Category Archives: Essays

Irrational Confidence

During the recent, epic NBA Playoffs, popular sportswriter Bill Simmons marveled at the trope of the irrational confidence shot. Simmons has previously observed this phenomenon, which states that when a team is on a roll, in high-pressure situations, a mediocre player on that team tends to take numerous risky, low-percentage shots, many of which miraculously go in. Simmons singled out Jason Terry of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks for irrational confidence; after the Mavericks won the title, in no small part due to Terry sinking several threes he had absolutely no business taking, Simmons named him the captain of the Irrational Confidence All-Stars.

Sports metaphors are tired and easy, so please forgive me, but in this early stage of adulthood, I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Jason Terrys (Terries?).

Now, I don’t mean that my peers are mediocre; on the contrary, they’re mostly extraordinary. What I mean is that they’re pursuing goals that, by sheer numbers, seemingly have a low success rate. I have to confess, I tend to think of myself in this regard: with so many others trying to do what I’m trying to do, isn’t there a very small chance that I’ll actually be the one to break through? Isn’t this confidence in success irrational?

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, over 50% of whom are under 30 years old. Of that 3.5 Billion+, 1.16 Billion are between the ages of 20-29. If you throw in a modest estimate of the number between 18-20, you can pretty safely assume that there are about 1.2 Billion young adults on Earth, most of whom we can presume are looking for work. In the U.S. alone, there are over 40 million young adults in this age group. Even if only 1% of the American population between 20-29 is pursuing the field you’re pursuing, there are about 430,000 people trying to get the same jobs as you are.

As a result, oftentimes when I’m in the midst of preparing for the future, and trying to take the right steps to get where I want to, I just get overwhelmed by these odds. And in the face of them, I marvel at the confidence with which many peers are striding ever-forward. How do the odds not make many more people feel that they might be deluded in their confidence? How does anyone honestly believe, that out of all the people in the world competing with them, that it’ll be s/he who’s one of the lucky few to succeed?

I guess the answer is that it’s because there’s no other realistic choice. When I was out of a job in the worst months of the recession, these sorts of odds didn’t really make me resigned to the fact that chances were low I’d get something desirable, nor did they make me want to take literally any job I could find (although I did spend time working in a bar, in a parking lot, and at a convention, and my job-search gradually and considerably widened with time). Rather than make my career path more utilitarian, thinking about the odds was and is paralyzing.

There’s this old New Yorker cartoon, in which a doctor is trying to comfort a distraught patient by saying, “Look at it this way: Why not you?” It’s pretty morbid humor, and a scary thought.  Because the fact is, many more people do get sick than stay healthy. Many people do compromise or fail to achieve their goals. And many more of Jason Terry’s three’s do miss than go in. But the fact is, some people die peacefully in their sleep or simply of old age. A lucky few people do end up with the life they want. And as for Jason Terry, his 3-point field goal percentage rose from 36% in the regular season to 44% in the playoffs. When the time came, irrational as it may have been, he raised his confidence, and he raised his game. Why not you?

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I Got A Story To Tell, Part 2

When I first starting thinking about Part 1, I wanted to figure out not just why, but how I started listening to rap. My parents and friends didn’t really get me into it. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “You know? I’d really just love to jam out to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”

In my immediate recollection, I thought that for most of my childhood and adolescence, I was a rock-and-jazz nerd, the type who claimed to like pretty much everything but “rap and country.” Upon reflection, though, it’s clear that rap played in my ears about as early as I can remember. I have these vivid memories of my brother E’s bedroom, at 5 or 6 years old, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweats, dancing hard and arrhythmically to his Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer cassettes.

If trying to turn a skeptic, this is probably the worst introduction to rap one could conceive (other suggestions?). If you nostalgically think these guys were just fun, and not truly terrible at what they did, perhaps you haven’t listened to “Ninja Rap” in awhile:

Thankfully, it wasn’t too long before I had an album by a rapper who didn’t wear balloon pants. Indeed, the first hip-hop album I really remember loving was Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, which E bought shortly after it dropped in 1997, the year that Biggie was shot, and (for better or worse) a new era of the genre was afoot. I was 11.

At this point, The Carnival was an anomoly in my fledgling music collection, which remained dominated by the popular alternative rock of the day. I spent much of middle school mocking and trashing the shallowness and showy gangsterism of popular rap while secretly bobbing my head to “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” and “Ghetto Superstar,” two of the catchiest singles of their time, both of which can still light up a dance floor. It’s sad the performers on these hits left us before their time. I miss you, Mase and Pras.

While I loved these songs, it wasn’t until I was a high school freshman that I outwardly embraced some rap. E (3rd time this guy’s shown up; in conversations with friends, older siblings seem to play a big role in shaping these tastes) had been turned by some older friends of his, and his rap collection grew. On rides to and from school he would pump this stuff into my head, classics of the genre like 36 ChambersLife After DeathAll Eyez on Me, The Chronic, and Doggystyle. This year (2000-2001) coincided with the height of Napster’s popularity, and E exploited it to great effect, compiling mix after mix of hits, classics, and rarities.  Those mixes–and notably Doggystyle–cemented my appreciation of rap on a superficial level. Sure, rap could be shallow, sexist, homophobic, crass, stupid even. But some of it was damn good fun.

Certainly, this was the primary appeal Doggystyle held for me. Snoop Dogg was the most laid back motherfucker alive, as far as I was concerned. His casual vulgarity shocked me. Songs like “Ain’t No Fun” and “Tha Shiznit” contained a joyous, profane (and indeed, misogynistic) vitality that nothing in my alternative rock collection came anywhere near matching. Although the album was nearly a decade old when I discovered it, it was fresh to my ears, and entirely unique to what my friends were pushing on me at the time (mainly classic rock albums by Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead).

I loved the old Snoop and other classics from those mixes, but I still didn’t really respect the genre. Besides a few exceptions in my brother’s catalogue–such as some 2Pac and Big L–I loved the rap I was exposed to in those days because it was shocking, funny, or catchy. I didn’t love it because I thought it was great music. In this way, rap remained ghettoized from the rest of my music for much of high school.

Then, mysteriously, during my senior year one underground rap record took much of my high school by storm: Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary: Volume 2.  

It’s hard to overstate how strange this phenomenon seems. This album is still only a minor underground success–Immortal Technique isn’t even much of an underground star, in terms of popularity. And yet, in my small, 85% white and Catholic hometown, word of mouth and CD-Rs made it spread like a pregnancy rumor. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but R:V2 might have been more popular in my high school than in any other in America.

I can’t speak for my classmates, but Revolutionary: Volume 2 struck me for a few key reasons: One, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Instead of rapping about asses and chains, Technique rapped about his disgust with GITMO and Fox News. His raps gave voice to my teenage angst and anger about the War on Terror and the Bush Administration. The album is aggressive and powerful, even if its message is not always the most nuanced, and even if its political statements are sometimes over the top (it occasionally pushes 9/11-as-an-inside-job conspiracy theory). Still, political songs like “Peruvian Cocaine” and “4th Branch” have character and force that match any rhymes this side of Public Enemy; “Leaving the Past” is downright beautiful. In these songs and others, Immortal Technique can frighten and incite. Unlike some other rappers who glorify or even fabricate their violent pasts, IT makes his listener believe not only that he went through some hard-hitting shit, but more importantly, that he came up through a scary world that his listeners wouldn’t know, want to, or survive.

Perhaps the album’s greatest triumph is “You Never Know,” which to me, stands alongside classics like “Suicidal Thoughts” as among the most moving songs in all of rap. A story of lost love, “YNK” details Technique’s relationship with the woman that would have been the love of his life, it would seem. Not only does he respect her (unlike other women he disparages in his occasional rhymes of sexual conquest); he makes the listener believe that this woman’s death is the source of any misogyny he retains. Moreover, the heartache in his voice makes it hard to believe this story isn’t true. What was the last rap song you heard that made you feel for the MC? That nearly brought you tears? “You Never Know” does both.

Now, I’ve come to hold certain critiques of Immortal Technique. On his raps, he can sometimes be self-righteous, an egoist, a sensationalist, homophobic, and a conspiracy theorist. But I’ll probably listen to Revolutionary: Volume 2 for a long time, because it was the record that made me take rap seriously. On this winding path, it was probably the most consequential turn.

After R:V2, I sought out more socially and politically oriented hip-hop, falling inevitably on the more popular artists known for (and sometimes derided as) “conscious rap,” namely 2Pac, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. In college I started to accumulate much more, and eventually embraced more mainstream rappers, in particular the Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, OutKast, and Kanye West. I’m at a point, three years after college, where I don’t have the time or money to explore or buy all the hip-hop I want. I feel like I’m playing catch-up on two decades of classics–from Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest to Jay-Z and Eminem–discovering old albums like I did with classic rock when I was in high school. It’s exciting and invigorating. By dismissing an entire genre, especially one as large and diverse as hip-hop, I didn’t realize what I was missing out on–a veritable golden age that passed while I was growing up. It took me far too long to love hip-hop, but better late than never, I suppose.

I realize that tracing this path is probably not very interesting to the few people who may read this, and I apologize for navel-gazing. But I want this blog to be more exploratory than explanatory. I want writing to help me organize my thoughts and to help me understand the world around me. I’m just trying to figure out how I got here.

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Ms. Hill

Nowhere near a unique insight here, but sometimes I’m still simply amazed by the singular and prodigious talent of Lauryn Hill. If she never makes another proper record, many will continue to say that her career is somewhat tragic.

But fifteen years after The Score and over ten years after The Miseducation, does she really owe us anything more? Wow.

Addendum: To anybody in San Francisco, LA, New York, or Boston, you’d better try to go to this. You owe it to yourself.


No Compromise

Imagine you’re with a group of friends trying to decide where to eat dinner. Through the meandering debate, two camps emerge: One wants Alfonso’s, a four-star Italian restaurant. The other wants Lou’s, a diner with tasty if unspectacular burgers and sandwiches. (Full disclosure: I’m a Lou’s guy.) The Alfonso’s camp thinks that if they are going to eat out, they should eat well. The Lou’s camp, meanwhile, wants to eat cheaply; if they are going to eat out, they don’t want to spend too much.

Clearly these camps are looking for different things, yet if all wish to eat together, an agreement must be reached. A compromise. Finally, someone suggests The Noodle Haus, an above-average Thai place that costs more than Lou’s but not as much as Alfonso’s. Your friends agree: it’s a choice they can live with, and that’s where they eat.

While on the surface, this seems like a good compromise, it doesn’t really give anybody what they want. Half the friends spend more money than they wish to, while the other half eats a meal that is not as good as they want it to be.

In middle school history, I was taught that this was the essence of compromise: Each side gives something up so they can come to an agreement and make a decision. According to my middle school teachers, compromise was not only the best way to resolve disagreements; it was also the lifeblood of American democracy.

But compromise is not the only way. In college, I took a great course called “The Psychology of Negotiation,” where for part of the quarter, we discussed how and why compromises were suboptimal. The essential reason is this: By seeking compromise, both sides are conceding that they cannot get what they want.

That said, if I’m interpreting my notes and memory correctly, compromise can be the best lens through which to negotiate if the parties have the same priorities and opposing viewpoints. Take the dinner example. If the motivation of the Alfonso’s group was to spend a lot of money, and the motivation of the Lou’s group was to spend a little money, to make a decision, they would have to compromise, and “meet in the middle” of one variable, cost.

However, when the groups have different motivations and priorities, more often than not, their motivations are not diametrically opposed. The Alfonso’s friends want to eat well, and the Lou’s friends want to eat cheaply. Why not look for a place to eat that offers both? In Chicago, at least, there are plenty of options. Alternatively, the Alfonso’s friends could offer to pay for part of the Lou’s friends’ meals. After all, the Lou’s friends aren’t against eating Alfonso’s food, they just don’t want to spend the money. So they could say, alright, we’ll put in $12 each at Alfonso’s, if you all can split the rest of what our meals cost. The Lou’s friends pay what they want, and the Alfonso’s friends eat what they want, and everyone ends up full and happy.

Social niceties aside, it’s easy to see how this solution trumps the Noodle Haus compromise. One gives both sides exactly what they want, the other leaves them merely content. But once my class alerted me to alternatives, I started seeing Noodle Haus compromises everywhere: among friends making social decisions, among co-workers dividing tasks, among politicians arguing the issues of the day.

One of the key lessons I took away from “The Psychology of Negotiation” was this: Of course it’s foolish for actors in a disagreement or a negotiation to expect to always get exactly what they want. But if they focus on where each party’s priorities and motivations lie, a more optimal solution is possible for all sides. Sometimes, when they step back and think creatively about the deal they want to strike, it’s possible to turn a choice of “either/or” into an outcome of “both and.” And sometimes, it’s best to refuse compromise.

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I Got A Story To Tell, Part 1

“You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us…
…the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
ask yourself, where am I goin? How am I doin?”

Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man”

I used to hate rap. Well, I used to think that I hated the vast majority of it. Lately though, I’ve been listening to so much hip-hop, with so much joy, I’ve been wondering how I got here. Why do I now like hip-hop so much more than I ever have before?

It seems that often, during particular periods of my life, the music I’ve loved the most has mirrored some attribute I’m seeking at that point in time. Music I’ve loved has satisfied a need, desire, or emotion I’ve felt particularly strongly during particular eras.

I should clarify. As a kid, I wanted to be older, and simultaneously, I found myself enjoying the alternative rock that my older brother, his friends, and the older kids on my bus seemed to love. In middle school, I wanted to be less of a nerd (a fruitless quest), and a desire “to be cool” led to an affection for punk rock, the music listened to by schoolmates I deemed “coolest.” In high school, I remember having an angsty desire for a more “meaningful” life–one more engaged with the world at large and more mature. Musically, I think this is the thread that connects the music I liked most back then, which was mostly classic rock, Phish, and jazz.

Certainly, there is more to it than this armchair psychology. I could go on at length about what I think the musical bona fides of all this music is/was to me. For some of it, maybe it was as simple as “this sounds cool” or “I dig this.” But criticism isn’t my point here. My point is that there’s more to it than just what, sonically, I appreciate about the music.

Growing up, regardless of whatever auditory pleasures I found in it, the music I loved filled a void: apart from merely sounding great, it sounded cool to me specifically because it made me feel older, cooler, or more mature than other music did. And as I’ve gotten older (though not necessarily cooler or more mature), I think my growing love of rap is filling a void as well.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve often complained to friends that too much of my time has been spent in rumination, planning, and indecision, often resulting in inaction or procrastination. As a result,  I’ve sought to hone a sense of forthrightness and productivity. And while the hip-hop I’ve embraced offers a plethora of great qualities–unique, creative, and catchy beats; clever, powerful, and funny rhymes; honest, heartfelt, and compelling voices–most of my favorite rappers exude those traits, through their voices, work ethic, and that boom-boom-BAP that drives their drums and turntables.

Kanye and The Roots (especially ?uestlove) are workaholics.  Ghostface, Mos Def, and Biggie may be very different rappers, but none of them sound like ditherers. Even the rappers often perceived as “emotional” or “laid back” exude a self-assuredness that seems almost unbreakable. Just listen to this classic cut from A Tribe Called Quest:

The aloofness is completely owned. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip sound like the kind of guys who stay above the fray not because they’re timid, but because they know better.

To be sure, there is a lot of “assertive” rock that I love, too. But the confidence in the rap I’ve come to love often feels more genuine and more alive. And nothing is better when I need to get things done, or to put a bit of a strut in my step. (It should be noted that, without a doubt, throughout even among the best of the genre, this confidence often manifests itself in cockiness. And to be sure, there is a lot of rap filled with inane braggadocio. But for somebody who battles indecision, that confidence–and even, cockiness–can be inspiring, particularly when it comes from lyricists who are clever, powerful, funny, and smart.)

At least since the death of grunge, rap has been the most dominant form of popular music; it doesn’t need a defense from me, and there are many reasons to love it. This aspect is but one of them, but I think it’s one that’s been most instrumental to my recent embrace. Whatever the reason, my love of hip-hop is here to stay.

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You Gotta Move

Like most Americans, I consume far more than I produce.

This is especially true when it comes to reading and writing. My addiction to reading–especially to reading news–is staggering; it made me miss deadlines in college and makes me procrastinate at work.  I’m convinced that reading has pushed my life back years. I’m convinced that, over the last two years, if I devoted the amount of time I’ve spent reading the publications at the left of this page to being productive, I might be making news or writing it myself, instead of knowing, for instance, that links golf is harder than regular golf. (By the way, even if, like me, you know pretty much nothing about golf, that article is wonderful…probably because it’s by John McPhee).

Like all consumption, reading is easy. It is usually relaxing and even fun. Writing, on the other hand, is work. It takes time, thought, effort, and action. While technically, I currently write for a living, I write grant proposals; in the future, I hope to write more interesting things.  In order to do so, I will need to write when I otherwise would choose to read.  I will need to produce when I otherwise would choose to consume.  I will need to work when I might otherwise prefer to relax.

Writing will ultimately be more satisfying than reading, just as productivity is always ultimately more satisfying than consumption.

Thus, The Grind.

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University’s divestment decision has major holes

Of course, President Zimmer, the Board of Trustees, and Andrew Flowers contend that to divest would be to take a political stance, which is not the purpose or specialty of the University. This may be true, but it assumes that not divesting is not a political stance, which is simply untrue. If the University does not divest from these companies, it is continuing to invest in them, thereby funding the genocidal government. Is there a difference between monetary support and vocal political support?

Read more at The Chicago Maroon.

Bonnaroo Lights Up Tennessee For Aging Hippies and Young ‘Uns Alike

Bonnaroo, the annual music festival held in Manchester, Tennessee, gets a bad rap. Many people have never heard of it, and those who have seem to imagine it as some sort of boiling, drug-infested bacchanalia—an annual congregation of young and aging hippies, equally pathetic in their attempts to replicate the long-dead, uninhibited ethos of Woodstock and the ’’60s. Like many stereotypes, though, this one proves both fact-based and grossly misunderstood.

Read more at The Chicago Maroon.