Sunday, October 24, 2010

Turn off the TV? It's Easier When You Don't Have 78 Channels.

Around seven or eight months ago, Crystel and I got the idea to have our cable turned off. This decision was partially a cost cutting move, but it was mostly to help pry ourselves away from the endless channel surfing. We wanted to spend more time doing other things, and if we did sit down in front of the TV it would be to watch a movie. Comcast offered a package that included around 13 channels for only $15, so we did it. The only problem was the channels never went away.

That all changed last weekend when we returned from a road trip to find ESPN had disappeared (apparently the change took effect when we unhooked our TV last week to have some cabinet work done). At first I was a little depressed that I couldn’t catch football highlights, but I remembered why we had the cable turned off in the first place, and read a book for a while instead.

Something else happened the same night that we became cable-free. I finally got in touch with one of my two best friends from high-school. I’d spent the weekend in my hometown and tried to look him up while I was there. I got his number from a mutual friend and sent him a message, and he called me back the next day. We talked for over an hour just catching up. Anyone who knows me will understand how hard it is to keep me on the phone for over five minutes, so this was quite a feat. Of course, not watching TV had nothing to do with this occurrence, but if you believe in signs, it was a pretty strong one. The conversation I had that night with my high school friend was one of the best I’d had in quite some time.

So in one day, I freed up more time for important things in life by removing much of the distraction of TV and I also did something more important; I reconnected with an old friend. It had been at least 6 years since we’d spoken and while so much had changed in our lives, it still felt like I was having the conversation circa 1997. It’s funny how time doesn’t take away the things that made you friends with someone in the first place. I’m not sure why I’ve been so distant from some of my best friends, but I am making it one of my personal goals to change that. As I look back over the past 10 years, I can’t pinpoint a time when I stopped hanging out with some of my best friends, but it’s definitely happened. Much of the problem stems from my own selfishness, and not making time for people.

My point in all this is that you should occasionally make time do something besides sit in from of the TV. Reconnecting with someone whose friendship you may have neglected is just an example of one of the many things you could do. It’ll make you feel much better than an hour (or four) of ESPN. The excuse that you don’t have time is just that, an excuse. Make time, even if you have to cut off your cable. Having your cable turned off is a bit extreme, but if we would all pull ourselves away from the TV more often and genuinely interact with people, I wonder how differently we would see the world. What if people spent more time reading books, going for a walk or even doing something creative? I’m not one of those people who thinks the TV is evil, but I do think it is one of the many crutches that serves to keep us all isolated from other people…even when we are in the same house together. How many times have you spent hours with someone and not had a conversation because you were both engrossed in the TV?

So does this sound crazy to you? Would you ever consider turning off your cable or at least limiting you TV viewing? Do you have any friends you’ve reconnected with after a long absence? What about any ways you’ve managed to carve out more free time for the important things in life? What are those more important things?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Travel Rituals: The Little Things that Keep Me Sane on the Road

In my profession, auditing, I’ve spent a great deal of time on the road. It’s pretty common to work away from home for a week at a time; flying out on Sunday and home on Friday evening. With all of the time I’ve spent in hotel rooms, a few OCD-like traits have become part of my routine.

First of all, before every trip, I update the music on my iPod. My music tastes change pretty often, and I like to use travel time to really dive into albums I want to dedicate some listening time to (I’m an album person by the way. I like to hear an album in its entirety and judge the music in that context. With the shift to digital music, many people today don’t even grasp the idea of listening to an album. Sure, every track won’t be a standout, but it puts a new perspective the individual songs…maybe a future blog post…I digress). I can spend hours changing the music on my iPod. Most of that time is spend poring over which songs to eliminate to make room. On my most recent trip to the Kansas City area, I finally dove into the classic Weezer album (and their last good album) Pinkerton. For some reason, I never liked the album when it was new but now I finally get it (again, future blog post).

Next on my list of strange travel habits is that I like to get to the airport more than two hours before my flight. For domestic flights out of Memphis, most people I have traveled with shoot for a maximum of an hour (and usually less). I actually like being in the airport for a while before my flight. It’s some of the best people-watching anywhere, as you can literally “watch the world go by.”

If I’m traveling alone, I always opt for a compact car like the one pictured above I drove on my most recent trip (hey, when it comes to compact cars for me, the nerdier the better…I did mention I listened to Weezer on this trip, right?). I don’t opt for the monster car like a lot of people I have traveled with in the past. Why? Well, the first reason is that I don’t need anything bigger if I’m traveling alone. Compact cars are always cheaper. Whether I’m paying or it’s on the company dime, it seems foolish to pay for something I don’t need. Second, it’s easier to maneuver in unfamiliar places. Third, with today’s compact cars, you have a better shot at getting something “cooler” (like the Prius Crystel and I got in L.A. last year) than you do with a mid-size sedan (usually an Impala or something equally as exciting). Most of the compact cars always have the features I want, like the MP3 player input. The last reason is that it’s just better for the environment. While I’m not completely sold on the idea that our “carbon footprint” is causing global warming, I do know that the less oil we can use, the better. Oil is not a renewable resource and using it puts money into the hands of some pretty shady people.

Yet another travel habit I have picked up is that I try to completely unpack my suitcase as soon as I get to the hotel. I learned this from Jimmy Buffett when I read his book, A Pirate Looks at Fifty. He always unpacks, even if he’s only there for one night. I’ve found that unpacking my bags and ironing a few things when I first get to the hotel helps ease some of the chaos of traveling. It allows me to put the suitcase away, and I feel much more settled. Along with this trait, I like to fold my dirty clothes and put them back in the suitcase as I’m finished with them. Putting the clothes in the suitcase helps keep the hotel room cleaner, and I like to fold them because it’s makes me feel like I’m taking better care of my things. Since I pay my hard-earned cash for my clothes, I don’t like the idea of wadding them up and stuffing them in a suitcase…hey, it’s the little things.

So there you have it, just a few of my somewhat strange travel habits. Does anything here strike you as incredibly odd? What about you? Do you have certain things you do when you travel that are outside the norm?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When Grunge Took Over

I don’t remember any music genre or movement having the profound effect on me that “grunge” had in the early 90s. I mentioned in a previous post my feelings about a photograph of Kurt Cobain I viewed at a recent art exhibit. We’d been through a pretty long stretch in the late 80s and early 90s where mainstream music mostly consisted of regurgitations of what had been successful previously and formulaic reinterpretations (much like a lot of today’s mainstream country). A glance at the charts before and after the grunge movement helps to validate this opinion. While I understand that music trends tend to be cyclical, grunge was the first major music movement of my generation. It completely changed the musical landscape. It didn’t last, but a lot of the doors grunge kicked open are at least still unlocked today.

A lot of grunge’s success is attributable to timing. Grunge didn’t kill hair metal as is so widely reported. Rather, hair metal killed itself, and grunge just moved into the vacant house. With the exception of a handful of bands, the music of this time wasn’t even that great when compared to previous music explosions (see the music of the late 60s for another, much higher quality game changer). What grunge did, however, was bring passion back to music. Most of the early grunge pioneers were just doing it because they couldn’t really see themselves doing anything else. In the beginning, it wasn’t about the money or the success (although it eventually became more focused on these things, and the music suffered).

Music meant something again when Nirvana came around, and for kids like me, it helped to ignite my passion for music. Grunge was the first music to hit the mainstream that truly belonged to my generation and was completely foreign to our parents. I suppose hip-hop could fall right in with grunge, but I didn’t run and pick up a guitar because of Doggystyle or The Chronic. When I heard Nevermind and my cousin taught me to play "Come as You Are," it wasn't long before I bought my first guitar. A lot of other kids did the same thing.

So what made grunge so successful? I only consider a few of the albums “classic.” Dirt, Jar of Flies, Nevermind, In Utero, Superunknown, Temple of the Dog, Purple by STP, Siamese Dream and pretty much any Pearl Jam album (this last one is certainly a personal preference and not the view of most people) instantly come to mind. Of course there were other albums I enjoyed, but these were the big ones. As I mentioned earlier, it was largely because of timing. Most of the best grunge bands were hitting their peak at the perfect time and, for the most part, all at the same time.

Of course, grunge’s stranglehold on the music world didn’t last, and soon we had the often tragic breakups of many grunge bands, a thousand grunge imitators (see Creed), the boy band movement (which actually brought better music than most of the grunge imitators) and generic Hip-Hop (I don't consider all Hip-Hop to be generic, just most of what became popular in the latter half of the 90s into the 2000s). Grunge’s lasting influence is that “fringe” artists that don’t fit the perception of mainstream can be successful. Green Day probably wouldn’t have become mega stars without Nirvana kicking in the doors open. Countless other bands would have never gotten their time in the spotlight either.  Artists like Beck who had little in common with grunge (and probably would have been laughed out of the building had they made a pitch to a record company while the Warrant posters were still on he wall) were given opportunities by the majors.

Today, this movement wouldn’t be so profound. The internet has taken a lot of power away from the people who used to control what we see and hear. In the early 90s, a kid like me from small town Mississippi only had access to the music of MTV and the radio, which were controlled by a lot of people who focused only on how much money they could make from the music. It was the same way for most people back then. Now the internet allows me to get music recommendations from people I don’t even know, quickly go and check out that music, and if I like it, allows me to make an instant purchase. This environment hasn’t really been good for the traditional music industry (especially the large labels), but it has vastly improved the music available to most people.

Here are a few videos of my favorite performaces from the grunge era:

My favorite Soundgarden song, "Fell on Black Days."

And my favorite Nirvana song, "Lithium."

Here's Alice in Chains doing "Rooster" unplugged.

And finally, here's Smashing Pumpkins' video for "Cherub Rock"...I reallize they weren't from Seattle, and neither were STP (mentioned above), but like it or not, they were part of the grunge scene.

What are your impressions of the grunge movement? Do you think its ultimate influence has been good for music? What music movements most influenced you?