced the difficulties you are experiencing, and there’s great relief and comfort in that. Add to this the intense, powerful, pulsing rock music of The Who, and the album becomes a vehicle for this catharsis, this release valve for all the pressure that’s been building up.

I very nearly owe my life to Quadrophenia, and so having stumbled across this documentary on the album was a real treat for me, stirring up considerable memories.

I hereby dedicate this post to my son, who has inherited my vinyl record collection, including Quadrophenia, and I hope that it provides as much comfort and inspiration to him as it did for me.

Is That An Ice Pack In Your Underwear, Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

snowballsMale infertility is a serious issue, accounting for 40% of all infertility cases.

So, you might think that it’s rather insensitive of me, via the title of this post, to joke about the new fertility-enhancement-through-refrigeration underwear by Procreativity.

But, when you consider that the folks at Procreativity have actually branded their product with the name Snowballs, you can see that they have already beaten me to the punch.

Via Mashable:

Snowballs creator Joshua Shoemake had trouble in the “fertility factory” with his wife. Too many appointments and too much money spent were taking its toll. A friend going through a similar situation was told to put some ice down below, since elevated scrotal temperature can be a major cause of infertility.

After icing for a year, Shoemake’s friend became father to a baby girl. Inspired by the idea, the two believed they could find a way to “hack fertility.”…

The specially designed underwear include SnowWedges for cooling. The wedges mold to the body and use a freezable, non-toxic gel to maintain a comfortable temperature for 30 minutes.

I think that their preemptive use of humor in naming the underwear Snowballs and the video below is brilliant marketing, recognizing that, people being people, jokes would be predictable.

And, while I shiver at the thought of ice in my underwear, having had personal experience with procreation and the incredible joy of being a parent, I can’t help hope that this product can make that experience possible for more men who want it.

Video Fridays: Jake Shimabukuro

jake-shimabukuroIn case you didn’t know, the ukulele was the most popular instrument in American homes in the 1920s.

Time passed, and on the wave of guitar-centric Folk and Rock & Roll music of the 1950s and 1960s, the guitar took over.

But, then came Brother IZ, aka Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, and his 1993 medley of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and What A Wonderful World, the spark to a worldwide ukulele revival.

Fast forward to 2005, when a YouTube video went viral, that of a young man playing a rendition of George Harrison’s and The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. That young man was Jake Shimabukuro, the video blew me away, and from that day forward I started to notice the ukulele…everywhere!

  • YouTube was flooded with uke clips.
  • I suddenly came across articles about the ukulele all over the web.
  • In 2006, BUG (Bellingham Ukulele Group) was founded right here Bellingham by a group of enthusiasts who wanted to gather and make music with each other, to spread the good word of the ukulele, and now they claim 135 members, hold open jam sessions, song circles and workshops.
  • In 2010, BUG co-sponsored the screening of a documentary film titled The Mighty Uke, all about the ukulele revolution.

Tonight, Jake Shimabukuro performs in Bellingham at the Performing Arts Center at Western Washington University. And since, as I mentioned a couple of years ago, my son tinkers with the ukulele, I’m particularly thrilled that he and I will be going to the show tonight for a shot in the arm of inspiration.

In the meantime, for this week’s Video Fridays installment, I’ve chosen that very first video that I saw of Jake. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll be likewise blown away, and if you have seen it, it’s about time you watched it again, isn’t it?

Happy Weekend, everyone!

Best of Fish & Bicycles: The Fragile Male Self

Originally Published: August 10, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, our cat came scurrying into the house from the backyard, with this in her mouth:

I know. Before you’re able to settle into how cute the baby squirrel is, you find that it’s actually kinda painful to look at. How vulnerable. How fragile?!

And, it’s one thing to just look at the photo, another entirely when you need to figure out what to do with the poor little thing.

No, it wasn’t dead. The eyes, like those of other baby mammals, hadn’t opened yet. As far as I could tell, the cat had not injured the tiny squirrelet, and it didn’t seem, however skinny it appeared, to be particularly weak, as it squirmed around considerably, repeatedly wresting itself from the hand towel I tried to wrap it in to keep it warm.

I couldn’t return it to its nest, or whatever you call it, because I had no idea where that might be. And even if I could, I remember reading somewhere that the mother will reject the baby if she detects a human scent, and I rushed to hold the baby in my hands to keep it warm, because I read somewhere else that this would prevent the animal from going into shock.

Thank goodness for the NW Wildlife Rehabilitation Center! I called at 5pm and they were open until 8pm. Awesome! They were a 30-minute drive out Mt. Baker Highway, but they told me it’s baby squirrel season, they have 6 others from the past week, and they have a very good success rate rehabbing them and releasing them out in the wild.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a 12-year old son, and there’s no one who looks at him, either in repose or while rock climbing or skimboarding or etc., and thinks he’s fragile in any way.

According to Michael Gurian, however, author of A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys into Exceptional Men, nothing could be further from the truth. Through review of extensive research and research of his own, Gurian presents conclusive evidence that, while boys outwardly exhibit bravado and toughness, contrary to sexist stereotypes that women are the weaker sex boys are actually more mentally and emotionally fragile than girls.

It’s this disconnect between what boys feel they need to be and who they are that makes the time of adolescence so incredibly difficult for them, and I certainly see my son struggling with that all the time.

Now, don’t think for a second that there’s a simple solution. You don’t just coddle and tell your son, “Honey, you don’t have to pretend.” Some of the posturing they do, Gurian suggests, is actually healthy and it’s a matter of finding a positive outlet for it, through sports or other male activities.

Anyway, there’s much more to it than that, and there’s much more to my son for sure.

(Oh, by the way, the little squirrelet was a boy and he’s doing very well.)

Best of Fish & Bicycles: Dad, you’re embarrassing me!

Originally Published: November 14, 2009

embarrassingHe didn’t say it.

Didn’t have to.

It was frickin’ cold outside this morning, frost on the rooftops and windshields, and I was up at 7am on a Saturday, doing my fatherly duty, dropping my son off at the YMCA, where he loaded into a van for a trip to a rock climbing competition in Seattle.

On the way to the Y, it was a really sweet time. I lightheartedly teased him into eating his eggs, he joked about having to carry those eggs up the wall as he climbed, we listened to the Hawaiian music radio show on KUGS, and we reminisced about having been swimming with sea turtles off the Big Island several years ago.

Shortly after we arrived, the rock climbing team and their coach loaded into the van, my son took a spot in the back by a window, and I went up to the window to say goodbye. For years we’ve been saying “I love you” to each other in sign language in moments like this, so I flashed him the signs. Usually, he responds instantly, but this time he hesitated.

Feeling like something was missing, that this was not a sufficient send-off, I started signing again, but in wildly dramatic fashion, making all kinds of silly faces, tapping on the window, waving my hands goodbye frantically…really hamming it up for comedic effect.

Like I said, he didn’t say it, but the non-verbals, the roll of the eyes and lack of reciprocation of the sign language, almost certainly could be translated as, “Dad, you’re embarrassing me!”

And it was the first time this phenomenon played out for us. The first of many times it will play out, if there is any degree of truth to the anecdotes from other parents and stories from my own childhood.

I have to say, it’s a little heartbreaking.

Fatherly Pride Redux

The Story Thus Far
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the tremendous pride I experienced, when my then 13-year old son, Julian, took first place in the Men’s Intermediate Division at the annual Veni. Vidi. Ascendi. rock climbing competition at Western Washington University.

Julian continued climbing in the year since, facing the typical ups and downs, and since this is not a hardcore climbing blog and you, my readers, are not, for the most part, I assume, hardcore climbing enthusiasts, it really hasn’t made sense to chronicle here much of what has transpired. For rock climbing is essentially a practice of such small incremental progress, measured in cryptic rating systems that are completely meaningless to the layperson, and at the same time it’s more about achieving one’s personal best rather than beating the competition.

The News
BUT…then there are the occasional HUGE accomplishments, like when Julian qualified at the Regional Championships on December 10th to move on to Divisional Championships, and when this past weekend, at Divisionals he qualified to move on to the National Championships in Colorado Springs, CO the first weekend in March!


The Irony
The Injury: Right after Regionals, Julian hurt the middle finger on both hands from overuse, he was told he needed to rest for 4 weeks, meaning no climbing at all, we’d just completed construction of a new, killer climbing wall in our garage and he’d qualified for Divisionals.

It was torture! Julian had to develop some serious discipline, with daily ice baths for his hands, and resisting the temptation to climb, with all his climbing buddies itching to get on the new wall.

I think the thing I’m most proud of is how well he stepped up to these challenges, which really enabled him to heal in time to train hard the week before Divisionals, and then, of course, enabled him to do as well as he did there.

The Money: Usually we think about success in terms of positive gains. There’s the sense of accomplishment we earn, the acknowledgment of the accomplishment from others that we receive, and some times there are even prizes or other awards.

In the case of Nationals, well, Julian’s accomplishment will be costing us a hefty chunk of change, for airfare, car rental, lodging, meals, competition registration, etc.

And yet, I give it all up gladly, that he might have this amazing experience, that he can see where his hard work and determination can take him when he sets his mind, his will, and his passion towards his goals.

Go Julian!!!

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Parenting?

My 14-year old son has been getting into the music of Gorillaz lately, so I checked it out and found that I really, really liked it.

That Gorillaz’ music is periodically peppered with profanity and drug and alcohol references raises confusing questions for me, and this post is more of a meditation on the topic than an exhaustive analytic exploration.

Being a parent is an exercise in extremes, a series of experiences that vacillate between immense joy (e.g. first steps, first words, hugs, kisses, etc.) and excruciating anguish (e.g. first owies, worrying about every conceivable future owie, disobedience, outright rebellion, etc.).

And perhaps the most humbling aspect of this is the fact that our own parents had the same experience raising us, as did their parents, and so on, and so on, for I suspect that it is close to a universal inevitability that every parent will encounter at least one uncomfortable “do as I say, not as I do” moment.

For those of us who, in the context of a fairly conservative and homogeneous household and community, discovered Rock & Roll music in our teens and twenties, with all the attendant mind-blowing, mind-opening, and mind-expanding experiences, those “do as I say, not as I do” moments can be more than humbling. They can be the catalyst for a full-blown existential crisis.

Even with the advantage of hindsight, while I can see that I didn’t always make smart decisions, some of which were downright reckless and could have had terribly tragic consequences, I don’t really have any regrets, and I truly feel that I gained so much more understanding of the world, so much more empathy for my fellow humans, so much more appreciation for human expression in all its many forms, than I would have if I had stayed confined in the sheltered, safe, conformist, middle-class, milieu in which I was raised.

Ok then, I’m comfortable with the choices I’ve made for myself.

Enter my son and Gorillaz and lines like:

I ain’t happy,
I’m feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I’m useless but
Not for long
The future is coming on
It’s coming on
It’s coming on
It’s coming on

In some ways, this is nothing at all new for him. He’s been listening to the music I listen to for years, music born of and speaking to very similar themes.

The difference now?

Well, when he was ten and listening to, let’s say, The Clash singing lines like:

Well, I got a friend who’s a man
Who’s a man? What man?
The man who keeps me from the lovely

He gives me what I need
What you need? What you got?
I need it all so badly

Oh, anything I want he gives it to me
Anything I want he gives it, but not for free
It’s hateful
And it’s paid for and I’m so grateful to be nowhere

…things like driving a car, or his first exposure to peers who are drinking and doing drugs were just a lot further off. It all seems much more immediate and real now.

So, I was talking about this with a friend of mine who has two teenage daughters, and when I mentioned the subject matter of some of Gorillaz’s music he said, “What worthwhile rock band doesn’t touch on drugs and swearing?”

See, parents are most often presented with a choice based on a false dichotomy: Either you are puritan and take a Just Say No approach to everything, or you’re dangerously permissive and advocate teen drug and alcohol abuse. There are kids who are raised in Just Say No families who end up addicts and there are kids who grow up with addicts who avoid becoming addicts themselves.

The risks are indeed real, but there are many, many dangers our kids face in life that have nothing at all to do with their choices around drugs and alcohol. Every time my son goes snowboarding or rock climbing or even on his daily bicycle commute to school, there’s a chance he could get seriously injured or worse.

If I was to try to protect him from every conceivable danger with a Just Say No no approach, he’d never leave his room, but that’s obviously no way to live, and you never know when a piece of a dying satellite might fall from the sky, crash through our roof, and land right on him.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of a post I wrote nearly two years ago, about how music and other art media can be seen as our uniquely human attempt to make sense of life’s experiences, our attempt to express our thoughts and feelings around even the most disturbing topics, so that we might come to grips with them, and even so that others who hear the music or read the poetry or view the paintings might also be able to find meaning or even experience a sense of sympathetic solidarity with the artist, when previously they might have thought there was something wrong with them for having the reactions and feelings they were carrying around with them, bottled up, where they might otherwise eventually explode in an ugly way.

I can talk to my son about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, but I don’t have to do so with the presumption that he’s incapable of making smart decisions. That’s a terribly cynical and ultimately counterproductive starting point, especially when I see him make smart choices all the time, alongside his other not-so-smart choices.

Colum McCann: Let The Great World Spin

So, I’m just a little over 100 pages into Colum McCann‘s 2009 novel, Let The Great World Spin, and I find myself unable to wait until I finish the book before writing something about it.

It’s an absolutely stunning piece of work, the product of a real virtuoso writer, a writer who wields the English language seemingly with tremendous ease, painting pictures both impressionistic and rich in detail, with a story line unleashed from rigid chronology, and narration duties passing from one character to another.

And to top it all off, it is, by far, the most powerfully emotional book I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Just about every few pages I find myself ripped open, unable to read on, needing to take a few-minutes break, overwhelmed by feelings.

Since I’m not a book reviewer by trade and this is decidedly not intended as a comprehensive book review, I’m not going to take the time to provide a full synopsis of the book. Hopefully you’ll take my word for it and read it yourself.

However, I can’t bear to leave you empty-handed, so I’ll touch on one passage that took my breath away.

One of the plot lines concerns a wealthy Park Avenue (New York City) woman, Claire, about whom we learn all kinds of details in a very slow, methodical way, mainly, at first, by simply observing her starting her day and preparing for guests to arrive. It’s clear from the start that there’s much more to Claire than meets the eye. Something nagging. Something’s off. There’s a husband and a son who are just alluded to, but absent. There’s a group of women with whom she has just recently started getting together, all of them new to her, but you don’t know how they met and whether or not there’s a purpose to their regular meetings.

And then the heart of the matter is revealed:

Oh, the day Joshua first shaved! Oh, the day! Covered himself in foam. So very careful with the razor. Made an avenue through the cheek, but nicked himself on the neck. Tore off a tiny piece of his Daddy’s Wall Street Journal. Licked it and pasted it to the wound. The business page clotting his blood. Walked around with the paper on his neck for an hour. He had to wet it to get it off. She had stood at the bathroom door, smiling. My big tall boy, shaving. Long ago, long ago. The simple things come back to us. They rest for a moment by our ribcages then suddenly reach in and twist our hearts a notch backward.

No newspapers big enough to paste him back together in Saigon.


There’s no question that this hits me especially hard because I’m a father of a son. Who knows? It could be that on some level it hits me particularly hard because I have a son whose name begins with the letter J.

Regardless, the primary metaphor in use here, to borrow it myself, is surgical, like a scalpel down the chest to expose a devastated heart. Who hasn’t cringed when watching someone shaving in a movie or TV show? Oh, how the blades of war butcher our offspring.

Now, I should say that not everything in Let The Great World Spin is so intense. McCann’s greatness resides partly in his ability to move the reader with subtlety as well.

Ok, I lied, I’ll share one more passage, to illustrate how the author can touch the heart with sweetness as much as with tragedy.

One of the many things my brother, Corrigan, and I loved about our mother was that she was a fine musician…Our mother played with a natural touch, even though she suffered from a hand which she had broken many times. We never knew the origin of the break: it was something left in silence. When she finished playing she would lightly rub the back of her wrist. I used to think of the notes still trilling through the bones, as if they could skip from one to the other, over the breakage. I can still after all these years sit in the museum of those afternoons and recall the light spilling across the carpet. At times our mother put her arms around us both, and then guided our hands so that we could clang down hard on the keys.

It is not fashionable anymore, I suppose, to have a regard for one’s mother in the way my brother and I had then, in the mid-1950s, when the noise outside the window was mostly wind and sea chime. One looks for the chink in the armor, the leg of the piano shorter than the other, the sadness that would detach us from her, but the truth is we enjoyed each other, all three of us, and never so evidently as those Sundays when the rain fell gray over Dublin Bay and the squalls blew fresh against the windowpane.


Video Fridays: Quiz Show

You know, I don’t choose Video Fridays installments as filler, just some excuse to update Fish & Bicycles so that it looks like I’m doing more here than I actually am.

Rather, I like to choose something relevant to where I’m at, what I’m into, what’s on my mind, what’s going on in my life, etc., something that I have something to say about.

Today, I’ve been thinking about a scene in a movie that I love a lot, Robert Redford’s wonderful 1994 film Quiz Show.

One of the reasons that I thought about this scene — a scene where Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Van Doren confesses that he’d been cheating on a TV game show to his father, Mark Van Doren, played masterfully by Paul Scofield — is because, in a particular way, it reminds me of the scene in last week’s Video Fridays clip.

That scene, of Ian McKellen in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, resembles this clip from Quiz Show because it contains some subtle acting of such astonishing power that it literally gives me chills.

At the 1:30 mark, Charles says, “Dad, I can’t simply just tell them the truth,” and Scofield, with a pause and the removal of his glasses, responds, “Can’t…tell them the truth?” Then he pauses again, and you can see his eyes look away slightly, for no more than two seconds, enough time, however, so that you can tell he’s scanning quickly trying to get his head around something so totally incredulous to him.

Finally, he breaks the silence, expressing his incredulity, “Why on Earth not?”

Unhelpfully, Charlie responds, “It’s complicated,” which of course doesn’t come close to an answer satisfactory to his father, and so his dad, practically speechless, simply parrots, “Complicated?” with a facial expression that says oh so much more.

And if that weren’t enough, seconds later, Scofield tops himself with a performance so amazing that, I speculate, it was not subject to additional takes, despite a glaring stage direction faux pas.

“Charlie, from what I understand, it’s just this bunch of frauds, showing off an erudition they didn’t really have. All you have to do…” Charlie interrupts, spilling the beans completely, “The problem is, Dad, is that it seems I was one of those frauds.”

At this, you can almost see the blood rush away from Scofield’s face, you can feel a sinking in the pit of his stomach, and you can tell that this revelation has nearly taken his breath away, so that all he can manage in response is a whispered “What?” followed by his sitting down, as if his legs had gone weak.

Scofield is so thoroughly in the moment, he doesn’t consider that the briefcase on the desk would come between him and the camera. Normally, an additional take would have been done, perhaps with a slightly different camera angle, but Scofield appears to improvise, he lays his hand on the briefcase, perhaps as if to steady himself, and then he leans to his right, never losing his place in the dialogue, and with a slightly winded, achingly wounded and pleading voice asks, “Wha…what do ya mean?”

Cut to Charlie, who responds, “They gave me the answers.”

Still practically breathless, his father once again can only repeat what he’s hearing, as if in an attempt to make sense of it all, and you hear but do not see him say, “They gave you the answers.”

Finally, cutting back to Scofield, he says the same line again, but by then he seems to have caught his breath, and as he speaks he closes his eyes for a split second and shakes his head as if to wake himself up, and having done so, allows the first signs of anger to seep in.

“They gave YOU the answers.”

Simply amazing, and all the more profound, I think, for a son who is also the father of a son, like me.

See for yourself.

Video Fridays: The Council of Elrond

Ok, I admit it, I love The Lord of the Rings.

No, I’m not an obsessive devotee, but I have read the trilogy and The Hobbit twice, and I’ve watched the movies a few times.

No, I don’t participate at the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza under the name FrodoLives.

No, I haven’t taught myself how to speak Elvish.

Anyway, I’ve been scheming with my son to do a Lord of the Rings movie marathon one weekend, it will be his first time watching the films, a father-son bonding experience, Men with swords, Elves with bows and arrows, a Dwarf with an axe, Hobbits with, well, big hairy feet, that kind of thing.

And with the movies on my mind, I was thinking about my favorite parts, and there’s this one incredibly potent moment in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, that has always stuck with me, and upon watching it again online for the purposes of writing this post, I really do find it incredibly beautiful and moving.

The Council of Elrond

Elrond the Elf Lord has summoned a council of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and the wizard Gandalf in order to decide what’s to be done with the “one ring to rule them all”.

The council is breaking down into heated squabbling, and there’s a close-up shot of Gandalf while he’s arguing with Boromir, and as Frodo calls out amidst the din, “I will take it! I will take the ring to Mordor!”, Gandalf hears Frodo behind him and closes his eyes for a moment.

And in that moment, thanks to the deeply sensitive acting of Sir Ian McKellen, you can tell how moved Gandalf is by Frodo’s act of courage and selflessness, and you can also sense how sad he is knowing that the journey will cause Frodo great suffering and possibly even death.

But then, Gandalf opens his eyes and almost smiles, and in that expression you sense all the affirmation of his belief that Hobbits are very, very special creatures, whose enormous hearts are so tremendously disproportionate to their diminutive size.

To me, however hyperbolic it might sound, that is one of the most powerful moments in the history of cinema, beautifully directed and acted, and easily, for me, the most moving and powerful moment in the whole trilogy. It so thoroughly captures the central theme of the story, that hope can reside in even the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential of people.

Vodpod videos no longer available.