Sunday, May 13, 2012

Overheard in America

I’ve been in San Francisco for the last three days or so, exploring the various sights and sounds of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the trams and other postcard sites, and a fine city it is too, far nicer than Las Vegas, the only other US city I’ve visited.

Beyond this, though, I overheard two excellent pieces of conversation that I felt compelled to share (they’ve already appeared on Twitter, as live, and now here in more detail).

Walking out of Chinatown, I passed a chap on crutches, a phone tucked under his chin and wearing a bright green hoodie, the combination of which already made him stand out. As I passed he said, in his response to the other end of the call:

“You talkin’ about Ray Rakey, who played big bass and was my old high school teacher?”

This sentence just sounds so quintessentially American – the name, Ray Rakey, has musical, creativity connotations, like Big Bones Billy, or Sloppy Sue, and then the idea of him playing the big bass, (presumably the double bass?) - "...and Ray Rakey on the big bass!"... - and, more than that, he was this guy’s teacher too. Was he really called Ray Rakey, or was this a sobriquet of wonderful origin in a story of bizarre twists?

The second was not specifically American, but was just hilarious and my favourite overheard for a while: I was sitting in Yerba Buena park enjoying some sun when three dudes wandered past, all in hats and sunglasses, long baggy shorts, colourful t-shirts: a staple look. The one in the centre responded to a comment from a friend, which I didn’t hear, with:

"One review said, 'not that good', but then another review said, 'quite good', so, well, I dunno."

He sounded so forlorn as he reached this conclusion, so confused between the two voices of the ‘experts’ attempting to guide him in his understanding of this - what - film, book, TV show, restaurant? – that it was almost touching. 

What was even better though was the delivery, which started off rapidly, so up until the ‘quite good’ he was chattering away, then as he his the ‘so’ he realised the dilemma he had encountered and was forced to concede that, alas, he didn’t not know what to believe. A situation I am sure we can all identify with.



Monday, May 07, 2012

Working with your hands is great (if you can do it)

I read a great book recently about the world of work and why office life is not the luxurious evolution of years of toil we believe it to be, but is in fact a drab, unstructured place full of vague management speak, unsure ground and a complete lack of answers.

Many would not need a book to tell them this, but in Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good he makes the case with allusion to philosophy while comparing it to his own experiences as an electrician, motorbike mechanic and other similar trades, and makes a compelling case that much of work in an office is bad for the soul when compared with the single-minded work of a fixer, builder, craftsman, who is set a task with a single, clear goal: to make it work, and can only be right or wrong.

So, when I bought myself a small, linen clothes bin, that required some self-assembly, I was ready to enjoy the task at hand, to screw a few screws, assemble some wood, pat myself on the back for a job well done. After all, it was only four pieces of wood and some screws: easy but satisfying.

Some 25 minutes later, frustrated, enraged and cursing the self-assembly Gods of Argos, I heard myself say out loud, “Couldn’t this thing just come pre-built!”. I recalled the book and its mantra of building, creating, self-fulfilment through doing, not thinking (as so much of modern work has become: “How do we measure the customer satisfaction of our latest loan insurance policy”? – I have no idea).

So I persevered and, of course, my brain taxed itself enough to actually get the stupid thing built and now I have a place for my dirty clothes – what a fun bank holiday. 


My Dad can build and fix most things, from cars to showers to cookers, while I am utterly bereft of such abilities, (despite many attempts at teaching). Where does this difference come from? Innately or self-taught, or both? Probably both, but then living in the late 20th century, with its flat-packed, self-assembly fittings and pop-up tent camping gear, it’s not surprising I, and so many people my age, are clueless when confronted by anything requiring true craftsmanship or a working knowledge of woodwork, electricity, construction.

Furthermore, as Crawford notes in his book, nowadays designers and firms don’t want people tampering with their stuff. A friends’ Dyson vacuum broke the other day, but there was no way to take it apart as the screw sockets in use were bespoke, not suitable for an of the array of screwdrivers in his Man Box. Even our fleeting attempts at wanting to fix something, or try to understand it, proved impossible, instead being forced to get A Man to fix it.

Anyway, whether you love our office cubicle or feel it’s a prison by another name, I recommend the book, even if some of the philosophy went over my head at times. Not a philosophy, not a builder, not both as Crawford. What a failure!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A single piano run and Dire Straits coolness

Are Dire Straits cool? I can never decide what the general world census is on this, so many people’s opinions to take into account. There’s some sort of pervading sense that they’re not, due to headbands, some clunky lyrics, something vague ennui about them that I’ve never quite got.

Is discussing the coolness of Dire Straits relevant in 2012? Probably not. Anyway, I only mention it as lately I’ve been listening to Tunnelof Love quite a lot, mainly due to the lovely guitar solo outro which builds for about two minutes before being topped by a fantastic piano run in the final few seconds of the song, which my brother revealed to me is played by one Roy Bittan, the pianist of from the E Street Band, who regular readers will know I have already professed my appreciation of in a previous blog.

What is it about those fleeting moments in music where everything just swells together into a sheer moment of, well, what, elation? Joy? Genius? I don’t know, it doesn’t happen very often, but there are some songs – all within the ear of the listener on a personal, subjective basis – where you just feel enlivened, invigorated, perhaps even moved. 

It’s below, I think it’s worth the listen.

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