The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

Guidance from above

I’ve always been quite proud of my navigational skills; while I’ve never exactly been through the wilderness, I have managed to use map and compass to plot a course around fairly remote places like Yosemite and the Cascades without getting more than temporarily lost, and I’ve traversed many a new city with only a glance at the guidebook.

That said, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any need to utilise this talent, partly because I never go anywhere new these days, but mostly because, like just about everyone else, I carry around a handy gadget that always tells me exactly where I am, and where I should be going. I do like to think that I could manage without it, and orientate myself old-style using features like rivers and railway lines, but still, I’m in no hurry to test that out.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because today marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the event that kick-started the space race, its simple beep the forerunner of the GPS signals that guide us today. Yet another facet of modern life that we owe to the command economy.

Grant Hart RIP

Sad news about Grant Hart. The one and only time I saw Hüsker Dü play live was more than 30 years ago, just after Candy Apple Grey came out, but I can still remember it clearly. It was in a tiny venue, and I was right at the front, about two feet away from the PA, which probably explains why I couldn’t hear a thing for about a week afterwards. Temporary deafness seemed like a small price to pay to be in the vicinity of genius though.

I’ve subsequently seen Bob Mould play loads of times, solo and with Sugar, but I never managed to catch any of Grant’s later shows, and now I never will. That’s obviously a trivial concern, when we’re talking about a man passing away at a tragically young age, but it’s another reminder that the list of things that I always just assumed would happen some day, but probably, or definitely, won’t, is getting longer all the time, and that perhaps I should pay more attention to the ephemeral nature of life, and how important it is to be in the moment. That sentiment isn’t a million miles away from the themes that Grant touched on in his best work, and I guess that that’s an epitaph that he might have appreciated.

Well, how did I get here?

Back in 1985 I moved right across the country to go to college in a new city. For various reasons I arrived a couple of months before the start of term, and consequently was pretty much on my own until the other students started showing up a few weeks later.

One evening, to ease my isolation, I ventured out to the cinema, which seemed quite adventurous at the time, as the movie I wanted to see was showing at a place on the other side of town, and I hadn’t really figured out even the basic geography of the city, let alone complicated things like the bus schedules. I eventually made it to the cinema though, and was rewarded with an enviable double bill; Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, with the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple in support.

I came out of the movie theatre around midnight, facing a long walk back to my lonely flat, but buzzing with the excitement of living a new, free, life where such cultural delights were mine to enjoy on a whim.

That feeling lasted a good few years, probably until my late 20s, but, without me really noticing it happening, my life eventually became complicated by responsibility, and these days even something simple like taking in a new movie requires so much planning that I seldom manage it.

So it’s kind of bittersweet to recall that night; as it recedes further into the past the memory becomes increasingly infused with a sense of loss. I’d hate to forget it altogether though, since I don’t want to believe that it’s impossible that I’ll someday feel that way again.

Anyway, I was thinking of this tonight after hearing that Jonathan Demme had passed away. I have Stop Making Sense on DVD somewhere; I’ll have to dig it out for old times’ sake…

How ’bout them Cubs?

I spent a week or so in Chicago back in the early 90s, 92 I think it was. I have a lot of fond memories of that trip; early morning walks along the shore of Lake Michigan, late night music shows, great steaks, and a visit to the charming, ivy-clad arena of Wrigley Field.

I’m not a big baseball fan, but I did enjoy the game that night, or at least I enjoyed chatting to the fans sitting around me in the cheap seats, all of whom were keen to school an ignorant foreigner on the finer points of the sport, though none of them seemed to be paying a huge amount of attention to what was actually going on on the field. I think the Cubs lost, but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and I ended up going out for a few beers with the locals. I have a vague recollection of a bar with a goat-related name – possibly “The Goat” – which years later I realised was probably a reference to the infamous curse. The night ended with me sleeping on the sidewalk because I had missed the curfew at the youth hostel, which wasn’t a joke in Chicago in April, but it felt like it was worth it.

Anyway, it’s good to see the Cubs finally back in the World Series, though it’s not looking too promising for them so far. I hope they turn it around, and give those fans who welcomed me 25 years ago something to cheer about.

He’s a poet

In an otherwise gloomy week there was one bright spot; Bob Dylan scoring a Nobel Prize for Literature. The somewhat controversial (but thoroughly deserved) award has had everyone quoting their best-loved lyrics, but I haven’t seen anyone mentioning my favourite, Motorpsycho Nitemare; one of the few songs where I can identify completely with the narrator.


I guess it’s an indication of my limited musical horizons, or perhaps just that I’m a terrible and shallow human being, but, for me, the entirety of Prince’s 37-album, endlessly-innovative, genre-melding, racially-integrating, PMRC-baiting revolution of a career boils down to a nostalgic fondness for his 1988 track Alphabet Street, because it reminds me of a girl I knew in college. I think the late Artist would have approved of what we did while listening to that record though…

Top Trump?

In the immediate aftermath of Super Tuesday it looked like the GOP establishment was facing three equally unappealing options; a) let Trump have the nomination and back him in the general election, b) let Trump have the nomination, but back a rival “Real Republican” candidate, or c) deny Trump the nomination through convention shenanigans, undoubtedly provoking him into an independent run. It’s difficult to imagine any of these scenarios ending unhappily for the Democrats.

Events since then have muddied the waters a little though. Cruz did well enough in the subsequent polls to strengthen his claim to be the leading “Stop Trump” candidate, and, unless Rubio and Kasich pull out something special in Florida and Ohio respectively, it might soon be a two horse race. Simultaneously, the chaos and violence lurking under the surface of the Trump campaign has been bubbling up enough to give his less ardent supporters some doubts about his Presidential caliber, and the long-predicted ebbing of his fortunes may finally start to materialise. It could be close enough come July that a brokered convention, which right now appears a bigger affront to democracy than even the GOP could stomach, might be more palatable.

Still, the eventual candidate, be he the unlikable Senator or the unlikable businessman, will be faced with the challenge of pivoting towards the middle ground where elections are won and lost, without alienating the Republican base. This task, which proved well beyond McCain and Romney, has become significantly harder in the last eight years as the wingnuts have taken over the grassroots of the party, so, even if outright civil war is avoided, a Republican win in November looks unlikely.

On the Democratic side, the maths still seems to favour Hillary, Bernie’s surprise victory in Michigan notwithstanding, so, barring some unforseen disaster, there should be a Clinton in the White House again before too long. I was in Times Square the night Bill was first elected – it might be time to plan another visit…

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky

I wouldn’t say I was ever a big fan of David Bowie – he was a genius, obviously, but in my opinion (though I know millions would disagree) nothing he did post-Ziggy Stardust was terribly interesting, apart from producing Lust for Life and appearing in The Hunger. (I would like to say that I loved the Berlin Trilogy, but to be honest it has never really grabbed me.)

The era where single artists could have the sort of global recognition and influence that Bowie had in the 70s seems a long time ago now. Our culture has become ever more stratified, even though (or perhaps because) we have the opportunity to access a much wider range of creative output than ever before. Which is a shame.

So I did feel sad upon hearing that Bowie had died, though I know that at least part of that is just general regret at the passing of the years. The sadness appears to be universal; all the tributes that have flowed today seem genuinely heartfelt, which isn’t always the case in our age of instant shallow reaction. I’ll join in by linking to this iconic performance of my own favourite Bowie track.

Memories of futures past

I’ve been trying all day to recall the first time I saw Back to the Future Part II, or indeed if I’ve ever watched it all the way through. I definitely didn’t see it in the cinema, but I can vaguely remember parts of the plot, so I guess I must have caught it on TV sometime. (I know when I saw the original movie; at an all-night sci-fi film festival when I was in college. Also on the bill: Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner and one of my all-time favourites Trancers, so a pretty good night, especially since just about everyone there was completely baked.)

Predictably enough, a wave of nostalgia has been sweeping the internet today, as my fellow Gen-Xers, in characteristic fashion, use an 80s pop-culture reference as an excuse to look wistfully back at the hopes they used to have for the future. I’m tempted to join in, because I miss being in my 20s too, but there’s only so much that can be written lamenting the non-appearance of hoverboards before it all sounds a bit self-indulgent.

In any case I’m not particularly unhappy with how things have turned out in my life, though of course it hasn’t gone quite the way I imagined it would back in the 80s (not that I have a terribly clear memory of what my youthful hopes and plans actually were.) It would probably bother me more to think that everything had unfolded in a predictable way, without any randomness or serendipity.

Anyway, I’ve reached a point now where I no longer really look forward, or back, but just try to be in the moment, (which is, of course, the secret to happiness.) I like to think that this serenity is the result of a conscious effort on my part, but it probably owes more to my unconscious need to avoid acknowledging my many failures, and my ultimate mortality. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up for the next 30 years…